How to Direct Robert De Niro in a Comedy: "He's a Really Excellent Improviser"

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

The star of Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman,' who will receive the Life Achievement honor at Sunday's SAG Awards, has built a career on tough and often deadly characters, but he's also a comedic force, as filmmaker Jay Roach discovered on 'Meet the Parents.'

It's hard not to associate Robert De Niro with the killers he's played — a young Vito Corleone, a dangerous Travis Bickle, a swaggering Al Capone and the lethal gangster Jimmy Conway. But it was his bounty hunter Jack Walsh in 1988's Midnight Run that convinced Jay Roach he had found the perfect man to play the intimidating father-in-law for Meet the Parents, his 2000 comedy that would eventually gross $330 million and spawn two sequels.

"I watched him very carefully in Midnight Run, and he plays a bounty hunter capturing people who skipped bail. He's meant to be very dangerous, and Charles Grodin is a somewhat nerdy accountant guy," says Roach, whose Fox News drama Bombshell is currently in theaters. It was this dynamic, he adds, that he envisioned between De Niro and Ben Stiller in his film.

For more than five decades, De Niro has played heroes and villains with nuance and his trademark stoicism across dramas (Raging Bull, Heat, Goodfellas) and comedies (Analyze This, Dirty Grandpa, The Intern). He's earned seven Oscar acting nominations and two wins, and will return this year nominated as a producer of The Irishman.

On Jan. 19, De Niro will be feted for his full body of work by his peers at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where he'll receive the lifetime achievement accolade. "It's such a rich, deep and broad, intense body of work," Roach says. "He has fantastic taste. He's a fantastic storyteller himself."

Ahead of the tribute, Roach explained how he played up De Niro's menacing vibes to make Ben Stiller feel real intimidation, and who on set made De Niro crack up.

What made you feel that Robert De Niro was your perfect Jack Byrnes?

I always saw this story as an anxiety dream. When I met my future father-in-law, he was a well-known shrink in Hollywood, and when I met my wife-to-be, I felt totally out of my league and had to win over not only her but her father, so I projected that into this story. I was picturing Robert De Niro playing a CIA mole hunter who could see through bullshit — if you were having a nightmare about meeting your future in-laws and you were a little bit sneaky or bullshitty, the perfect guy to be watching you is Robert De Niro, because he brings with him not just the character, but, as an actor, the baggage of all the killers he's played in his life. We knew we'd be cloaking that in soft sweaters, an Americana house, a sweet WASPy wife (Blythe Danner) and a cat that he loves. I thought he'd seem even more dangerous if he had a grandfather exterior but we hinted at that bullshit detector killer underneath.

How did Ben Stiller feel about De Niro playing his father-in-law?

I remember when we first all went out to dinner and De Niro was doing research on CIA guys and had studied techniques like the lie detector and how it has nothing to do with the machines — it's just how nervous you can get the subject to be. Ben was at the table and we were all intimidated by Bob — we called him Bob, but we were so intimidated by him. I actually always had Ben in mind for Greg Focker, but we got De Niro first because Ben was reluctant about it, and it wasn't until we landed De Niro for Jack Byrnes that Ben finally jumped [in]. He could see the power of Bob bringing the history of [his] characters to the subtext of this.

Were there any moments when you allowed the intimidation that Ben felt to come across onscreen?

Neither Ben nor I had ever worked with Robert before, so I was a little nervous about Ben getting comfortable with him. The very first scene we shot was the one where [Ben's character] pulls up in the rental car and watches his girlfriend jump in her father's arms like a little kid, twirl around and do a secret handshake, and he instantly feels left out. De Niro is criticizing his choice of rental car color, and the whole story is about being uncomfortable. Those early scenes were almost automatically uncomfortable because we didn't know what Bob was going to be like — I didn't know how to direct him and Ben didn't know how to behave around him. Bob's an incredibly sweet man, but he's, you know, he's awkward. He didn't bring all that much warmth to it, but I had a feeling that Ben would get too comfortable with him over time. So one time Ben came up to me in one of those early scenes and just asked me, "Did Bob like it?" And I remember saying, "Yeah, I think he thought it was OK." I didn't even know what Bob thought, but I didn't want Ben to feel instantly validated. I wanted him to have to prove himself to De Niro, both as an actor but also as a character. I always felt bad about that because I don't manipulate actors like that, but that one time I made an exception. (Laughs.)

What were your favorite scenes?

One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when Ben's trapped in the dressing room at the tuxedo rental shop and Bob says "I'll bring you down to Chinatown." When we turned around and [shot] the reverse, I might have shot Ben's side first, and Bob — I couldn't tell if Bob was sketchy on the lines but every single take was different. We always were improvising anyway so it was not uncommon, but Ben could not tell what was going on because Bob would jump around through the scene ... and the look on Ben's face is not just the character trying to figure out [what's going on], but in real life Ben couldn't tell where Bob was going. Bob is so smart about just not letting a scene get too stiff or scripted, and he may go off and play around with the lines and start over. Ben just stayed in character because he could tell it was kind of working, but he also was just trying to figure out "What's my next line? I'm not even sure where this is going." I also really loved the stuff with him and Owen Wilson and Ben, when the three of them were in the kitchen. Owen just goes off on improvisation and Bob couldn't stop laughing. He just couldn't hold a straight face — I almost wrapped that night because we were never going to get through a take. It's so funny watching [De Niro] lose it because he's so controlled, but once he's gone, he's gone.

Especially given De Niro's gravitas as a dramatic actor, what surprised you about him in your film?

I knew he could be funny, but that sentimental heart — you could see this genuine caring, loving warmth under there. I thought it would work without that in a way because you'd think he's a hard-ass dad, but [De Niro] actually starts crying when he starts reading that poem to his mother — and that's at the end of a 30-minute crescendo in that scene. He's [also] a really excellent improviser. These guys are famous for being trained in these Method acting styles, but on our set, he was the opposite. He wanted to improvise and wanted to be directed.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.