By James Hibberd
October 21, 2019 at 12:59 PM EDT
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Joe Pesci has emerged from retirement for his first on-screen feature film role in nearly a decade, yet landing the reclusive actor wasn’t easy.

The 76-year-old actor is co-starring in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming epic The Irishman as a criminal underworld kingpin. The Netflix film is drawing raves from critics, with many praising Pesci for his mesmerizing take on Russell Bufalino, playing a role of calculating, powerful calm that’s unlike his previous violent hotheads in Scorsese’s Raging BullCasino and his Oscar-winning turn in Goodfellas. While the new role is mellower than his previous Scorsese collaborations, Pesci still delivers a lethal Prince of Darkness stare that will have you holding your breath.

But convincing Pesci to join the cast took years. By one report, the actor had to be asked 40 times, a number nobody is disputing.

While Pesci is declining interviews, EW spoke with Scorsese and Irishman star Robert De Niro about getting their former colleague on the team. Their answers come across a bit more like a series of hints than stark declarations, and there seems to be a mix of potential factors at play for Pesci — the opportunity to work with De Niro and Scorsese again, the chance to have a different kind of gangster role, and Netflix opening up its deep pockets.

De Niro first worked with Pesci in 1980’s Raging Bull, where the duo played brothers. Pesci was last in theaters in a major role in the 2010 drama Love Ranch. Before that was 2006’s The Good Shepherd. But the actor hasn’t been regularly active since the 1990s.

For The Irishman, Scorsese says De Niro ran point on the luring. “Bob and Joe, they have their own language,” Scorsese explains.

So what was De Niro saying to Pesci on, say, the 24th time he asked him to join The Irishman? “A lot of what I was saying was, ‘Come on, who knows if we’re ever going to have this chance again?'” De Niro says. “Let’s just do it. And he loves Marty and greatly respects him and knows that if he’s in Marty’s hands, it’s going to be okay.”

Scorsese initially gives a flurry of reasons that could have impacted Pesci’s decision. “These are individual choices and sometimes people don’t want to do something for different reasons,” Scorsese says. “It could be, financial issues. You could have that — I’m not saying he did, right? It could be family issues. It could be health. It could be boredom from doing a certain kind of film. Playing a certain character. Ultimately, if Bob asks enough and he pushes enough, does this makes sense? Let me put it this way: It would have to be comfortable for [Pesci] to make it, you know?”

Pesci ended up agreeing, the director says, after Netflix decided to finance the film. Until then, The Irishman was being developed by Paramount and struggling to get studio backing for its ambitious vision of a saga (with a budget of $159 million) that spans decades and uses pricey de-aging special effects to tell a tale of a trio of underworld figures over the course of decades. 

“When Netflix got into the picture — because then we had the backing,” Scorsese says when asked what was Pesci’s tipping point. “It’s not even about the money or about being compensated and appreciated for your value. It’s about the physicality of [making a film] where nobody’s giving you anything. At a certain age and physicality for the actors, it may not be worth it.”

Of course, The Irishman also rounds out its trio of leads by adding the godfather himself, Al Pacino, playing vanished Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa in his first-ever role in a Scorsese film.

The Irishman opens in theaters Nov. 1 and then moves to Netflix on Nov. 27. 

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