I prefer filmed interviews over print at times because people get so worked up when they’re being taped. Interviewing subjects for print can be bland. They stay composed. There’s more time to think up an articulate response. But on film, they only have a moment. They know people are watching—everyone is paying attention. And on Monday, such was the case for Robert De Niro.
The man is notorious for withholding information about his personal life, for raising his eyebrows then squinting while executing a cold response, and, at times, for getting up and walking away at a whim when he doesn’t like the question being asked.
On Katie Couric’s show Monday, Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell briefly discussed his experiences with his son’s mood disorder, which inspired the character played by Bradley Cooper in the film.
Katie Couric asked De Niro if he felt any responsibility doing a film that the director had personally invested in.
“Oh of course,” he replied as his emotions suddenly exposed themselves. He tried to cut himself off immediately. He even tried coughing and looking upwards. None of it worked. De Niro was crying for the first time ever in the history of television—on ‘Katie.’
"I don't like to get emotional," he managed to say. "But I know exactly what [David] goes through." De Niro didn't explain how, but Russell abruptly chimed in to continue the conversation.
"When I first was in his apartment and I was talking to him about the screenplay, this is what happened," Russell said as De Niro wiped his eyes. "I thought he was having hay fever and I realized he was having an emotional reaction. I sat there and I watched Robert De Niro cry for 10 minutes."
Hay fever? Nobody in Hollywood would expect tears from Robert De Niro. To everyone who admires De Niro for the brilliance of his acting, they were watching the young Don Corleone, the angry Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, the raging bull, Jake La Motta, the Russian roulette-playing soldier from The Deer Hunter, and the impatient Rupert Pupkin from King of Comedy. Every character he had ever embodied or resembled up until this point was now crying on set. Robert De Niro, finally humanized, and it is a beautiful thing.
But why does it matter? Pay more attention, and you will see that everybody you look up to and glamorize, like De Niro and like Russell, has endured something significant—and this is what makes them great, next to their talent. Not all were born with a silver spoon in their mouths.
Most people in Hollywood have struggled with their own issues. Maybe they lost a family member, suffered abuse, endured depression—who knows.
J.D. Salinger wrote it beautifully in his book The Catcher in the Rye:
Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them – if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.
Especially during award season, we tend to forget that beneath the golden trophies and red carpets are human beings with a message and a purpose.
In 2012, Russell told Charlie Rose in an interview:
“Because I have a son who’s had some of these emotional situations I immediately related to Silver Linings Playbook, otherwise I never would have. And I said, what a wonderful story, and a wonderful world that is tragic, heartbreaking, emotional, and ultimately funny and inspiring….While I was waiting the five years to make it, I probably rewrote the script over 20 times, and I was able to plumb new depths of it in terms of calibrating the nature of the challenges the main character faces.”
Too often we look to others’ accomplishments and achievements, and we somehow seek to emulate these feats in our own lives—to draw inspiration from them. While this is a noble endeavor, I urge you to also look for the crossroads, the vagaries, the turmoil, the strangeness, the human side of people’s lives.
To watch Robert De Niro battle against his emotions, and lose, was strangely uplifting. Sadness and even sorrow are common among those we know—but to watch these emotions materialize among those we honor and esteem goes to show that perhaps ambition can be bred from hardship, and ability may very well stem from a deep-rooted understanding of adversity. At the very least, an interest in these subjects will allow you to enjoy the freedom from self-absorption.
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