Since his first major film roles in “Mean Streets” (1973) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974) Robert De Niro has built an enviable career and become one of the greatest living actors of our times. He is also one of the few celebrities who can be in the public spotlight and still maintain an almost tabloid-free personal life. I can think of at least three pop songs that evoke his name, crossing over into each generation as relevantly as the latest technology. In a recent interview, De Niro and I discuss his acting training in New York City and his current film where De Niro returns to a role of gravitas and pathos as a failing writer and father in “Being Flynn,” based on Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
A decade prior to De Niro’s emersion on the acting scene in the early 60s, private schools began opening for business to teach something as ethereal as the craft of acting. By the mid-fifties, anyone who wanted to be somebody came through the Actors Studio led by Lee Strasberg who honed an approach to acting that critics were referring to as “method acting.” Today, we think of a method actor as one that inhabits his character to the degree that the actor literally puts himself in the shoes of his character – even when he is not on stage or on camera. The actor embodies the character. However, there was another acting technique during the era being taught by Stella Adler where Marlon Brando studied and where De Niro enrolled.
Stella taught that the actor does not embody the character so much as he becomes the character on stage (or film) through the actions of the play (or script). The distinction is clarified in the apocryphal anecdote about Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman while working in the movie “Marathon Man.” Hoffman supposedly stayed up all night to play a character that had been up all night. When Oliver saw his costar come into work disheveled and weary, he asked, “Why not try acting? It’s much easier.” Like most actors of the time, De Niro ended up studying both at Stella’s school and the Studio. The schism between Strasberg and Stella Adler created the greatest polemic of 20th century acting, but for De Niro, as this interview reveals, the era was simply the backdrop to his early acting training. That foundation, coupled with his experience over a forty-year career, continues to inform his work today.
Sheana Ochoa: You began studying acting as a teenager?
Robert De Niro: I went to the Dramatic Workshop when I was 16 for about a year and then I went to study with Stella Adler when I was about 18 until about 21. I studied there full time as much as anyone at that point. I took script analysis, site reading. I remember working on The Girl on the Via Flaminia . . . and all the classics: scenes from Tennessee Williams, Odets, Chekhov.
Sheana Ochoa: Most agree Stella’s genius was in script analysis.
Robert De Niro: I always gave her credit for script analysis and her approach towards acting. Just for the record, I wanted to do that. How she behaved, her affectation, that whole side of her . . . I never cared for personally. But she made a lot of sense as a teacher. She had a very healthy approach toward acting and technique, although she was a little at odds with the Studio and Strasberg and all that, but then she had a great actor, Brando, with her. When I was studying with her I didn’t even know he had studied with her.
Sheana Ochoa: Was Brando a major influence on your career?
Robert De Niro: The actors I always say are Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift.
Sheana Ochoa: You mentioned the schism between Strasberg and Stella. She focused less on the actor’s personal past and more on his creative imagination.
Robert De Niro: With Stella, imagination was important, research too, but the imagination. I remember her saying, “You just don’t make it neurotic, unless the character is neurotic,” but it’s not about you. It’s about what you get objectively looking at photographs, picking things out, script analysis. You look at photographs and you don’t “fictionalize” as she would say, what’s in that photo, but take what is really in that photo and the same applies to a script, more to a play in the traditional sense, but to a movie script as well. I started getting involved at the Actor’s Studio when I was 24, 25, 26 years old. Some friends were going there and I did a play there so I started going to the Studio after I left Stella’s. At the Studio, it was different, and I’m not an expert on it. I don’t want to say something that people are going to get on me about. It was just another approach. At the Studio everything was more in the moment.
Sheana Ochoa: When you say, “it’s not about you,” do you mean an actor has to get his ego out of the way?
Robert De Niro: There was a teacher who taught at Sarah Lawrence [College], and he said just go on instinct. And it kind of frees you because you get distracted with What’s my character? What’s my motivation? I felt there was something of value with that especially with me. I thought about all these things before [I could even] move, whereas otherwise you can just go with it.
Sheana Ochoa: So you’re prone to overanalyzing the character?
Robert De Niro: Yes, especially as a young actor. You forget in life people don’t behave that way. They just do what they’re doing, there’s no thought behind it.
Sheana Ochoa: How do you get there? Do you empty your mind of Robert De Niro or do you use some kind of technique?
Robert De Niro: Each situation is different.
Sheana Ochoa: You were on “Inside the Actors Studio” and they wanted you to give young actors advice and you said, “You have nothing to lose, so make it as personal as you can.”
Robert De Niro: What I meant was if you’re going for a reading and you got nothing to lose because so many things are stacked against you — there’s a lot of competition out there — so when you read, the only thing you have is your own uniqueness. So, you don’t need to be afraid to follow your instincts about what you think the character is doing. Just go with it, because if nothing else, the people watching you, the director, the casting people whatever, will be impressed by what you’ve done and they’ll take notice. You have to try and be courageous. Don’t hold back . . . it’s better to just let loose and say, fuck it. Just go with it. And sometimes it’s easier because you know where to go with the character and sometimes it’s harder. But in general just follow your instincts even if you know you’re going to fail because if you don’t take that risk you’re probably not going to make an impression.
Sheana Ochoa: That brings me to your latest role as Jonathon Flynn. How did you prepare for that character?
Robert De Niro: We had the writer, Nick Flynn, there all the time. I always feel it’s important to have the writer there as much as you can because they give you all their experience. He was so helpful with every detail that he knew about and used his instincts when he didn’t know for sure. I met the father. I went up to Boston. Nick had material his father had written on a novel and letters and so on. And again I followed my instincts, based on the writing, where they thought there was something I could add or take away or whatever.
Sheana Ochoa: How do you change up the failed alcoholic-writer cliché?
Robert De Niro: Well he was an alcoholic . . . To me it’s hard to be a writer and to have the discipline and the need to be in solitude with your own thoughts and express them on paper. I think the father was never able to resolve that. He did, but he couldn’t pull it together. It takes a sort of discipline and a kind of professionalism whether you want to or not. I thought maybe the reason going to the alcohol is he wasn’t able to face the task of writing. He did it in spurts, sporadically; pieces of paper, there were things he had written. He did write most of a novel, but it never came together as Nick says in the book.
Sheana Ochoa: Sounds like you have a reverence for both writers, Nick Flynn and his father.
Robert De Niro: With writing, great writing especially, you see how the material affects everything on a grander scale so that this character . . . represents an attitude of the world, or this part of humanity, if you will. Stella gave me that sense when you’re reading these characters they represent more than just themselves but they are themselves in a very real way. That made an impression on me: she taught how acting applies to a bigger vision.
Sheana Ochoa: You are referred to as a “method” actor, which has the reputation of being psychologically precarious. I thought it was revealing when you were quoted as saying once that “dissecting the character psychologically is limiting.”
Robert De Niro: I don’t remember what I said, but what I said the other day works. I say whatever works for you in the moment, whatever you feel, whatever you had planned, whatever you bring yourself at that point – as long as you’re not hurting any one else or yourself.