This is an abridged version of an interview that appears in the new issue of Radio Times, on sale now

Robert De Niro, the original tough guy, has a hard time with things other actors find easy. Small talk is not his domain; self-publicity irks him, with its requirements to smile and make eye contact and pretend to be interested.

One morning earlier this summer, the 72-year-old sits at a conference table next to Ann Hathaway to talk about The Intern, the Nancy Meyers comedy in which he plays a pensioner on work experience to Hathaway's youthful CEO. When the actress starts weeping at what an honour it was to work with him (“excuse me – sniff - I hate when this happens!”), De Niro looks baffled and vaguely appalled. 

In an interview earlier in the day, Nancy Meyers had said that the young guys on the set had been so excited to work with De Niro they had mobbed him between takes. They must've had lots of questions, I suggest.

“No,” he says, glumly. “We would talk. You know. I like that, if they do - specially if they ask me questions about things that are concerning themselves in life - that I can give a good answer to.” He thinks Meyers is “terrific;” he can't remember if he's worked with a female director before or not, unless you count a short he made with Agnes Varda. He lapses into silence.

I ask: how do you preserve against autopilot, when you've done your job for a long time and you know you're good at it?

“You know – autopilot is not wrong. At times – I don't even look at it in that way. Because sometimes when you're acting, as people do in life, they're on autopilot, because of the nature of the situation. It's necessary for them to be on autopilot. That's the best thing they can do. It's very effective in the scene, because that's what it is.”

This strikes me as interesting, but De Niro looks so depressed at this point there's nowhere to go with it. I suggest that the Tribeca Film Festival must have succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

“Yeah, no, I mean it's terrific.”

The regeneration of Manhattan's downtown area is insane, I say; to the extent that it's all bankers now –

De Niro swivels his eyes up from the floor and asks me to pause the voice recorder.

“Why?”

“Could you just do it?”

I do it. He then pops up out of his chair, starts pacing madly and says he's cutting short the interview because of the “negative inference” of what I just said.

“What, about the bankers?!” I am genuinely amazed.

“All the way through,” says De Niro. “All the way through, negative inference.”

“Er, like where else?”

“The whole way through and I'm not doing it. I'm not doing it, darling.”

“But,” I suggest, “all I've been doing is asking you reverential questions about your methods as an actor.”

“You're probably not even aware that you're doing it, the negative inference, the negative inference.”

“That's quite a presumption.”

“I'm a very good reader of character.”

“So am I.”

De Niro has paced all the way to the door by this point, and is sticking his head out, looking in vain for an aide to come along and save him. Walking into the corridor alone doesn't seem to be an option.

“Hang on,” I say, “so where else am I being negative?”

“The question about being on auto-pilot - negative inference.”

“Wait, but I asked that question to establish how it is you manage [ITAL] not [CLOSE ITAL] to be on auto-pilot.”

“There's a negative inference.”

“I have to say, now that you're going on about it, it makes me think you [ITAL] were [CLOSE ITAL] on auto-pilot and you're super-sensitive about it.”

His jaw starts working and he looks wildly around the room as if in search of a window to jump through. “I'm not doing this, darling,” he says.

“I think you're very condescending.”

“Oh, you think 'darling' is condescending?”

I suppose this is what's called the artistic temperament...

Earlier in the day, someone asked Nancy Meyers about De Niro's manner and Meyers, eminently sensible, said, “I don't know if it's shy. I think he's just an artist. I don't think he worries much about being super-entertaining in a situation like this. I think he saves a part of himself for his work. I don't think he wants to expose himself all the time.

"And I respected that when we were shooting. I'd see him and – other people you can go up to and just chat. I sort of let him be.”

Good call.

Read the full interview with Robert De Niro in the new issue of Radio Times magazine, on sale now