Actors are fairly easy to talk to. They are, after all, people who pretend to be other people for a living. But there are some actors whose careers are so impressive, and whose performances are so singularly intense, that you can't help but get a little bit nervous. Robert De Niro is one of those actors. The scope of his career is breathtaking: this is someone who has reshaped his mind and body to fit a number of characters who you can't imagine being played by anyone else. From the early screwball comedies he did with Brian De Palma to the gangster movies immortalized by Martin Scorsese, De Niro is a consummate professional, a guy who makes it seem like his job is more than just playing other people; he becomes them.
De Niro's new movie is "The Family," a genuinely wild new action comedy from writer/director Luc Besson ("The Professional," "The Fifth Element," "La Femme Nikita"). In the movie, De Niro knowingly plays up his cinematic past, portraying an Italian American gangster who, after ratting out his mafia cohorts, is relocated to rural France by a curmudgeonly FBI Agent (played, of course, by Tommy Lee Jones). Since this is an action-comedy, the mafia guys find out where he's living and send some goons over there to take them out (including De Niro's lovely wife, played by the vivacious Michelle Pfeiffer).
We got to sit down with the master himself and talk about whose idea the "GoodFellas" joke in "The Family" was, what it was like sharing screen time with Michelle Pfeiffer (they had been in the same movie twice before but never shared a scene together), whether or not he's going to reteam with Scorsese, and his experience working with David O. Russell for last year's "Silver Linings Playbook," a movie that scored De Niro some of the best reviews of his career (and his first Oscar nomination in 20 years).
What brought you to this? You've been doing a lot of supporting roles and with this you're in almost every scene.
Well, Luc Besson got in touch with me and wanted me to read this book. And I read it. Then he had a screenplay and I read that. We had been friends for a long time and always wanted to work together if we could find something so this came along and that was it. He was going to just produce it and we were trying to find directors, either French or American, any director who would work for the material. Then he said he was going to direct it, which I was very happy about. It made things a lot simpler.
Was that "GoodFellas" gag always a part of the script or was that something that you came up with?
No, that was his idea. And I forget whether it was in the book. It was probably one of the attractions to him -- the guy was a writer and Luc was a writer. The thing he asked me to do was introduce him to Marty Scorsese, which I did. And they got together and they got Marty's endorsement of it. It was nice.
And it seems like the voiceover pays some homage to "Casino," right?
Yep. Oh yeah.
Was it fun to play with those conventions?
Yes, exactly. I thought that the voiceover was fun. Luc is a smart guy and I thought however it played itself out that Luc would make sure that it was really fun.
Now you had been in movies with Michelle Pfeiffer before but had you actually shared screen time?
We didn't work together in "Stardust" or "New Year's Eve" but with this we had scenes together. It was really fun.
And working with Tommy Lee Jones?
It was great. Tommy was great.
You can't help but think about your collaborations with Scorsese while watching this. Are you still planning on collaborating?
"The Irishman" is what we're planning to do. That's still on the table. He's going to do "Silence." And then we're planning on doing that next.
You just turned 70. Happy birthday. You not only aren't slowing down but you seem to be putting in some of the best work of your career. Do you have any plans to retire?
I don't even know what retire means. I have plenty of time when I don't shoot films. I am always busy. I always have things to do between interviews and kids and Tribeca Film Festival.
Have you been happy with how that festival has grown and expanded?
Yes, of course.
You seem to put the same amount of energy towards "Rocky and Bullwinkle" as you did towards "Silver Linings Playbook." Does it get harder to muster that energy?
No no. You just have to do it. That's just what you have to do. There's no other way to look at it. Once you're there, you're on the set, you have to deliver.
Is there any genre that you haven't done that you're looking to do? You haven't done a sci-fi movie... yet.
Yeah, if I was offered one and it was interesting I wouldn't not consider it. With sci-fi it's about everything around it. It's okay. It depends on what it is.
You've also been able to move back and forth between very large films and very small films. Is that something you figured out how to do throughout your career?
Things come the way they do. If it's a big film and I want to do it, then I do. If it's a small film and they say, 'This is what it is, if you can do it -- great.' A lot of times with smaller films, they're paying a lot less but they're more interesting. They're not risky for me but they're risky from a business perspective for the investors. That's why they pay everyone what they can.
Can you reflect on the whole "Silver Linings Playbook" experience?
Well, me and David had a great time and we are going to work on some other movies he's getting ready to do.
And you're in "American Hustle" right?
I just shot for a day on that one. It's just a little bit.
What makes your relationship with David so special?
David is a unique director, he's a unique person. He's really special. He comes up with these ideas and has an energy on the set that is very immediate and spontaneous and there's a terrific energy in what he does. There's an immediacy in how he shoots and it transfers to his movies.