NEW YORK — IT is not uncommon for actors to portray unsympathetic characters, but Robert De Niro has made a science of it. In the current movie "This Boy's Life," Mr. De Niro plays Dwight Hansen, a man who subjects his wife and stepson to emotional and physical abuse. It's an edgy performance, and clearly a challenge for the actor, both in terms of his own acting choices and those of the director's.
In a Monitor review, critic David Sterritt wrote that De Niro's performance is "one of the most vivid and forceful portrayals he has given us in recent years - capturing Dwight in all his bluster and brutality, yet subtly reminding us that Dwight is also a victim...."
De Niro was in New York to promote the film, and he talked about the difficulties of playing Dwight to a group of reporters. The following is excerpted from his comments:
I know some people will think my character of Dwight is psychotic. Dwight Hansen was a real person; and if you read Tobias Wolff's book, you'll see that Dwight did some extreme things. But I don't know that I'd call him "psychotic." As an actor, I have to draw from things in myself.... These aren't things I've necessarily experienced, but that I can understand at some level. And then I try to project them as an actor. Dwight resents his stepson [played by Leonardo DiCaprio] because he's smarter than he is and more sophisticated.
You can't help having some sympathy or empathy for Dwight, because he's got a lot of color, a lot of complexities. I've known people like Dwight - who have a lot of charm, on the one hand, but who are unpredictable and irrational and off the wall.
I have a son who's 16, a little younger than Leo, and I was able to draw from that relationship. I like to think of myself as a good father, certainly a well-intentioned father. Although the kid in the movie is my stepson, there are some similarities: When you're 16, you have a certain attitude....
I feel Dwight is as much of a stretch as some of my other roles.... I can get a charge from each character, but in different ways. Playing Dwight gave me a chance to play a saxophone and wear a Boy Scout uniform! But seriously, I might personally like one part more than the other, but when you act, you don't have to like your character, just be able to justify what he does. Otherwise, I might be making a comment against the character, which would show in the acting.
Some of the violence in the movie goes a little over the top, I think. In the wedding-night scene, where Dwight is so rough on his bride, I think that scene was a little over the top. But that was the intention: Dwight could have done such a thing. My task as an actor was to do that. But personally, I see it as a turnoff. To do these violent scenes, things weren't as tense on the set as you might think. Especially with the kids in the cast. During my fight scenes with Leo, you should have seen the little
girl who played his stepsister [Eliza Dushku]. She was incredible. One day I asked somebody to move out of my eyeline. And do you know what she said? "That's right, Bob, take charge!" This is an 11-year-old kid! I was the one who needed protection!
When I was younger, I might have been more obsessive about preparing for a role like Dwight. But that could be too much of an energy drain. Now I'm more relaxed and approach things moment to moment.... I guess when you get older and more experienced, you see what's important.