It's been forty years since Robert De Niro started turning heads in Brian De Palma's Greetings, but remarkably he's said little about his work over the last four decades. Hoping to coax a little dialogue out of the reclusive New Yorker, Total Film sat down to break the silence.
Why do so many of your characters connect with viewers, especially young men?
[Nods] Uh-huh. [Pause] I don’t know. Well, y’know… I don’t know. [Raises hands, shakes head, shrugs] I mean, you tell me.
Maybe it’s the dysfunction, the jealousy, the alienation...
...and the rage. We’ve all been there.
Right, right. Probably that, y’know? People can identify on one level or another.
They must do. Some people are fond of Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise and some people aren’t, but it’s hard to find anyone, especially male, who doesn’t like Robert De Niro.
Characters like Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta have a street cachet.
When you’re playing these people, how do you plug into them? Do you fit them together piece by piece?
Uh… Yeah. I mean, I was just doing this interview about Taxi Driver and it’s been so long, I… It’s been a while. I’ve forgotten certain things that we’ve done. So I don’t know if I can give you any real, satisfactory kinda answer.
Gerrit Graham [co-star in early De Palma movies Greetings and Hi, Mom!] said he was in a car with you once when there was an altercation on the street corner. You stopped the car so you could watch it, soak it up.
Well, yeah. In New York, especially, things will happen unexpectedly. They’ll happen in any big city. So that would be possible: you see something and you’re curious to see how it plays out. It would be nice to do something about it, to stop it, but, um, yeah…
Is it just part of your make-up to observe? When you go to a restaurant with your family, do you find yourself looking around at fellow diners, clocking their character traits?
Yeah, that I do. I observe people, I observe certain things. Maybe they’ll be things that are not literally connected to what I’m working on, but I’ll notice their body language, say in a restaurant.
Do you still get the same turn-on from acting that you used to? Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you ploughed through take after take...
I still do take after take. Y’know, that doesn’t change, never changes. You can also get great takes on two or three; you have to be careful not to exhaust it, beat it to death.
So that doesn’t change. And I get excited by parts that, erm… that are… that are well written.
But can you still give the same level of commitment to roles? To prepare for The Deer Hunter, for example, you hung out with the steelworkers, ate with their families and drank in their bars.
I didn’t do that so much with The Deer Hunter. We spent time as a group, but… I think, I mean… We created that feeling through the direction and our willingness as actors. The circumstances were set up well for us by Mike Cimino, so we were able to do that. And the script was terrific.
But it must be impossible to dedicate yourself to the acting as you get older. You have your family, Tribeca...
Yeah, it’s harder.
Take New York, New York. If you were offered the role of Jimmy Doyle now, would you still learn the saxophone? Or would you just worry about what can be seen on screen?
No. [Pause] I would do everything that’s needed for the part, I wouldn’t do stuff that… stuff that it’s great if you have the time, but… You economise and get the same results.
And that’s more important. When you get older you know what really to put your energy into and what you don’t have to. It’s not like you’re taking a short cut, you just don’t have to.
Why do you take roles in movies like Rocky & Bullwinkle and Shark Tale?
Do you not fear you’re tainting your legacy?
I had fun in those movies. Erm, I had a good time on Rocky & Bullwinkle.
Do you now prefer doing comedy?
Well, whatever is good. Comedy, drama, dramedy, whatever [chuckles]. No, no… I mean, I like when you do comedy and drama combined. The irony of the situations, the irony of the character. That’s more fun, so, um… yeah.
Weren’t you down to play the Nicholson role in The Departed?
Yeah, I was. I wanted to. I wish I could’ve been able to, but I was preparing The Good Shepherd so much that I couldn’t take the time to. I was trying to figure a way to do it while I was preparing. It just didn’t seem possible.
Will we see you reteam with Scorsese at some point in the future? Maybe with DiCaprio as well?
Oh, yeah, possibly. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I’m trying to actually work… Eric Roth [screenwriter] and myself and Marty are working on a script now, trying to get it done. [Pause] Leo is a very dedicated actor.
He loves Marty and they’ve done three movies together, so he, er, feels the way I do about Marty. He’s a great director.
You aren’t naturally outgoing or at ease working for laughs. Does it annoy you that you’re berated for taking it easy these days?
I’ve enjoyed doing Meet The Parents, Fockers, Analyze This, That. They’re not that easy to do; they have their own set of problems. But I, I… I’ve always felt… There’s comedy in Taxi Driver and in Mean Streets and in Raging Bull and Cape Fear… all the movies with Marty. You try and find the human character.
Parents and Fockers are among your biggest commercial hits. How do you cope with celebrity?
Er, well, y’know, it’s okay. If someone asks me for an autograph while I’m in a restaurant eating with my family or something, I’ll go, “No, no, not now…”
Are you able to go out in public with the kids? Don’t you get hassled every five minutes?
No, not too much. We go to the museum, go to the park, y’know?
You mentioned Mean Streets a while back. How much has your old neighbourhood and New York as a whole changed since then?
It’s changed. I dunno if London would change like that. It’s changed a lot. Whole neighbourhoods have disappeared.
And you’ve changed with it?
Have you mellowed?
When was the last time you called someone a fockin’ mook?
[Laughs] Only in that movie!
Is there any performance from the last 10 years that you are particularly proud of, or that you feel may one day enter the public consciousness like a Travis Bickle or a Jake La Motta?
I, I, I… It’s not for me to judge. I can’t calculate like that. It is what it is.