With a plethora of dramatic, iconic movies behind him, that includes Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Awakenings, Goodfellas and The Godfather: Part II (for which he won Best Supporting Actor), it was a wonderful surprise for audiences when Robert De Niro appeared in the comedy Meet the Parents in 2000. As Jack Byrnes, the disapproving father of his potential son-in-law, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), he showed immaculate comedy timing.
In the movie’s second sequel, Little Fockers, Jack is now a retired CIA-operative, who is floundering as he faces frustrations with his retirement and issues of his own mortality. For Jack, the family legacy remains of great importance as he looks to pass the mantle on to the next generation. So when the family comes together for a birthday bash, Jack decides that Greg must prove to him that he’s fully capable as the man of the house and designated Godflocker of the clan.
This is the third film, what do you look forward to most when you start a new Fockers’ movie?
We have fun, I enjoyed it a lot. When I’m doing comedy I have less restrictions and I can cut the thing out or the director will say, in this case Paul Weitz, ‘Try something else, that’s not working,’ or, ‘It’s too broad,’ but there’s just more room for having fun.
Would you say this film is like a road map for marriages that are having trouble?
I would say that’s why people like the films, I hope this one too, because of the story, the situation, the family dynamic, one family meeting another, and it’s like going into territory that you have to deal with. Part of you is saying, ‘Why am I here?’ But you have to be there. You’re with this other family and you have to deal with them. I think everybody can relate to that.
With the fight scene in the bouncy ball pit, how much of that did you and Ben actually do?
I don’t know if it’s in the movie, but we did a take off on The Wrestler, and when I jumped into the ball pit [face down I had to watch out for my back because it’s not as easy as it seems. So I did it from a short distance and the stunt guy did it from a long distance.
Raging Bull took nine weeks to shoot all the fight scenes and then another nine to shoot all the other scenes. It was more time-consuming, and there was a lot more fighting than in this film. But Ben was great about shooting our fight scene in Little Fockers. I punched him square in the face, and he just laughed.
In real life, how would you describe yourself as a father?
I’m not like the character, I’m less stern about things, but I’m still watchful, making sure everything is okay.
When you lay out the qualities for Ben as being the new Godfocker, did you think those were realistic qualities on what it means to be a man? Is it just providing financial security and a house for children, or are there other things that are more important?
I think those things are important – there’s an element of truth to that. I haven’t told this to my children, but I would [tell them to] just look at the parents of the person you’re with and you’re interested in, and how they behave, how they are, because you will have to interact with them, hopefully, for the rest of your life.
So that’s something to think about, you’re not just marrying the person, you’re attaching yourself to the family for better or for worse, as they say.
Were there a lot of improv moments in the film?
Sometimes you have to be careful with improvs, you have to make sure [the filmmakers] can shape them afterwards. The actors can go way off, and they have to be aware of how much they can do otherwise it loses its shape. Hopefully, you can in the editing bring it back, but still there’s that fine line.
What new dynamic was Paul Weitz able to bring to the franchise?
Paul has his own feelings about things. He was good. It’s a hard thing to take over something like this, to stay within the certain confines and service the material. It’s a franchise, so it’s that kind of exercise. And it’s important at the end of the day that those things are kept going.
Was it fun to work with Ben again?
Ben has a way of reacting and delivering a line that’s unique to him. It’s just a line, but he does it in such a way that he’s making a comment on it. He puts all these little spins on it that are very funny. We’re practically old friends, and we have a terrific time working together.