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Sunday, January 11, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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De Niro On Acting: Less Is More, More Or Less

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service

NEW YORK - Actors, directors and drama teachers are always pontificating on what constitutes good acting.

But when you hear it from the horse's mouth, it all comes down to one thing: simplicity.

Robert De Niro, considered by some to be America's greatest actor, says the secret is often doing nothing.

"A lot of times actors feel they're not doing very much, they have to put a spin on it, a special kind of interpretation: `I'm not doing much, I feel I must do more.' Some actors have a real problem. You can't just let them be quiet, not do anything," he says.

When he was cast as the manipulative spin-doctor in Barry Levinson's hilarious satire, "Wag the Dog," he had his choice of the two major roles.

The other was a colorful, neurotic Hollywood producer, played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman.

De Niro doesn't mind accepting the less flamboyant role. And as a director himself ("A Bronx Tale"), he knows what it is to rein in a performance.

"As a director you would (sometimes) have to hold them down and say, `There's nothing that needs to be done. Make it zero, less than zero.'

"The simplest thing to get attention is to do nothing," he says. "What's the task? If the task is to walk across the street, just walk across the street."

Anthony Hopkins is another actor who's learned that the most effective way to capture attention is to whisper. "I used to eat the furniture," he says.

"When you're a young actor you want to make an impression. But as I've matured I see there's a more economical way of doing it. I've developed a way of being still and contained."

When De Niro was cast as the Neanderthal-style Louis in "Jackie Brown," his instructions from director Quentin Tarantino were, well, unique. "I want Louis to resemble a pile of dirty clothes," he told De Niro.

It isn't every actor who can take directions like that and turn them into a living, breathing lump of a thug. De Niro managed.

De Niro has wanted to be an actor since he was 10, he says. "I started studying more seriously when I was 16."

His family supported his crazy idea.

"My father was a painter, my mom was a painter, also a writer. She had a little business. They were supportive of that kind of thing. They didn't want me to stay in the family business."

He did take typing, however, just in case.

"My mother was a good typist so I learned. That comes in handy today with computers."

De Niro, who starred in such classics as "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," says he likes acting because it permits him to intrude on other people's lives.

"What I enjoy about acting now is that you get the chance to meet all kinds of people and work on parts and characters and situations that normally - if you were just one person - you'd (only) be doing that and not experiencing other lifestyles and cultures.

"When I was younger I just wanted to be an actor. I'm not even sure why. When you're older and really into it and you get the task of playing a character, then it's another experience."

The thing that thrills the 54-year-old actor now is directing. "A Bronx Tale" was nearly four years ago, and he's working on two more projects.

"A hard thing to do is to direct a movie," he says, "because it's a total commitment. In a way, it's complete because you have very little time for distraction. You're in it, there's no way out."

He's also a bit of a nit-picker in his approach.

"I want to make it right. Directing is not my first profession so I spend more time to get things ready in order to shoot it because I know what it's going to take."

But there are limits, he concedes.

"You can be a perfectionist to a point, then you have to move ahead. I'm trying to get it as right, believable and airtight as I can, but then you've got to get into it and just take your chances. Some people can just never move ahead."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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