AUSTIN, Texas -- Getting to know Robert De Niro is like getting to know the stranger sitting next to you on a city bus. You can ask basic questions and get reluctant answers, but the stranger probably wishes he were sitting next to the mute bag lady who wasn't so curious.
De Niro is a great actor. He gives his all even in a small part like the bumbling pathologist he plays in "Marvin's Room," which is scheduled to open locally Jan. 31. But as an interview, the word is that he's no award winner.
So what gives? Is he shy? Is he inarticulate on his feet? Or is he a businessman wise to the pitfalls of overexposure, knowing that the less we read about him, the more his mystique grows?
"I don't know how I'm perceived in that sense," De Niro says in a hotel room overlooking the Colorado River. "Sometimes I don't mind doing these interviews. [But] a lot of times, the less the
better, because when you do speak, you can say what you want."
On-screen, the intensity streaming from De Niro's beady brown eyes is hypnotic. But in this bland Four Seasons suite, his eyes dart around, looking to fix on anything but his inquisitor. There is a flower arrangement between us with fat orange chili peppers sprouting up that serves as a buffer.
The publicity machine has been moved here to accommodate the suddenly bankable Diane Keaton ("First Wives Club"), who is shooting a movie in the Texas capital. In "Marvin's Room," adapted from the late Scott McPherson's Broadway play, she and Meryl Streep play estranged sisters brought together by catastrophic news. Streep is angry trailer trash whose eldest son (Leonardo DiCaprio) is shuttled in and out of an institution. Keaton is the martyr who cared for their ailing father and never left home. There's enough family baggage to go to Mars, so when one of the siblings gets cancer, the emotion spews from their Samsonites.
The comic relief
In a rare turn, De Niro provides the comic relief as Dr. Wally (the kind of guy who accidentally snaps himself with a tourniquet), yet De Niro keeps the character together enough to make him credible.
De Niro's approach to even the tiniest of roles becomes the stuff of drama-school legend. One can imagine a professor trying to instill a work ethic into his budding Thespians by reminding them, "De Niro takes 33 takes just to twitch his nose!"
Meryl Streep has lived the legend, co-starring with him in "The Deerhunter" and "Falling in Love."
"He drives me ins-a-a-A-A-A-ne," she sings in a lilting soprano, "cause he takes so many ta-a-a-A-A-A-kes. Two or three takes, I'm happy, let's go home. But he'll go to 20, 21 -- sick, really sick. I don't know what it is, 'cause every single one is fantastic, yet different."
De Niro plays down the repetition, but grins at Streep's annoyance. Yes, the man does smile, and he does laugh at himself. Realizing that a hemming-and-hawing anecdote about a party where he received unwanted attention was going nowhere, he dips his jaw, leans forward, and says with an impish grin, "I know this is a big help to you. Anyway, you had to be there."
At times he looks incredibly vulnerable, as when a query requires introspection. Asked what he's most proud of in his career, he twitches slightly, never peeling his gaze from the orange chili peppers, and mutters, "Some people can answer those questions easily -- I can't. I know what it is, and I don't want to say."
Oddly, he shows a capacity for small talk. His small talk is no different from any other small talk, but the fact that it's coming from De Niro makes it bigger than the usual small talk.
"Austin is the second-fastest growing city in the country after Vegas," he declares. "My driver here told me that."
He mentions in passing that he spent one night here 27 years ago, performing in a play. Any De Niro fan worth his Travis Bickle Mohawk could fill in the rest of his vitae. De Niro's filmography is thick and distinguished, but it's his thugs and stalkers that often put him at the top of cocktail party arguments about who epitomizes the Great American Actor.
Vito Corleone. Travis Bickle. Jake La Motta. Max Cady. Pressed for a reason why he's been attracted to heavyweight hellions, De Niro offers, "They're interesting characters when they're written well, part of the American folklore and all that."
A mysterious man
Exploring the essence of De Niro's real-life persona is 10 times as difficult. Even his "Marvin's Room" peers find him elusive.
"I don't even know Mr. De Niro," says Diane Keaton, who previously worked with the Academy Award-winning actor in the first two "Godfather" films. "He's a mysterious person. He was very polite, very nice. He was proper. He'd give you a kiss hello and then you're looking at him and he's disappeared. It's not like, 'Oh, let's have a talk.' I never said a word to him, actually."