Exploring Robert De Niro’s enigmatic playbook

US author and film critic Shawn Levy spent four years trying to get a handle on the double Oscar winner.

(L-R) Actor Robert De Niro, Founder of Autism Speaks, Bob Wright and Engineering Director at Google, David Glazer attend Autism Speaks Celebrity Chef Gala 2014 at Cipriani Wall Street on November 3, 2014 in New York City. Picture: AFP.

NEW YORK - Brilliant, taciturn, droll, intimidating - Robert De Niro is regarded as one of the greatest American actors of all-time and among the most private.

US author and film critic Shawn Levy spent four years trying to get a handle on the double Oscar winner while working on his biography entitled, Robert De Niro: A Life.

Levy spoke with Reuters about what he learned from De Niro's archive of scripts and production notes about the now 71-year-old actor outside of his more than 80 movie roles.

Q: You asked several times to interview De Niro, but got no response. Why do you think he is so reluctant to talk about himself?

A: In his early exposure to the press, he was uncomfortable. He is basically an introverted person who finds great expression in a public form. But in his first encounters (with the media), his ill-preparedness really showed. Once he became a star, stardom gave him the authority to keep a wall between himself and the uncomfortable moments. And then it became who he is.

Q: One of the questions the book poses is why De Niro directed his energy into a few key roles early on, and now pours them 'sloppily into so many paper cups as if it were the cheapest, most indifferently made plonk.' How would you sum up that enigma?

A: He has a tremendous work ethic, he inherited that from his parents, and for a long time he concentrated that work very strenuously in bespoke opportunities. He continues to work, but instead of lifting 200 pounds once, he is lifting 20 pounds ten times. Once you have made that decision, you lose the prerogative of saying I will only do the best with the best, because the best don't work six or eight times a year. I think that he feels if he is not working he feels he is being lazy.

Q: Will the dubious choices, the flops, tarnish his reputation in the long term?

A: I don't think so. If you are listing the 50 greatest movie performances, there are five or six De Niro performances that would have to be on the table. And then there are 15 or 20 that everyone enjoys and can quote and return to.

In American Hustle, he is in one scene and he changes the movie and he didn't even get up out of his chair. He has that kind of power as an actor still. He will not be remembered for having made terrible movies with Eddie Murphy and Dakota Fanning. He will be remembered for Raging Bull and Taxi Driver - that caliber of film. You can't take that away from him.

Q: What surprised you most about De Niro while you were working on this biography?

A: The workaholism and the pack-rat quality of him. He donated his archives, production materials, costumes and props to the University of Texas at Austin in 2005 and it took two 18-wheel trucks to get them there. When he was choosing to work hard, the amount of work he did just staggered me. He was tireless.

Q: Having written the book, do you like him more or less?

A: I do admire him. He doesn't pretend to be what he is not. He doesn't try to pass himself off as an intellectual. He knows what his range is an actor - he has hardly ever made a film set before 1900. I admire his sense of duty and loyalty to family. He has a patchwork family, and yet it is completely intact. And I still want to see new good films with Robert De Niro. Nothing would please me more than to see him win a third Oscar.

Q: Do you have a favorite De Niro film?

A: I am standing in my office now that has the one-sheet (movie poster) of Taxi Driver that I acquired in 1976, hanging on the wall. I had such a good time watching all the movies again, but I've got to go with Taxi Driver. It came out when I was 14 or 15-years-old and it just blew my mind and opened me up to movies and acting in a way I have never seen before.