He has played a deranged cab-driver, an aggressively tattooed ex-con with revenge fantasies, several Mob bosses and an animated shark, but in few guises does Robert De Niro strike more fear into the heart of people than when they're interviewing him. TIME sent its most talkative editor to the office of the famously tight-lipped star, a few blocks from ground zero, for a conversation about The Good Shepherd, his second directorial effort (the first was 1993's A Bronx Tale).
The movie, written by Eric Roth, recounts the history of the CIA from World War II through its involvement in the Bay of Pigs. It is told through the life of Edward Wilson, an agency stalwart loosely based on long-serving counterintelligence chief James Jesús Angleton, and tracks the price that a life of secrecy can exact. Despite the stellar cast Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt and Alec Baldwin it took De Niro, 63, and his producing partner Jane Rosenthal nearly eight years to get the film made. Although still not chatty, the star had quite a bit to say about the movie business, why he does comedies, and the prospect of competing for an Oscar against his longtime friend, director Martin Scorsese.
What is it about the cold war and the CIA that interests you? Is it the secretiveness and the covertness?
Yeah, all of that stuff. The movies that I've seen, other than the John le Carré ones, the other spy movies, they never really keep things under wraps. It's always like somebody's going to get shot. There's always that kind of a payoff. I looked for more original ways that somebody gets their comeuppance. Kind of like what happened in London the other day with [poisoned Russian spy Alexander] Litvinenko.
Often when actors are directing they choose very actorly tales and intimate stories. But this movie has a lot of action. Were you fearful of trying something so new?
It was so hard to get the movie done and produced and backed, you don't even think about the rest. You take one day at a time, one step at a time, one moment at a time. At this point, after everything I've been through with the movie, I'm still amazed it got made.
I thought if Robert De Niro wants to direct a movie, Robert De Niro gets to direct a movie.
It's not so easy. Especially this movie. Matt was crucial. He said, "I love this script. I'd do it for nothing." And he did. Not for nothing, but practically. It couldn't have been done otherwise. A lot of people took less money. It was expensive as it is.
Were the actors intimidated to be directed by the guy who created Travis Bickle [of Taxi Driver] and Jake La Motta [of Raging Bull]?
I think that actors trust other actors, because they know what they're going through. And you're working and involved in what you're doing, so the other stuff goes away quickly.
How has acting changed in the 30 years since those movies?
Well, Matt is a younger actor, but very dedicated and very serious about what he does. And Leonardo DiCaprio is another. He's wonderful in The Departed.
You considered him for this, right?
Yes, but schedulewise it was too complicated. Both Leo and Matt take it very seriously.
Matt's performance in The Good Shepherd is very minimalist.
We had worked on that. We wanted to make sure his character was in check. It was important not to be too accessible or available. I always go back to what people do in reality. Would they do this in a real situation? So I'd say, You don't have to look at the person. You don't have to react. You can do nothing. And that will have more impact and power than anything you could do.
As an actor, you are always very prepared. Did you completely immerse yourself in the ways of the CIA?
I read material and talked to people and spent time with ex-agents. We had Milt Bearden, who was our technical consultant. He was at the CIA for 30 years. He was very, very helpful. I'd say, I need something for this scene that will help make it a little more specific and not so general details of something. When the hair falls out of the book [indicating it had been opened], that was Milt.
Did the CIA ask you not to put stuff in? No, they were very helpful.
Did you have Martin Scorsese on speed dial?
From time to time I talked to Marty about certain things, yes. [Laughs]
Why such a long time between directing stints?
I was working on this for eight years. And I wasn't offered much, actually.
Would you welcome being offered more?
I don't know. I think if I directed five movies in my life that's three more that would be fine. They're a lot of work. I love to do it, but to do them right, it's a lot.
Have you noticed that in both films you've made, the theme of honor and betrayal is very central?
Why do you think that is?
I'm not sure. A Bronx Tale, that was Chazz Palminteri's script, and it was what it was.
The other thing that seems to be a constant in both movies is the relationship between fathers and sons. And I wonder if it's something you think about a lot.
You have four sons.
And your father [artist Robert De Niro Sr.] was a big influence on your life?
Do you consider this a political film?
I don't know. I wouldn't say.
You don't know or you wouldn't say?
I don't know. I think people should see it the way they want.
Well, you're down here right near ground zero. It seems like this is not just an intellectual exercise for you.
When 9/11 happened, I didn't think the movie would ever be made.
It's just when you saw that [he points out his window to where the towers were], this [he gestures to his office] doesn't mean anything. It's irrelevant. Everything changed.
You've copped some criticism recently for straying away from performances like those in The Godfather or Taxi Driver. How do you feel about that?
Marty and [writer] Paul Schrader and I were trying to do a thing with Travis this is about 15 years ago where would he be at this point? But it just never seemed to happen.
Do you do comedies because you want to explore that side of you or because you don't get offered the big, serious roles?
I enjoy the comedies because they're fun to do. Especially with Jay Roach [director of Meet the Parents]. I enjoy them. Analyze This and That were fun.
Are you saying the serious ones aren't fun?
I like them too. It depends. Everything is what it is.
But all your fans are so bewildered ...
I hope I won't disappoint them later. Maybe in a couple of movies. You know, they have to be offered to me.
I guess you're not at the point of the career where you're going to hustle to get work.
Yeah. But it's nice to do something that you really have fun doing, whether it's a comedy or a drama, or a mixture of the two, which is always the best. The funny things that are serious. The ironies in characters and situations.
There's a movie we're working on, the remake of a French movie called 36. And I'm in a movie from a book written by [producer] Art Linson and directed by Barry Levinson. It's about a Hollywood producer. I play the producer. It's based on real experiences that Art has had.
Do you ever screen your old movies?
Do you stop and watch them if you catch them on TV?
Well, yes, I kinda do sometimes. If I'm totally unprepared for it, so I can be more objective, then I might.
Do you have a favorite?
Of ones that I've been in? Well, the more I get feedback from people about movies they really like, the more I think, I like it too. [Laughs]
Does the fact that you had to do so much work for Raging Bull make it special?
That was one I liked. We went somewhere with it. And it was with Marty. I want to do more movies with Marty. At least two more. No less than that. We will have done 10.
You didn't want to do The Departed?
I wanted to do it. It was just scheduling. I was involved in The Good Shepherd. Marty knows I was sorry I couldn't do it.
You and he could be up for Oscars against each other. You probably know enough about him to run some negative campaigning.
[Laughs] No. No. I hope he takes it. It would be about time.
Anything else you still want to do?
If I'm so fortunate, I'd love to make a second part to this story. Eric Roth and I made a pact. If I directed The Good Shepherd, he would write a second movie, about where all the characters ended up. The last movie I direct, I would totally write myself.
[Looking at the office] I don't see any posters for your movies here. I like it like this.
Pictures of my own stuff, movies I've been in that's a little ... I don't know. This is what I prefer.
What's the knife?
That was given to me by Tommy Franks. General Tommy Franks.
After a knife fight?
No, after a USO visit.
And the ax?
That was given to me [goes up and looks at inscription], oh, by some friends.
People seem to want to give you weapons.
No, no they don't.
Come on, I see two!
That's a fireman's ax. It's for getting through the hard days.
How many times a week does someone ask you, "You talkin' to me?"
Time to time. I get a kick out of it if it's kids.