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My worst moment: 'Gaslit' star Shea Whigham and the time he blasted De Niro's ear

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

“So De Niro is to my right and I turn and right into his left ear — I can picture it right now and I’m cringing — I screamed, ‘Yeeeeeeaaaaaaaahhhhhh!’ and I see him reach up and cover his left ear, like a baby does when they can’t tell you they have an earache. And then he starts pulling on his earlobe and he starts pushing it with his index finger. And I’m thinking, no, no, no, no, no. I’ve just destroyed my hero’s ear.

“I feel David coming in. And Bob looks at me. And he doesn’t say anything. And I start to slink off. And I see him and David talk. And I’m thinking, this is it — I’m gonna get fired. I’m gone. I blew out my hero’s eardrum. It was just short of drawing blood.

“So David calls me over and we huddle up and he goes, ‘That was great. That was beautiful. But this time? We’re going to take about half off so we don’t kill Bob, OK? (Laughs) And I go, ‘OK!’ (Joking) After we got the medic in there. No, that’s not true (laughs). So I go back over and we do again, and it’s in the movie, you see it.

“That movie was a magical experience, but that was the first time stepping on the floor with them, and Bob is so quiet and I’m so quiet. But not knowing him yet and that happening? It’s frightening. It’s just frightening.

“De Niro and I went on to have a beautiful relationship. Toward the end of filming, he would tell these great stories about ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘The Deer Hunter.’ And I’m asking all these questions and I was like, ‘So when you and Christopher Walken were doing the Russian roulette scene in “Deer Hunter”…’ and he goes, ‘What?’— like he couldn’t hear me. And I said, ‘When you and Walken …’ and he goes, ‘Whah?’ And he was taking the piss out of me from two months earlier (laughs). He was like, ‘Sorry kid, I can’t hear out of this ear.’ He remembered.”

Part of being an actor is the willingness to be vulnerable. How do you remain vulnerable after doing too much and embarrassing yourself?

“Yeah, you learn to course-correct pretty quickly. You have to let all of that go and when they call action, it’s about relaxation and concentration. Just connecting with that other actor you’re in a scene with.

“I had to shake it off so we could get that shot, but believe me, I went home that night and I had a few drinks. This is Robert De Niro! You know what I mean? But that’s also the genius of David O. Russell, he always keeps you in the moment. It wasn’t like he said, ‘You screwed up here, man.’ It was like, ‘Listen, that was great. We’re going to go again, but this time let’s try this.’ To me, the whole story of my character is about getting his father’s approval, because he was so focused on Bradley’s character. I wanted to be seen by pop.”

 

And heard.

“(Long laugh) That’s good. Yeah, absolutely.”

The takeaway …

“When you’re in there with your heroes, you gotta be able to get it together pretty quickly.

“And honestly, the great thing about this story is when I thought it was all falling to pieces, Bob handled it so well. He made me feel OK about it. He knew, I think, the effect he had on a young actor like me. I guess he could have become upset, I’m a millimeter from his ear screaming, you know? Who knows what he could have done. But he’s magical.

“So that’s the takeaway — not what I did, but how he handled it. That’s a great lesson in life, how to handle things.”

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