De Niro Turns To 'Stone' For Drama, 'Fockers' For Laughs

Robert De Niro leaves the Borough of Manhattan Community College on April 21, 2009 in New York City Robert De Niro leaves the Borough of Manhattan Community College on April 21, 2009 in New York City

Robert De Niro is retiring.

On screen, at least. In his latest film, the psychological drama “Stone,” De Niro stars as a veteran parole officer ending his career in a showdown with a manipulative inmate (Edward Norton) and seduction by the prisoner’s wife (Milla Jovovich).

At 67, De Niro himself has no retirement plans, though he does foresee an end to one facet of his film career. After two outings as a director, he figures he has time to oversee three more movies, at most.

“They take a lot out of me,” he said in an interview at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “Stone” debuted. “They’re great to do, but just the way I did the two that I did (1993’s ‘A Bronx Tale’ and 2006’s ‘The Good Shepherd’) and the ones that I would do, I say to myself, maybe I would do five altogether. So three more.”

That’s three, tops, De Niro makes clear, talking about the time commitment of years required as a director, compared to just weeks for some roles as an actor.

Thirteen years passed between his first and second directing gigs as he maintained a busy acting schedule while developing potential filmmaking projects and trying to line up studio backing.

“It’s an uphill battle. … The creative part, that’s difficult enough. But the fun stuff is all the other stuff that goes with it: people; the input from studios, and all the people who have to justify their jobs; and the money; and is this actor going to get more, or they’re not right for it. All the other things. It’s a lot you’ve got to field. A lot coming at you,” he said.

That’s also a lot of words coming from the typically close-lipped De Niro, so you know he means it.

Among possible future directing plans is another installment of “The Good Shepherd” saga, De Niro’s epic tale of the roots of the CIA that starred Matt Damon.

But nothing’s definite, unlike De Niro’s on-screen career and his sideline as co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, launched to help revitalize lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Along with “Stone,” De Niro co-starred in Robert Rodriguez’s revenge romp “Machete” and reteams with Ben Stiller for this December’s “Little Fockers,” the third chapter in the “Meet the Parents” comedy franchise.

De Niro has two other movies in the can — the action tale “The Killer Elite” and the thriller “The Dark Fields” — and he’s doing a quick three-week shoot in Italy for the anthology romance “Manual of Love 3.”

He’s also set to star as Vince Lombardi in a film biography about the Green Bay Packers coach and hopes to do a sequel to his 1988 crime comedy “Midnight Run.”

Co-star Norton, who also worked with De Niro on the 2001 heist flick “The Score,” said “Stone” offers audiences a chance to see De Niro stretch himself dramatically in a way he had not done for some time.

“He was investigating a very new kind of territory and character,” Norton said. “A character who’s dealing with his advancing age and his mortality and alcoholism and emptiness. I felt like he was rolling around deep inside a kind of vulnerability. What I admire in his work over the years is that he’s been a very consistent investigator of America’s underbelly, of its psychological dark sides, and of the forces in American life that we kind of try to deny.”

Plum parts dry up for many actors in their 50s and 60s, but roles have come steadily for De Niro, a two-time Academy Award winner for “The Godfather Part II” and “Raging Bull.”

Yet even De Niro — who has drawn criticism for taking roles many fans consider beneath him, such as the action duds “Righteous Kill,” '‘Showtime” and “15 Minutes” — has had to adapt to the limits of age.

“When you get older, you get offered less things, obviously. You get offered father parts, and at one point, grandfather parts. Or you get offered parts that aren’t the leads,” De Niro said.

De Niro does not mind being the father and grandfather in “Little Fockers,” where he gets to reprise his role opposite Stiller as the in-law from hell, which he originated in 2000’s “Meet the Parents” and played again in 2004’s “Meet the Fockers.”

Though De Niro had done comedy before — he even sees comic elements to his bloody 1970s dramas “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” — he found a second career as a funny man starting with 1999’s mob romp “Analyze This,” tweaking his tough guy persona to draw laughs.

“My mother would always tell me how funny I was. And I have friends, actor friends, who would say, ‘You should do a comedy,’” De Niro said.

Still, he was surprised to become a comedy star after decades as a dramatic heavyweight.

His comedies have been far bigger box-office draws than his serious films, and the work itself is a bit more laid-back.

“Comedy, there’s less pressure in some ways. You can have more fun taking a chance, doing things that normally might be considered too much or over the top or too crazy or too eccentric,” De Niro said. “But you can at least try them. All they can do is cut them out or say, ‘Tone it down.’ You have to be careful. You don’t want to go too far.”

While De Niro has set a limit on how many more movies he’s likely to direct, his acting plans are wide open.

“I don’t know. At this point, look, as long as I’m around,” De Niro said, rapping his knuckles on a tabletop, “knock wood.”

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