Robert De Niro on acting, shyness and luck

Two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro talks "Silver Linings Playbook," and reteaming with Martin Scorsese.
CBS News

(CBS News) Robert De Niro is one of our most respected actors. Now, with his latest role as a football fanatic in the movie "Silver Linings Playbook," some say he may burnish that reputation with his third Oscar win. He sat down with Lee Cowan for some Questions and Answers:

Robert De Niro doesn't grant many interviews. Let's face it: He doesn't have to.

But on the rare occasion that he does, arguably one of the finest screen actors of his generation famously finds himself at a loss for words.

"When people come up to you and describe you as a legend, how does that sit with you?" asked Cowan.

"I don't know what to say to that. I mean, I'm flattered but it's . . . I don't know," he replied.

And there it is -- a deflection born not of arrogance, but out of a belief that he, Robert De Niro, was nothing more than "lucky."

"I'm lucky that I have whatever I had that makes me have a successful career, if you will," he said.

"It's got to be a little more than luck," said Cowan, "because the amount of work that you would put into characters . . . "

"Well, then I'm lucky I have the drive to do the work. But you're always lucky."

His latest run-in with luck is his role in "Silver Linings Playbook," alongside Bradley Cooper.

De Niro plays Pat Solitano, Sr., an obsessive-compulsive, die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, who struggles to deal with his even more obsessive and mentally-unstable son.

Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper as father and son in "Silver Linings Playbook." Weinstein Company

It's a performance that has earned him his seventh Oscar nomination -- De Niro's first in 21 years.

"Does this one mean anything more, because it's been so long since you've gotten a nomination?" asked Cowan.

"No, actually, I was surprised that it was so long. I can account for all the things and all the time, and everything, but there it is. It's like, so many years ago."

It was 1981 when De Niro last took home an Oscar, for his portrayal of the real-life world middle-weight champion, Jake LaMotta, in "Raging Bull."

His dedication to the role was both emotional and physical, gaining some 60 pounds.

"That must have not been particularly comfortable," said Cowan.

"It wasn't. The first 15-20 pounds, you know, you eat and overindulge, to say the least. And then after that, it's just pure drudgery, work."

The production set aside time in shooting of about three to four months, during which De Niro transformed himself into the older LaMotta. "Whatever I could get to in four months, would be what it is."

It wasn't the first time he had gone above and beyond for a role. In "Taxi Driver," for which he was also nominated for Best Actor, he actually applied for -- and got -- a New York cabbie license, to better understand his part.

"I was driving around the city, you know, all over," De Niro said, picking up fares.

He was so immersed in troubled Travis Bickle that when director Martin Scorsese told him to improvise one scene, the result became one of the most quoted movie lines of all time:

"You talkin' to me? Are you talkin' to me?"

"You never know what you do that could be totally out of left field, which actually might work and give something fresh to the whole scene, to the character, whatever," said De Niro. "If you have that with a director who then knows how to shape it, either in the direction, in the moment, or in the editing, then that's good.

"Does that make sense?" he laughed.