NEW YORK - For the recovering gangster and his brood in the new film The Family, bad behavior isn't business - it's personal.
The movie casts Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as a husband and wife with distinct anger-management issues. Early on, De Niro's character, Fred Blake, buries a body; he later beats two men who irritate him into a bloody pulp and fantasizes about doing similar damage to others who disrespect him.
His spouse, Maggie, played by Pfeiffer, has a penchant for blowing things up when ticked off, and not just in the figurative sense. Their daughter, Belle, a lovely blonde with a mean left hook (played by Glee's Dianna Agron), is prone to violence as well, though son Warren (John D'Leo) is more apt to sulk and scheme.
Their short fuses end up being highly inconvenient. The Blakes - or the Manzonis, as they were known before they entered the witness protection program - have been forced to seek refuge in Normandy, and not even the threat of being found and avenged by the wise guys that Fred turned in has reformed them.
"My guess is that there's a lot of pent-up rage and disappointment in all of them," Pfeiffer says. "They can't really take it out on each other because they need each other, but it's got to come out somewhere. They feel like caged animals."
Pfeiffer gives the opposite impression while discussing Family on a recent morning. Dressed in a crisp beige pantsuit, she is a model of cool, casual elegance. De Niro, seated beside her, is an earthier presence and not as taciturn as his publicity-shy reputation might have you suspect.
The Oscar winner speaks animatedly of his character, who becomes consumed with writing a memoir of his previous life - much to the chagrin of the FBI agent (played by Tommy Lee Jones) entrusted with protecting him.
Fred "pays a stiff price, giving up all his friends," De Niro observes. "Writing his version of what happened is his way of holding on to who he was and setting the record straight, as he sees it, at the same time."
Director/screenwriter/producer Luc Besson, who shot the film in Normandy and Paris, stresses that Fred and the other characters "have a sense of honor." Making his 1988 feature The Big Blue in Sicily, Besson recalls, he interacted with Mafia members: "If you're polite with them, they're very nice. There is a morality there - a love for their kids, other family members, even for their country."
Family's stars are both parents as well, with longtime partners. De Niro has six children, ranging in age from daughter Drena, 46, to Helen Grace - one of two with current wife Grace Hightower - who turns 2 in December. Pfeiffer, married to TV producer David E. Kelley for nearly 20 years, is mom to John and Claudia, respectively 18 and 20.
"It's something that you automatically draw on" when playing other parents, Pfeiffer says. "That degree that you would go to in order to protect your family, and how complicated families and long relationships can be - you innately understand that."
Motherhood has also influenced her career choices, says Pfeiffer, who is based in Los Angeles. "I'm dropping my son off at college on Saturday, so I'm in an interesting place. I just got offered this movie that shoots in New York. Before, when he was with me, it would have been, 'Oh, God, how long is the shoot? When would I have to be there?' I would have run through this list of prerequisites, and it would have been stressful. But this time my response was just, 'Great - I get to go to New York!' I haven't had that feeling in 20 years, and it's actually kind of liberating."
New Yorker De Niro, who in addition to his toddler daughter has two sons of high-school age, "is always happy when I'm shooting here. Because with kids, all kinds of issues come up - school is starting, a million other things. You have to make sure that they're all in place before you do a movie so that you can know you're not sacrificing personal things."
Robbie Brenner, president of production at Relativity Media, the studio releasing The Family, is hopeful the film will be one that parents and kids can enjoy together. "Not the young, young kids, but certainly 16 or 17 and older," she says. "Whether you see it through the younger characters' eyes or through Bob and Michelle, there are laugh-out-loud moments and great action."
At this point in their careers, of course, neither De Niro nor Pfeiffer has to worry too much about the critical reception or commercial performance of one film. De Niro is already excited about a future project - a stage musical, of all things, based on both the 1993 film A Bronx Tale, which De Niro directed and co-starred in with Chazz Palminteri, and Palminteri's original one-man play.
De Niro will also direct the musical. "It's not a full-time thing for me yet, but it takes a while to be able to get it from a one-man show to a movie to a musical," he says. Directing films, too, "takes a lot of time, so it has to be something very special if I'm going to sign up for it."
"I've been told that I should direct, but I think that's because I have a controlling nature," Pfeiffer muses. "I always have my hands in everyone's department. But directing is all-consuming; it's a much bigger commitment than acting. I had a production company for a while, and I was happy when it ended. I loved the creative elements of producing, developing scripts and working with writers, but I became too aware of the business end of things, which is what I dislike about this business."
When not working, both stars do their best to lead normal lives while maintaining as much anonymity as possible. "Baseball caps help," Pfeiffer says with a chuckle.
De Niro takes his youngest child "on a bike ride every morning, or at least as often as I can. This morning she didn't want to go, so I took another bike by myself, with no seat. But that was stressful for me - something was bothering her, and there was nothing I could do about it."
The legendary leading man looks almost sheepish as he admits this, his voice trailing off. Asked directly if he is as timid offscreen as is sometimes suggested, De Niro responds, "Sometimes I can be shy or uncomfortable, depending on the situation. If you're playing a part, there's a safety in that, because it's not real. I mean, you make the part very real, hopefully, but you're not as vulnerable."
Which may help explain the appeal of the characters in The Family, for actors and audiences alike.
"I think we all gravitate to people who behave in risky ways, people who break the rules," Pfeiffer says. "We spend our whole lives being told not to break the rules, to try to fit in, to do the right thing. The people in this movie are not doing the right thing, and they're getting away with that. There's a part of us that wants to live vicariously through characters like that, whether it be on film or in life."