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Robert De Niro is an icon. Naturally, any film he’s part of will have a press day packed with questions like, “How was it working with Robert De Niro?” Sure enough, the press conference for Limitless was no exception. However, hearing the same sort of question and answers time and time again never gets boring because we really know so little about the man himself; De Niro is quite concise with his words. But between his co-workers’ thoughts and his own intriguing but succinct insight, we’re able to paint a relatively clear picture of who Robert De Niro really is.
In the film Limitless, De Niro stars as an antagonist of sorts, Carl Van Loon. Van Loon is the high powered figure in the financial world and the man Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) opts to lend his newfound knowledge to. You see, before meeting Van Loon, Eddie is a failed writer lacking any motivation whatsoever. Then he finds NZT, an illegal drug that grants you access to your entire brain including memories dating back to birth, the ability to digest information at an incredible rate and have increased sensory perception. After popping some pills, Eddie finishes his book, but then decides to move onto the financial world and who better to work for in that sector than Carl Van Loon?
“To me, the story’s about intelligence and human potential,” director Neil Burger explained. “We need a very powerful character to play Carl Van Loon.” The problem was, the role of Car Van Loon was far from a leading position as it was written. In the original script, at the end, Eddie meets a brand new character, entirely separate from Van Loon, but, as Cooper explained, “We combined the two and made Carl Van Loon both characters.”
Still, the role isn’t as prominent as you’d expect for De Niro, but he didn’t mind. When it was noted that the part doesn’t seem particularly challenging, De Niro himself explained, “It’s not that it’s not challenging; it is. I enjoyed doing it and I wanted to work with Bradley and Neil.” He also added, “sometimes, even though it’s not perfect, you do it to work with people so you can work with them again later on.” But that’s not to say Limitless doesn’t have a well-written script. De Niro was eager to throw in, “[Writer] Leslie [Dixon] did a very good job.”
One person in particular who was quite in awe of De Niro was star Bradley Cooper. In fact, the two have a rather long relationship. Well, in Cooper’s eyes they do. Cooper recalled the time when he was back in acting school and De Niro came in to talk to his class. When it came time to ask the actor questions, Cooper was prepared to ask De Niro about sword training for The Mission, but “right before, because we had the microphone thing like this, someone stood up and asked him about The Mission and I thought, ‘Well, I can’t ask him about The Mission.’ And that’s when the real question Cooper wanted to ask De Niro came pouring out. Cooper recalled:
“There’s a scene [in Awakenings] where he wants to go for a walk and he has to be interviewed by the medical panel and he’s trying so hard to be normal but whatever he was taking, it started to not work anymore and so he started to get the ticks and one tick was his right hand and he would make up for it by pretending to brush his eyebrow and he was like this when he was talking and I thought, god, it was so genius and I asked him, ‘Is that something you saw people do because they were embarrassed by their ticks, make up for it some way or is that something that just happened?’Forget the fact that Cooper managed to get his question out; it was De Niro’s response that meant the world to him. “And then he literally went like this, he went, [imitating De Niro] ‘Yeah, I didn’t, uh, no I didn’t see anybody do that, but, uh, that’s a good question.’ [Laughs] It was like a beam of light shot into my chest!”
The Cooper-De Niro saga doesn’t even end there. “And then I put myself on tape to play his son in Everybody’s Fine,” Cooper continued. “I put myself on tape because I couldn’t even get an audition for it and he somehow saw it and wanted to meet me, so I met him in his hotel.” While his mom waited outside in the car, Cooper went in to talk to De Niro and the conversation went as follows, “[imitating De Niro] ‘Uh, yeah, you’re not gonna get it. But I, uh, I see it. I see you. I see you. I see you. Okay.’ [Laughs] And then he said, ‘What, um, who’s reading the other role?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s so weird. My mom was reading it.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I thought that.’”
Next up was their encounter at the Tribeca Film Festival. “I was a juror for the Tribeca Film Festival, so we’re at this lunch a year later, and I sit down next to him and I was like, ‘Hey! How you doing? I auditioned for the …’ No idea who I was,” Cooper joked.
Well, even after all that Cooper got yet another chance to make an impression on De Niro in Limitless. In fact, having had so many brief encounters with him in the past might have helped Cooper recruit De Niro for the part. “At that meeting it was like I was on the drug; I did not stop talking because one thing I learned about him is he does not like small talk,” Cooper recalled. “I didn’t say, ‘Hey, how you doing? How the room?’ I just sat down and went, ‘Okay, so,’ and I spoke for like 15 minutes and then he went, [imitating De Niro] ‘Let me give you my cell.’” Cooper added, “And Leslie Dixon and Neil Burger, it wasn’t just me, it was a full assault to try to get him to do the movie. Assault successful! De Niro was onboard and the entire team couldn’t be happier.
As for that shock and awe effect De Niro seems to have on his co-workers, De Niro assured us, “That goes away in a couple of days, if not sooner.” He also pointed out the good in that type of relationship. “In fact, any of that kind of stuff an actor will use it, should use it in the interaction.” How appropriate for a character as intimidating as Van Loon?
Now for the ultimate Limitless question; would Robert De Niro take NZT should the opportunity arise? That’s a big fat yes. “NZT would be something that probably, once in a while, I wouldn’t mind at least trying [laughs], but not getting hooked on.”