In the dark action comedy “The Family,” a Mafia boss and his family are relocated to a sleepy town in France under the Witness Protection Program after snitching on the mob. Despite the best efforts of Agent Robert Stansfield (played by Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones) to keep the family in line, Giovanni “Fred” Manzoni (played by Oscar winner Robert De Niro), his wife Maggie (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and their teenage children Belle (played by Dianna Agron) and Warren (played by John D’Leo) can’t help resorting to old habits by handling their problems the “family” way.
The Manzoni family has relocated under a new last name: Blake. And as Americans in a foreign country, they are finding it especially hard to adjust to their new lives while trying to blend in and not bring too much attention to themselves. Chaos ensues as their former Mafia cronies try to track them down, and scores are settled in the unlikeliest of settings. At a New York City press conference for “The Family,” the stars who play the Manzoni/Blake clan (De Niro, Pfeiffer, Agron and D’Leo) gathered to share behind-the-scenes stories about the movie. Here is what they said.
What is it about dark themes in movies that you find appealing?
De Niro: Everyone’s always interested in a dark theme, especially when there’s humor connected to it. It seems like that helps, if that’s an integral and organic part of the whole story.
Agron: Escapism. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m sure almost no one will say that they relate to the themes of this movie. So you go to the movies to laugh, and see things that you don’t normally see in real life.
D’Leo: I think this film has a lot of different elements. It’s going to be a good package, so I think audiences are really going to like it.
Pfeiffer: It’s about what’s taboo. It becomes titillating. In civilized societies, we spend our lifetimes trying to become what is socially acceptable. We’re dark and we’re light. We all have both sides to us.
It’s sort of living vicariously through these characters on screen, especially in this type of film, you’re horrified, but also laughing at the same time. You’re ashamed that you’re laughing at this horror in front of you. But it’s what also makes it so unexpected. So ultimately, it’s entertaining.
What are the basic elements that turn an action comedy into a classic?
De Niro: I think the human part of it has to be important. “The Family” has to be some grounding in reality. Not that you can’t go off in certain directions, but that has to be grounded.
Pfeiffer: I think it’s covering new territory that hasn’t been covered before and it’s good story. I think [when there are] those two elements, in whatever genre it is, the film will become a classic.
Michelle, do you see any connection between the characters you played in “The Family” and “Married to the Mob”?
Pfeiffer: It’s the story of motherhood, really, whether you’re a mob wife, or you’re somebody from Orange County or Europe. The mother protector. The only real connection between the two characters is that they’re both married to mobsters. But there’s a wide variety of those women, too.
I was really excited to do this, because I loved working on “Married to the Mob” for so many reasons, the biggest one being [Married to the Mob” director] Jonathan Demme. I loved, loved that character This was really the first opportunity for me to enter back into that world. I was thrilled and delighted, but a little nervous that people would make comparisons, but ultimately, I think the characters are pretty different.
Dianna, you took some time off from “Glee” to make “The Family.” What was it like to go back to “Glee” after the experience of making this movie?
Agron: Luckily, we are a family. And it’s unique because on a TV show, you get to spend so much more time with people. So yeah, everybody was so supportive of me going off and doing this. We’ve been through almost everything together, so it’s a testament to that.
Robert, since you have appeared in several Martin Scorsese films, including “Goodfellas,” does Hollywood have its own Mafia? Is it good for the movie business?
De Niro: Well, it has its groups that work together, hang out together. Like any profession, any business and professional community … People work together.
Pfeiffer: They also beat each other up.
Mr. De Niro, since “Goodfellas” is mentioned a lot in “The Family,” did you re-watch “Goodfells” before you began filming “The Family”?
De Niro: I did re-watch it. The DVD also has a lot of stuff that I had not seen, such as interviews with Henry Hill and the other characters. We were doing the cinematheque scene for “The Family,” so I wanted to make sure that I had everything covered.
I also spoke to [“Goodfellas” screenwriter/author] Nicholas Pileggi a few times. I also spoke to Luc, to make sure the monologue was accurate in certain ways. I wanted to ake sure it was good.
Wasn’t there a monologue in the “Goodfellas” book?
De Niro: There was a “Goodfellas” monologue about going back to the neighborhood. It wasn’t connected to what “Goodfellas” was and not to the neighborhood. There were specifics that had to be fixed. I wanted to look at the movie and interviews with people, just to refresh my mind about what went on.
Michelle, your Maggie Blake character chastises her husband for his swearing. How do you feel about swearing in real life? Are you comfortable swearing.
What do you think Martin Scorsee’s reaction would be to Giovanni’s take on “Goodfellas”?
De Niro: I don’t know. Marty told me he liked the movie. He liked it a lot. I don’t know if he saw it with an audience or not, but knowing him, he was telling me the truth.
Michelle, how did you keep the chemistry alive between Maggie and Giovanni alive?
Pfeiffer: It was a dream come true working with him. Sorry to embarrass you. As an actor, it doesn’t really get much better than that, working with De Niro. The third time was the charm. It took three movies to actually be on screen with him. So I didn’t really know what to expect from him. We had only met on the red carpet saying cheese, opening two films. It was just delightful though in every sense of the word. I was so relieved to see how generous he was with all of us as actors — giving and open. Our only regret was that we didn’t have more scenes together, because it was really fun.
Robert, your character in “The Family” combines violent elements from your past films with the patriarchal family man you’ve taken on more recently. What draws you to the patriarchal character?
De Niro: Luc Besson [director and co-writer of “The Family”] approached me with the book and screenplay. We talked about him,. He was just going to produce the movie, after he wrote the screenplay. The way I saw it, it was harder to get a director who could interpret the way he saw it. So he said, “I’ll do it myself.”
So I was very happy, because it made everything a lot simpler. It was his vision; he started the whole thing. Not that he could have had a good handle on it as just a hands-on producer, but it’s tricky. Then Michelle and Dianna and John came on board. I don’t know if that’s answering your question. He thought I was patriarchal.
Mr. De Niro, how long do you think that you’ll still keep acting? And are you aware of how many other actors say that you are their reference point in influencing them?
De Niro: No, I don’t think much about it. Sometimes I’m aware of it. People say things. I enjoy it myself. I don’t really do as many movies as you think. The movies are spread out more.
John, what do you think?
D’Leo: Well, he certainly has the résumé to prove it! I think everyone agrees on that. Yeah., he’s good. That about sums it up.
Dianna, your Belle character starts off as being strong, but as the film continues, she shows how vulnerable she really is. Can you talk about that?
Agron: One of the things I love about her so much is that she is the consummate dreamer. She doesn’t really want anything to do with the habits that her family perpetuates. She wants to fall in love, and wants the fairytale. Maybe she watches a lot of Disney movies. Who knows? That’s when she flips on a dime, because that’s what she knows what to do. So I loved the duality to her. Who doesn’t want to fake beat people up for a job?
There’s a scene in “The Family” where the Blakes have to suddenly leave their home. If that happened to you in real life, what is the one thing you would never leave behind?
Agron: My dog.
D’Leo: I’d have to say my real family because that’s pretty important.
De Niro: I’d say the same answer. Real family.
Pfeiffer: Living things inside of the home: animals, children, husbands. But not plants. Not in that order. Don’t get me in trouble! [She laughs.]
Are there any similarities between your real families and the one you have in “The Family”?
D’Leo: The pasta.
Pfeiffer: Unconditional love. I think they would do anything foe each other. I would do anything for my family. I think that bond — prioritizing family. I do have one daughter and one son. Yeah, I guess that familial bond.
De Niro: We also have a lot of experience — Michelle and I — with family and relationships and marriage, so we wee able to move into this relationship easily, especially with Luc’s writing. He made it easy.
What did you learn from your co-stars in “The Family”?
Agron: I have probably seen everything that [Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer] have done. Same with Luc, really. You have that going into it. You see these images and these characters that they’ve played, and obviously it’s what you can aspire to be. It’s very mind-blowing when I stop to think about it.
My biggest learning curve was looking at all the strokes that they’ve been painting on the canvas, and seeing what they do with these characters. It was so much more than just being there in the moment; it was thinking about everything and about how much I look up to them.
D’Leo: It was really fun to witness them professionally on the set, because I felt like it helped me a lot as an actor, because they lead by a very good example, and it made my time on set more enjoyable.
Pfeiffer: These two [Dianna Agron and John D’Leo], the young’uns had been filming a few weeks before Robert and I came on board, so they had already found their rhythm and their groove by the time we started. So when you come in late on that, it’s a little intimidating. Their work was at such a level that frankly, I was a little intimidated. And there’s a freshness.
I think when you do anything for a long time, you have to make a conscious effort to keep it fresh and not fall into bad habits and not rely on old bags of tricks. I was really reminded to not do that with actually all of [my co-stars in “The Family”].
John [D’Leo] was my dialect coach. I actually have a dialect coach, but he wasn’t on set. So my dialect was really where you [she looks at D’Leo] are from.
D’Leo: From Jersey! I made sure she talked like she was from New Jersey and Staten Island.
Pfeiffer: So yeah, it’s always invigorating and rejuvenating to work with young blood.
De Niro: They were great, John and Dianna. They were just terrific. That’s all I can say. We had a good time doing the film.
Do you think that Mafia people who are in the Witness Protection Program are actually posing as normal neighbors in other countries?
D’Leo: We’re not allowed to tell you.
Pfeiffer: We would have to kill you if we told you that.
De Niro: That was a big question I had. I asked some people here who do that — put people in witness protection and all that — and they had said not likely. But then Luc said he spoke to people in France, and there was truth to it. My feeling is that there has to be some way that it’s possible under some strange deal or condition. It could happen. Anything is possible, so I bought it.
There was a thing that was set up that the only compromise between the two government was putting out family over there, as opposed to anywhere else. So some illegal drugs with France. Who knows, but there was some way.
If you were in the Witness Protection Program in real life and had to come up with a fake name and story about yourself, what would it be and why?
D’Leo: Chuck Findley, Ambercrombie model.
Pfeiffer: [She laughs.] That’s amazing.
In “The Family,” Giovanni/Fred is an aspiring author. Would you want to ever write a book about your own life?
Pfeiffer: No. It would be titled “There But for the Grace of God.”
De Niro: Ditto.
How do you think “The Family” will influence the image that Americans have in pop culture?
D’Leo: It’s going to show that Americans back each other up, especially with family, and that you don’t mess with them, especially if one has a tennis racket or a lead pipe. I could go on and on.
What was your favorite scene to shoot in “The Family”?
D’Leo: That’s a very hard question.
Pfeiffer: My favorite scene to shoot was probably … the couch scene. I liked doing that scene.
What about the scene where Maggie blew up the grocery store?
Pfeiffer: That was fun. That, I enjoyed. It was just that [the couch scene] was so well-written. It was so meaty, and it just kind of went to so many different places and it had a lot of colors. It was fun to get to actually act with [Robert De Niro].
De Niro: I felt the same way about that scene. I wish we had more scenes. Also, I like the cinematheque.
Pfeiffer: That was fantastic.
Agron: I think some of our dinner scenes, because that’s when we were all together. Those were definitely some of the “pinch me” moments. You’ve got Luc over here and [Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer] to your side.
D’Leo: I think my favorite scene is toward the end of the film. Not the giant climax, but before that when Dianna and I ran into each other before we went our separate ways — when I went to the train station and she was going to the church, because you saw in both of us that it really hit the fan.
And it’s at that point that you think to yourself, “Wow, this is really going bad. It’s going downhill.” And then the whole giant climax scene comes. It’s like, “Wow, they’re really staying together after that.” That’s my favorite part.
Dianna, your Belle character assaults a guy with a tennis racket after he tries to make unwanted sexual advances on her. Do you have any Mafia/mob moves to try on any guys who cross the line with you?
D’Leo: Do you have any tennis rackets in your room?
Agron: [She laughs.] The tennis racket was also one of my favorite scenes. Somebody asked me earlier if I get hit on a lot, and the answer is “no.” Although I did have some Frenchmen, oddly, I was sitting at a sushi restaurant, and they wrote on a napkin, “Will you go out with me? Yes? No? Maybe?” And by the “maybe,” it said, “Don’t say no.” And then the friend of the guy gave it to me as they left. If that’s happening, then no tennis rackets will be needed.
For more info: "The Family" website