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Robert De Niro: 'You can't please everybody'

By Ann Hornaday
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Robert De Niro is contemplating two cups. One steams, already full of hot coffee. The other holds two tea bags, over which De Niro carefully begins to pour hot water. "The chamomile is calming, and the coffee is to wake me up," he explains, leaning out of a deep leather armchair to perform what looks like a carefully perfected ritual. "In the old days, it would have been a drug that would be a downer and an upper at the same time," he says, breaking into the familiar, face-cracking grin. "This is the modern, middle-aged version."

It's a wet late afternoon in New York, the ragged end of a hurricane spitting rain and punishing gusts of wind outside. De Niro is ensconced in his elegantly cluttered office at Tribeca Film Center, a former coffee factory he turned into office and production space 20 years ago.A pine table and an enormous, carved wood bar hold a small public library's worth of books; Monty Python DVDs and more books crowd a coffee table. De Niro, dressed in a light blue polo shirt, navy sports coat, dun-colored pants and worn-looking moccasins, sinks back into the engulfing chair. His toes pigeon in and his knees are tucked up toward his chest, giving the man known for playing some of the screen's most menacing villains a disarming air of warmth and vulnerability. The hands that rest lightly on his knees are improbably delicate.

So it's fitting that De Niro, 66, would choose two otherwise mutually exclusive drinks as his combined beverage of choice. Calming herbs and a caffeine kick suitably capture the contradictions that have fueled his career for the past 40 years, and have fascinated audiences from the days of "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" to "Analyze This" and "Meet the Parents." Preternatural stillness and explosive energy. Superb control and hair-trigger spontaneity. Pathos and humor. The transparency that every great movie actor needs to be emotionally readable on screen -- and the opaque scrim that conceals the thing he's always holding back.

"What makes him great as an actor, and fascinating as an individual, is that you can never figure the man out completely," says director Barry Levinson, who has made three films with De Niro. "He always seems to have a secret. You want to know more, and you can't ever know enough."

Right now, though, De Niro is speaking with unexpected candor, about the very thing he presumably feels most protective of: his family. His new movie, "Everybody's Fine," is all about family -- the closeness, the alienation, the love, the longing. For years, De Niro was known for his prodigious preparation, from driving a hack ("Taxi Driver") to gaining and losing enormous amounts of weight ("Raging Bull") to undergoing painful dental work ("Cape Fear"). In "Everybody's Fine," he plays a retired widower who travels the country trying to reunite with his four grown children.

De Niro has a sprawling family of his own, which includes two grown children from his first marriage to Diahnne Abbott; 14-year-old twins who live half the time with their mother, Toukie Smith; and an 11-year old son with his wife, Grace Hightower. His performance in "Everybody's Fine" suggests that his most important research might have been simply to sit with his feelings. "Exactly," he says, nodding. "You know, I have five children, two grandchildren, so . . ." The eyes begin to crinkle into the De Niro grin again. "I have a bit of feeling for that dynamic."

These days, De Niro has been mostly in Los Angeles, filming "Little Fockers," the third installment of the hugely successful "Meet the Parents" comedy franchise. "I talk to them every day on the phone," he says of his youngest kids. "I just call them to check in. Just 'Hi, how are you doin', okay have a good day at school, love you.' That's it. The older ones I don't call as much, but they live around here."

By "around here" De Niro means Tribeca, the neighborhood in Lower Manhattan he's called home for the past several years, just a few minutes' walk from Greenwich Village, where he was born and raised. His parents, both artists, divorced when he was a toddler; he grew up with his mother, Virginia Admiral, who ran a proofreading and typing business to provide for her son.

She met Robert De Niro Sr. at Hans Hofmann's painting class. "My father was an artist since he was 5," De Niro says. "He was very particular about things, very meticulous in his own way. He had very clear opinions about what was art and what wasn't. But he never imposed his theory, doctrine, whatever you want to call it, on me. He was very loving to me."

De Niro's father died in 1993, his mother in 2000. Between talking about his parents and his own children, one gets the sense that he's reached a point of equilibrium, reaching between two generations and knitting together their stories. "I think Bob's appreciating things in his life, and the finite nature of things," says Ben Stiller, De Niro's co-star in the "Meet the Parents" movies. When they discussed doing a third installment, Stiller says, "he talked about the idea of appreciating the moments, and what you have in your life. I think he's very connected to family, his parents and the memory of them, and his own children, and just keeping that going. He's really savoring that."

Great expectations

Even if De Niro is exploring meaningful themes in his own life in "Little Fockers," that won't please fans and colleagues who, having worshipped at the altar of Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta, feel that the actor's most recent forays, especially the "Meet the Parents" movies, represent unspeakable blasphemy. Last year, when De Niro left the Creative Artists Agency, an anonymous CAA agent commented on Nikki Finke's deadline.com blog, venomously accusing De Niro of "greed . . . avarice and . . . megalomania."

Shortly thereafter, Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein piled on, invidiously comparing De Niro's work for "hacks and nonentities" to the career of Jack Nicholson, apparently having never seen "Anger Management" or "The Bucket List."

"You can't please everybody," De Niro says with a "whaddayagonnado?" shrug when he's asked about the grumbling. "And I understand that. And I will do things that have more weight, if you will."

Martin Scorsese, the filmmaker most closely associated with De Niro over the years, is philosophical. "I can't imagine what his process was, emotionally and psychologically, how he got through it," Scorsese says of De Niro's earlier, most demanding roles. "Comedy gives him a chance to look at himself and look at the past, and make the transition to the future."

Speaking of such all-consuming performances as De Niro gave in "The Deer Hunter," "Taxi Driver, "Raging Bull," the "Godfather" pictures, Scorsese adds, "I don't see how you can do two or three of those a year. I know, I was there."

Seen through another lens, De Niro's recent career can be perceived as a canny move on the part of an older actor successfully navigating a business that has increasingly become an infantocracy, catering to teenagers with movies based on toys, video games and comic books. Between "Meet the Parents" and such animated family movies as "Shark Tale," De Niro has garnered new generations of fans.

What's more, one could fairly argue that De Niro's reported $20 million salary, as well as revenue from his Greenwich Hotel, restaurants and real estate investments, have been plowed back into worthy projects: In 2006, he made his sophomore directorial effort "The Good Shepherd," a smart, stylish, ambitiously sweeping CIA thriller starring Matt Damon. (His 1993 directorial debut, "A Bronx Tale," was similarly impressive, albeit on a smaller scale.) Then he produced and starred in Levinson's "What Just Happened," a modest, satirically on-point comedy about a Hollywood producer engaged in his own navigation of personal and political power plays.

A new New York

Perhaps most important, De Niro's business ventures wound up playing a crucial role in revitalizing lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "I was coming from Midtown when both planes hit," he recalls of that day. "I was going down Fifth Avenue when I noticed that everybody, if I remember correctly, they were all on one side of the street. . . . Just watching. Standing and watching."

De Niro arrived at his home, about a block away from where he sits now, he says, and "I saw the buildings go down right from my window. And then I had to look at CNN to confirm what I was seeing with my own eyes."

De Niro and his business partner, Jane Rosenthal, had been thinking about starting a film festival for some time. But after 9/11, when lower Manhattan was depressed both economically and psychically, he recalls, "I said, 'Let's do it.' "

The Tribeca Film Festival was launched on May 8, 2002. "It's one of the great successes we have seen downtown," says Mayor Michael Bloomberg of the festival. Bloomberg calls De Niro "a great New Yorker. He's an innovative and engaged downtown resident, and we are lucky to have him."

Confronted with such praise, De Niro characteristically falls into one of his frequent silences, which most often coincide with opportunities for self-reflection. (He says he never watches his own movies and wants one day to see them all back to back, "just once, to sort of get a pattern of what I should try to do that's totally different.") But at the center of those silences lies the key to an actor whose mantra has always been: "Don't talk it away."

Scorsese recalls filming a scene in "Taxi Driver" when he took the role of a passenger after another actor pulled out; the entire scene was staged so that he addressed De Niro only from the back. "I could feel his acting from the energy he was giving off just from the back of his head," Scorsese recalls, still evincing disbelief. "It was an extraordinary experience. I learned a lot about stillness and quiet from his performance. Power." Scorsese adds that he got the same feeling from the way De Niro directed "The Good Shepherd," with its restraint but subtle, cumulative sense of dread.

"It's about the back of the head," Scorsese says with his signature staccato. "The back of the head directed 'The Good Shepherd!' "

It should be noted that De Niro's work on "The Good Shepherd" prevented him from appearing in Scorsese's "The Departed," depriving those keeping score of a collaboration during the first decade of the new century. They are currently rectifying the situation, working on a script for "I Heard You Paint Houses," about Jimmy Hoffa.

"There's another piece we want to incorporate," says De Niro, going into complicated detail about a sequel of sorts that would refer to and comment on the previous film. "It's very ambitious, but it could be great." Another silence.

The conversation, it seems, has found its natural end. Both of De Niro's cups stand empty. The storm outside has passed. De Niro pulls on a raincoat, takes an elevator downstairs and walks outside. He's heading home, but as he briefly takes in the rain-slicked streets before ducking into a waiting black SUV, he looks like a man who's already there.

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