Robert De Niro is one of the most recognizable faces in cinema, but over the years the actor has transformed himself dramatically for countless roles
The Comeback Trail star Robert De Niro is one of the most recognizable faces in cinema history, but over the years the actor has transformed himself dramatically for countless roles. Beginning his career way back in the early 60s and still working on numerous movies every year to this day, Scorsese’s original muse Robert De Niro remains one of the titans of cinematic dramatic acting.
From Mean Streets to The Godfather Part II, to Raging Bull, to Goodfellas, to Meet the Parents, De Niro’s iconic roles are too numerous to name and his outsized influence on-screen acting is comparable only to the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Over the decades, De Niro’s performances have been rewarded with financial success at the box office as recently as last year’s Joker, two Oscar wins and a further six nominations, and a long history of critical adulation (not to mention a Bananarama song about him).
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Of course, this extraordinary reputation has come at a human cost, with De Niro having undergone more dramatic physical transformations throughout his career than even screen chameleon Christian Bale can boast. De Niro is famous for immersing himself in each role and embodying the characters he plays, meaning many of his most famous parts have seen the actor go above and beyond the call of duty to nail the character. Whether it’s actually working as a taxi driver in preparation for Martin Scorsese’s bleak character study of the same name or gaining massive weight and putting himself through intense boxing training for Raging Bull, De Niro’s transformations are the stuff of legend and deserve to be recorded.
Although the intense thespian did spend his time onset focused and isolated, De Niro needed little in the way of preparation for his first Scorsese collaboration Mean Streets. However, the actor’s raw and volatile performance in that early hit led to the production of Taxi Driver, a darker and more focused portrayal of a scarred veteran’s descent into the seedy underbelly of New York. For this part, De Niro lost 30 pounds from his already thin frame to play the wiry Travis Bickle, as well as training himself in the proper use of firearms and working as an actual taxi driver to better embody the eponymous working-class antihero of Scorsese’s brutal Paul Schrader collaboration.
The Deer Hunter
Although De Niro’s preparation for 1978’s Vietnam masterpiece The Deer Hunter was (slightly) less physically rigorous than his Taxi Driver turn, the movie required even more research from De Niro. The actor spent weeks traversing American steel mills to correctly embody the part of a mill worker, spending hours conversing with them to pick up on speech patterns and local dialects and eventually even spending days and nights staying in their homes to get a feel for the role. This level of commitment endured throughout the film’s shoot, which saw De Niro perform his stunts including a thirty-foot fall into a Thai river. Director Michael Cimino was reportedly blown away by De Niro’s physical commitment to the part, which went as far as the actor actually getting repeatedly slapped by a local extra for “authenticity” during the infamous Russian roulette sequence.
The King of Comedy
Another less physically taxing but more mentally draining transformation for De Niro, The King of Comedy saw the actor shed all of his Raging Bull weight and return to his slender Taxi Driver frame to play another mentally unstable Scorsese protagonist. As Robert Pupkin, De Niro oozed manic nervous energy, which the actor obtained by meeting with his actual autograph hunters and real-life stalkers. As well as losing weight for the part the actor stayed in character throughout the shoot, turning down dinner with co-star Jerry Lewis as his character would have killed for such an opportunity and he couldn’t bring himself to break with that imagined reality.
Perhaps the most famous of De Niro’s physical transformations, Raging Bull saw the actor take on the role of troubled boxer Jake La Motta. De Niro went above and beyond preparing for the part, training as a boxer for months and once again losing a Christian Bale-worthy 30 pounds to play the young prizefighter. De Niro took his fitness seriously, training for long enough to actually compete in a trio of real boxing matches. To play the older, heavier La Motta, the actor then gained a staggering 60 pounds by traveling throughout Europe on an eating tour with Scorsese, returning to film his remaining scenes in a compressed schedule so as not to permanently damage his health.
Easily the scariest of De Niro’s many intimidating roles, Cape Fear’s Max Cady remains an all-time great movie monster. The wiry, terrifyingly intense antagonist of the 1990 psychological thriller is a demented criminal out to hunt down Nick Nolte’s attorney for getting him thrown behind bars, and De Niro’s commitment to the part rivals the work he put into his earlier roles. To play Cape Fear‘s Cady, De Niro had his teeth filed down by a dentist, a process which cost $5000 (and a further $20,000 to reverse once production wrapped). But even that gruesome, painful process was nothing compared to De Niro’s muscle gains for the part, which rival even his time playing Jake La Motta. Before filming, De Niro spent upwards of three hours a day in the gym to get shredded, only for him to up this to five hours once production commenced. The actor fully transformed his appearance for the part, a staggering level of commitment for any role but one which is particularly striking given the fact that Cape Fear was widely viewed as a more lowbrow, trashy movie than most of De Niro and Scorsese’s collaborations.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
One of the iconic actor’s less lauded screen transformations, De Niro’s underrated turn as the titular monster in 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein suffered due to the movie’s muted reception from critics. But while the follow-up to Bram Stoker’s Dracula may have been accused of overblown excess thanks to campy director and Shakespearean legend Kenneth Brannagh, De Niro’s transformation to play the tragic monster of the title is hard to find fault with. The actor spent hours in the makeup chair getting layer upon layer of latex prosthetics applied daily to play the part, but his preparation preceded shooting the role. Before production commenced, The Comeback Trail actor studied the speech patterns of stroke victims to acclimate to the role of a grown adult gradually regaining speech, and he spent the entire shoot contorting his body Elephant Man-style to truly embody the titular tragic figure.
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