You talkin’ to me?

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Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro, Actor Photo: Ishan Tankha

How do you do the thing that you do best? Is it instinct, that mysterious alchemical process of ‘talent’? Is it years of training, technique so ingrained as to become instinct? Is it obsessive practice? Is it none of the above? Is it all of the above? Sitting onstage at THiNK 2013, Robert De Niro, at Shoma Chaudhury’s prompting, tried to break down what it was like to play Travis Bickle, to inhabit that twitchy, angry, disillusioned romantic’s skin.

“I mean I didn’t… um, I worked on certain things about the accent, where he’d be from the Midwest, certain, specific area of the Midwest. Um… I, I… um. There was not like a preparation of certain things. There was no need for that, like to be ‘prepared’ and do all these kinds of things. Some things I did, but it’s hard to explain too. I tend to work from the outside in… And to be honest it’s been so long since I’ve done that movie, I’ve forgotten a lot of things.”

In that awkward, inarticulate rummaging, De Niro (unintentionally, perhaps) showed the audience the limitations of the interview. In a festival characterised by practiced articulacy — persuasive presentations, cogently expressed arguments, lucid political positions, carefully rehearsed anecdotes — he stuck out for his recalcitrance, his discomfort with the kind of probing that is routine in interviews.

He has previous form here. Piers Morgan, the oily former tabloid editor and current CNN presenter, wrote in his book about a disastrous interview he conducted with De Niro. A writer who once interviewed De Niro for GQ magazine structured his entire article around De Niro’s suspicion of the interview process. At one point, the writer reports, De Niro “gestures that the recorders should be paused; then his manner changes markedly and I am under attack. He tells me that he is finding my questioning creepy, that I am making him feel very uncomfortable, that he doesn’t need to be doing this, that I won’t let up when he has answered something, that I am obviously aware that I am annoying him but continue nonetheless, that he finds something rather tabloid in my approach, and that he doubts my motives.”

In his muttered asides, in his claims to not remember, in the way in which he left a sentence unfinished, De Niro was not trying to stonewall Shoma, or keep something from the THiNK audience. (He revealed plenty about his father, his politics, his bond with Martin Scorsese.) What he exposed was the illusory intimacy of the interview, the suggestion that answers and explanations are readily available. All of art is in that unfathomable leap from conception to execution.

De Niro, alongside Al Pacino, is the most iconic figure from, arguably, the best period in American movies, when mainstream Hollywood was dominated by the auteurs, by Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Allen, Altman, Cassavetes, Peckinpah, Bogdanovich, Kubrick, Lumet and on and on and on. It must have been a wonderful time to be an actor interested in self-effacement, in playing characters.

In amongst all the evasion, the baffled pauses, De Niro said that the quality most valuable in an actor is empathy. It’s why, he contends, that actors are all “left of centre”. It’s the attitude he had towards Jake LaMotta, the ruined boxer in Raging Bull. A man once asked De Niro how he could stand to play LaMotta, that the man was garbage. What De Niro saw instead was a man who was vulnerable, a man who could be redeemed. It’s something he learned early about life, not to judge too quickly, to try instead to understand how men might come to behave the way they do.

Born in New York City in 1943 to a pair of artists, De Niro knew something both of the bohemian life of Greenwich Village (he is currently making a documentary about his father) and the street life of Little Italy in downtown Manhattan where he lived with his mother after his parents’ divorce. It’s there in his work, in the wiseguys and mobsters and febrile losers he played with such brutal poetry. He knew those guys from the streets, understood their alienation, their anger, their codes, their expressive silences.

Stella Adler, the famous acting teacher, once told De Niro that an actor’s talent lay in the choices he made. It’s why De Niro is so obsessive about getting the ‘outside’ right. In an anecdote Shoma told onstage, Meryl Streep recalled how she once saw De Niro go through 34 jackets, checking every detail from texture to zips, for a character and she couldn’t understand why he needed to see so many until he finally picked one and she saw that it was perfect for the character. This is what De Niro means when he says he works from the outside in; for him, acting is about getting the external appearance so accurate that words become almost superfluous.

De Niro is a character actor. Unlike most superstars, he doesn’t play a version of himself in every movie. Maybe it accounts for why he’s so reluctant to give of himself in interviews, finds them so invasive. He, as himself, is incidental. His craft is in creating people onscreen, in immersing himself in the characters he plays — in the boxer LaMotta, in the young Don Corleone, in rough, reckless Johnny Boy in Mean Streets; in the working class man in Deer Hunter.

His appearance at THiNK was the first time De Niro had visited India in 35 years. In private conversation, he was ardent about rediscovering the country. He is acutely political, full of opinions about Barack Obama (whom he voted for twice and still admires), the arrogance of the American empire, or the seemingly unique American horror of school shootings. In India, he kept up with current events, expressing admiration for Sonia Gandhi’s (with whom he had lunch) drive and wondered whether Rahul Gandhi was as committed or duty-bound by his family history. Whether that history was enough to compete with Narendra Modi’s charisma.

In public he was more reticent. Partly because people can barely contain themselves in the presence of a celebrity. A TEHELKA colleague observed a man at a private dinner put his head on De Niro’s shoulder and told a friend to “click, yaar, click”. In the days leading up to THiNK, De Niro took a trip to Ranthambore and had a rare up-close sighting of a female tiger and her cub. For a moment, watching those tigers, he might’ve felt what it was like to be on the other side. Our side. The side of the watchers, rather than the watched.

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