Al Pacino, I mean Al Pacino... Al Pacino is talking to me... It’s March 2000 and he’s in the Dorchester Hotel at the press junket for his new movie, Any Given Sunday, a muscular sports drama from director Oliver Stone set against the backdrop of the American football industry. Pacino plays ageing coach Tony D-Amato who is forced to re-evaluate everything he knows about the game and life in general. None of which seems terribly relevant when you have the opportunity to talk to Al Pacino.
I find him in soulful mood, providing thoughtful answers in which he seems to be pondering out loud as much as anything else. But the most striking thing about him is how much space he takes up. He’s barely 5’ 7” but he seems to fill my field of vision. More than that, it’s the way he can change the atmosphere in the room just by entering. As he arrived I had my back to the door, but something in the room altered enough to make me turn round and there he was, coming in, nodding to people, shaking ands, affable, expressive, welcoming.
When they talk about presence, this must be what they mean. It’s powerful stuff. As if you don’t know, Al Pacino is one of the greatest movie actors in film history. In any consideration of American film, actors don’t come much more iconic and enduring than Pacino. Even his close friend Robert De Niro can only be considered when he’s at the very top of his game. Pacino has brought some of the 20th century’s most memorable characters to screen life – from Michael Corleone in The Godfather films, through Tony Montana in Scarface, the eponymous Serpico, Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, even Steve Burns in the difficult Cruising.
The mark of true greatness is that even in weak films he provides memorable performances – Tom Dobb in the ill-fated Revolution, his diabolical scenery-chewing in The Devil’s Advocate, he even gave us a reason to watch The Recruit. Just about. After four nominations he finally won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1993 for Scent of a Woman, although arguably deserved more than the nomination (his third) he got the same year as Best Supporting Actor for Glengarry Glen Ross.
He’s a legend, an acting godhead. A hero? I’m not sure what that actually is any more, but he’s pretty damned close.
There’s a long history of movies that use sport as a cypher life – did you play American football; or are you more of an armchair fan?
"I don’t know it as well as I know baseball but I played football as a youngster. The game has changed now. It’s much more complicated. I don’t know the inner workings of the game. I enjoy watching it."
To an outsider it looks like a very technical game, a real test of mind, body and soul?
"A football player told me once in my research that playing quarterback in football is like going in the opposite direction on the freeway in LA where the traffic’s coming at you and reading Hamlet at the same time. That’s what a football quarterback is like. The machinery of football is much more complicated than I ever realised or imagined. There are over 130 plays. A coach works all year, seven days a week, to put this all together."
How does your own competitiveness surface?
"Everywhere I go there’s a chess game going on. That’s something I enjoy doing and I’m always looking for chess players, so if there’s any in the house, I’m here for a few days."
After you worked with Johnny Depp on Donnie Brasco he apparently said working with Al Pacino is like being on the wrong end of a lion’s roar. Do you get a sense of intimidating other actors?
"I certainly don’t feel it when I’m working with them. I approach it and do it just the same way I always did really. I couldn’t possibly act if I felt that they had this feeling for me. It’s like we’re doing it together, like an orchestra and we’re playing together. You don’t have that sense of what someone’s thinking about you.
“When I come to do a movie I feel I come with 30 years of a whole past and all the movies you’ve made and so people have a tendency to respond to where the … A lot of people grew up seeing pictures of me and there’s an image instilled in people that comes out of all this time. I have it when I meet someone who I’ve known just through movies and I always have a kind of an image of them, but through the years I’ve known that it’s always a good idea to let that go because they are never what you think they are.
"Nobody made me laugh more on set than Johnny Depp, he kept me in stitches through the whole filming. I have never laughed like that on a picture. I don’t know if it shows on the movie, it’s not supposed to, but it was a really funny group and Johnny was really great to work with. The actors are all together, we are like pieces of, like different instruments and we play together."
How did you find working with Oliver Stone directing?
"Oliver is unusual in that he directs with a kind of, it feel like he is in a state of chaos. He is. Somehow out of it all he seems to know what he is doing. He had like four scenes going at the same time, I’ve never seen that. He had four scenes, different scenes in the movie at the same time. That’s a sort of record for me. I was sort of jaw-dropped by that.
“He went over to one and knows what he’s doing. You feel that, you get that sort of confidence in someone you can sense they have a definite vision on what they’re doing. It’s just the way he does it. Most directors when they finish the movie they look at a rough cut, or rough assemblage of the entire film. They watch it then they talk to the editors and the process starts. We’re doing it to whatever time. Oliver doesn’t. He just starts cutting from the first scene and that’s very unusual. He does things that I’m not used to and I enjoy it."
Forgive me, but you’ll be 60 this year and yet you seem more accessible than ever. I understand your efforts to keep your personal life to yourself, but do you feel yourself mellowing with age, relaxing a little?
"I think it’s… I can’t even remember when I didn’t do interviews. I think it’s been a while now since I’ve been doing them. I guess you do a picture and the style today is to go out and try to be present for every film as though you’re supporting the film and I try to do that.
“My adage has always been, I’ve always been somewhat reticent about it because I’ve always said the actor – at least the actor I wanted to be – is better when the personality is removed and you get the actor, you get the character they are playing and I’ve always felt the more that’s known about you the more is read into the parts that you play.
“And I’ve realised that after a while that’s not the case. It’s not as I had thought. Relatively, it doesn’t matter really. Either way it’s fine."
You’ve rarely been short of interesting role to play, but do you find you’re able to apply different criteria to your choices now? Is it more of a challenge to keep it interesting?
"Maybe I’ve been spared. The whole idea of age is relative to the business you’re in. I don’t really put too much stock in it. We’re all different. Somebody at 40 is like they’re 30 and someone at 30 is like they’re 50. Chronological age doesn’t interest me, I find it just doesn’t. Maybe I’m kidding myself, I don’t know. What happens is at certain ages a certain part will come up and you don’t feel like you want to do that part because either you’ve been through that before. That’s how it shows itself. Parts interest you in terms of that. I’m not that interested in playing roles I might have been interested in 20 years ago."
It seems American football is subject to some of the same controversies as our own football, soccer. Are the top stars worth their salaries?
"When one looks into the lifespan of an athlete and takes into account the kind of money that is generated from the playing of the game you have to step back and take a look at it and determine what you think. Unless I know what the figures are I do believe that athletes are paid because of what they generate and that it’s the people who know about that are usually their agents, their go-betweens.
“Between the league and the player there’s a go-between who sees to understand the nature of the precariousness of the outcome – a player can get hurt – it’s a very dangerous game. I never thought much about the price they receive. I’m sure it’s relative to how much they bring in so I imagine it’s fair. It’s a funny kind of thing because there’s been such an outing of prices of things, such an outing of how much movies make, I try not to pay attention."
Your character in Any Given Sunday, Tony D’Amato can feel his life skipping away I wonder of you have any personal regrets you might share?
"I feel that some actors act simply the question of do you do what you do because, sometimes you do it you do it because you have to do it. So there’s the wanting to do it, there’s the desire to do it; then there’s the absolute need to do it, that you have to do it.
“I’ve always felt the reason I did it was because I had to. So I don’t think I sacrificed anything I think it saved my life. I guess that’s why it’s good to do these interviews because otherwise I don’t think about these things. I don’t seem to have any regrets, maybe I will later. I’ll call you!"
So, we know what Tony sees as the perfect night in – what does yours consist of?
"That is a very creative question! It seems like I’m always, I guess thinking about, I may be fantasising on certain foods but it’s not practical for me to eat them. The movies that are on all the time with me would be… There’s a movie that I like to see, it plays a lot on the telly. Every time I sit down and watch. I have a satellite dish at home I can get a lot of movies, I will sit down from time to time and see what’s playing that night. McCabe and Mrs Miller is always playing so I’m a big Julie Christie fan, always have been and I like that picture. The CD, well there’s really Sinatra and then there’s other singers, so… for pop singing. I do like to listen to arias De Stefano, Pavarotti.
How do you sit down and decide what roles you are going to take?
"There are times when you think I’m just going to do what I feel is right. First of all you’re lucky enough to be in a position to do that. Most actors, and the acting instinct is you go with the first role – any role that they’ll have you in. Along the way one has to remember there’s a point in a career where you are, if you do make it and have a lot of attention, there’s a tendency for people to want to use you and sometimes not in the right role for you but just because you’ve made it.
“So you have to be careful when you chose a part not to do it because you really enjoy the idea that people want you and they’re saying ‘We want you for this’ and ‘We want you for that’ and you get sort of ‘Maybe I can play whatever’ and you really are wrong for it but you think you can do it so you go in and you’re on it; whereas if you weren’t famous or anything they probably would never ever take you for the part.
“So you have to really be careful of that. Along the way my choices for things have changed. Now I pretty much hope, I haven’t done a role in…
"I’ve made a movie picture called Chinese Coffee myself which was like a Looking For Richard-type thing where I did it on my own. I’ve just finished it. Just finished cutting it and putting it together and it only took four years!
“It’s what I would call a small movie but at the same time I haven’t done a picture in a year and what I’m doing is trying to see if I can find something that I can connect to. But there’s a lot of reasons when you go in you think that this is an interesting part, maybe I’m not perfect for it, but I gotta try and the director is interesting.
“I just done two movies that came out in the same year which is not usual. They were done a year apart, but usually you separate them. But for both movies I had wonderful directors and interesting subjects and I let that be my guide."
How has going behind the camera affected your acting?
"I don’t think it affected it when I think about it. I think going behind the camera is something that I enjoy making. I try to explain it in a way and ask me further if I’m not clear. There’s a distinction between directing, being a director and wanting to make the film. The whole idea of making a film to me is because I feel I’m learning about it. In terms of directing or making a film – I flinch when I say director – I feel funny about that because I know what directors are and what they do and I know I’m not one of them. I’m not in that league and I know it, so it’s like calling myself a violinist or something. It’s another thing. It’s another talent.
“One who is a director looks at things that way. I look at things as an actor. I look at life and what I chose to do from an actor’s point of view.
"So for instance this movie I made. I made this little picture. I was acting in it and the director that I wanted, since it was done in-house, it was done with my own financing which is the way I like to do my pictures then I can do them sort of low budget way, and the director wasn’t there, so I did it and it’s shocking you know to then think. It’s almost impossible to direct yourself and act well in a movie you’ve directed. It’s really impossible.
“You know, you’re in it and you have to look at yourself and I can see the flaws in the film I made simply because I was, if I wasn’t in it I think I might have done better with it. You’re not watching it… What is this scene really saying and what do I want to say with it visually how do I want to frame it, when do I want to move in, when do I want to move out; and you can’t figure that when you’re acting.
“So you deprive yourself of that and of course, the poor other actors I worked with, I didn’t direct them at all and then I went and saw the rushes, what they did; and I said I got to go back and tell them something – and myself! So that’s when the monitors are real good for me. You know the one they have that drives you nuts and after each take 30 people run to this thing and look at it again and you just sitting there waiting for the verdict. They come back and say do it again, naturally you do it again.
“That’s good for me because I would be able to see what I did, but then I got so bored with that I just didn’t do that either. The film isn’t bad actually! But I’m a little embarrassed about directing. It’s not my first language but I just like making films and I like going on stage. So I continue going on stage because that’s really where it all started for me, so I go and do that as much as I can."
How has Oliver Stone changed since you worked together on Scarface where he was the screenwriter?
"I don’t think Oliver’s changed at all. He’s as wild as ever and that’s wonderful. He’s the same guy I knew back then. I think that I might have, well only he can tell you if I changed, I guess. I hope I did a little in that I don’t feel as laboured about things any more. I don’t labour on them in the same way. I believe in a good, a healthy preparation for things. You go out and you just consume as much information as you can get and you go out there and meet all the coaches and get out on the field and just do that. “That’s the real fun of the research and doing the things is to go out there and just spend the time with whoever. I got to find out about things in that way and I look forward to the next project where I can go out there and find out about a new project. You know that, that’s what you do."
Do you think the British audience understands American Football?
"I don’t know, that’s probably why I’m here, as the ambassador! That’s what’s going to be interesting to see if they do. It’s a game, it’s a sport. I think they get into the philosophy of it and how it impacts on people’s lives and personalities, so maybe that is relatable and the excitement of the game and chaos of it and what it does to people’s lives really. I love British soccer. I love rugby too, but I’m not that sophisticated with it."
You worked with LL Cool J and James Woods on this film, how do they work both together and with you?
"I think that all the styles come together in one thing and you sort of, it’s not necessary to do that, to differentiate.
“LL is a natural. He has the natural gift and of course James Woods is a brilliant actor, we know that and we’ve seen it. The way they work? I couldn’t tell them apart. Maybe they do it privately and then bring their work in. We all do it together, but the approach when Oliver is at the helm there calling the rehearsals and some actors like to rehearse more than others. What I remember about the football picture is that we got together in a room with Oliver and we discussed the scenes and who we were in relation to each other and all of that was pretty much as usual – standard – and then you play ball."
So, what’s next for Al Pacino?
"I don’t know if there’s anything on the horizon. I’ve been looking at a few things, but nothing special at this point."
You seem to thrive on strong, aggressive characters with weaknesses. What are your weaknesses?
"My weaknesses (massive pause for thought). I wish I could come up with something! I like to… I don’t even think, I don’t know, I’d have the same problem if you asked me what my strengths are. Maybe they are the same thing. That’s what I think, they’re the same."
You must be aware of how you are perceived by the world that doesn’t know you? You’re an icon. Do you feel it? Do you wake up and feel like an icon?
"No I wake up and think I’m a seagull – that’s from the play, Chekhov’s play."