NEW YORK — Robert De Niro constructs a highly memorable sports-fan character in David O. Russell's new dramedy Silver Linings Playbook, playing a Philadelphia Eagles supporter so superstitious he thinks the positioning of the remote can affect a game's outcome.
The real-life De Niro? He's not exactly a team colors face-painter.
"People can watch certain football players and get genuinely excited about it, and I just don't understand it," he said. "I've never been that interested."
When people around De Niro turn on sports programming, said the man who's played boxer Jake LaMotta and is signed for a biopic about Vince Lombardi, he usually finds other things to do.
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Among those things is honing his acting skills, which are on full display in Silver Linings, Russell's follow-up to his boxing film The Fighter. It opens nationwide on Wednesday.
After years of big-budget comedy sequels like Little Fockers and a bevy of tepidly received genre and indie pictures, De Niro, 69, comes back in a big way with his supporting role in Silver Linings. His turn in the film, which won the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, had pundits calling it one of the best performances of the two-time Oscar winner's career.
De Niro had plenty to work with in Russell's script about a boisterous Italian-American family, which can veer from Flirting With Disaster-style farce to heartfelt family moments.
The movie centers on Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a bright, bipolar man with no verbal filter who, after a stay in a mental hospital, returns home to suburban Philadelphia to live with his parents (De Niro and Jacki Weaver). There, Pat Jr. begins the delicate and sometimes comic process of connecting with his family and a new love interest, the similarly troubled Tiffany (Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence).
With Pat Sr. — a passionate Eagles fan who moonlights as a bookie — De Niro convincingly moves between selfish and loving, with quirks that never feel put on. In spots De Niro's performance channels his comedic chops from Analyze This; in others, it can be Goodfellas-style serious.
De Niro had never worked with Russell before but says he was drawn to the director's balance of comedy and drama. The actor also alludes to a child of his with difficulties — De Niro has six kids, ranging in age from 1 to 41 — that fueled his interest.
"There's a helplessness, because there's not much you can do about it," he said. "I don't want to say too much more and get personal. But it can be very upsetting." (Adding to the family feel: De Niro has formed a close personal friendship with Cooper, with whom he starred in the 2011 drama Limitless.)
As he continues to act in several movies a year, De Niro said he doesn't necessarily see this as a comeback part. In fact, he thinks there are other recent roles that didn't get the recognition they deserved — like the 2009 family drama Everybody's Fine — owing to distribution and other market forces.
But he said Silver Linings Playbook has charged him up to continue taking on meaty parts.
"I'd like to be playing young leading men, to be honest," he said, cheekily. "But these days it's fathers. And soon it will be grandfathers. If I'm lucky, it will be great-grandfathers."