Talking with De Niro, and what you leave at the door

RobertDeNiro-smallerAnd then, sometimes, the interviews you expect to be the toughest are — if not, say, the easiest — at least go more easily than you expect.

Interviewing someone is exciting, but I recognize it's a challenge for the person being interviewed, unless they're on autopilot. The one time I was interviewed was fairly stressful, because I feel like I know how the guts of it all works, and I could hear myself not being brilliant or snappy even if I was being informative. Interviewing is such an in-the-moment present experience that it takes a mind more nimble than mine to deftly interweave an agenda, information and snappy presentation — that has to be something you're trained in one way or the other.

Robert De Niro is considered the ne plus ultra of the Tough Interview, if he wants to be. It isn't that he's an iconic Hollywood actor, it's that he's not known for putting interviewers at ease. One thing I learned in that terrific how-to interview book I referenced yesterday is that if you encounter an interview subject who gives a lot of push back that it's okay to address that very topic, at least briefly. I felt prepared, but a little edgy, just in case my first question set us on a course downhill.

He was late, the prerogative of the famous and powerful — and busy. Not to say it was a power play, but after a certain number of years in whatever business you are at the top of, you know people will wait for you. When he did arrive the photographer got first dibs and set him up for about a half hour of pictures. He wasn't in makeup or fancy clothes, just blue jeans and a blue polo with a jacket over it. At one point he seemed to notice a stain on the shirt and the photographer insisted it wouldn't show up. So this is not pretense, this is not Hollywood glamour. This is a guy, and he's workin' here. Once in a while when she asked him to smile a bit, he'd do this funny little "cheeeeese" sound, and you'd get a thin smile. I can only imagine how many times he's sat for photos — or interviews — at this point. I wonder how much of it just rolls off, forgotten, right after it happens.

So I was on tenterhooks for a while as I watched the photos being taken, feeling a little better about making it work, but just wanting to get it started. When we finally moved up to his office to sit down to chat, though, it all went quite well. It's always great to be in someone's office, you get a real feel for the person. In his case, we're talking 20 foot ceilings, unfinished brick and walls covered on almost every inch with framed pictures and memorabilia.

"Is that a real Matisse?" I asked him, glancing up at a Blue Nude on the wall, about 15 feet off the ground. "I think so," he told me.

So we sat and talked and I drank some tea and he was … I'm not going to say effusive but definitely talked and gave thoughtful, reasoned answers. Some things were clearly easier to speak about than others, but I even felt comfortable to ask him about things I hadn't seen in a hundred places before (though surely I'm not the first to ask about his age, or about revisiting the gangster motif again). When we were done he led me to the office door, and on the way I paused; the side of a bookcase caught my attention. Or rather, the axe nailed to the side of the bookcase caught my attention.

"It's from a movie I made," he said.

"Which one?" I asked, thinking of all the times he's played menacing bad guys, wondering if I could see spattered (fake) blood on it.


You know, the firefighter movie. And that's why expectations and assumptions are best left at the door.