Robert De Niro is not an easy man to draw into confidence. Piers Morgan, the oleaginous CNN host, wrote in his new book that De Niro is “reputed to be the hardest star to interview. I’ve heard endless stories of how tricky he can be – monosyllabic, humourless, gruff, irritated, or just plain bored.” And, as it turned out, Morgan got nothing from De Niro.
A typical exchange:
Piers: “Number four for me, number six for you. How’s fatherhood going the sixth time around?”
De Niro: “Well, as any parent will tell you … it’s an … experience.”
So I felt for Shoma, my boss, as she tried in vain to get De Niro to say something. Anything. In the end, he said quite a lot but couched in so many shrugs, muttered asides, and digressions — all with that famously phlegmatic, inscrutable expression on his face — that there’s almost nothing memorable or quotable to pick out from the session. And that’s what made it brilliant.
An interview is a performance. Or a game. Both parties agree to collaborate, to work together, to play by certain rules. De Niro refused to play. Interviews can give the impression that life is neat, or explainable. That there’s a structure. And, of course, there isn’t. We can’t always identify turning points; we don’t always know exactly what we admire about someone or what influence that person might have had on us. People are a jumble and the reductions necessary for effective interviews should not be mistaken for the real truth about a person. Yes, it’s possible for an interview to reveal something essential about a person. But many times what we think of as ‘insights’ into personality are merely glib.
De Niro, a private person perhaps, guarded, resists the cod psychoanalysis of most interviews. It’s no doubt frustrating for journalists, frustrating even for an audience gathered to listen to a man whose talent they admire. But it’s also a reminder that it’s De Niro’s talent, his art, that’s the thing. The rest is noise. Off screen, he’s shambling, bumbling, hesitant and occasionally inarticulate. Just like the rest of us. That we should find this so surprising, even disappointing, says more about our worship of celebrities than anything about De Niro.