In "Everybody's Fine," Robert De Niro plays a role that he has spent most of his adult life researching out of the public eye -- an imperfect father learning along the way.
Known for his meticulous preparation, De Niro didn't have to step far out of his own shoes to connect with the film's Frank Goode, a demanding dad who, now in his 60s, wants nothing more than to gather his four adult children around the same table.
"Bob's at that age where a lot of guys look back and think, 'Wow, that went quick . . . maybe I should have spent more time with the kids,' " says "Everybody's Fine" writer-director Kirk Jones. "He connected with Frank on a lot of levels, both in thinking back and moving ahead with trying to be a good father."
De Niro, fresh from a day spent shooting a third "Fockers" movie in Pasadena, doesn't dispute Jones' assessment.
"You're aware of time going by," De Niro, 66, says during an hourlong conversation in his Beverly Hills hotel suite. "My whole thing now is just to have the strength to keep my kids in line and get them to the point where they're independent and self-reliant. I want to make sure my kids know I'm there, and you've got to have the stamina to do that."
Dad and granddad
De Niro has five children, including 14-year-old twin sons Aaron and Julian and 11-year-old son Elliott. The youngest son lives in New York with De Niro and his wife, Grace Hightower. The twins split time between De Niro and their mother, Toukie Smith. De Niro also has two young grandchildren through his grown kids, daughter Drena and son Raphael.
"Everybody's in New York and, hopefully, my younger kids will go to college in New York and find something they want to do so they'll stay in the city," De Niro says. "I like the kids to be around. Last weekend, they were away and it was just my wife and I, and I don't know . . . it was a weird thing, in a way. I missed them. If they want to go to college here and live at home, I won't have a problem with that."
De Niro is as famous for his reticence as he is for his research, so his openness in talking about family and fatherhood rates as something of a surprise. Jones has been interviewed with De Niro while promoting the film, and has observed the actor's discomfort with the interview process firsthand. ("He's not a song-and-dance kind of guy," Jones says.) But when the conversation veers toward the themes of the movie, De Niro becomes almost chatty. Almost.
"We had a read-through in New York just before Bob committed, and it was incredibly emotional," Jones recalls. "A lot of people were in tears over this idea of loss and children, and Bob was one of them."
The loss De Niro's character feels in "Everybody's Fine" is both physical and spiritual. Frank Goode spent his adult life working double shifts for the local wire factory, providing the financial means for his four children to pursue their talents and dreams. Now retired and a widower, Frank belatedly realizes that it was always his late wife who kept the family connected. That job has fallen to him, making him see that he doesn't have the relationship with his children that he imagined.
In hindsight, De Niro says he wishes that Frank had come across as even more intense and demanding so that the audience would better understand the cause of some of the ambivalence his adult children felt toward him.
But then, De Niro notes that, in his own life, he struggles with striking a balance between pushing his kids and letting them find their own way.
"I'm not as good as I thought I would be about forcing them to do things," De Niro says. "I try to get them to realize that it's important to be consistent in things in order to be skilled at them. I find myself saying things like, 'You'll thank me later.' "
Here De Niro pauses, his facing breaking into a sly, mischievous grin. "Or . . . what's another one . . . 'Don't think anything you're going through, I haven't been through -- or more.' It's the 'or more' . . . ," De Niro throws up his hands. "You find yourself saying things you never thought you'd be saying."
Playing the truth
De Niro wasn't a good student, eventually dropping out of high school a few credits shy of a diploma so he could pursue acting full-time. His mother, an artist and an academic, tried to push him, De Niro says, but couldn't find the right buttons.
"I had already found my way into something I loved since I was a kid," De Niro says, referring, of course, to acting. He studied the Method approach under Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler and scuffled along for a good dozen years in off-Broadway and dinner theater shows, commercials, no-budget movies and a handful of Brian De Palma starter films before breaking through with the one-two punch of "Mean Streets" and "Bang the Drum Slowly" in 1973.
"You show up, you do the work and maybe you learn something," De Niro says of those formative years. "You're always just trying to be present and get to the truth of the moment. That has never changed. And it never stops being a challenge."
During the movie, Frank says that if he could do it again, he would "ask less of the kids." His feeling: "As long as they're happy, that would be OK."
Hearing that particular line again, De Niro darkens just a bit. It's the word "happiness." It's too ethereal, too ill-defined to suit his taste.
"You need a sense of purpose," De Niro says, leaning forward. "You find something you really love and then you follow through. You stick with it. Nothing is easy if you really want to do it well or feel good about yourself. You've got to work at it. And in that work, well . . . there's your happiness."