By the time I got the role in Taxi Driver, I’d already made more stuff than De Niro or Martin Scorsese. I’d been working from the time I was three years old. So even though I was only twelve, I felt like I was the veteran there.
De Niro took me aside before we started filming. He kept picking me up from my hotel and taking me to different diners. The first time he basically didn’t say anything. He would just, like, mumble. The second time he started to run lines with me, which was pretty boring because I already knew the lines. The third time, he ran lines with me again and now I was really bored. The fourth time, he ran lines with me, but then he started going off on these completely different ideas within the scene, talking about crazy things and asking me to follow in terms of improvisation.
So we’d start with the original script and then he’d go off on some tangent and I’d have to follow, and then it was my job to eventually find the space to bring him back to the last three lines of the text we’d already learned.
It was a huge revelation for me, because until that moment I thought being an actor was just acting naturally and saying the lines someone else wrote. Nobody had ever asked me to build a character. The only thing they’d ever done to direct me was to say something like “Say it faster” or “Say it slower.” So it was a whole new feeling for me, because I realized acting was not a dumb job. You know, I thought it was a dumb job. Somebody else writes something and then you repeat it. Like, how dumb is that?
There was this moment, in some diner somewhere, when I realized for the first time that it was me who hadn’t brought enough to the table. And I felt this excitement where you’re all sweaty and you can’t eat and you can’t sleep.
Changed my life.