It’s no big secret that Robert De Niro is a tough interview. Not in the way that Tommy Lee Jones or Bruce Willis are – he’s not surly or nasty, or even all that evasive. No, he doesn’t much like doing interviews, but he’s very nice about it, almost apologetic. He considers himself a private person, and his work to be a private process, so he’ll answer your questions as best he can, but he has no qualms with doing so briefly and then sitting in the silence for a while, which is something that most actors do not do in an interview situation.
That disinterest in filling the quiet made him an… interesting choice to moderate Saturday’s “Tribeca Talks: Storytellers” conversation with actor (and now, director) Bradley Cooper, his four-time co-star. It’s not hard to guess why he was there; he’s one of the founders of the Tribeca Film Festival, and his participation is one of the chief draws for ticket buyers. They usually get to see “Bob” via the anniversary screenings of his classics – he’ll sit in on the panel for Goodfellas or Taxi Driver or The Godfather movies, say as much (or, more often, as little) as he’s comfortable saying, and that’s that.
This was more of a challenge. “I’ve never done this before,” he shrugged as he and Cooper began the talk, apologizing for bringing along several pages of notes that he sat aside and did not consult for the remainder of the hour. Instead, he winged it, cheerfully searching for questions, occasionally out loud (“I’m trying to think of what else to ask him”). Cooper, for his part, took the steering wheel pretty early, asking more than once, “Can I tell a story?”
Luckily, he had good stories to tell – most of them concerning his love and respect for the moderator. He told the story of their first real meeting, all the way back in 2008. “I’m in New York, and he’s doing this movie called Everybody’s Fine,” Cooper recalled. “There’s a role for his son, that Sam Rockwell got, and I put myself on tape for it, and somehow miraculously it got to him. So I get a call from my agent saying, ‘Robert De Niro wants to meet you.’” So the next time De Niro was in Los Angeles, he invited Cooper over to his hotel for a meeting. “And you said, ‘You’re not gonna get the role, but I wanted you to come, because I saw something. And I see it now. And that’s it. Give me a hug.’ And you hugged me, and left. I got in the car, and my mom said, ‘How did it go?’ I said, ‘I don’t… I don’t know? He said he saw it, he sees it…’ And that kept me going, like forever.”
They did eventually act alongside each other in the 2011 film Limitless, and reunited the following year for Silver Linings Playbook. “I met Bob right as my dad was sick, and they’re the same age,” Cooper explained. “He was sick during Limitless, and then he passed away between Limitless and Silver Linings Playbook. And this experience, doing Silver Linings Playbook, was probably why I grew so close to you and love you so terribly, as a friend, because I got to say the word ‘dad’ all the time, after my dad had passed away, and I got to say it to you. It was really just this beautiful thing.”
Later in the talk, an audience member asked Cooper if it was hard to get out of his own head when acting with someone as intimidating and legendary as De Niro – and indicated it was quite the opposite. “He makes you feel so comfortable that I realized I didn’t have to do anything,” Cooper said. “All I had to do was listen to him. So if you thought what I did was good in the movies, it’s because of him. It’s the opposite, whenever I know I have a scene with him, it’s like I’m more relaxed.”
Not everyone had the exact same experience, however – though for good reason. The actors remembered De Niro’s introduction to Anupam Kher, who played Cooper’s therapist in Silver Linings; his first scene with De Niro found the actor in an rage that included, in an improvised flourish, kicking Kher out of the family home.
“This guy was so excited to be in this movie, and to work with Robert De Niro,” Cooper laughed. “He was waiting for this scene for the whole – he’s been in Philadelphia for four months. This is the scene. This is the moment. We walk in, it’s me, Shea Whigham, and Anupam, we walk in. Bob’s character is screaming, taking his shirt off, and just screams to Anupam, Get the fuck outta here!”
“What I remember is, we were all afraid to say something,” laughed director David O. Russell – who had just been in the audience for the talk, but was eventually summoned up to the stage by Cooper and De Niro (“Help me out!” pleaded the latter). “It was really like the Mafia. Who’s gonna disagree with Bob? It’s like, well, Bob threw you out of the scene, Anupam!”
De Niro shrugged. “I was so famished, if you will, by the six pages of dialogue that I had. We started rehearsing, and I said, Oh God, is this the right direction… It was one of those moments, you know. And the way David directs – he says it’s a full-contact sport, which is great, it’s what makes his movies so wonderful…”
That tale told, Cooper signed, “That was fun,” followed by a long pause, which De Niro broke with two words: “Help us!”
The actor seemed to relax a bit once he turned the responsibility of asking questions over to the audience – and got one of the event’s biggest laughs when he was asked if there was one person he’d never want to play. The noted Donald Trump-hater replied, with a wicked grin,“You wanna guess? I’ll give you one guess.”
If the silences were occasionally awkward, no one seemed to mind; De Niro’s introverted tendencies are not exactly unknown. Russell recalled Joe Pesci’s explanation of his frequent co-star (complete with a spot-on Pesci impression) thus: “‘You’ll find out when you hang out with this guy, if you don’t give him what to say, he’s not gonna say anything!’ And that’s what we’re experiencing…”
And to that end, De Niro’s comments were frequently revealing, albeit indirectly. For example, early in the talk, Cooper recalled how, while shooting his close-ups for a dialogue scene with De Niro during Limitless, the legendary actor positioned himself off-camera so Cooper could still have someone to act with – something many actors of his stature don’t do, or hand off to a stand-in. “I remember thinking, the generosity for a guy who’s been doing it I don’t know many years – to still love the work,” Cooper said. “I remember thinking, this is a guy you really need to look to as a guidepost, for you, on how to behave.”
Later, in the Q&A, an audience member asked De Niro if anyone had influenced him in that way, which he misheard as a general question about his acting influences.”The actors that I looked up to were Marlon Brando, James Dean – though he only did three movies,” De Niro told her. “Montgomery Clift, Walter Huston was a wonderful actor, Frederick March… Spencer Tracy, even though he was a different style… an actress named Barbara Harris, who I think is still with us, a great actress from Chicago… Geraldine Page, and uh… and… what’s her name…” And at that he got stuck, searching aloud for the name for a good fifteen seconds before landing on her signature line: “I want to be alone. Greta Garbo.”
And right then, in that single answer to a seemingly innocuous question, Robert De Niro revealed more about himself than he has in years.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs through Sunday. Photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire.