Robert De Niro on father-son story of "Hands of Stone"

De Niro on "Hands of Stone"

Robert De Niro won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of boxing champion Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” He is back in movie theaters with “Hands of Stone,” in which he plays legendary trainer Ray Arcel, who was in the corner of the legendary fighter Roberto Durán.

Based on a book by Christian Giudice, “Hands of Stone” traces the rise of the Panamanian fighter and his battles against boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. The film includes their November 25, 1980 rematch -- their second of three fights -- in which Durán famously turned his back during the eighth round, exclaiming “no más” (no more).

Edgar Ramírez as boxer Roberto Durán and Robert De Niro as trainer Ray Arcel in “Hands of Stone.” Weinstein Company

Arcel, who trained 20 champion fighters (Durán was his last), died in 1994.

When asked what drew him to the story, De Niro told “CBS This Morning” he was interested after seeing a film the director, Jonathan Jakubowicz, had done. “He had the script and sent it to me. I was interested myself, because I had met [Arcel] either once or twice when I was doing ‘Raging Bull,’ and I was impressed with who he -- just the way he carried himself. He wasn’t like a typical trainer that I ever saw. He had an elegance about him, he was always dressed up, like a banker or something. So that interested me. So I looked into as much about him as I could and met his wife, and saw as much on him, did the research and so on.

“In the meantime, we were getting closer to making the movie; I was committed to doing it. Then the financing just dropped -- it was supposed to come from the Middle East, it just disappeared. We were going to do it in Puerto Rico. I said, ‘Really? You should write a letter to the Panamanians and ask them to get some rich Panamanians to do it for a tax break, fund the movie!’ And that’s how it happened.”

De Niro said shooting in Panama was necessary, to capture the actual locations from Durán’s life. “Much more interesting place to shoot, the real place, and the actual gym he trained in. It was meant to be.” 

HANDS OF STONE - Official US Trailer - The Weinstein Company by The Weinstein Company on YouTube

“CBS This Morning” co-anchor Norah O’Donnell asked De Niro, “What did you like about Ray Arcel and the relationship he had with Roberto Durán? He talks a lot about his mental fitness, not only his physical fitness.”

“He was a cerebral guy, Ray Arcel, from what I found out,” De Niro replied. “But very, you know, emotional about Durán, and about his fighters. He had over 20 champions. [Also] disciplined as far as not eating certain things and taking care of himself and so on.”

When asked why the sport of boxing resonates so much in movies -- from “Raging Bull” and the “Rocky” series to “Champion,” “Body and Soul,” “The Fighter” and scores of others -- De Niro replied, “It’s an ultimate match between two people. Nothing is going to go past that.

“But I was interested -- it wasn’t so much the fighter thing. Of course, Durán, his story is he’s a great fighter. I just happened to have known him during that period also, spent a little time together during the no mas period, before that. I like the story. The father/son-type thing with Edgar Ramirez and that relationship, I think, is very important.”

“There was such a controversy over that when he said no mas, because there was some discussion whether he had a stomach ache?” asked O’Donnell.

“He said he had eaten too much and that he had a stomach ache,” De Niro said. “He even says [now] that he never said no mas. Somebody picked it up” -- and the phrase became lore.

In addition to Usher Raymond, who plays Sugar Ray Leonard, the cast also features De Niro’s daughter. Drena, who plays Ray Arcel’s daughter.

What was it like working with her? “It was good! Jonathan Jakubowicz, he likes to use people that he meets or, you know, some directors are like that, they feel comfortable when there is a built-in relationship of sorts. It’s not really what our relationship [is], but there is something there. There is a comfort level and all that. And I understand that. In some ways I, as a director, only two movies I did, perhaps somehow had the information, I’ve done it here and there with people. David O. Russell [De Niro’s director on “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle” and “Joy”] does that sometimes, too. A nice thing.”