Al Pacino is arguably one of the greatest and most accomplished actors of his generation. He became a cultural icon thanks to revered performances in wide range of classics such as The Godfather, Serpico, Scarface, Scent of A Woman, Heat and many more.
He walks into the room, dressed in black, his hair as wild as his personality, looking like a rock star. He instantly fills the room with his charisma, his deep voice makes the air quiver every time he utters a word. He is 70 years old, yet he is still bubbling with the energy of a young man.
“Hi, it’s good to see you again,” Pacino nods warmly when I greet him. But I am quick to point out that we haven’t met before. He blushes momentarily and then laughs, “It’s my line, you know. It helps me, believe me, because if I see you and I’ve seen you once before and I say ‘oh, nice to meet you’, they go ‘We met before’, so this covers me.” Shame Pacino doesn’t do comedy, because he is a funny guy.
Pacino has recently starred in the TV film You Don’t Know Jack, playing the character of the infamous pathologist, Dr. Jack Kevorkian (aka Dr. Death), who, in 1990, shocked America and challenged its legal system by offering ‘Death Counselling’ services to terminally ill patients. Provocative, obstinate and complex, Jack risks it all in his fervour to challenge the prevailing law.
“What I liked about Jack Kevorkian as a character was that it was interesting to me to see a real zealot. We don’t see them often. We’re not in contact with them. What are they really like? The ones that really go all the way. We know of them in history and stuff and I felt that Jack was one of them and I thought how interesting to be able to attempt to really try and see where that would take me,” Pacino explains.
Indeed, Jack’s zealotry and harsh personality was one of the major factors that lead to his downfall. In spite of being on the forefront of the national news coverage, he failed to communicate the virtues of his cause, prompting a legal action against him for helping 130 people to die, which resulted in his incarceration.
Even after inhabiting Jack’s character and embarking on his emotional journey, Pacino is still not sure about what he would do had he been in Jack’s situation. “Until you’re in the situation you don’t know what you’re going to do. I played characters who when someone puts a chainsaw to their neck and said tell us where it is, he says ‘take it and shove it up your …’. That’s how far he would go, so I play. I don’t know that I would that,” he laughs.
“Part of the reason for acting is that. I don’t confuse me with the characters I play if I can help it. There’s always a part of you in a part â€“ but just a part.”
In order to play a character, Pacino looks for something human that connects him with the character. In some cases, he met and got to know the real-life characters. For instance, he had Frank Serpico with him on set, consulting with him on everything he did, when he was shooting Serpico. But that was not the case with Jack, whom he met only after making the film.
“Jack was available to the media,” Pacino explains. “There’s tons of footage on him and especially when he was going through the controversy.” So much of Pacino’s knowledge of Jack came from text and TV interviews. He spent some time absorbing all the available information and living with it.
“One needs rehearsal but there’s also a private time where you get with yourself and the character and try to find a way to navigate that course and hopefully if you’re lucky you get a touch of it where it becomes expression. It’s a journey that you take and I didn’t think that Jack was where the character was when we made the movie. He was 12 years younger. His energy was different and he’s an awful lot of fun to be with now.”
Nonetheless, Pacino would’ve liked to have met Jack before embarking on the project, but he couldn’t afford it due to the inherent time constraints that come with TV production. One wonders why would a star like Pacino, who has the power to take things or turn them down as he wishes, would agree to work on TV films and accept their limitations?
“Something like these kind of movies with Jack Kevorkian and having some one like Barry Levinson at the helm and a pretty good script, you say wow, this is interesting. These kind of pictures that challenge you and ask you to go someplace in yourself and go after something
aren’t readily there,” Pacino enthuses.
Indeed, many movies with compelling stories and interesting subjects, such as Jack Kevorkian, are made on TV these days in order to cut costs. “Although it would be nice if HBO put it out as a movie and try it but it’s as Sidney Lumet once said to me, â€˜If you put it on film, Al, it’s a movie’,” Pacino laughs.
The path to the top was a rocky one for Pacino. He was born in South Bronx, New York to a poor Sicilian family and raised by his mother and grandfather, a plasterer, after his father abandoned them when he was two years old. His grandfather, who instilled a great work ethic in him, left an indelible influence on him. “My grandfather loved his work. I remember seeing him mixing the plaster and how focused he was doing it. That kind of focus was very impressive to me. He would read the paper and try to pick the right horse,” he laughs. “I believe that I am here only because of him and my mother too.”
Thanks to his mother, Pacino was exposed to theatre and movies at a tender age. Later, he attended the School of Performing Arts, but dropped out when he was 17 for studying at HB Studio and apprenticing at Off-Off Broadway venues. But only after being cast in the Creditors, did Pacino decide to pursue acting earnestly. He moved on to train at the Actors Studio, acquiring the Method acting intensity that propelled him to stardom.
Stardom and accolades, however, have not changed the essence of Pacino, the hard working actor. “I don’t think of myself as anything but an actor struggling to find the next role and when I do get the role to try and see if I can find any way into it so that I can perform it in a way that is suitable.”
Pacino’s exceptional talent and remarkable achievements have been rewarded with Oscar, Golden Globes, Tony awards and many more. Nonetheless, he has never stopped educating himself, and reading and watching what he finds inspiring. He even observes and learns from young actors, whom he works with. But he admits that he was more fortunate than others.
“This is a craft that you have to keep doing whenever you can and you shouldn’t spend too much time dealing with the fact that there’s a world out there with a lot of competition. “He who persists in his folly will one day be wise.’ I am waiting for that day to come,” he teases.
Incredibly, the legendary Pacino is no different from other actors in the film business when it comes to spending lengthy periods of time not working and waiting for the right job to land at their doorstep. Sometimes, he winds up doing projects that he wouldn’t normally do. To avoid that, he gets involved in a more creatively rewarding activity, like directing films.
In spite of the success of his directorial debut, Looking For Richard, Pacino doesn’t see himself as a director. “I think I know enough about film to know what a director really is and what they do and to appreciate it, admire it and know that I am not that.”
Directing films for Pacino is like playing a game with a group of people. “It’s like experimenting; we are trying different things,” he enthuses. “That’s what Looking for Richard was about. It started out as an experiment that totally got out of hand and finally became a movie.”
On the dawn of his 70s, Pacino’s appetite for creative work has not diminished. In addition to a busy acting career, he is directing and starring in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a project that has consumed four years of his life. “I don’t know why I am doing what I am doing,” he laughs. “I still have an appetite to do this and, well, it is what I do.”