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De Niro talks about his career, characters and future

Robert De Niro isn't a big talker.

Certainly not to reporters. A major actor for four decades, the two-time Oscar winner rarely gives interviews.

So when word came down that the notoriously press-shy De Niro was doing phone interviews on behalf of his latest film, "Limitless," this reporter's mind went into overdrive.

What to ask a world-famous actor who doesn't like talking about himself? Who has never publicly discussed his private life?

How to break the ice?

By the day of the interview, just one avenue of inquiry seemed both safe and promising. The guy knows acting. So let's talk about that.

"So, Mr. De Niro, you've gone about as far as you can in your chosen career. But if you couldn't have been an actor, what might you have done?"

Long silence. Then:

"No, you know, I never really did think about doing anything else," came the familiar voice on the other end of the line. "If I wasn't able to work as an actor, I wouldn't know what else to do. I'd be lost. My career got to a good point before I had to think about doing anything else. I don't know. I work as much as I want to. For an actor it doesn't get much better."

De Niro, 67, is known to boomers as possibly the greatest actor of their era, thanks to "Taxi Driver," "The Godfather: Part II," "Raging Bull" and other cinema landmarks.

But among younger moviegoers he may only be known for his comic performances in the "Analyze This" and "Fockers" franchises.

The irony is not lost on De Niro, who said careers are unpredictable that way.

"If they think of me as that funny guy, it's fine. So the younger generation, the kids, see me in a different way. That's OK," he said. "Besides, I enjoy the kind of comedy I've been doing. It's usually a happy set."

A show-biz adage maintains that death is easy but comedy is hard. De Niro disagrees.

"Comedy isn't hard. You have to concentrate and be focused, but it's fun. And if you're the kind of actor who takes it home every night, maybe it's better to spend the day trying to make people laugh."

Whether the project is comedy or drama, De Niro said, his performances always start with research. He wants to know where his characters are coming from.

In "Limitless," he plays Wall Street bigwig Carl Van Loon, who at first glance appears to be a stalwart captain of industry but who shows a dark side when the chips are down.

"Actually, I didn't have to do much work on Carl. I've seen so many of these big corporate guys on TV that it was pretty much a walk. Besides, I know some people who are like him -- terrific until you cross them.

"But I did study photos of certain guys you see in media a lot, got certain ideas from them about how this guy would carry himself. I made up a composite of characteristics from different people that I found interesting.

"It's about finding the right balance -- not too much, not too little -- to indicate who he is. I tend to go for the low-key, underplayed interpretation."

What attracts him to a role?

"The director. The screenplay. The screenplay is the key thing. Unless it's a director I've worked with a lot, I want to know what they see me bringing to the film.

"Of course, if it's Marty Scorsese I'll commit without even seeing a script. I've been very lucky to have Marty to work with so many times."

De Niro and Scorsese have teamed up for "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver, "New York, New York," "Raging Bull," "King of Comedy," "Cape Fear," "Goodfellas" and "Casino."

"We've done eight movies together, and there were others we wanted to make and couldn't and I'm sorry about that. We always have a great time.

"Movies are hard to make, and you don't want to be in a situation where you're uncomfortable with your director. Marty is easy to get along with yet very clear when he wants something. He welcomes contributions."

In fact, De Niro and Scorsese are planning their ninth collaboration, to be based on "I Heard You Paint Houses," a 2004 biography of mobster Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran in which he confesses to killing Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa. "Painting houses" is Mafia slang for killing an enemy.

"Marty will direct. I'll be in it, along with Joe Pesci and Al Pacino."

Part of his job is to keep pushing himself, De Niro said. To that end, he recently completed "Manual of Love" in Italy. He had to brush up on his Italian for the role.

"It's about an Italian-American professor who meets a girl. His thoughts are in English, subtitled in Italian for Italian audiences. But when he speaks on screen, it's in Italian.

"I spoke Italian before, but not the way I did for this movie. I could have improvised my way around it, but this was some pretty sophisticated dialogue. I had to speak like someone who'd lived in Italy a long time. The film was made for Italian audiences, so I don't know if it'll even get over here."

De Niro said he's uncomfortable watching himself on screen. But he's at a time in his life when it makes sense to take stock.

"One day, I'm going to watch my movies from beginning to end. So I can see what I've done. And to see what I have yet to do."

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