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You gotta be part gangster: De Niro

For a person of my generation, it pretty much goes without saying that Robert De Niro is the finest screen actor of his. To be a movie-besotted adolescent in the ’70s and early ’80s was to experience performances that would go on to become icons and monuments. ‘‘This kid doesn’t just act — he takes off into the vapours,’’ wrote Pauline Kael in her review of Mean Streets. Not that there was anything airy or abstract about what he was doing, which was transforming himself — physically, vocally, psychologically — with each new role. And in the process, before our eyes, reinventing the art of acting.

There was a time when De Niro was everywhere, assuming a new shape in every film. Maybe it seems that way to me because my own catch-up viewing, in a golden moment when both video stores and revival houses flourished, coincided with an especially productive period in his career.

I confess, however, that it took all my professional discipline to resist squandering the time I spent with De Niro on a recent Saturday afternoon in a slack-jawed fanboy recitation of his greatest hits. Oh, my God, you’re Jake LaMotta! You’re Johnny Boy! You’re Travis Bickle! I’m talking to you. To the younger generation, though, he is most recognisably Jack Byrnes, Ben Stiller’s impossible father-in-law in the Fockers franchise.

Nostalgia is a vice, and a survey of the last four decades of movie history reveals that De Niro has never slackened, diminished or gone away but has rather, year in and year out, amassed a body of work marked by a seriousness and attention to detail that was there from the start. So let’s not herald his new movie, Silver Linings Playbook, as a comeback or a return to form. But Silver Linings, directed by David . Russell and based on a novel by Matthew Quick, is nonetheless something special — an anarchic comedy in which De Niro plays a wild, funny and touching variation on the difficult-father theme. His character, Pat Solitano Sr., is a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic whose dream of domestic peace is undermined his emotionally unstable son (Bradley Cooper) and his own volatility. Pat Solitano is a reminder that De Niro, an unmatched master of brooding silence and quiet menace, can also be an agile comedian and a prodigious talker. On-screen, anyway.

In our conversation, which took place in his TriBeCa office, he did not put on the smooth bonhomie that is the default setting for off-duty movie stars in the company of writers. He sat with his feet planted on the floor and his hands flat on the arms of a deep leather chair, and the answers to my questions did not always come readily or easily. It seemed like work.

Nothing about De Niro’s approach to acting, as evident in nearly a 100 movies so far, should lead anyone to expect glib insights or ready answers. That wasn’t what I was looking for, any more than I wanted a glimpse of the ‘‘real’’ Travis Bickle or Jack Byrnes or Pat Solitano or any of the others. But I was curious about where they had come from or, more precisely, how they had come to be. I was looking for clues, chasing after vapours, interested in doing the job of talking to an actor about his.

Let’s start with Silver Linings Playbook and working with the director David . Russell. How did that come about?

I knew David before, and I’d seen one or two of his other movies, and then I saw The Fighter, and I thought it was terrific. And then this came along, and I don’t know whether I read the book before I read the script — but either way, he changed it, obviously, from the book. The book was interesting, the character was interesting, but it was the reverse of the way he is in David’s version.

How so?

He’s much more — [in the book] he’s very taciturn, goes in his room all the time. He’s still a fanatic, but he just gets in his room and he won’t come out. It’s a great character, it’s just totally different. Mine is more reversed — inside out, however you want to say it.

One of the things that’s amazing about that movie is the rhythm, the sense of chaos in that household, when you and Jacki Weaver and Bradley Cooper are together....

David has a very unusual style of directing. You’ve got the camera moving around, he’ll push the camera over to this character, to that character, he’ll throw lines at you and you repeat them. And I don’t mind that, that’s all great. It’s a particular way of working and gets right to it and it’s spontaneous. You just have to go with it. He understands that whole chaotic thing. It’s part of his — I don’t want to say meshugas, but maybe it is. It’s his craziness. But a lovable craziness.

I was comparing this role to some of your other recent movies, and it does seem like a few of the characters you’ve been playing recently are fathers.

Then it will be grandfathers and if I’m lucky great-great-grandfathers if I’m still standing.

You obviously do a lot of work with a lot of different directors. Are there times when you come in with your own idea of the character?

When I’m in it, I’ve already decided I’m going to work with the directors, so we have an understanding about what’s going to happen. I don’t get into these long-winded heavy discussions about character — do we do this or that or what. At the end of the day, what you gotta do is just go out there and do it. And the director respects what they’ve hired you for and chosen you for: to do the part and respect what you’re doing.

So you don’t get thrown by different styles, like an improvisational style like David Russell’s?

David was something I could understand. But there’s a problem if you have a director who gives you things that are just a little goofy and you can’t relate to them, and you can’t connect on any level. I try never to get myself in that situation.

What was it like when you were younger, when you were coming into your own? You were working with some directors who were also young, who were your peers, people like Martin Scorsese and Bernardo Bertolucci.

I’m older now, and I’m more experienced, so I don’t get thrown by the directors that I’ve worked with. Rarely happens. And I’m certainly not a person that feels precious about myself — it’s just common sense. But when I was younger, I was a little more nervous about stuff. With Bernardo, sometimes he would be — I felt that he was European, they make certain demands..... In 1900, we shot the old stuff on the first day, and I realised there that that was a mistake — it just wouldn’t work, nobody was into it. I didn’t know what I was doing sitting in another country with this director who I like very much, but it was like, “Where are we?” If I had thought about it more, I would have said, “Can we not do this scene later, not the first day?” I was sensible enough to know you don’t do things so out of order. But I went along with it, I remember that, and it just didn’t work.

What about with Scorsese, that’s an extraordinary run you had. Looking back, you can see what Rupert Pupkin [The King of Comedy] has in common with Travis Bickle [Taxi Driver], but there’s also something very different in those two performances. I felt that I was seeing something on-screen that hadn’t been there before — the investigation of a whole new kind of person.

With The King of Comedy, I wanted to do it, Marty was reluctant, but we just did it, and that sometimes happens in things that I’ve done with him. I did it just to work together. There was a script — I don’t know if you know the history of it.... It was written by Paul Zimmerman. And there was another version Buck Henry had worked on, too. I was talking to Milos Forman [who had been set to direct the Henry version], and I said, “I really like the original, do you mind if I take it and go to Marty with it?” That’s the way I remember it, I could have missed something. I wanted to do that version.

That character for me is one of the most fascinating and scariest of people. And there’s a kind of physical transformation that happens in that role, and for many of these roles — not only getting in shape to box or gaining weight and so on, but a total change of posture, size and shape. How important is that for you in getting into these characters?

Very important. Physical is very important. You can have a physical movement that can give you your whole identity.

Looking back, one of the things that strikes me most is the consistency with which you’ve kept working for 40 years. And that’s a question that I’m fascinated by, whether I was asking Scorsese or Bruce Springsteen or Meryl Streep or Woody Allen: How do you keep it going and keep it fresh?

I enjoy it. I like it. And especially when you get older, you start realising you don’t have that much time. And you look back and say, “The last 15 years, it went by kind of quickly.” You don’t really know it until you get there and look back and say, “Geez, where did that time go?” I know I’ve gotta account for every day, every moment, every this, every that, but it still went, that time went. So now I have the next whatever, hopefully 15-20 years if I’m lucky, and I think what to use that time for.

Are you going to direct more?

I’d love to direct. I tried to get The Good Shepherd [De Niro’s film in 2006 about the birth of the CIA.] to do the second installment with Eric Roth, and now we’re doing the cable-type things. So it’s different... [Cable] gives you more time to get into things. But it’s not the way I envisioned it because I had a grand story that could be told as a movie. I want to definitely use it in this other way, but I would rather have done it as a movie.

Was it difficult to get the first movie made?

It takes a long time to get it done, to get the financing, no matter who’s in it. It’s very, very arduous, a daunting, uphill battle. I have so much respect for people like Marty, or any director who only directs — all the battles over this and that, everybody giving their opinion. And you gotta listen to them. Because they paid for it. I’ve been through it, and it’s a real fight. There’s a quote: You gotta be part gangster. You’ve got to fight for what you want. You’ve got to listen to everybody’s opinion, then finally at the end of the day, you have to do what you feel is right.

People talk a lot about how the industry’s changed, for better and worse.

The obvious changes are the action films and all that stuff, the cartoon-character type stuff, which, for what it is, it’s OK. The whole blockbuster type thing which I think started with The Godfather, the first Godfather and Jaws, and that kind of kicked off this whole other thing, and it morphed into what it is today.

Do you think that has made it harder for more personal films to get made?

You could probably answer that better than me. Probably in some ways. It’s a struggle. As far as producing movies, you partner up with a studio, they do the distribution, you get the money somewhere else, they carve it up in different territories. I remember back when you did a studio movie, you did a studio movie. Now it’s all over the place. Wherever you get the money, whenever, if ever you can get it, and then you’ve got to find distribution — it’s exasperating.

It’s one of the things that gets said a lot about the ’70s — that it was this period when personal filmmaking was possible on a big scale.

That’s what everybody says, the ’70s, that was that period. I didn’t look at it that way. We’re lucky we were able to do those movies and get some money to do them. There are more personal movies in some ways being made now, more opportunities for actors like me.

What is your relationship to critics? Or to your own reviews?

What I say is, if you didn’t have critics — even though they can annoy you and upset you — if you didn’t have a critic, who would tell you how it is? Because people won’t tell you. When you do a movie and you’re showing it to people or audiences or friends, they’re never going to say that they dislike it. Because they’re with you and they know what you went through. So they’ll always find a positive thing to say. So the people who you’ll get real feedback from are critics, especially good critics.

Do you learn anything from your reviews?

Yeah. I read a review of one film [Righteous Kill] I did with Pacino, it was about four years ago, we played two cops, and the critic said I looked like a puffed-up whatever. I said they’re right. I laughed. But I also did that intentionally because I let myself get heavy because he’s a cop. It was just funny.

Do you ever look at your past work?

I’ve always wanted to do that — just to go back or to start from the first movies that I’ve done and all the way to the present.I know there are actors who have different ideas about that. Gene Hackman has said he doesn’t like watching his movies once they’re done. I understand that. I felt that way, too, but it depends on which film it is.

What about watching your performance in dailies during a shoot?

That whole thing about the director doesn’t want the actors to look because they’re going to get thrown, that’s because they don’t know what an actor — it just doesn’t work that way. It’s always good to have the actor look. In fact, if you look at the playback on the monitor, you can see exactly what you’re doing and what you don’t want to do and whether you’ve got to make an adjustment. I’ve had directors say, “Take a look at this,” and you see right away what needs to be done. At the same time, I don’t like to look. I say, “Just tell me whatever you want, and I trust your judgement on that.” But if I do look, there’s never a downside. It can only help me.

Is that truer now because of the experience you have? Was it different earlier in your career?

No, I always looked at the dailies. I do so less now, but I always have access to them in case I want to go over something. And if you do that, you will find something without fail every time, something that can be improved or this or that. It’s just the way it is.

Looking back over your career, I find there’s more comedy than I expected — and I think you may be a little underrated as a comic actor. But watching you, certainly in the Fockers movies, I’m wondering if you approach those films any differently from the dramatic roles.

Yeah, it’s different, the process is different. Sometimes, I would much prefer to do something with more subtlety and more nuance, a more complicated thing, more contradictory. But they’re fun to do. I don’t know if I’ll do any more.

The interactions are different. You and Ben Stiller have a different sort of chemistry.

Yes. Ben has a way of just reacting that is funny. He's making a comment on my character and our relationship just by doing nothing.

Do you get a chance to see a lot of movies?

I try. I haven’t seen anywhere near as many as I should. They give me the ones that they really say you must look at, and I try to. There are so many great films.

Can you talk about any that particularly impressed you?

I can’t think of a recent movie that I’ve looked at. The Fighter I liked a lot.

Were you a movie lover growing up?

The classics I like, the Montgomery Clift-Elizabeth Taylor A Place in the Sun. East of Eden, James Dean films, Brando films are great. At that time you just go to a movie at the Loews or the local chain, and there was two movies on a bill and the news in between and that was it. Now there’s so many.

If we go all the way back, when and how did you decide that you were interested in becoming an actor?

I wanted to do it when I was a kid around 10. I did it on Saturdays for a year or so, then I went when I was 16 for a while, and then I took a little break. I started more seriously when I was 18 or so.

When did you first get the sense that acting was something you might be good at?

When I was around 18. I was looking at a TV show — a soap opera or some weekly western — and I said if these actors are making a living at it, and they’re not really that good, I can’t do any worse than them. I wasn’t thinking of getting a job on a western or any of that. When I got into it more seriously, I saw how far I could go, what you could do. That it wasn’t what I thought when I was younger. But I remember saying that to myself, watching those black-and-white TV shows.

That you could do better.

Yeah. Better than what I was seeing.