guillermo del toro on the irishman

What makes Martin Scorsese’s films so indelible is the world he creates, populated by dozens of characters that all in their way shape our perception of the environment he creates. The main players in his news movie, The Irishman – played by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci – capture most of our attention, yet there are dozens of other performers both known and unknown that always bring their own magic to the big screen.

For years the Israeli-born, New York-raised Danny Abeckaser was a “club guy”, shepherding models to various events, planning massive parties, and making sure that his clients were taken care of. He helped open some of the biggest nightclubs around, and hustled in that world for years. In 2010 he followed his passion into filmmaking, helping produce Kevin Asch’s Holy Rollers, which found critical notice following its Sundance debut. Over the years he’s done a number of independent productions and character roles, including several under the direction of Martin Scorsese.

In The Irishman Danny is credited as “Louie the Deadbeat”, one of those relatively simple roles than in a lesser film would be forgettable. In Marty’s world, however, no scene is superfluous, and thanks to Abeckaser’s unique look and some improv with De Niro, he’s immortalized in this truly remarkable film. /Film spoke with Abeckaser about this role, how it affects his own creative pursuits, and just what it’s like to be working with masters of filmmaking craft. 

So you started out in clubs basically making making sure they have a good time. How has that shaped your role as a character actor in Hollywood?

A lot of my acting comes from experience. I’ve been around a lot of people and different kinds of scenarios. The Irishman‘s a little different because no one’s ever pulled a gun on me!

Your role as a character actor must be very different, but surely there’s crossover as you produce and direct.

Well, I have no power being a character actor, I’ll tell you that! Producing a movie is kind of like producing an event – putting it together, doing all of the little things behind the scenes. Directing comes from a place of me having OCD and being a perfectionist and doing things my own way. I don’t think I could have been in the position that I am today without doing what I did for a living for a long time.

What is the biggest thing that we would misunderstand about your life in the club days? We think of it as glamour, we think about it as debauchery, but what would we not expect, how much work it was?

I never did drugs in my life. A lot of people think people in nightlife, they’re on drugs, and they’re partying. For me, it was really a business. I mean, I drank a couple of beers, I had some wine, I never drank really hard liquor. It was a business and I was really good at it, but I knew that at some point I’m going to try to get out of it and continue to do what I really want to do.

Was there ever a moment when you looked around at the ostentation – I mean, you’re there in Vegas, people spending $7000 for bottles of vodka – was there ever a moment where you we appalled? Or was it always that you saw I have a product to sell, these people are willing to buy, and so I’m going to go ahead and do that?

Well, you always take a step back because no matter what and who you are, you still sometimes feel like you’re a kid. You often have a “I can’t believe this is happening kind of moment”, you know what I mean? I always look at myself as a kid, and no matter what I do. I had those moments where I took a step back and I said wow, this is really working out. 

But there wasn’t a moment that you were horrified?

No, never horrified, I mean, sometimes, I’d be like oh my god it’s late, I’m exhausted, and I have to do it all over again tomorrow kind of thing. But I took it as a business. Once I realized that I could be successful at it, it just motivated me to even better and better, so I was way more focused. 

Which brings us to working with Marty – or, uh, Mr. Scorsese. I know that you had a small role in Wolf of Wall Street. Can you talk about the casting of that?

Wolf of Wall Street was when I first started acting a little bit. I remember going in and the casting director said to me “do you speak any other language?”, and I said I speak Hebrew. She said, “why don’t you do it in Hebrew because Marty’s looking for people to talk in several different languages”, so I did and they gave me the role. It was like five seconds on screen, but just that experience alone, and just being on set with Marty was incredible. It prepared me for The Irishman, which was a real substantial role, and really creating a character. 

You’d worked on Holy Rollers, it played Sundance, you’ve had a bit of success there, you were working with some great performers. But what was it like the first time you stepped on a Martin Scorsese set?

 Honestly, it’s kind of like an out of body experience. I remember being in the room – I hadn’t seem Marty yet, and we’re all, after hair and makeup and wardrobe, and we’re all in this investment centre where my scene’s being shot, and everyone’s chatting, everyone’s talking. All of a sudden, the room just goes silent. I was looking the other way, I didn’t realize it, but I turn around and Marty walked in. The respect that he commands! Everyone was so professional and I realized that I was in the presence of greatness at that moment. I didn’t know him at the time, like I do today, where he knows me by my name and we’re friendly and we’ll talk. Back then he was just addressing everyone at the same time. I remember just the presence that he had. 

After that, you worked again with him on the pilot for Vinyl 

I auditioned for that, and I got it, also again. It was a small little scene, maybe three or four lines, with Bobby Cannavale. I spoke to Marty a little bit because he was directing me, like “hey, Danny, when he comes in, touch him with your left hand”. For an actor, to be on that set is like for a basketball player to play one on one with Michael Jordan. It’s one of those moments that’s surreal, but I’ve gotta tell you that when you get to set, you’re just an actor, and he’s the director, and you just do what he says and just try to give the best performance possible. That is the one thing that I realized about this whole thing, is that you do the work, no matter who it is.

Which led to The Irishman. You certainly have a pivotal role that shows not only your character, but enlarges our understanding of De Niro’s as well. Could you talk about the audition process, and just expanding this character from the page to how it ends up in the final screen?

I auditioned four times for different roles. They thought that I’m right for the world of The Irishman so they brought me in for a couple of different characters, yet it didn’t work out, and then they said. Finally they told me they want to bring me in for “Louie the Deadbeat”. In the script it was a page and a half, not that big, but obviously I wanted it so bad. I auditioned for Ellen Lewis and I remember getting the email, Danny’s got the role! I was ecstatic. 

Was it at all connected to them previously casting you in these other events, did they just like what they saw and they were looking for a spot for you? 

I think it was more that they just knew me. I’m a New York actor, they knew my personality and what I can do, and I think that’s the kind of character they were looking for.

So they were looking for the right part for you to fit, basically?

I remember Ellen saying that Marty and Bob really thought that I’m right for the world, but they just didn’t know where the right fit is. 

Was that Ellen’s call, or is that call made at the directorial and producer level? 

I think it’s Marty and Bob, Ellen just like says what about this guy, what about this guy and she’s pinpointing what she thinks I’d be able to succeed at, and I think after a while they were like he’s right for Louie The Deadbeat. I heard that Marty picks his own extras, he’s that meticulous.

So then you get this role, as you said, it’s a page and a half, and you’re working directly with Robert De Niro. Working with him comes with a lot of emotional, intellectual baggage, could you just talk about overcoming that and working through that with your character? 

I realized once I got to set they’re not going to go by the script. These guys are the best in the world at what they do, and 95% of it was improvised. They added so many things – he was never hitting me in the script! It was supposed to be two scenes, him picking me up in the car, and then there was supposed to be a scene in between and then I land in the bar where that whole thing happens. But Marty connected it both so it looks like one big scene. 

Is the improvisation stuff coming from you or from them on set?

It organically happened, with me and Bob De Niro kind of riffing on where it’s going to go. In the previous scene, he says “oh, he probably going to tell you his mother died or something, don’t believe a word he says”, so De Niro just throws at me, oh, what are you going to say your mother died? So, he just continued to improvise and add lines, and I just kept sticking to what Marty kept telling me. 

You mention out of body, is that sort of what you’re feeling at this time, or is there a real sense that here you are really crafting this character?

I think Robert De Niro is the greatest actor of all time, that’s my personal opinion. I gotta be honest with you though, when you’re on set, and you’re there to perform, and you have a job to do. When they call action, you just go into character and you don’t think that that’s Robert De Niro, to you, it’s Frank Sheeran, and he’s got a gun, and you owe money to Skinny and you’ve got to pay up or you’ve just got to do whatever you need to do to get out of there. So I just stayed in character. Only when my role was done, a couple of days later did I take a step back and go oh my god, that was just the most incredible experience of my life! But then you’re start to think, are they going to keep the scenes? It’s only two scenes, are they going to keep it? A few people have seen it, and some think I did a great job in my performance, that it’s a really meaty cool role because it’s the first time Frank, De Niro’s character, shows violence. It’s very pivotal to the character, it really starts snowballing exactly who he’ll become.

In the world of Scorsese it’s almost a  Michael Imperioli-type role, one of these tiny scenes where you see the violence of the individuals around them. When Spider gets shot in Goodfellas suddenly that becomes so indelible because that shows what the other characters are doing, so you are a foil for their violence.

Thank you for saying that because that’s how I kind of perceived it. It was like a Spider-kind of character in the movie. I would have played anything, by the way, but I didn’t want to play the typical gangster guy. I wanted to do something different to stand out. Did you think it was a memorable role? 

I believe we empathize with the people that are getting the shit kicked out of them more than we empathize with the people doing the shit kicking.

I like it!

This is a very technical film with the de-aging process and the multicamera madness. As a direcgtor yourself was there a moment of sort of tech envy or intimidation of all of the camera people around?

I make small little independent films. The Irishman set is massive and there’s hundreds of extras and people and PAs, can I get you anything. I was so laser focused on what I needed to do that I took it all in. It took all day to shoot one scene and the next day to shoot the second scene. They shot with two different cameras, sometimes three. 

Was any of the de-aging stuff distracting?

I didn’t know exactly how they were going to do it, but then I realized that De Niro had these white points on his hat. I realized those were the focus points of where they needed to see his face for the de-aging stuff. 

As a director, do you nerd out about that stuff, are you geeking out about all of the camera equipment?

Oh my god! I mean, you give me one crane, one day on my movie, and I get ecstatic. They’ve got cranes, and the cars, and the wardrobe, and just everything was just awesome. People were telling me, Danny, this movie is probably going to go down in history, it could be one of those movies like Goodfellas and The Godfather where everyone’s going to see it!

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