If there’s such a thing as a gothic gangster film, then Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman qualifies for its mashup mob movie casting and gimmicky de-aging of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. It’s like the ghosts of
Goodfellas, Casino and The Godfather haunt this sprawling tale of murder and mayhem that, after a limited fall theatrical release, streams on Netflix late November-early December.
Amidst this spectacle of self-reflective cinema nostalgia is native Omaha stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba. She plays Irene, the second wife of De Niro’s title character, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a hit man reputedly behind major killings. This marks her second Scorsese film after The Wolf of Wall Street, putting her in good company as an ensemble stock player in the acclaimed filmmaker’s rarified screen universe.
Speaking during a break in filming in early 2018, Kurtzuba remarked on working with such icons.
“The entire experience has been remarkable from the very beginning,” she said. “To be invited to work with a pantheon of artistic geniuses is never something I remotely imagined for myself.”
Searching for a comparison, she returned to her Omaha roots, where her enchantment with theater started at the Orpheum watching Omaha Ballet perform The Nutcracker.
“You never imagine you can feel in real life what Clara [The Nutcracker’s heroine] must feel because it’s so wondrous,” she said. “But I’m like Clara in The Nutcracker getting toys and candy at Christmas and people treating you like a princess. So there you go, that’s my analogy. That’s what it’s like showing up on set every day.”
More recently, Kurtzuba spoke reflectively about the experience and said De Niro’s disarming manner charmed her.
“He’s generous and kind and warm. He’s extraordinarily intelligent but also just a little bit shy.”
Although she’d met De Niro and previously worked with Scorsese before the project, she still felt a bit cowed walking into such an A-list arena.
“I entered into it with a level of intimidation just knowing these are the people at the top of the game and have been for the better part of 35-40 years, so obviously there was that intimidation. But I have to be honest — my relationship with Marty and Bob’s absolute warmth to me put me at ease in kind of a way I never imagined I could be.”
Helping ease her fears was the fact that she was invited to the project and didn’t have to audition. “For an actor like me, who’s still constantly pounding the pavement, hustling, vying for roles, hoping for the best, to have the trust and respect of a creative team like this to just be invited to participate is such a gift.”
“Like, if I die tomorrow, I’ll miss my kids and my husband, but, like, I kind of did it all,” she said, laughing.
Kurtzuba, who owns solid stage, television and film credits across musicals, comedies and dramas, earned Scorsese’s trust and respect with her work on his Wolf of Wall Street. That project sparked a friendship that continued past its 2013 release. So the opportunity to do The Irishman wasn’t out of left field. She just didn’t see it coming even when it fell into her lap.
She was invited to do a read-through after Wolf of Wall Street wrapped. “I got the script, and as often in Scorsese films, the women are not necessarily front and center. It was very male-heavy.” Kurtzuba said she was the only woman at the table and read the voice of all the women characters.
“That’s how I came to read an early draft of The Irishman,” she said. “It was incredible.”
She didn’t think much more would come from it, but in mid-2017, she learned what she thought was the end was actually just the beginning. She got a call from legendary casting director Ellen Lewis, who works frequently with Scorsese.
“Ellen said, ‘Bob would like to have a meeting with you,’
and I was like, ‘Who is Bob?,’ and she said, ‘Bob De Niro.’”
At the meeting, De Niro said he remembered her from Scorsese’s reading and told her they’d like to cast her as his wife in The Irishman.
“I’m telling you the story, and I still can’t believe it’s true,” she said. “It’s like I’ve got to be making this up.”
Kurtzuba described the character she plays, Irene, as “a loving wife and devoted mother and step-mother to Frank’s kids.” Said Kurtzuba, “She met Frank at the restaurant where she was a waitress. They fell in love and stayed together until Irene’s death in the 90s. She loved to sing and travel and have fun. All in all, Irene was the wife that Frank needed after his rather prim and proper first wife, Mary.”
Count her impressed being up close and person with De Niro’s “method.”
“Bob has an ease and a focus that is remarkable,” she said. “He is both laid-back and intense at the same time. And his utter lack of artifice is astounding. Every word, gesture and look feels completely authentic. He never seems to be ‘acting.’”
Most of her scenes, she said, were with De Niro, Pesci and actress Kathrine Narducci — who plays Pesci’s wife.
Pesci portrays wiseguy Russell Bufalino.
On working with Pesci, she said, “He is by turns remarkably focused and intense and incredibly jovial and hilarious.”
Because the screenplay by Steve Zaillian (adapted from the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt) covers 40-some years with the same main characters, a new technology was found to de-age the stars that ballooned the project’s budget to $140 million.
“The whole movie was filmed with two kinds of cameras
(including infrared capture camera) that mapped the data of the stars’ faces so that the visual effects people could go in and digitally de-age them in a way that’s never been seen on film before.”
The production covered a lot of ground.
“I saw more of New York City and New York state in those four months than I’ve seen since living here since 1991. We were on Long Island, Queens, the Bronx, up-state. We went to Staten Island, Nyeck. We went everywhere. It was crazy.”
Like fellow working actors who are not quite stars, Kurtzuba is busy developing content for herself to produce and star in. Streaming platforms are the intended destinations for these proposed pilots. Some are set in and might even be shot in her hometown, where her family has a bowling center she has an ownership stake in. Getting up-front money for these scripts has proven difficult.
She’s aligned herself with peer actors caught in the same development hell as creative partners to try and package content deals.
“I’m a big believer in connecting with good people and sticking together and helping one another,” she said.
Now that she’s a made-actress in the Scorsese camp, Kurtzuba knows what it feels like to be an inside player at that level of cinema production. While there are no guarantees in her business, you can be sure she’ll be ready should Scorsese come calling again.