Interview: Robert De Niro at The Cambridge Union

Inigo Jones, Scarlet Rowe 27 February 2022

As The Union President James Vitali pointed out, Robert De Niro is a man “who needs no introduction”. But we will provide one, just in case: he is a very famous actor, producer and director and has starred in countless films including ‘The Godfather’, ‘Meet the Parents”, and ‘The Joker’. To the good fortune of many fans here in Cambridge, he took time out of his busy schedule to talk at The Cambridge Union today.

When De Niro started the talk about forty minutes late (because he was having lunch and when you’re that famous, why not?), Vitali pointed out that he is “well known for being difficult to pin down for interview”, so we asked him what persuaded him to make the flight from New York to Cambridge this week. After a brief pause, De Niro says, quite simply, that he “wanted to get out of the house”. A few minutes prior to the talk, De Niro agreed to talk to the student press. We only had the chance to ask him a couple of questions as there was a very busy chamber of Union members who had been queuing for (many) hours waiting to hear him speak.

We began by asking De Niro when he first discovered his passion and talent for acting and if he could trace it back to a specific moment.  While he can’t trace it back to a specific moment, he recalls attending acting classes on Saturdays when he was ten for “a year if that”, but adds that he didn’t start acting “seriously” until he was “about eighteen”. He also says that when he was a seventeen-year-old studying at ‘The Dramatic Workshop’, the “head of the school” at the time asked him why he wanted to be an actor, and De Niro said that he “wasn’t sure”. The head asked if it was because he wanted to “express himself”, and De Niro comically responded “okay, that’s a good reason” and to this day, he thinks that this statement is “true”.

We also asked De Niro if he could imagine himself in a career other than acting, directing and producing. The answer to this question is simple. He responds with a short and sharp “no” so we quickly move on to the next question. While De Niro is known worldwide for his on-screen talent, we are interested in what he likes to do when he is not working. He says that his “personal life” takes up “a lot of time”, he has six children with whom he spends much of his time with. He also watches the news ” a lot,  and says that this was especially the case when Trump was President, making him question “what insanity we are living in”.

Some highlights from his talk in the chamber include his advice to aspiring actors, “if you don’t go, you don’t know”. He says that “you can’t worry about being rejected” but also adds that he “hasn’t been to an audition for a while”, an understatement which is met with significant amounts of laughter from the audience. As for general advice in life, De Niro says that “you have to be very careful with what the truth is and what lies are” and that people need to be “discerning” about what they are “getting into.” It is important to “follow your instincts” and to do what you have “determined is right”. He points out that you “don’t want to be in a situation where you are a part of something that you know is wrong” which is the case for some Republicans in North America who “will privately admit that this is insanity but then don’t go along with it [in public]”. He powerfully states that “if you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem”, so that if you see a “crazy state of affairs, you have to say something”

De Niro discussed many fascinating and thought-provoking topics in the Union from separating the art from the artist to advice to young screenwriters to his opinion on the current situation in Ukraine and if you are interested, the talk will be uploaded on Youtube soon. While we now return to the essays and worksheets of week six student life at Cambridge, De Niro is heading to Madrid on Tuesday where “five well-known chefs” are cooking a meal for him and if you ask us, it doesn’t sound half bad…