MIAMI — In the dark comedy “The Family,” Robert De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, a former Mafioso who ratted out his cronies in exchange for immunity and new identity (Fred Blake) via the witness protection program.
Living in France with his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two kids (Dianna Agron and John D’Leo), where they are under the protective watch of a U.S. government agent (Tommy Lee Jones), Fred tries to stick to a straight and narrow path. But old habits die hard, and the gangsters he betrayed are also eager to dole out some payback. De Niro is no stranger to comedy, having achieved some of his biggest success (“Analyze This,” “Meet the Fockers”) in the third act of his career by lampooning his familiar screen image. But in “The Family,” which opens Friday, the actor seems unusually engaged, treating the role of a guy who is trying to reinvent himself as a writer but still can’t help but break a plumber’s leg in seven places when he senses he’s being ripped off.
Despite his great fame and success, the notoriously press-shy actor has never been an eloquent interview subject — something he proved again recently during a brief chat via telephone from New York to promote “The Family.”
Q: The character of Giovanni plays to so many of your strengths, the part feels like it was written specifically for you.
A: It was based on a novel called “Malavita” by Tonino Benacquista. (Director) Luc Besson (“The Professional,” “The Fifth Element”) told me that he had this book, la la la, that I should read it. Then there was a screenplay. Luc was only going to produce it: He didn’t want to direct it. But as we were trying to figure out who could do it, we realized it had to be him. It was his vision from the beginning, really. That was a relief to me, because I wasn’t sure another director would get it as well as he did.
Q: You’ve often said in interviews that as an actor, you try to draw on real-life experiences to invest whatever character you’re playing. But in this movie, you seemed to be drawing on characters you had played in previous films. You look like you’re having fun.
A: Exactly. You’re right.
Q: There’s a wonderful moment in the movie where the film breaks the fourth wall. The scene could have fizzled, but instead it’s fantastic.
A: That was a lot of fun. Luc was very specific about what he wanted from that scene. It is something so funny and crazy, we were just ‘Let’s do it and see what happens.’
Q: Tommy Lee Jones is a notoriously serious guy. But I have to imagine there were moments on the set when he’s glaring at you and you’re doing some crazy things that made him break character and laugh.
A: I can’t remember. Maybe in the scene in the cinematheque. Tommy is terrific in this. I’m glad we have him in the film.
Q: I loved how Michelle Pfeiffer was used in this movie. There is a menace to her beauty that not a lot of filmmakers have been able to use well.
A: Yeah, yeah, exactly. We had a very good time. I wished we had more scenes to do together. This was the first time we’ve ever actually worked together, even though I’ve known her for a long time.
Q: Even though this is essentially a French production, it is steeped in the tradition of Hollywood gangster movies and pitch-black humor. But there’s still a different feel to it. It doesn’t necessarily feel like an American movie.
A: I think that’s part of what Luc brought to it, how he felt about it. He’s French, but I’m sure he liked “GoodFellas” and many American movies. He’s also a writer, so I assume that’s one of the reasons he connected with my character. He was able to work with all of that and make it personal.