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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Interview: Al Pacino by David S. Cohen + Betty Sussler interview

Al Pacino tackles each role like a novice

AFI honoree arrives with desire intact

He half slides, half crawls into his booth, weary but cheerful, his ribbed black shirt and nutmeg silk scarf under a dark dinner jacket an artful balance of bohemian dishevelment and movie-star chic.
He'd been lurking at a more discreet table in the Polo Lounge patio, huddling with the producers of "Salomaybe?," the film he's been editing for months.
Now Al Pacino is out in the open.
"It's very complex," he says, "and I've been working on it for a year. Sometimes, you get sort of blocked."
"Salomaybe?," he explains, is in the vein of "Looking for Richard," a look at his exploration of Oscar Wilde's play "Salome." It's been edit some, shoot some, edit some more for a long time. "That's what I do on Saturdays," he says.
He's written the film and is acting in it as well as directing, so there's no one to fall back on. Another star might have written with a partner. Not Pacino.
"When you really don't know what you're doing, it's hard to work with someone," he says with a laugh. "It's great fun. But I just wish I had more talent."
It's a rather self-effacing admission from somebody who's about to receive one of filmdom's highest honors, the AFI Life Achievement Award, placing him among such contemporaries as Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman.
He's quick to add, though, that there's nothing new about feeling like a beginner, even when he's acting. Maybe especially when he's acting.
"I don't really know anything about anything," he says. "And I don't know what to do. Absolutely, the canvas is empty."
Pacino likes art metaphors and often alludes to painters and painting: Picasso and Modigliani, Van Gogh (his favorite) and Pollock.
"I will just sit here and stare at the canvas," he says. "It's nice when you have a model, you know? Then you say, 'Well, I'll paint the tree.' Give it your interpretation, your vision of it. But, when you don't have a tree, you just have that empty canvas, you wait. It's what Picasso used to do. He used to sit at an empty canvas, sometimes 12 hours straight, just stare at it. I love that idea, that image."
Given his love of the stage and his passion for the classics, one might assume the Gotham native was raised on a diet of Golden Age Broadway. In fact, this product of "a broken home" in the South Bronx says his earliest memories of performing involved imitating his mother's Al Jolson records. "I would mimic him and do the whole show."
Later, his mother, a single working mom, would bring him along when she sought escape at a picture show. Then, too, he would come home and play all the parts. "I would do it with every movie I saw," he says. "Now, when I'm not working, I still do it."
Pacino says he started doing standup, and insists he's been trying to get back to comedy ever since. "It didn't last long," he says, "but I enjoyed it." That sensibility helped lure him to join the "Ocean's Thirteen" gang.
"It's an entertainment," says the star of such classics as "The Godfather" movies, "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico." "I've not usually been in a movie like this. That was what was so interesting to me, and exciting. And (director) Stephen Soderbergh is just fun to be around because he's so easy and he's so in control of the whole thing. You feel so supported, taken care of."
Along with the early comedy experiments came years of cafe theater from the mid-'50s into the early '60s, the birth of Off Off Broadway. Today his experimental films carry echoes of those years.
"It was a very fertile period to be an actor in New York City, in the Village, because you could actually live and be an actor," he recalls. "We would do 16 shows a week in the cafes, and you'd pass the hat around after each show, and that's how we ate. I was a part of a traveling troupe when I was 16.
"It was a livelihood literally. But without any idea that it was going to be successful or not successful. It was about a way of life. It was a way of life that gets a little obscured as you become more well known."
He's made his peace with fame, though. When fans come by his booth at the Polo Lounge to pay their respects -- "You're the best I've ever watched, and I'm sure you're a great man, too," says one -- he is gracious and patient.
He seems to mostly enjoy these fan encounters for the moments of humor they can provide. "I had a guy once say to me on the street, 'Are you Al Pacino?'" he says. "And I turned around and I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Congratulations. You look like you oughta.' "
Despite a reputation for being press shy and remote, Pacino will remind you how accessible he's been recently, including an October appearance on "Inside the Actors Studio" and as the subject of a series of conversations with author Lawrence Grobel that was published in book form last year.
While he seems comfortable in the role of movie star, his personal films seem to be his way of trying to carry his passion for stage acting, especially in its most stripped-down form, over to the bigscreen. Without that, it seems, moviemaking doesn't necessarily excite him.
"Movies are a bit ephemeral to me," he admits. "They have to do so much with commerce and all the stuff that goes into that. They're very complicated and momentous to mount."
He doesn't go out of his way to complain about the scripts he's sent, but he clearly has to go out of his way to find roles that engage him.
"I can almost state this is a fact," he says. "The worse the script is, the more money you're offered. Show me a bad script, and I will show you a big payday. Conversely, show me a really great script and forget it. You're lucky if you don't have to pay for it."
Combine that with his I-don't-know-anything philosophy, and Pacino can be downright baffled by some of what he reads.
"My agent was talking to me about a part the other day, and I said, 'Well, would you do it?' He said, 'Excuse me? I said, 'Would you play the part?' He said, 'Well, no, I'm not an actor.' Well, I said, 'Well, neither am I!'"
He is philosophical, though, about the need to keep working.
"There's the two kinds of lives you have," he explains: "The one is where you're working because it's good to work. You like working, it's a way of life, you'll meet people and learn things. And the other one is where you feel this need to do this thing because it's something you want to express.
"And then, sometimes, you do nothing, right? And that's very good sometimes. I mean, I went four years without working. So, I know what it's like to do it and not to."
That period, between the misguided period epic "Revolution" (1985) and "Sea of Love" (1989), is often referred to as Pacino's lost years. In the wake of "Bobby Deerfield" (1977), "Cruising" (1980) and "Scarface" (1983) -- Pacino had seemingly gone from invincible to vulnerable, and the controversy the latter two films generated only added fuel to his detractors.
While it appeared that he had gone into hiding, he had in fact shifted his priorities from acting in studio projects to small theater workshops, and tinkering with small, self-produced films like "The Local Stigmatic," which has never been released theatrically but is part of a boxed set titled "Pacino: An Actor's Vision" (which also includes his two directorial efforts, "Chinese Coffee" and "Looking for Richard").
For Pacino, it has always taken the right part, and sometimes the right pitch from a director who really wants him, to get his juices flowing, whether it's Francis Ford Coppola convincing him he could play Michael Corleone or Steven Soderbergh enticing him into "Ocean's Thirteen."
"Steven wanted me. That's who he saw," he says, "and that's always good. I like that. Warren Beatty saw me in 'Dick Tracy.' He had asked me who I thought would be right for this role. And I went on with all these people. We met and we talked. And all along, he wanted me. But, finally, one day, I said, 'Warren, do you want me in this part?' And he had that smile, and I knew.
"You know, you say you don't want to do anything, and then all of a sudden a part comes along, and you look at the mechanics of it, you look at the craft of it, you look at what you do every day with it, and there's a certain appetite."
That appetite seems to have seized him again with "Righteous Kills," an indie pic in which he'll reunite with longtime pal and "Heat" co-star Robert De Niro. The two will play cops pursuing a serial killer. Jon Avnet directs from a script by "Inside Man" scribe Russell Gewirtz.
"I'm starting to think as I get older the desire is almost probably more important than talent," he says. "I've seen it, where people have this real need to do something, and then they do a thing. Maybe they're not as gifted as somebody else who's sort of blase about stuff, but they have this need. And they get it done."
Does he still have that?
"Yeah. I still have desire, I think," he laughs. "Last time I checked."
Contact David S. Cohen at


The Local Stigmatic, directed by David Wheeler, with some of the best performances from stage to film by Al Pacino and Paul Guilfoyle, is haunting and disturbing. The film is a play on language. Two rogues taunt each other into a game of ambiguous rules. Its devices, recorded as titillation in the media, are ironic, sexual and perverse; and its outcome, untenable. Like his contemporary Joe Orton, Heathcote Williams’ world is sardonic and black; his writing elegant, and his language, raunchy and visceral.

Al Pacino’s performances in Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, Scarface, and Dick Tracy have enabled him to support the production of this film. While most people have heard Heathcote Williams’s lyrics for Marianne Faithful’s Why’d You Do It to Me?, fewer people know that he is an eccentric and brilliant English writer—??Whale Nation??, Falling for a Dolphin and Sacred Elephant??—who also penned two plays in the ’60s. ??AC/DC won an OBIE award and The Local Stigmatic first appeared in London as a double bill with Harold Pinter’s The Dwarfs. Al Pacino and Heathcote Williams came together in 1968 because of Pacino’s interest in The Local Stigmatic, an involvement with the play that continues to this day.

Betsy Sussler How did you find The Local Stigmatic? And why make it into a film?

Al Pacino Harold Pinter gave it to David Wheeler who did it at a theater company up in Boston, that was in 1967. I did it in 1968 at the Actor’s Studio just as a project. It took a few readings for all of us to realize that we were reading something special. At first, I didn’t know. The language was strange. The second time, the language got more familiar, but what it was about, I was trying to guess. By the third reading, I felt something there; I was reading something that had gone beyond any new play I had read. I wanted to explore it. We tried to mount it, but none of us were well-known enough professionally. Then I did a successful Broadway show and so we were able to get the backing to do it Off-Broadway. It was not received well, and we were told to close after one night.

BS Oh no!

AP But Jon Voight happened to be around, and he believed in the play very much, and gave us out of his pocket enough money to run for a week, which was a gesture that I’ve always remembered. Then, it was over. I didn’t think that we had served the play well, so I decided to do it again, six years later, with the late John Cazale, who was in Dog Day Afternoon and The Godfather. Eight years later, I was in London doing American Buffalo and had the idea to film it. I just wanted to record the play, to learn a little bit more about it from that angle. And then it just got out of hand.

BS The characters in the film seem to be extremely articulate in a way that most characters from the lower classes in American films are not.

AP Yes, exactly.

BS What they couldn’t articulate was their rage. Your acting was very distanced, your character’s violence, like the language, an intellectual violence that no one could find. That’s why the overt violence at the end was so chilling.

AP It has something to do with the time he wrote it in, the age he was when he wrote it. When I showed the film to him, he said, “I wrote that three people ago.” But at the time, he was inspired by incidents that took place. He had written a book, Speakers, where he became involved with a lot of street people in the ’60s.

BS He was a squatter back then.

AP Yeah. He described one incident in particular to me. He was coming out of a bar with an unsavory character and the guy looks across the street. So Heathcote looks across the street: and sees for a moment, a quasi-celebrity staring back at his unsavory friend, then turn white and look away. And Heathcote’s friend says, “He knows me.” Heathcote never forgot that moment. It was part of why he wrote the play. There was some kind of mutuality that went down between these two men.

BS So there was a moment of recognition and in that recognition, fear.

AP Yes. To express that kind of metaphor, whatever that is, in terms of repressed rage, that underclass—all these things were swimming in a 22-year old mind, this sort of disconnected . . . which is why I say that the play is not quite finished. To this day, we always talk about the feelings in his piece, that it would be interesting to write a movie based on these two characters, this theme of rage, which is what’s tactile and gets under your skin. A woman who saw the movie said, “To think that that’s out there, that that’s out there.” There’s a bit of nihilism in it too. Sentiments inherent in the world don’t reach them. There’s no hope for them. They’re numbed by sentiment. It just stimulates them to strike.

BS It’s as if your character, Graham, has already drawn his conclusions, already knows the role he’s going to play, every single one of the moves he’s going to make. Nothing surprises him.

AP I know.

BS It’s very strange. These two characters just want some kind of little, lonely power.

AP Heathcote says, “Fame is the perversion of the human instinct for validation and attention. Without [attention] our feedback system breaks down because we don’t know who we are.” What I saw as I worked with the play, were his political feelings at that time. If people understand the kind of political animal the writer is, then they can experience the piece. In the ’60s, there were Joe Orton’s plays, Edward Bond’s, Osborne’s—very political voices. Heathcote Williams was in this territory when he wrote AC/DC. That play was clearer, more accessible, but I think The Local Stigmatic will hold up more.

BS What about you as an actor, as a political animal? Jon Voight obviously made it possible for the play to go on, because he believed in it. You’ve taken a playwright who should be seen—I know you didn’t mean to do it in exactly this way, you were intrigued and it was a very natural progression—but by making this play into a film, you have made it more accessible. It’s an important idea—that actors and writers band together and do more of these projects.

AP If you mean political as an expression of how you’re perceiving things, there are certain projects which express a point of view. Scarface was an expression of a political sense, of a certain thing that was out there. There are certain pieces that lend themselves to a political perception and others that are for entertainment. I don’t have any strong political stance, at least, I’m not aware that I do, I’m like everybody else, I consider myself a performer, whatever that is. But when I see a piece that’s addressing what’s out there, what I see out there, that I’ve seen in my life, that I believe is out there . . . If I were a painter, I would paint it, if I were a writer I’d write it. But as an actor . . .

If you go out and make commercial movies, and you get supported by your art, and you’re fortunate enough to make money, then you can afford to do your own projects. A lot of people can’t afford to.

Bette Gordon That’s what’s sad. I expect people who work commercially to then have the freedom to work on plays, lower budget films, things they’ve always wanted to do. But very few attempt it.

AP I’ve seen actors become interested in more political ventures, feeling that they have to compensate for all the commercial work, which is all very good. What I felt I knew and understood was the material I responded to as an actor. There’s also material I respond to as a person in the world. But when you can no longer do the work that you started out wanting to do as an actor—if you have a steady diet of punching in a clock, in a crazy kind of way, that can bring you an emptiness. Doing The Local Stigmatic gave me back the excitement I felt doing the off-off-Broadway stuff. I was involved in the film and didn’t feel I had to bring it out at any certain time. Of course, you have to pay for that kind of thing. But that’s nothing, because once somebody else pays for it, then you’re at their mercy to market it, and then that already makes the whole process different. So I indulged myself. Here I had something that didn’t have to be marketed. I still say, if it doesn’t have a marketplace, that’s okay, I did it. It’s there. Hopefully, it’ll be there after I’m gone.

BS Did you really want the filming process to go on sporadically over a couple of years so that you could mull it over?

AP I had no idea. We filmed this thing in nine days. You keep hearing that you can’t do things, “No, that’s not the way it’s done, it’s done this way. You gotta do this, you gotta do that.” I tell you, I wouldn’t be here if I had done things the way I supposedly should have done them. So, I’m starting to think, well, I’m doing this in a crazy way, and of course, you can’t imagine how many mistakes I made, I’m certainly accountable to myself for these things, in the way I produced it, the way I wasted time, because I didn’t know, I had to learn. But I was learning on my own, whatever, I was learning. And if I were to do another film, and I want to do others, and I will do others, because it’s a lot of fun, and it made me feel like I was in it. I didn’t feel out of it, I felt in it, if you know what I mean. It made me feel back in it, like I’m in whatever it is that we’re in when we’re in it.

BG That feeling of involvement is probably inexplicable, so different from being in somebody else’s film, to say you’re in it, it’s an all-encompassing feeling.

AP It’s not so much that I made it, because, really, I just acted in it. It was written by Heathcote Williams, and it was directed by David Wheeler, and Ed Lachman shot it and all; but what I mean is that you’re not required to produce the work so that it has a mass appeal. What happens to people who have a steady diet of acting in mass appeal productions is that they feel an unnecessary pressure to produce. It was a relief not to have to produce. In the end it’s that fine line—the difference between expression and a job: trying to make a thing work the way you feel it’ll work, is expression. It’s no new thing. For me, it is . . .

BS To be able to just play.

AP Just to play with something.

BG And see it grow. Did you look at rushes, and say, okay, this is how I did this particular scene, this is the way our characters are growing, and this is what I want to do next?

AP I worked with the actors for three months before we filmed it. I believe in extensive rehearsal times that can go on anywhere between six months and a year. It’s something I’d like to do more often, if I can.

BS It takes an enormous amount of time for text to sink into the heart: to reveal itself. That’s what I’m thinking as you’re talking.

AP Exactly. You can imagine Keene—he played Shakespeare’s Richard III at age eight—what was he doing with that same role at age 30? You were seeing something, I’m sure, that was quite different from what you’d see if he’d had four weeks to prepare it. It was an extension of his psyche.

BG The other school of thought is that when actors overly prepare and rehearse for film, what you get on the screen doesn’t have the tension and excitement that it might. There’s an immediacy that you’re trying to get on film. Often, directors say that the first take is the best take.

AP Well, there’s a kind of rehearsing that doesn’t go anywhere. I take my example from the Berlin Ensemble. They would come in, sit down, have coffee, and talk a little bit and then they would leave. And that would be that day.

BG That was their way of rehearsing—just talk?

AP Yeah. I mean, look what they’re doing now in films all the time. Woody Allen does it. Most films do it. They have what they call post-production work. Charlie Chaplin did it all the time.

BG They make the film and then they re-make the film in post-production.

AP Yeah. Charlie would come in and go to work and he would say, “Not today, I don’t feel it today. And that was it.” That’s an expensive proposition. But this is not new. I’m getting this from all of them.

BG Would you have wanted to direct The Local Stigmatic?

AP No! If I had directed Local Stigmatic I don’t know what I would have done. I have no idea. I’d move the camera of course, because that’s what they’re doing these days, isn’t it?

BG You had more to do with the performances . . .

AP Yes. I became interested in a lot of different aspects. The whole idea of taking a movie script and reading it as a radio show is fascinating. Listening to the script, the whole script—reading between the lines; she gets up and goes there, he walks over to the—you start to see the movie unfold before you’ve even shot it, before you’ve even started rehearsing. You see the movie in your mind. I didn’t do that on this one but I have learned to do that now. Stigmatic is more like a film of a play. Because we never wrote a film script; we just filmed the play.

BG The blocking seemed very natural.

AP We just got lucky. We did this in nine days, but then we came back a year or so later and shot five more days, the idea being that we then knew—after all that time editing, which we did whenever we could get together, because I had to do commercial things—what else we needed.

BS Would you want to work with everyone from this film as an ad hoc ensemble company; do another film together because you all understand each other’s language, the way you all move . . .

AP I like the idea that I’m in movies, and I go off and meet all kinds of people, and go to different places. I need that in my life. I like changing. I want to add new people, find different things. There may be people you can learn from on certain projects, who are plugged into it in a certain way, and have more of a need to express that idea. So you should keep moving; and when it’s right, when you get the right mesh, then it’s—sometimes, though, you don’t know that until it’s too late, so . . .

Al Pacino, Paul Guilfoyle, and Joe Maher in The Local Stigmatic.

BS What’s the next play you want to film?

AP I’m searching for things now. I look around and, when something strikes me in this way, I’m involved with a play that I’m developing, I don’t know if I can film it but I would like to film it. There are a couple of Strindberg plays, maybe something that is a film, a small film.

BG That doesn’t start off as a theater piece?

AP Yeah. I had a real idea about Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie but I don’t much want to act in it. I would like to get two other actors to be in it. I wouldn’t want to direct it either, but I have ideas about how to film it.

BG You’d be like the creative producer?

AP Yes.

BG Why don’t you want to act in it?

AP I don’t feel that right for the character. That’s what’s good about trying things out. Try it out. See if you can play it. Give it a chance. Not a reading. If you know this is good material, go out and play it a while. See if it feels right on you, and then if it does, film it.

BG When you talk about readings, what is it that you do?

AP I get a group of actors, and we get miked. Then we record the reading. Later we listen to it and try to visualize it as a movie. Then we do other things: try to visualize the movie without words, talk the story with no dialogue, as if it were a silent film. And possibly you’ll get a moment that you’ll use in a film. I’ve done that in commercial pictures.

BG With other actors in the picture?

AP No, with the director.

BG Do you talk about the performance, or the voice tone, or the text . . .

AP No, not the performance so much, because you really don’t have performance, you get a sense of the text. You get a sense of what scenes play. You get a feeling for your film. You hear it in context.

BG You realize which moments in particular are really important. What does that lead to?

AP It leads to rewriting it. And sometimes a thing you thought might not work, works. It’s an advantage to be able to have the time to try different things out. And to be able to do that in the big world is what some of the big directors do.

BG What does Coppola do?

AP That’s what Coppola does, George Lucas, all of them, they’re very innovative. I got a lot of this stuff from them.

BG You had a strong part in the conceptualizing of The Local Stigmatic, from the theater to the film screen?

AP We all contributed. I’d give the film to the actors and say, “You cut the scene, and then you see, maybe there’s room to play around.” And they would cut it on videotape. We learned that way. That’s when you really appreciate what an editor can do. But sometimes you start cutting it and . . . I felt a little bit like this: When you don’t know something, you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, but you also don’t know the rules. So you come up with things that might be different. That’s what I mean when I say we got lucky. Because you’re not supposed to do that. You know: you never go into the editing room!

BG So you just let it happen, that’s better than knowing the rules and trying to break them.

AP Sometimes you feel you’re brave enough. You feel brave enough to say, “Aw, screw it.” Sometimes.

BG Do you think there is an undercurrent of homosexuality running through the play?

AP I don’t believe so. They play perverse sexual games, they play at everything: heterosexuality, homosexuality; machismo, femininity . . . It’s all about ambiguity, identity recognized and noticed, sexual ambivalence: AC/DC in the abstract.

BG Have you seen the films of Fassbinder, the German director?

AP Yes.

BG I feel a strong affinity between some of the British playwrights: Harold Pinter, Heathcote Williams, Joe Orton, and what Fassbinder was doing. He was very conscious of class. His movie, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, has a similar violence hidden under its scenes as in The Local Stigmatic. The first time I met you, we talked about how to work with violence in film, not in an exploitative way, but in a way that is endemic to the material. What is your feeling about the way some films deal with violence and the way you deal with it here, in this play, and the movie?

AP Well, there was no getting away from it. There was a violent act committed in this piece. See, we had a different problem, because it is a play, and at the same time as this act is taking place he’s performing a ritual of sorts, and he’s speaking in ironies, and you have to hear that. And how do you have this act take place and hear it at the same time? And I think that was the reason it failed on stage, quite frankly. It was hard for an audience to hear what was going on while that was happening, literally, in front of them. And Heathcote had said that he felt his play leaked at that point, and he would never do that again. That violence dwarfed what was going on and therefore, people were confused by what they saw. They just took it as a brutal, gratuitous act.

BG It’s an overt act in response to a covert desire.

AP Yes. So, in making the movie, we tried to figure out how to make it possible for the audience to receive a violent act. That was where that distancing style came in the film. And that’s what took the time; trying to figure it out.

BG How did you do it on stage? Similarly?

AP Yes, we tried to mute it, but it was impossible.

BG Because the theater demands that you act it out.

AP Yes. The odd thing is—you see what they do all the time in movies; they’re more graphic, more literal, when portraying an act of violence. We tried to have it happen, and at the same time make you be able to receive the impact of the ironies (the text) and the act.

My problem with the movie is that at around 30 minutes into the picture, I worry that the language gets tiring, there’s no break in it. At one point, I wanted to—I heard later on that Ingmar Bergman did that—break the film there, a little accident that was built in . . .

BG The projector breaks, the film burns, and you see it burn on the film.

AP And you get a five minute break. Because this play is peripatetic, it’s a descendent of the Jacobean plays. I feel that about Heathcote’s language and his style, which is why anyone who writes responds to it, because they hear that dialogue. And then you know, you’ve gotta miss it the first time, you’ve gotta miss it the second time, it takes you two or three times to hear it. And that’s the thing about the film: it serves the writing. The context is the language.

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