Could De Niro, Penn, and Willis Be Social on Set?

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Three tough guys walk into a bar... Photo: Getty Images

You have to wonder: What must the set of What Just Happened? have been like with three of Hollywood's most untalkative leading men — Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, and Sean Penn — starring? It's not easy to imagine these guys being chatty, and putting them together probably results in some sort of triumvirate of surly silence. But, really: Did they, like, talk to each other? Did they babble between sets like regular folks? And if so, about what? Last night's CSI? Or do these stars simply communicate with a series of grunts, like they do when we meet them on the red carpet? At last night's premiere, we set out to find out what the on-set atmosphere was like with these strong, silent types — and though everyone involved in the picture insisted the guys made small talk around the watercooler just like anyone else, no one could actually remember what they talked about. Suspicious!

We first approached director Barry Levinson. “They kidded around, they had fun,” he said. Oh, okay! So what did they talk about? “I don’t know — just whatever it was, just talking,” Levinson explained. “It’s not like they’re not talking,” he added for emphasis.

Levinson vagueness and last-minute overcompensation seemed suspect. Maybe we're on to something here? We went to co-star Lily Rabe. She told us that De Niro “absolutely” talked with her between takes. Okay, so what did he say to her? Did they talk about the weather? “He was incredibly warm and, um…” She thought a moment, then tried again: “I mean, he’s certainly, um, focused, and he doesn’t goof off.” Um, what do you mean? Rabe collected her thoughts. “But he’s a very warm and open person, I would say,” she concluded, beaming. Uh-huh. Dicey.

Michael Wincott, who plays De Niro’s artistic, emotionally overwrought partner in the film, explained that these guys are more comfortable on the set among their other actors, and therefore they relax and chitchat. So what did De Niro talk about during the downtime? Wincott couldn’t answer, but said, “He’s very concerned, very kind.” Again, no elaboration. No funny on-set tales. No anything.

We finally went to the source: We approached Sean Penn after the screening to see how he interacted with his co-stars — but he shook his head "no" and quickly slid to where we couldn't get to him. And when we approached Mr. De Niro, who was smiling and greeting friends — but not saying too much, we noticed — his publicist firmly told us that he would not be speaking to reporters. Again with the silence!

So riddle us this: If a tough guy is social on set but no one can tell us what he said, did he really make a sound?