Exclusive interview: Robert De Niro – 'The older you get the more you know'

Farhana Gani

Robert De Niro talks to us about his latest film role, as ageing work experience Ben Whittaker in The Intern. 

De Niro stars as Ben Whittaker, a 70-year-old widower who has discovered that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway).

Director Nancy Meyers’ films (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give, Private Benjamin) have been celebrated for their funny, poignant and always truthful exploration of romantic relationships and friendship.

 

Reader's Digest: Did you understand your character, Ben Whittaker, immediately or did you build the character with your director, Nancy?

Robert De Niro: Well, you get what he’s about, so there wasn’t much more to add. I mean, certain writers have it very precise and there’s not much room to add something.  Here, there was room to slightly improvise, but you don’t want to mess up the rhythm, the timing and the joke. 

 

RD: Do you remember the era when men wore three-piece suits to work?

De Niro: Some still do. I mean, even I like to go to certain restaurants and places where you have to wear a jacket, a suit and a tie, and I like that sort of old world style. I am sure it will come back in many ways, if it hasn’t already. It’s kind of nice and it breaks it up. 

 

The Intern

 

RD: How did you find playing a character who’s trying to find his place in this new tech world?

De Niro: Yeah, it was interesting. There are certain things I am clueless about as far as the new technologies. I see these people in front of these computers all day and I don’t know what they are doing—they are doing something, obviously—with Facebook, Instagram and all that. I am aware of it, but basically not in touch. 

 

RD: You’re not on Facebook?

De Niro: No, it’s just one other thing that would complicate my life.

 

RD: Anne Hathaway plays your boss, Jules—what was it like working with her?

De Niro: Well, Anne works very hard and she is a great partner and very, very professional. We had a great time and she’s a pleasure to work with. When you are working hard, you don’t have time for anything other than what you are doing in the scene and what the director wants. 

 

The Intern

 

RD: Why do you think Ben brings a sense of calm to Jules’s life in a way that no one else in her world can? 

De Niro: Because he’s older. Jules can feel that he knows things that she doesn’t, just by virtue of the age. The older you get, the more you know about certain things.  If you walk down there, you will still get the same results and accomplish the same thing. So you don’t have to rush to do anything. 

 

RD: Ben is advanced in his attitude to modern women. Do you believe a woman can be successful and still have a family?

De Niro: Well, yeah. I certainly know that from personal experience. The people I work with try and do it all and have it all, and I support that.

 

RD: There’s a beautiful scene when Ben is trying to explain to Jules that he knows something but can’t say it. In the end, it comes out as, ‘I am a man of feelings.’ Is Ben just an old school kind of gentleman?

De Niro: [Laughs] Well, he’s very traditional, but you don’t have to be traditional to feel that way. He’s gotten close to her and he sees what is happening with her husband and so on. Nancy is very precise with all of that stuff and wanted it a certain way. 

 

The Intern

 

RD: In The Intern, you’re working with an ensemble of young, energetic comedians. Was it fun or intimidating?

De Niro: I think they’re great. I always enjoy it when somebody can riff and come up with this stuff all the time. Sometimes you have to stick to what Nancy’s written or the timing of the joke misfires. Yet there are other times when going off-script is needed.

There are other comedies that are freewheeling and spontaneous—you can improvise, come up with stuff, and have fun. But this film is more curated or tightly managed because one thing does depend on the thing before it in order for the joke to work. 

 

RD: Nancy is known for shooting long takes between two characters where the plot is allowed to develop and breathe without fast edits and cuts.

De Niro: Well, she is very, very much of a stickler for everything, as everybody knows. She’s from that—I don’t want to say school—but that period, where a director such as her will get the deference needed to do it in the way that she wants to do it, and that’s it.

It’s a very stressful thing, directing a movie. You have the budget, you have the schedule, you are in certain confines, and you have everybody giving you advice about what to do. The bottom line is if the movie does well, everybody is happy and they forget about what they went through. And if it doesn’t, it’s ‘I told you.’ There’s one director who I won’t mention, who said, ‘it’s all blood under the bridge.’

 

RD: One of the highlights is an 8-minute sequence in the film in which the camera pans to Ben watching Singing in the Rain, and something happens.
De Niro: He gets a little emotional, watching it. It’s the past and he is sad about what has happened to him, to Jules, all those things. It’s the sentiment of that movie itself.

 

RD:  There is something quite appealing to seeing a sweet, lovely character played by Robert De Niro.

De Niro: I like that. Truth is, it’s not easier to play, but I understand it and there are parts of me that identify with Ben, obviously. And as an actor, you use the things from yourself that you can apply to the character. But if we do a sequel, I want to beat somebody’s ass!

 

The Intern opens in cinemas across the UK from October 2nd

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