Q&A: Robert De Niro On ‘Silver Linings’

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of AwardsLine.

Robert De Niro hit his stride in terms of movie recognition in 1973 when both Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets put him on the map. The latter remains a special favorite because it marks the beginning of his long association with Martin Scorsese. Remarkably, De Niro didn’t come close to peaking after winning his first supporting actor Oscar for 1974’s The Godfather Part II—he’s still going strong nearly four decades later, thought by many to be our greatest living film actor. But effortlessly playing the young Don Corleone and doing it entirely in a Sicilian dialect should have signaled to anyone that this was a talent like no other. A look at the other roles that won him recognition from the Academy an impressive six times overall between 1975 and 1992 only confirms that early promise. There’s Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Awakenings, Cape Fear, and of course, Raging Bull, which brought him a second statuette for best actor in 1980. But consider some of the brilliant performances Oscar didn’t recognize, and you get an idea of the career we are talking about here: The King of Comedy, The Mission, Midnight Run, Awakenings, Once Upon a Time in America, Casino, Heat, and one especially close to his heart, Everybody’s Fine, to name just a few. As a producer, entrepreneur, and founder of the ever-growing Tribeca Film Festival, De Niro is not only a multifaceted actor, he’s a multifaceted person, who might be hitting his stride again in the same year he will turn 70. After waiting 21 years, De Niro now has a richly deserved seventh Oscar nomination for his role as Pat Sr. in Silver Linings Playbook, and he’s back in the supporting actor category for the first time since the Academy started its admiration society for him 40 years ago. Will history repeat itself? For De Niro, he’s just happy to still be in the starting lineup and still getting roles as rich as this one.

AWARDSLINE: How did Silver Linings Playbook come about? The character in the book is markedly different than what Pat Sr. became in the movie.

ROBERT DE NIRO: Yes, a lot different. (David O. Russell) turned the character inside out. (Pat Sr. is) very interesting in the book, but this was another way to do it. There were more colors in a sense and the other was more consistently not communicative, kind of funny in his own way.

AWARDSLINE: How was working with David O. Russell’s directorial style? It’s freewheeling and creative, shooting at 360-degree angles…

DE NIRO: It is different. I have done some things like that, but not really. His style is very unique, specific to him, and I think it’s really great because it adds an immediacy, a spontaneity, an unpredictability. You don’t know where it is really going to go, and it has that energy to it with a lot of the handheld stuff. He will throw lines at you. You already know what you are doing scriptwise, but there are times he is going to throw lines at you that are spontaneous and right. And that’s great.

AWARDSLINE: There is a lot of Oscar buzz again for Silver Linings. Does that mean much to you?

DE NIRO: Of course I am happy about it all, but I don’t want to expect much because I don’t want to be disappointed: You expect, and you think, and it never happens. So all I try to do is be even-keel about stuff.

AWARDSLINE: Are the movies you received the Oscars for the ones you think you should have won for or are there others where you thought you should have won instead?

DE NIRO: I don’t know. There’s so much competition out there. There’s so many good performances, so many good movies I don’t know what I would be. It depends on the alignment of the stars sometimes for certain things. I think for Godfather II, Raging Bull, yes. There were others. Who knows?

AWARDSLINE: Were there any films in the past 20 years that have been really frustrating experiences for you? Looking down the list, I see one: Everybody’s Fine. I thought it was terrific.

DE NIRO: I think it was left flat by Miramax and the parent company (Disney). They said they weren’t going to do that, but of course they did. How you present it is important—I know the director (Kirk Jones) was concerned about it, in America at least. In England, they had an interesting poster which is more right for it. I never say this about myself, but I was proud of that (performance), and Kirk is a terrific director. I certainly worked very hard on that one.

AWARDSLINE: Is it tougher finding scripts you are excited by these days?

DE NIRO: It’s always hard to find good scripts. That’s just the way it is, unless it is a director like David or (Martin) Scorsese or certain directors who you know are smart and whatever they do is going to be interesting. You just have to rely on the director, because it is not always on the page.

AWARDSLINE: You seem to be working all the time—you obviously still love making movies.

DE NIRO: You do a movie, and you don’t know it is going to be received. If Silver Linings Playbook was received in another way, I would say it doesn’t really take away from everything we did. You can’t predict how the public or the audience is going to feel about something. Taxi Driver was the same thing. I just don’t know. I am happy when people like them, but you do your best, and that’s all you can do.

AWARDSLINE:  I personally loved Bang the Drum Slowly at the beginning of your career in 1973, but is there one movie that stands out from the rest?

DE NIRO: Mean Streets. I had a great time with Marty, being the first feature we did together. There’s also working on something that is not the most fun, but that could be one that’s received well. You just never know.

AWARDSLINE: Will you be teaming with Scorsese again anytime soon?

DE NIRO: Yes, we are planning on it. We are trying to narrow the time down. Its original title was I Heard You Paint Houses. They have been calling it The Irishman lately—I don’t know what it will be called. But it is me, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Marty directing. I never talk about stuff—I don’t like to because it seems whenever you do, it never works out. I’m so careful. But this one I did. I am feeling good about it and hoping it will all work out.

Behind The Scenes On Silver Linings Playbook

Paul Brownfield is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.

The least saleable aspect of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is also one of its central themes: obsession.

Pat Solitano, the lead character played by Bradley Cooper, is bipolar and manically fixated on getting his estranged wife back. Pat’s father, played by Robert De Niro, is a would-be bookmaker whose OCD behaviors (and his love) get projected onto his gambling and his diehard devotion to the hometown Philadelphia Eagles.

Robert De Niro, left, plays Pat Sr., father to Bradley Cooper's character in Silver Linings Playbook
Robert De Niro, left, plays Pat Sr., father to Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings Playbook

As the film begins, Pat is being released from a psychiatric hospital and moving back into a kind of halfway house—his childhood bedroom. De Niro spends much of the film in Eagles green, trying not to notice his son’s psychosis, which involves long runs through his neighborhood wearing sweats and a trash bag, while Pat’s mother, played by Jacki Weaver, tiptoes through the minefield created by her husband and son.

This is, in other words, prime Russell territory. The setting of Silver Linings Playbook, a no-frills, middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, has echoes of Russell’s last film, The Fighter, which evoked working-class Lowell, MA.

Russell calls Silver Linings a cousin to the world of The Fighter. He shot both films on similar 33-day schedules. His budget on Silver Linings was a reported $21 million. Jon Gordon, one of the film’s producers, noted that Russell can even be heard in a few scenes.

“We got most of it out in the post process, but if you listen very, very closely, there’s still a couple places in the movie where you can hear David’s voice in the background,” Gordon says.

Director David O. Russell, center, with stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence on the set of Silver Linings Playbook,
Director David O. Russell, center, with stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence on the set of Silver Linings Playbook,

This fits Russell’s image as a director who himself wades into the emotional muck he means to bring out onscreen. The world of Silver Linings Playbook is not as hardened or volcanic as the world of The Fighter, though there are still verbal—and a few physical—punches thrown, including by Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the widow of a cop with whom Pat forges a connection.

What resonated for Russell when he was adapting the novel by Matthew Quick, he says, was a personal connection to the relationship between a father with OCD and his bipolar son.

“I liked that it was a very specific world, and part of what makes it specific is that there’s a father-son and a mother-son relationship that I have personally experienced with my own son,” Russell says. “Mr. De Niro doesn’t like to talk about his personal motivation so much, but it was also personal to him.”

Not so long ago, the director of Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings was in a self-described “wilderness period.” He hadn’t completed a film since 2004’s existential comedy I Heart Huckabees. The film that changed Russell’s course, and made Silver Linings Playbook possible, was The Fighter. Russell was only a few months removed from the awards-season fanfare for that film when he began preproduction on Silver Linings, and he attacked the production in the way he made The Fighter: Lean below the line; lots of steady cam and hand-held camera; and “show up and do the best you can.”

The film’s pathway to the screen, in the words of the Weinstein Co.’s Donna Gigliotti, had “luck and serendipity on its side.” The novel had been optioned by Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, producing partners who had a first-look deal with Weinstein. They in turn gave the book to Russell to adapt. At the time, his son was 13, and he had recently divorced.

“I needed to work, I needed to write something, and I needed to make a living. And I also really responded to the material, so it was a matter of having the tone right,” Russell says. “You had to not stop working on the tone all the way through the editing process. The key to the whole thing is to keep it real, is to keep the people’s emotions committed and real.”

Early in 2008, Pollack and Minghella passed away within a few months of each other. Michelle Raimo, another producer attached to Silver Linings, was named president of Sony Pictures Animation. The script was languishing, Gigliotti explains, until Raimo urged her not to let Silver Linings fall by the wayside.

At the time, Gigliotti was in the midst of an Oscar campaign for the Weinstein Co.’s The Reader. By then, Russell had gone on to make The Fighter, after which the writer/director was suddenly a hot commodity again. “And thus,” Gigliotti explains, “there was new life in the project.”

It is the kind of movie—part family drama, part romantic comedy, not easily reduced in a trailer—that doesn’t come out of Hollywood with regularity.

“Studios used to make movies like this, and they don’t anymore,” Gigliotti says. “They’ve simply ignored the films that are adult-oriented and in that wheelhouse of $20 million to $40 million.”

Asked about reports that Silver Linings was originally to have starred Mark Wahlberg and Anne Hathaway, Gigliotti says that by the time the film got off the ground, Wahlberg had a scheduling conflict with the action-thriller Contraband, and Hathaway had a commitment to the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises.

In their stead came Bradley Cooper, best known for The Hangover franchise, and Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar-nominated for her performance in Winter’s Bone but not yet the Hunger Games star.

“It’s funny,” Lawrence says. “I had just worked with Gary (Ross) on Hunger Games, who worked in a completely different way from David, no better, no worse. I’m always slightly embarrassed, as I don’t have any kind of acting background. It’s a silly thing to say, but you work with actors who talk about different methods, and I never had that and it’s a worry of mine because I don’t know technically what I’m doing. Any moment I could show up on set and blow it. That was the first movie that I felt like it was an advantage, because I felt so open to working with—not so much an advantage, but a blessing—any kind of director. But it was so easy with him, I understood him.”

Particularly for Cooper, the film would require that he stretch himself as an actor.

“When I read the script—I think it was probably sort of my defense mechanism—I just sort of thought, ‘Ah, I’m not really right for this,’ which is kind of counterintuitive because I’m from Philly,” Cooper says. “I’m obsessed with the Eagles, I’m Italian-Irish, my parents grew up in households very similar to (Pat’s family), my grandparents lived like that. I grew up basically with my grandparents.”

Watching Cooper play the conceded groom in one of the actor’s early Hollywood roles, 2005’s Wedding Crashers, Russell saw a “palpably angry individual” otherwise being used to play a comedic heavy.

Sure enough, Russell says, Cooper told him he had been an angrier person then. “There were substances and a lot of vulnerable emotions that he was hiding behind anger,” Russell recounts. Inside of five minutes of their meeting, Russell thought Cooper was a “much more vulnerable and interesting person than I’ve seen him be in cinema.”

Russell drew other parallels between Cooper and the character he plays: Both lost weight by way of remaking themselves, and both were hungry to be reintroduced to their respective communities.

“The hunger of Bradley to do this role, the hunger to step up as an actor and to do whatever it took is a wonderful thing for a director, and it mirrors the character’s hunger to be reintroduced to his community. They’re both in a way being reintroduced.

“That’s why I was conscious of starting the film on Bradley’s back,” Russell continues, referring to the movie’s opening scene, in which the camera is trained on Cooper as he is about to leave the hospital. “It’s not the first time I feel I’ve been down that road, in the sense that I feel like people thought they had a reductive idea of Amy Adams. When I told them she was playing a very tough, strong, sexy bitch in The Fighter, people were extremely skeptical. And I said, ‘Well, see the movie.’ ”

Q&A: Jennifer Lawrence on Silver Linings Playbook

This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine

Actors go to exhaustive lengths to lose themselves onscreen, whether it’s by extensive research or thespian Method. Then there’s Jennifer Lawrence, who unabashedly admits her lack of formal drama training—an approach that’s paid off for her in spades given her portrayal of strong female protagonists. As the young unstable widow Tiffany who falls for Bradley Cooper’s bipolar ex-high school teacher Pat in David O. Russell’s romantic dramedy Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence is a firecracker, going toe-to-toe with the Method master himself, Robert De Niro (as Pat’s father) in a hysterical scene where she debunks him of all of his Philadelphia sports superstitions. Since the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Oscar pundits are projecting Lawrence to lock her second best actress nomination following her breakout in 2010’s Winter’s Bone. Mere cherries for Lawrence after her turn in March as the brave teen warrior Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, a part for which she was plucked from hundreds of girls. But Lawrence admits to brazenly pursuing roles, whether it’s tracking down her Winter’s Bone director in New York or Skyping Russell from her Louisville, KY, hometown. “There’s my desperation for certain scripts,” Lawrence says, “and desperation reads, and passion comes through.”

AWARDSLINE: You have this affinity for tough characters. Did you find any similarity between Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games and Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook?

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: It’s funny, I never thought that Tiffany and Katniss have anything in common, other than they have to do what they have to do and really don’t care what anybody thinks. However, the way they go about it is very different. Katniss would rather not talk if she doesn’t have to in every situation, and Tiffany has more words than there is time. I think great stories follow tough characters. They happen to be the scripts and stories that I fall in love with, but it’s all coincidental. Anytime my agent calls me and starts describing a character, if it’s anything about “strong,” “south,” or “woods,” I can’t do it. I do realize my characters have that in common, but I need to play someone weak and vulnerable (laughs)—go find some pathetic someone somewhere.

AWARDSLINE: Do you know anyone like Tiffany?

LAWRENCE: No, I never felt so much like a stranger to a character. I really didn’t have anyone to base her on or to rationalize what she was doing most of the time. And I loved that. She felt like this strange fascinating being, who even now is a mystery to me. I never felt like I locked her down. She was always growing and changing. And that’s happening as well with the Hunger Games movies and Katniss. One of the biggest things about Tiffany is her fearlessness, and yet she’s also very aware. Most people who are fearless aren’t aware of the worst-case scenario. They’re not aware of the consequences. But she’s both. She’s ferocious, fearless, and she’s aware of everything, and I thought that was fascinating. I wanted to go into the audition with David O. Russell that way.

AWARDSLINE: What discussions about bipolarity did you have with David and Bradley Cooper? I remember David talking about how he was personally connected to the material at the Hollywood Awards.

LAWRENCE: Bradley did a lot of research and really wanted to nail down exactly what his character was dealing with. I never felt (the need to do research). This is coming from a girl who never reads her lines until she shows up and does as little work as impossible because my number-one goal in life is having fun—I’m just kidding. I never felt like the medication or the diagnosis or the disease was in Tiffany’s world. Tiffany didn’t see a bipolar, manic-depressive in (Cooper’s character) Pat, she saw a desperate man who was misunderstood the same way she was, and they were perfect for each other. Bradley did more of the research, and I did more of the “OK, I’m shouting in the street, and I don’t know why” time to go with it.

AWARDSLINE: Does the fact that you’re now a huge boxoffice draw and an Oscar nominee inhibit you from the types of projects you’ll attach yourself to?

LAWRENCE: No, it doesn’t. In fact, it makes things a lot easier to get attached to. I’m still reading the same scripts—$1 indies—as I did before I was discovered in Winter’s Bone. The good thing is, when I fall in love with the script, I don’t have to wait for it to be made. I can find the right people and actually get it made. My biggest problem with Hollywood is that there are these incredible scripts that can’t find funding. And then when I’m driving through Westwood and see the posters of the movies that are in theaters, I’m like, “What’s going on? Why is it like that?”

AWARDSLINE: Harvey Weinstein has been a godfather to a number of actors and actresses. How was he during production?

LAWRENCE: I love Harvey so much. I don’t understand why everyone’s so scared of him. He’s like a big teddy bear. He’s a genius. I get it, if you’re trying to negotiate with him, he’s not like a big teddy bear. (But) I love how he makes movies. He has enough money that he can focus on making something good, and we don’t have enough people like him in this business. He’s the only person in this business who can be on the phone with a director like David O. Russell, and they can yell at each other and love each other and be completely honest. People who are upfront get a terrible reputation. They don’t sugarcoat it, they just tell you the way it is, and I think that’s wonderful and a great thing to be around. Yes, Harvey has given me career advice, and I rejected it and then regretted it.