Robert De Niro Talks Film, Politics and Personal Heroes at India's Think Summit

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Robert De Niro.

The actor shares his thoughts on a range of topics, from his early career to his current political beliefs, stating that President Obama's “heart is in the right place and he has to pick his battles.”

Robert De Niro gave an address at India's THiNK summit in Goa on Sunday, in a session titled, “The Master and His Masks: The Extraordinary Journey of a Creative Brain.” In the wide-ranging discussion, the Hollywood icon touched on some of his landmark performances, his acting methods, his heroes and political views. 

Designed as a platform to stimulate debate across multiple issues featuring a diverse list of panelists, THiNK is organized by New Delhi-based current affairs magazine Tehelka, founded by prominent Indian journalist, editor and author Tarun Tejpal. The third edition of the event was held from Nov. 8-10, with sessions featuring personalities such as Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan, director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) and actress Priyanka Chopra.

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De Niro met Bachchan on the opening day during the Bollywood icon's session titled “The Hermit and the Emperor – Amitabh Bachchan and the Roads Not Taken.”

“A relaxed Robert De Niro of so many distinguished films and characters that he played in his illustrious career, and still continues to do so, simple and down to earth, accommodating and friendly... A joy and honor to meet him and spend some time with him privately,” Bachchan later posted on his blog.

The speaker lineup also featured leading figures such as Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, former Newsweek editor Tina Brown, Kenyan paleontologist Louise Leakey, Indian environment activist Medha Patkar and perhaps most controversially, one of the founders of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef from Afghanistan.

De Niro's session -- moderated by Tehelka managing editor Shoma Chaudhury -- kicked off with a promo showing clips of the actor's acclaimed performances in films including Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull and The Untouchables.

“Its been so long since I've done that movie (Taxi Driver), that I have forgotten a lot of things,” De Niro said when asked about his portrayal of Travis Bickle. He still recalled that the iconic “You talkin' to me?” scene happened because the film's director Martin Scorsese “let me improvise [as that dialog wasn't in the original script], which is the great thing about him.”

When asked about Raging Bull, he again said that “it was so long ago but we did what we did to capture the character of boxer Jake LaMotta. Marty probably remembers better than me.”

Without offering more detail, De Niro also mentioned that he and Scorsese “have one project we want to do in the next couple of years.”

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As for other projects, De Niro added that he was working on a documentary about his late father, who was an artist.

Discussing his acting process, De Niro said, “The less you do the better. It's up to the director to get you to not do anything. [When the scene cuts to you] it should say it all... In every character you use something of yourself, whatever is applicable. Why not? It's there.”

Referring to his days in acting school, when he studied under acclaimed acting teacher Stella Adler, the actor recalled her advise: “Your talent lies in your choices.”

When pressed to share anecdotes of real-life mafia and underworld figures that may have inspired him -- given that De Niro's rich ouevre includes some notable on-screen heavies -- without giving too away much, he quipped to thunderous applause, “I am a great storyteller only with a script, not otherwise. Sometimes I can improvise pretty well... I am a street person on one level and I have another background from my parents [who both came from artistic backgrounds].”

Looking back over his body of work, De Niro said that he wanted  “to take the time and look at my films to see the patterns and see where I can change and go into another direction.”

As for his political views, when asked about President Obama, De Niro said that he was “trying to do the right thing. Obama's heart is in the right place and he has to pick his battles. It's easy to criticize someone like him.... but he is a decent person. Some of the Republicans are just trying to win at all costs.”

He pointed to the recent U.S. government shutdown stating, “There is no excuse for that,” which drew a round of applause.

As for his heroes and inspirational figures, De Niro cited Nelson Mandela and Shimon Peres, while among actors he mentioned Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift. “I am in India, so [India's first female prime minister] Indira Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi.”

De Niro first visited India 35 years ago.

“The Indian people are very nice. I like it here,” he said. “When I first came here, I said I'd be back in a couple of years. Decades went by and it didn't happen. I tried to come last year (for the THiNK  event) and I promised you I'd come this year so here I am.”

De Niro was accompanied on his trip by his daughter Drena. The itinerary included a stop in the capital New Delhi where an exclusive lunch event was hosted Thursday featuring a select guest list including veteran actress Shabana Azmi and her husband, acclaimed screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar. De Niro also visited the famous Ranthambore tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh state.

Next Sunday, De Niro's Casino co-star Sharon Stone will jet into Mumbai to host the first amfAR India fund-raiser along with Bachchan's son, actor Abhishek Bachchan and his actress wife Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. The evening will also feature a live performance by Ke$ha.