“You’ll have to forgive me tonight,” joked a fumbling Abdul Aziz Bin Khalid Al Khater, the CEO of Doha Film Institute (DFI), on Sunday night. “After all, I’m standing next to a legend.”
Al Khater, who introduced Robert De Niro as part of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival’s (DTFF) Doha Talks series, didn’t have to suffer too long. The actor, who owns the festival along with DFI, reassuredly put his hand on his shoulder and said: “Let’s do this.”
Considered to be among the very best in his generation, the 69-year-old was calm and composed, dressed casually in jeans and a blue jacket, and seemed oblivious to the collective awe emanating from the massive Al Rayyan Theatre at the Souq Waqif Hotel.
But during the 30-minute “In conversation with…” segment, which appeared rehearsed, De Niro often looked bored, twitching a few times, sometimes trailing off to mutters as he answered questions about his illustrious career. The audience didn’t seem to mind though, as they lapped up each and every word, breaking into applause every now and then.
The loudest cheers perhaps came when the actor was asked if, after a career spanning almost 50 years, he’s ever felt like he’s done enough.
“I don’t see myself stopping,” he said, without a pause. “I think I’ve done pretty OK. But I’m also always thinking where I can go from here… and looking at how I can do something different. But I’m looking forward to new things.”
De Niro premieres his new film, Silver Linings Playbook, a romantic comedy in which he stars alongside Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Indian actor Anupam Kher, on Monday night at the festival.
“David [O. Russell, the director] and I have known each other for a couple of years. I saw The Fighter and thought it was terrific. And when I read the script of Silver Linings, I told him I am committed to it no matter what.
“I think it’s a really funny film in an odd kind of way and everyone from Bradley and Jennifer to Jacki [Weaver], who plays my wife, and Anupam have done a brilliant job.”
Asked if he would ever play a typical Hollywood superhero, De Niro said he didn’t know.
“It depends on what it is. When people approach you with a certain idea and you respect that, sometimes you put yourself in their hands a little bit. You might only see yourself in a certain way, but sometimes you allow yourself to explore that,” he said.
And when he was pressed further on whether there were roles he regrets taking in his career, he said “No” with a sly smile.
“I did them so I have to accept the responsibility,” he joked, refusing to divulge names.
Referring to his directorial debut in 1993, A Bronx Tale, and the 2006 spy film The Good Shepherd, De Niro said actors who direct films usually get more out of their actors.
“It makes you more sensitive [to everything],” he said. “As a director, you rely on everyone [involved in a film] to support you and help you — you need everyone to watch your back.”
Despite having worked with some of Hollywood’s most revered directors, from Francis Ford Coppolla to Martin Scorsese, the actor was however at a loss to name directors he’d like to work with.
If he was a director, though, and had his pick of the best actors, he said he’d love to work with Leonardo DiCaprio, Cooper, Sean Penn and Matt Damon, whom he directed in The Good Shepherd.
But it was not all hardcore cinema talk. When asked how much awards and recognitions still mean to him today, he quipped: “I’d rather have them than not have them. I get enough things from the critics so it’s nice to get some kind of credit.”
As the evening drew to a close, a series of pre-screened “audience” questions were put to De Niro, which he answered without hesitation.
“What is your favourite role so far?” came the first one. “Of course, I have favourites but it’s like talking about your children. They all have different problems, different challenges,” he replied.
“What are your best tips for aspiring filmmakers?”
“Just plug away.”
“Which genre do you feel most comfortable in?” was an opportunity to plug his latest film, and he did:
“I enjoyed Silver Linings because it has so many characters with so many layers. The story too has its ups and downs… it’s funny, it’s emotional. So I enjoyed doing that. But I enjoy everything I do.”
And asked if he’s ever been on a set where everyone fought with each other, he said: “No. No. No.” And then added:
“Life is too short and movies are too difficult to make. So whatever problems you have, work it through your scene but do not take it out on the set.”
Words of wisdom deserving of a standing ovation? At least that’s what the Doha Tribeca Film Festival audience thought.