INTIMIDATING movie icon who makes fellow actors nervous, or shy guy with a wicked sense of humour? Tony Earnshaw met Oscar-winner Al Pacino to find out.
IT WAS Johnny Depp who said that acting opposite Al Pacino was like being on the wrong end of a lion’s roar. Yet there is something disarming about the quiet, polite, affable, vertically-challenged 59-year-old who slides soundlessly into his seat after slipping, unnoticed, into the room despite the obvious presence of two burly minders who tower over him.
But Pacino has always enjoyed the image of the chameleon. Like contemporaries Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, and, latterly, Kevin Spacey and John Malkovich, he has always split his career between the theatre and the screen, preferring the former for artistic integrity and the latter for financial reward.
For years after hitting the big time with The Godfather, he avoided interviews, not wanting the public to become as familiar with the man as it was with the star. Nowadays, pushing 60, he has mellowed, and gives away more of himself.
Nevertheless, this is not a man fixated with the baggage of success or the iconic status it brings. He’s just as contented putting his money into a four-year film project entitled Chinese Coffee, which he directed and acted in, and has only recently finished editing.
His first film as director was The Local Stigmatic, an adaptation of an obscure play which almost no-one has seen. Then came Looking for Richard, his docu-drama about the mechanics of playing Richard III. His co-stars included Sir John Gielgud.
This, then, is the actor Al Pacino wants to be. Movies just happen to pay the way. We are speaking at London’s plush Dorchester Hotel, favoured watering hole of American movie stars when they land in the UK. Pacino is in town for the UK premiere of his new picture Any Given Sunday, a hyper-kinetic action thriller based around American football and directed by ageing enfant terrible Oliver Stone.
In it, Pacino plays Tony D’Amato, coach of a fictional US team and a man rapidly being outrun by the modern nature of the game. Yet the character, just like the man who plays him, is a survivor. Pacino looks quizzical when I ask him for his secret of survival – how he brushes off challenges from Hollywood’s young turks who fancy themselves as ‘the new Al Pacino’. He, after all, has been living with being Al Pacino, movie superstar, for more than 30 years.
“You know, surviving works both ways. There are times when I think ‘I’m just gonna do what I feel is right’. First of all, I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can do that. Most actors don’t, and the acting instinct is to go with any role in which they’ll have me.
“One has to remember that there’s a fate in a career. If you do make it and have a lot of attention, there’s a tendency for people to wanna use you, and sometimes not in the right role for you. It’s just because you’ve ‘made it’. So you have to be careful when you choose a part. You think ‘Maybe I can play…’ whatever, and you really are wrong for it.
“You think you can do it, so you go in, but if you weren’t famous they probably would never have taken you for the part. Along the way my choices for things have changed. Sometimes I think ‘This is an interesting part. Maybe I’m not perfect for it but I’ll try.”
In other words, Pacino, like all actors, is fundamentally insecure and knows his limitations. Perhaps that’s what Johnny Depp was alluding to with his “lion’s roar” comment – Pacino is trying to stamp his authority on the role.
Pacino, like his Italian-American stable-mates Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, has a reputation for being hugely intimidating on set. Many actors freeze with fear when they have to meet him. Pacino doesn’t get it.
“I certainly don’t feel intimidating when I’m working with other actors. I approach it and did it the same way I always did, really. I couldn’t possibly act if I felt that they had that feeling towards me. It’s like we’re in an orchestra and we’re playing together.
“I don’t really have that sense of what someone is saying about me. When I go to do a movie I feel I come with 30 years of baggage, and all the movies I’ve made, so people have a tendency to respond to that.
“A lot of people have grown up having seen pictures of me, and there’s an image instilled in them that comes out of all that. I know I have it when I meet someone I’ve known just through movies. I always have an image of them, but through the years I’ve learned it’s a good idea to let that go because they’re never who you think they are.
“It’s built in, and they soon get over it. Johnny did. Nobody made me laugh more [when we made Donnie Brasco] than Johnny Depp. He kept me in stitches throughout the whole picture. I’ve never laughed as much.”
Maybe he’s mellowed with age. Oliver Stone, the wild writer-director who first collaborated with Pacino on Scarface in 1983, certainly believes he’s changed in the intervening 17 years.
“Al’s changed. He’s become mellower, more accessible and, to my taste, far funnier,” says Stone.
“He’s a shy person, almost eccentrically so, but when you get to know him you’ll find a man with a wonderful sense of humour. We’re both New Yorkers so we have a particular sense of humour like yours might be from Yorkshire. It’s a very in-bred thing. It’s sarcastic, not cynical, but funny.”
Yet while Pacino claims not to consider age when choosing roles, he is nevertheless a veteran these days. Still, age has not wearied him – he is a Prospero rather than a Hamlet – as his performance in Any Given Sunday attests.
“Age is an odd question because it’s relative to the business you’re in,” he smiles. “I don’t put too much stock in it. Chronological age doesn’t interest me. A certain part will come up and you feel that you don’t wanna do that part because you’ve been through there before.
“Parts interest me in terms of ‘Gee, I wanna express that’. I’m not that interested in playing roles that I might have been interested in 20 years ago.”
Pacino was resolutely an actor ‘of the theatre’ when he made his screen debut in The Panic in Needle Park in 1971. A year later came The Godfather, and instant superstardom. The world suddenly went mad for the handsome young man from New York, and for the next six years Pacino churned out a succession of critically-acclaimed, and commercially successful, movies.
He followed The Godfather with its sequel (and another in 1988). Then came Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Bobby Deerfield. The movies were mixed with Broadway plays – The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? He won Tony Awards for both.
He dropped out of films in the mid-’80s to concentrate on films after the disastrous epic Revolution, returning after a four-year break with Sea of Love in 1989. Since then his film choices have eclipsed those he made earlier in his career. In the last few years he has made arguably his best-ever pictures, including Glengarry Glen Ross, Scent of a Woman, Carlito’s Way, Heat and The Insider.
Pacino says the answer is simple – he needs to act like a starving man needs to eat. Eight Oscar nominations, with a win for Scent of a Woman, seven years ago, prove his enduring critical and commercial appeal.
“I think that sometimes you do what you do because you have to do it. There’s the waiting to do it, the desire, and then the need – that you have to do it. The reason I did it was because I had to. I don’t think I sacrificed anything in my life. I think instead that it saved my life. I don’t have any regrets.”