Al Pacino: An Evening With Al
Imagine that you are an English major learning how to conduct an interview. Your teacher arranges for a guest to come to class to answer a few questions. And that guest just happens to be Oscar winning actor, Al Pacino. For a handful of students at UCLA, that actually happened. Writer Lawrence Grobel convinced Pacino to answer a few questions for his students and this article from the May 2002 issue of Movieline magazine was the result.
I was sitting under a patio umbrella playing chess with Al Pacino at the Mulholland Tennis Club when I told him that Tom Wortham, the chairman of the English department at UCLA, had made me an offer. There were 1,400 English majors at the university, the largest number of such majors at one institution in the country. Wortham was concerned about what profession these students were going to enter because the job market is increasingly dominated by business, engineering, computers and science. As I am a UCLA English major graduate who’s made a career of writing for magazines, he asked if I’d teach a class in the art of the interview.
“How can you refuse?” asked Pacino, who has been a friend of mine since I first interviewed him for Playboy magazine in 1979. He paused, then moved his knight aggressively. He has become a much better chess player than I over the years because he practiced a lot, especially on movie sets. And since he’s been in a moviemaking mode for the last few years–he’s done Simone (written and directed by The Truman Show scribe Andrew Niccol), Insomnia (a remake–directed by Christopher Nolan of Memento fame, and costarring Hilary Swank and Robin Williams–of the 1997 Norwegian film), People I Know (about a New York publicist and costarring Téa Leoni, Kim Basinger and Ryan O’Neal) and Chinese Coffee (a small film based on the two-character play written by Ira Lewis, which Pacino personally financed, directed and costarred in with Jerry Orbach)–he’s become proficient at castling, trading queens and knocking off an opponent’s king.
“Would you come to one of the classes and let the students interview you?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “I can walk in unexpected. Surprise them. See how they handle it.”
A week later I met with him again to play paddle tennis and told him I’d accepted the UCLA offer, and that I had come up with an idea for him: “There’s an organization called The Friends of English. They do fundraisers and give scholarships to English graduate students. Why not come one evening to the Fowler Museum and show selections from your personal films–Looking for Richard, The Local Stigmatic and Chinese Coffee–and talk about the process of turning plays into films? I can ask my 15 students to interview you before that event.”
“I’m on,” said Al.
A few weeks after that, he stuck his head into the classroom and asked, “Am I in the right place?”
The class, which was scheduled to meet in the early evening just prior to the Friends of English event, had been warned he’d be coming to the Fowler Museum and had prepared questions for him, but they were stunned to see him in person.
Q: Why did you agree to come here?
A: You go through life saying, “No, no…yes…no…yes.” This was one of the yeses. You don’t know why, really. I rarely do it. But Larry and I are close friends, and he asked me.
Q: What motivated you to be an actor?
A: What motivated me as a youngster was that I could express myself through acting, in certain kinds of plays, certain material. It was that simple. I was able to say how I felt about something. What is this class, anyway?
GROBEL: The students are learning how to ask interview questions.
A: That’s what we say in acting all the time, when we’re working on a play. We say, “Ask the question.” You don’t have to answer it, just ask it.
Q: Will you watch The Godfather trilogy again now that it’s out on DVD?
A: No, I don’t think so. You know when I watch The Godfather? When I’m flipping through the channels and the first Godfather comes on–it’s so constructed, it’s just a story. It’s so interesting. It holds your attention. It was one of those lucky, magical things that happened.
Q: Do you feel that way about The Godfather Part II?
A: I feel that way more about the first one than the second, though the second said a lot more, it was more risky. But the first one is great storytelling.
Q: What about The Godfather Part III?
A: A major mistake was made in Godfather III, I think, which was they tried to redeem Michael Corleone. I don’t think the audience wanted to see Michael Corleone as someone who is wanting or needing of redemption. It got a bit esoteric. It would have been better if it was done in a more subtle way. I appreciated Francis [Ford Coppola] striving for that, but it isn’t where that character’s power is as a hero.
Q: What was it like working with Francis Coppola?
A: He’s got that kind of a largeness. That’s why he can do some of the things he does, because he really can listen. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. His intelligence is a kind of sensor for him.
Q: Do you get excited when you’re switching through the channels and you see yourself in films?
A: Excited? I got a lot of problems, but that’s not one of them. [Laughs] I’m grateful for that.
Q: In Looking for Richard you asked, “What’s this thing that gets between us and Shakespeare?” What do you think that “thing” is?
A: It’s prejudice. It’s what we heard about it. It’s all myth. We get a kind of atrophy of the ear as soon as we hear Shakespeare. We don’t want to know. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to it.
Q: How did you get comfortable with the language of Shakespeare?
A: You start by tasting the words. You try to make them your own. You serve them and they in turn serve you.
Q: Why did you eschew a traditional approach on Richard III when making Looking for Richard?
A: Richard is different for me onstage. I was being kind of a moderator for Looking for Richard, so my Richard was colored by my own moderation of it. It didn’t quite have the kind of thing I would do if I had a director and I was doing Richard alone. I would have approached it much more seriously. I was doing it more tongue-in-cheek for the film. If I did Richard now, it would be different.
Q: Why did you choose Richard III?
A: Because I did it twice when I was young. I knew more about it. Richard III is not necessarily my favorite play.
Q: Do you consider Shakespeare therapy?
A: I consider this therapy [Laughs]. It’s all therapy. If you’re trying new things, you’re stepping out a little bit, there’s a kind of therapy in that.
Q: Is movie work as fulfilling as stage work?
A: I’ll just say this: Doing theater is like walking the tightrope. You go way up there, and if you fall, that’s theater! In movies, there’s a wire, but it’s on the ground. That’s the difference. Your body changes when you’re up there on the stage. Your chemicals change to cope with that. The lifestyle of the movies is a different experience. Not that it’s less of an art or a craft. It’s apples and oranges.
Q: Did you star in Glengarry Glen Ross because you were attracted to David Mamet’s writing?
A: Mamet writes in a very restricted way– you’ve got to say Mamet’s words, because if you don’t, you lose the syntax somehow. He’s brilliant at that. It’s very helpful. At the same time, you can’t just get locked in to only the words, you have to fill it with your own imagination. That takes time.
Q: When you’re choosing projects now, do you look mostly at scripts or do you make your decision based on who the director is?
A: It’s the script first. But if you have the right script and the wrong director, forget it.
Q: What other passions do you have besides acting?
A: I have passion about everything, really. I like that you used the word “passion”–because sometimes wise guys like Larry use the word “obsession.” But it’s passion.
Q: What’s the difference between the two?
A: If I have to tell you, man….[Laughs] Obsession is another kind of thing. I don’t see life to it. It doesn’t have a drive. It isn’t all-inclusive, it’s relegated to just a person.
Q: With everything that’s going on in the world right now, do you think movies are frivolous?
A: Well, everything does seem frivolous, but you have to adjust. One has to think about what was done during wartime in the past. They just continued as best they could. I heard that when England was being bombed during the second World War, actors would still do their plays. They’d go downstairs for shelter when the bombs were being dropped and then go back up to the stage when it stopped.
Q: Have you ever wanted to give up acting for, say, directing or writing?
A: If I could write I wouldn’t do anything else. I once wrote to a woman I was really in love with and I never mailed it. I had a hard time with it, the only way I got through it was to write this letter to her. I’d sit there writing and I’d look up and five hours had gone by in what felt like five minutes. I thought, what a wonderful way to live. That’s how I feel about my movies, the little ones I do. Just to be able to be in there and get lost so that time just… [snapping his fingers] it’s wonderful to get involved.
Q: Why haven’t you released The Local Stigmatic, which you funded?
A: Because that way no one can take control of it.
Q: Isn’t that a big financial loss for you?
A: Steven Spielberg said, “Don’t make pictures with your own money,” and he’s right. But I’m going to continue to do it anyway because I’m a sucker for a good script.
It was time for Al to go to the Fowler Museum for the Friends of English event, where 300 people waited, including David Spade and Benicio Del Toro. The clip and discussion session went on for over three hours and only finished when we were told the building had to be closed.
Two days later I had lunch with Al at Chianti on Melrose Avenue, and I was reminded what a busy actor he is. He had two scripts with him and was trying to decide which movie to do next.
“That was a good night,” I said to him.
“Yeah, that was a nice evening,” he said with warmth in his voice. “A very nice evening.”
- Students who contributed to this article: Mike Maloney, Nathan Ihara, Rhea Cortado, Tenny Hovsepians, Mary Yoon, Chris Moriates, Antero Garcia, Mary Williams, Matthew Ball, Maryellen Whitlow, Ryan Joe, Lynn Kwan, Jenny Kim, Boaz Ronkin, Kelsey McConnell