Your performance in Silver Linings Playbook has been hailed as one of your best in years and it's attracting some Oscar buzz. How did you get involved?
I'd been talking with David [O Russell, the director] over the years but we hadn't worked together. Then he made The Fighter, which I thought was terrific. He had this other project and he wanted me to play the father. I said I'd do it. That was before David rewrote it and my character changed. He kept to himself more in the book it was based on and was more angry but he didn't have many other colours. I liked what David did: he kind of reversed him, pulled him inside out. He's a guy who has some obsessive compulsiveness. His son [played by Bradley Cooper] has that too but his is more extreme.
Was there a good father-son dynamic on set?
Yeah. Bradley and I became friends. Even if we weren't that way it still would have worked out but a built-in relationship definitely doesn't hurt.
Do you feel pressure to be a wise godfather figure to all these younger actors who look up to you?
I don't feel pressure. I like if anybody has interest in what I have to say, especially if they're younger. If they like me, respect me, I'm honoured and I'll give them my opinion.
You made eight films with Martin Scorsese, starting with Mean Streets in 1973, but you haven't worked together since Casino in 1995. Is a reunion likely?
Oh yeah, we're working on something now. It's called I Heard You Paint Houses. We've been trying to get it going for a couple of years and now we're just trying to set a time. It's about a guy called Frank Sheeran who was in the Teamsters [a US union] and claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa [the controversial union leader who disappeared in 1975]. It's based on a book by Charles Brandt who was Sheeran's lawyer. I'd play Frank Sheeran and Pacino would play Hoffa. Joe Pesci would be in it too.
That's quite a reunion. Are you excited?
Yeah, I am.
And it will happen in the next year or two?
It has to or we all won't be around anymore.
When you were starting out, which actors did you look up to?
James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Greta Garbo.
And what about now? Which actors from younger generations inspire you?
The actors I respect are Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio... Daniel Day-Lewis is a wonderful actor. Jennifer Lawrence [De Niro's co-star in Silver Linings Playbook] is wonderful. She's got a great energy.
Is it true that "they don't make movies like they used to"?
I don't know. When I was in my early 20s, there weren't many independent films. Now there are a lot more so it gives more opportunity for actors and everybody else.
So it's not an altogether bad time to be making movies.
No, although maybe I'm missing something. Maybe film historians or critics would have another take on it.
Do you ever watch your old films?
If I catch them by chance on TV or something, but ...
You wouldn't hunt them down?
No. But I was thinking of trying to look at all my stuff over the years, my life, and get an idea of what I could do that would be different.
Can you imagine what that might be?
No. I'd have a better idea by seeing everything first and then I could tell exactly what direction I should go in.
You're associated with some of the most memorable dialogue in cinema. Are you plagued by people saying: "You talkin' to me?" when you walk down the street?
It happens rarely. When it happens, you laugh. People throw a line at you and they're trying to be funny so I laugh. It's okay.
Does acting still excite you as much as it did when you were starting out?
It's different but it still has as much excitement. When you get older you have a different attitude about certain stuff. There are certain things that I might have been concerned about then that I'm less concerned about now. You realise that you don't have to expend all that energy to get where you want to get. You relax and back off a little and you might actually get more of what you're looking for with less effort.
What keeps you awake at night?
[Laughs] My children sometimes.
I understand you recently had a new baby [De Niro's sixth child, Helen Grace, was born last December]. Do the demands of being a father sit well with you?
Yeah they do, but I'm fortunate in that I have help - there are terrific people who help with the children.
Do you get to spend enough time with your family?
I like to think I do. I try to get home as much as I can on weekends.
You have eight new movies in the works. What are you excited about?
Let's see. I'm doing a movie with Stallone called Grudge Match, about these older boxers who come together for one last fight. I guess it's a comedy of sorts. I did a movie called Motel with John Cusack. And something with Travolta called Killing Season. Right now I'm working on a film called Last Vegas with Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Michael Douglas.
Are you happy to continue working at this rate or do you have plans to call it a day at some point?
Jeez, I don't know. You see some actors saying they're going to retire and then they come back again in two years. I would never say that because... I might not want to do something for a while and then something would come up and I'd get excited again.
So there's no point trying to determine the future?
Who: Robert De Niro
What: Silver Linings Playbook also starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence
When: Releases in New Zealand cinemas January 31
- TimeOut / Observer