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LONDON (CNN) -- Back in 1973, New York's Little Italy district supplied the backdrop to the film "Mean Streets," a mob movie which marked the first step in a long collaboration between two of the city's finest film-makers: director Martin Scorsese and a young actor named Bobby.
More than thirty years later, Bobby is referred to in revered terms simply as "De Niro" - and the actor's actor has been taking his turn in the director's chair.
CNN's The Screening Room got an exclusive insight into Robert De Niro's work and spoke to the great man himself about his career.
Robert De Niro is synonymous with New York. His compelling performance as Vito Corleone in "The Godfather Part Two" announced his presence to the acting world with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. New York was home to the Corleone family and, two years later, to Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran turned New York cabbie, for another riveting performance by De Niro in "Taxi Driver," which earned him an Academy Award nomination.
His portrayal of Jake La Motta - the boxer from the Bronx known as "Raging Bull" - is often held up as an example of method acting excellence, one which was rewarded with De Niro's second Oscar.
In contrast with the darkness of many of his characters, De Niro has embraced comedy in recent years, winning new fans with his role as a jealous father and former CIA operative in "Meet the Parents" and its sequel "Meet the Fockers." De Niro was able to pursue his interest in the CIA in a serious way with his work on "The Good Shepherd" - the film which premiered in Berlin this year and marked only his second stint behind the camera.
CNN spoke to De Niro in Tokyo about his experience as a director. He said, "The Good Shepherd was such a daunting project that I had to think about it moment for moment, day by day. My feeling is that ... you have to be flexible in making people feel comfortable so you can get the best out of them and they feel that they can pretty much do no wrong - and as a director try and guide things in the way that I like to see movies go."
Matt Damon, who was directed by De Niro in "The Good Shepherd," said of his co-star, "Just as an actor he's the one pretty much everyone worships, so to have him be there to give us all direction, you feel like you're in pretty good hands."
As his director, De Niro helped Matt Damon to play a character that, at times, was very different from his own personality. De Niro said, "Matt's instincts -- he's a very open person."
And this gave him the challenge of directing his leading male to display traits that didn't come naturally to the younger actor. "I wanted to make sure he would stay in that mindset and not do anything that would go against that character, even if it felt totally unnatural to him, which at times I think it did," De Niro said.
And it wasn't just the male stars who provided him with a challenge. De Niro says of leading lady Angelina Jolie, who plays Damon's wife, Clover, that her interpretation of her character was often different from his -- and the results would sometimes surprise him. "Getting to a certain point, say, with Angelina was not the place where I thought we would be, but that's the place where you have to wind up," he explained. "You take each moment where it comes in every sense of the word until you wind up with what you have. And I was very happy with what she did. She did a wonderful job."
Both sides of the camera
As well as directing Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, De Niro was persuaded to take the role of General Sullivan, putting him in the uncomfortable position of directing himself. And De Niro had no qualms about getting a second opinion.
He said, "Because I'm not crazy about directing myself, when I did the scenes with Matt I would ask Matt what he thought; I would ask the director of photography, Bob Richardson, and maybe the script supervisor what he thought; I would do a little video playback; but I just because I didn't want to take too much time on myself."
Co-star William Hurt felt privileged to experience De Niro in action at first hand. He said, "Bob in the first reading was doing great acting work. He was actually exploring stuff about General Sullivan. And I'm sitting across the table going 'He's actually doing it, how can he be doing that when he's got all these other responsibilities, he's actually exploring, he's doing something that only actors who know so much know how to do.'"
De Niro revealed that he hadn't planned to act in the movie. He said, "I never thought of playing the part. I was discussing who we could get and one of the studio executives said, Why don't you do it? I said, ok, maybe I could do it, and whatever I get for that I'll put back into the movie ... that's why I did that part."
Matt Damon puts De Niro's success down to his attention to detail. He said, "That's what Bob is great at and why he's a great actor and a great director. He micro-manages all those little details and he doesn't stop until all those little details are in the right place."
De Niro revealed to CNN that his experience as an actor has taught him the skills to carry over to directing. He said "I've been in so many movies that I automatically know what's happening on the set. Things that I don't even remember consciously I just know, and I suppose that has an influence on how I work with actors and everybody because I'm so familiar with all this stuff.
"When you direct something, you have to directly focus on a whole new set of problems. As a director, you have to worry about the whole thing, and so things come into focus more, but it's fun. I enjoy it, it's hard work but it's fun.
Sir Michael Gambon, who also appears in "The Good Shepherd," also enjoyed working with De Niro. He said, "He's very nice, he laughs a lot. I like him for that. And he has a particular way of saying "cut" in French -- "Curt" -- and then he laughs. But I like him, he's a very funny man, he keeps the set happy. He's very tactile, he touches you all the time, he gives you notes."
New York hero
In the opinion of his colleagues, Robert De Niro is peerless. But among ordinary New Yorkers, De Niro is a hero.
As one of his fans said, "I will see Robert De Niro in any movie. I don't even care what it is if he's in it. He's one of the only actors that I will see. He's awesome ... One of the things that I like about Robert De Niro is he has such a range. He can play from the comedy to the intense drama role and I think he's awesome."
Or, as another put it, "He's the man, he's got it. He's cool."
De Niro's performance as Vito Corleone in "The Godfather Part II" earned him an Oscar
THE SCREENING ROOM
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