Robert De Niro truly is the actor’s actor. Having studied with the pioneering acting teacher Stelle Adler and honed his skills on the set of some of the greatest films of the 1970s, he has come to embody the pinnacle of American acting talent. And yet, like a true illusionist, he has rarely revealed the tricks of his trade. In this interview with fellow actor and director Kenneth Branagh, however, we’re given an insight into the method behind some of his greatest roles.
The whole concept of having an “approach” to acting is riddled with problems. If an actors work is to inhabit a variety of different characters, surely each requires a differing approach. The work necessitates a huge amount of dexterity, and, for many, the idea that the art of capturing a character can be reduced to a formula is wholly unhelpful.
Then there are the others who argue that acting should be treated with the same pragmatism as any other job and that it is an actor’s duty to curate a range of techniques that allow them to give a top-quality performance under pressure. De Niro, however, falls somewhere between these two modes of thought. As he explains to Branagh: “Each problem is individual. I know that it really doesn’t matter whether you spend a lot of time trying to prepare – unless it’s worked for you. My way is to not worry about things until I know what I have to do and I’m there.”
De Niro’s talent lies in his restraint. “Explaining why he chooses to jump into character right at the last minute, he said: “I think it’s a way of conserving energy, and only using the energy when it’s necessary. And I really think that’s just from doing it [acting] so much – I know what’s really important and what’s not.”
This method of conserving energy proved to be essential during the production of Raging Bull, in which De Niro played middleweight boxer, Jake LaMotta. “Some parts were harder but more rewarding, in a way,” the actor explained. “Say, Raging Bull – that’s what I mean about conserving energy. You conserve the energy until the moment you have to do it and then you do it, and it’s draining maybe, but it’s also satisfying.”
What De Niro is tiptoeing around here is the idea of tension. Just as our enjoyment of a story is based on a gradual accumulation of tension and its eventual release, our belief in a character can be said to rely on the actor’s ability to control this same tension; unleashing it in small doses when absolutely necessary. De Niro does this with expert precision in Raging Bull and, as a result, we find ourselves mesmerised by his performance because we’re never quite sure when he’s going to open the floodgates. “The thing with movies is there’s so much waiting.” De Niro said. “And you’re getting to the moment, but the moment isn’t usually at the time you think it’s gonna be. You’re [the audience] all ready, but they’re [the characters] not ready.”
De Niro’s conversation with Kenneth Brannagh is a remarkable insight into the life and method of one of Hollywood’s greatest actors. Make sure you check out the full conversation below.