Robert De Niro: 'You talkin' to me? Oh, OK, then...'

It's been painful to watch Robert De Niro's decline from Travis Bickle to starring with a cartoon moose. Time to get serious again, the actor tells Kaleem Aftab – starting with his latest film

Robert De Niro seems to be taking stock of his career, both on screen and off. The 64-year-old is one of the most feted actors in the history of cinema, but even he seems to have realised that filmgoers are weary of watching the mesmerising star of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver going through the motions in lacklustre comedies.

Now, with his reputation in some danger of being lost, he's decided return to more serious work. A wish to set the record straight might also explain why his turn in Barry Levinson's What Just Happened? seems almost autobiographical.

Trying to maintain a career at the top of an industry as transient as the movies is the theme of What Just Happened?. De Niro plays Ben, a movie producer who, in spite of his reputation as a big hitter, knows that his career is on the slide. (Sound familiar?) His latest production, starring Sean Penn, is destined to flop and his next payday is in doubt because Bruce Willis won't shave his beard. Ben's desperately concerned about how he's going to pay his alimony cheques and maintain his Hollywood lifestyle.

One of the main gripes in this Hollywood satire concerns the power actors have in the film industry. Perhaps surprisingly, it's a concern De Niro shares. "Stars have a lot of power because the ultimate question in Hollywood is, 'Who's in it?'" he says. "The second question is who is directing it, or what team is putting it together – the director/producer combination. If they're very, very famous, their decision about whether they do a film or not will decide if the film will go ahead."

De Niro is certainly one of those actors with the clout to get the green light for a picture, but the New Yorker feels that this power can easily be abused. It's this concern that has led him to announce that he doesn't believe actors should follow through on the strike currently mooted by the Screen Actors Guild.

He says: "I don't know if it's time to be doing this, and also all the other trade unions will be affected by the strike. With the economy as it is at this time, it doesn't seem like a great idea. Issues always come and need to be resolved every few years and if we can't make an agreement today, then we should continue to negotiate and when the matter is settled impose the deal retroactively."

He wishes that actors could be more like directors, a fraternity he joined in 1993 when he made A Bronx Tale. "The Directors Guild of America made an agreement by doing their homework and discussing the issues. Directors, because of their occupation, have to be problem-solvers and so it is no surprise to me that they could agree [without going on strike]."

Given that What Just Happened? takes such a dim view of actors, it's worth pointing out that, if it wasn't for De Niro, the film would probably not have been made. It's based on the memoirs of the producer Art Linson, and De Niro read the book because he's cited in it. He enjoys recounting the episode: "I am taking part in a reading of a script and I bring some friends of mine along. I can't remember exactly what project it is, as it's been a while since I read the book. I got input from some people I brought along as I had a feeling it wasn't right, and so I didn't do the movie. He writes about that, but in a funny way. But I'm the one that said to Art Linson, 'You should write a screenplay about your life.' The characters in the film are based on his experiences."

Perhaps they are – but De Niro's character seems also to draw heavily on his own life, and especially on his relationships. A 12-year marriage to Diahnne Abbott, with whom he had one son, ended in 1988. He has twin boys from his relationship with Toukie Smith. He's now married to Grace Hightower, who bore him another son in 1998; the relationship seemed to be heading to the divorce courts in 2001 before a rapprochement.

In the film, his character is estranged from his current wife, played by Robin Wright Penn; they are seeing a therapist to help them separate. He is also paying alimony to a former wife. De Niro says: "There are characteristics that are very similar. It's not me, but there are many things [that are the same]. If there are things I take from my own life, it's because I feel that they are useful to the character that I'm playing. But I do that with every character I play."

What is becoming clear as De Niro speaks is that this role is, in part, a way to answer his growing band of critics. Born in New York in 1943, the actor who grew up admiring Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean is famed for his method approach to acting. Even when De Niro was regularly being nominated for Oscars, and twice winning, there were accusations that he was exactly like one of these characters he and his new film are lambasting, needing everything to be perfect to perform.

Asked if he's "difficult", De Niro looks incredulous. "Difficult, what do you mean by that? You can have integrity but that doesn't mean you are difficult. There is a difference. I don't like it when any actor – or anybody, it could be someone in the crew – brings their own craziness to the set. When you make a movie, everyone should leave their own personal problems at home. When they start bringing those to set, filming can be very difficult. Anyone who's made a film will tell you how difficult they are. You don't need any extra drama. Put the drama into the story, in the characters."

In the past decade, we haven't seen De Niro put much drama into many characters. He's seemed content to coast in comedies, replacing his mischievous smirk with a gurning mug, living on past glories. When we meet, he's just picked up a lifetime achievement award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, and one can't help but wonder whether these awards signal an acceptance that he'll never again hit the heights as an actor. De Niro also recently presented a screening of Martin Scorsese's New York, New York; when it came out in 1977 it was one of De Niro's least praised roles, but it's a masterpiece compared to some recent turns.

The decline set in soon after he stopped working with Scorsese in 1995. That was the year of Casino and Michael Mann's Heat. Then came a few middling efforts, the most startling of which was seeing De Niro out-acted by Sylvester V C Stallone in CopLand. But then, in 1999, Analyze This took more than $100m at the US box office and De Niro became convinced he was the king of comedy – and the decade of sending himself up began. This was the period when he made Showtime, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle and Meet the Parents.

But De Niro argues that being able to laugh at yourself should be viewed as a positive rather than a negative, and uses the appearance of Willis in What Just Happened? as an example: "Bruce was great. He had a really good sense of humour about himself." Then, in a comment that could just as easily have been about himself, he adds: "He could make fun of himself and the idea of who he is and his status as an actor."

The less demanding nature of his work in the past decade has left De Niro free to focus on other projects, such as running the Tribeca Film Festival (New York's rival to Sundance), as well as owning hotels and restaurants. These ventures seemed to excite him more than acting – although again he wonders how he can be criticised for taking time to run a festival that promotes young film-makers and independent film-making. "It brings together people who are really interested in film-making in one place where they can meet and share ideas. It's not just for the general public, although they do come too; it's a place with a heavy concentration of film-makers."

In April, the actor left his longtime agents CAA. Soon, an email began circulating, purportedly from a CAA staffer and saying why the company would not miss De Niro. It claims that the actor is unsatisfied with his current pay-cheques and attributes this to the fact that the star had chosen to send himself up rather than protect the De Niro brand, in the way Jack Nicholson did. He would also only act in films if he were guaranteed a producer credit. When I ask about the email, De Niro starts: "I don't think that the email..." before tailing off and beginning again: "Who knows where that email came from. I don't know what to say. I'd hate to think that the email actually came from someone at CAA because that would be beneath them. It's like getting an obscene phone call; you just don't know where it came from."

As for the view in the email that he's been coasting in comedies that are simply easy paydays, De Niro puts his case strongly. "Comedies are harder to do than people think. Also, it depends on what type of comedy I'm asked to do. It can be gruesome when the director doesn't know how to make you funny or what your sensibility is, or you fail to have a mutual understanding about what you both think comedy is. It can be slapstick funny, or another funny.

"The thing is not to get into a situation or work with a director who tries to make you do comedy that's something you can't do. You have to work with a director who respects what you can do and encourages you instead of imposing something on you that you can't do."

The change in agency is a signal that De Niro now wants to refocus on acting. The big question is whether he can become respected again. De Niro seems to think so. I'm not so sure. None of De Niro's acting heroes had a successful acting career into their sixties. Brando pretty much gave up acting after Apocalypse Now, doing a film only when he needed a payday. Dean died before his career even got started, and Clift was only 45 when he had a heart attack.

It's now up to De Niro to prove his doubters wrong. On the criteria he'll use to choose roles, he says: "If you're an actor, the director and the script are the most important things. Then you ask, 'Who else is going to be in the movie?' All those things are important. You can't have total control of everything, but you can have an idea about where it will go."

De Niro has chosen to achieve this by going back to directors and actors he knows best. The next time we'll see him on screen, he'll be renewing his acquaintance with Al Pacino in the police crime thriller Righteous Kill. Just one scene with De Niro and Pacino together in 1995, in Heat, was the talk of cinema; today audiences are crossing their fingers that the two great actors will not embarrass themselves.

The way The New Yorker talks about the film suggests that we're about to see De Niro back at the top of his game. And yes, it was a project De Niro pushed to get made. "It was something that came along and I mentioned it to Al and he was interested," De Niro says. "In Heat, we only had one scene together, which is my favourite scene in the movie; I thought it was well written and was a great scene to watch, so I wanted to build on that." They should have plenty of scenes together this time as they play two veteran New York detectives in Joe Avnet's film.

De Niro also confirms that the day he'll work with Scorsese again is coming ever nearer. Without revealing any details of what will be their ninth film together, he says: "We're planning on it, but it takes a lot of time to get everything in place. I don't know when it will be, but I think the production will start this time next year." He also reveals that there are plans for a 10th and perhaps final collaboration.

It's not just as an actor that De Niro is looking forward. His growing allegiances as a director are reflected in plans to make two sequels to his 2006 CIA thriller The Good Shepherd. He says: "I would like to do another story from 1961 until 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. That is what we were talking about now. Then I'd like to do a third film from 1989 to the present. I'd like to make it a trilogy."

De Niro is excited at the prospect of working with these actors again. He says: "I like to direct actors a lot. One thing you always have to be aware of is that the casting is 95 per cent of it. If you get the right actor, most of your problems are solved and you just need to make little adjustments along the way – like, when I did A Bronx Tale, I used actual young kids from the neighbourhood where it was set. I didn't want to use young kids who'd done some commercials and worked on other films who knew nothing about that world and that culture. Because they're young, they cannot understand the complexity. If I couldn't have got certain actors in The Good Shepherd, Matt Damon and a couple of others, I would not have done the movie. To make a film is so much hard work, and if you don't have the right combination it's not going to work."

The return to more serious acting is a signal of intent from De Niro that he's not going to let his reputation go without a fight.

'Righteous Kill' opens on 19 September; 'What Just Happened?' opens on 10 October

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