Setting a tall order

Setting a tall order

Robert De Niro is a fine actor who has, over the last four decades, amassed a body of work marked by seriousness and attention to detail that was there from the start, concludes A O Scott, after a tete-e-tete with the veteran.

For a person of my generation, it pretty much goes without saying that Robert De Niro is the finest screen actor, ever. There was a time when De Niro was everywhere, assuming a new shape in every film. I remember De Niro in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of The Last Tycoon, in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, in Brazil, in The King of Comedy and New York, New York and, and, and . . . at least a dozen more movies that I won’t try your patience by listing here.

To the younger generation, though, he is most recognisably Jack Byrnes, Ben Stiller’s impossible father-in-law in the Fockers franchise. And as the reliable heavy in a steady stream of action movies and crime dramas. It has become fashionable to suggest that De Niro’s best work is behind him. But 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.

He has been here, more often than not in top form, the whole time. But Silver Linings, directed by David O 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 by 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. He has a reputation for sometimes extreme reticence, and the role of celebrity interview subject is not one he is known to relish. In our conversation, 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. Excerpts:
SCOTT (A.S.): Let’s start with Silver Linings Playbook and working with director David O Russell. How did that come about?

ROBERT DE NIRO (R.D.): 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.

A.S.: 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. The sense that at any moment things could go in any direction, either funny or horrible.
R.D.: 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.

A.S.: 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?

R.D.: 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. 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.

A.S.: Looking back, I find that 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. How do you keep it going and keep it fresh?

R.D.: 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. So now I have the next whatever, hopefully 15, 20 years if I’m lucky, and I think what to use that time for.

A.S.: Are you going to direct more?

R.D.: I’d love to direct. I tried to get The Good Shepherd 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.

A.S.: Was it difficult to get the first movie made?

R.D.: 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.

A.S.: What is your relationship to critics? Or to your own reviews?

R.D.: What I say is, if you didn’t have critics, who would tell you how it is? Because people won’t tell you. So the people who you’ll get real feedback from are critics. Especially good critics.

A.S.: Do you learn anything from your reviews?

R.D.: Yeah. I read a review of one film 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.

A.S.: Do you ever look at your past work?

R.D.: 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.

A.S.: Looking back over your career, I find there’s more comedy than I expected. But watching you, certainly in the “Fockers” movies, I’m wondering if you approach those films any differently from the dramatic roles.

R.D.: 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.

A.S.: The interactions are different. You and Ben Stiller have a different sort of chemistry.
R.D.: 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.

A.S.: Do you get a chance to see a lot of movies?

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

A.S.: Were you a movie lover growing up?

R.D.: The classics I like, the Montgomery Clift-Elizabeth Taylor A Place in the Sun. East of Eden, James Dean films, Brando films are great.

A.S.: When and how did you decide that you were interested in becoming an actor?

R.D.: 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 ½ or so.

A.S.: When did you first feel that acting was be something you might be good at?

R.D.: When I was around 18. I was looking at a TV show 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.

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