Al Pacino arrives with the aura of a star and a black outfit that suggests the parading
of star power. But he shrugs it off with a smile. "Somehow it always comes out that
way - that I wear black. I have to start thinking more about wearing colorful clothes. I
could actually have chosen a brighter tie. But my socks are white," he adds with a
lift of the leg.
Honoured by a retrospective at the American Film Festival in Deauville, France, the
59-year-old actor-director has just added two controversial features to his credits,
Michael Mann's The Insider, which has not won any prizes from the American tobacco
industry, and Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, which did not score at all with the
American Football League.
Q: Considering your two latest films, are you actually looking for controversy?
A: Anytime you make a movie about a subject, you are liable to stir controversy, and it is
always good for the movie, as long as it is a kind of healthy controversy. I remember
doing films in the past about real people, and the idea is that you try to capture the
essence of the person in this particular situation and make it into a character in a
drama. It is a dramatisation, like what (Oliver) Stone did with Nixon.
Drama can never be the real thing - that is the difference between drama and
documentary, and even documentary is only a perspective. When the films are about
ourselves, or something we are occupied with, we become more sensitive. We have an idea
about how we should be expressed, and we think we are entitled to such a presentation. But
I guess Mann and Stone are also entitled to their interpretation. They have both been
inspired by a story - they do not say that this is what really happened - but they are
bringing out the metaphor. You can say that Shakespeare interpreted Richard III in a
certain way, because there is a Richard III Society, which claims that he was a nice
person. So the controversy is always there.
Q: What sort of roles do you find the most difficult to play?
A: There are two kinds of difficult roles. The first is when the actual conditions of
shooting are difficult, with long hours and exhausting locations. In this way every movie
has its own 'difficult' personality. The second is when you have trouble connecting to the
role, finding the right way to express certain areas of the character.
Sometimes you feel you are able to play a part, and suddenly you realise that it is not
working at all. It would be good if you could quit, when that happens, but when the ball
is rolling it is obviously impossible, and you just have to try harder.
When I was a young actor in repertory, I would go to the theatre hoping to get the good
roles. But I often ended up connecting to the characters I did not like, and the others
did not work.
Q: You haven't done much comedy in your career - was that a choice?
A: Actually, I started as a comic, as you probably can tell (laughs), but I lost my
way, and for the last 30 years I have tried to get back. But I have never - in myself -
separated comedy and tragedy, I think there is both in everything, except, of course, in
the straight out comedy.
Many people are convinced that comics enjoy life and everything much better - I do not
know whether that is true - but the comics I know do not seem to be different from us.
Still it all depends on the script.
If something funny comes up, I am ready to do it, although I have still a few more
tragedies in me. However, sometimes I think I should be more open in terms of joining
ideas with directors who are interested in the exploration of cinema. When I did Looking
for Richard, about Shakespeare's Richard III, it was - in its spirit - experimental, and
it was indeed very fulfilling. However, the older you get, you realise that your time is
limited, and there are still so many things you want to do. So at this point I cannot see
myself going off to concentrate on a single project which would take my total commitment
for a year.
I try to achieve a balance, as I have done over the years, choosing my parts by rather
traditional features; from the story, the character and the director, then taking the
experiments into my own company. And I do have an
idea for a film similar to Looking for Richard.
Q: Shakespeare is a litreary source; what interest do you have in other literature?
A: The Russian greats turned me on at first….the reading of them inspired my whole
life, they were real allies to me, and got me through a difficult period. I will continue
to play Chekov, and I have tried to adapt Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, but it is
always difficult to pay the right homage to such a work.
Q: What did it mean to you when you finally took home the Oscar itself?
A: I guess it must be like winning the Olympics - people just went on to congratulate
me. Just being nominated is an enormous honour, and I have been lucky to feel that a few
times. It is another way of being recognised for something you do. Every year many great
performances are overlooked, either because they are ... overlooked, or because the
picture did not do well. But consider the odds: there are so many films being made every
year. So you just have
to be grateful.
Q: Are you still contributing your time and efforts to the Actors' Studio?
A: It was a place I went to, when I was very young and struggling, and - as most
actors - poor and looking for work. You could go to auditions at the studio with no other
qualifications than you just wanted to do it, and if you were accepted, you suddenly had
not only the best place for training in New York, but also a home and a family.
If you play the cello, you can always practice at home. But if you are an actor, you
have to practice in front of people, and here was not only the opportunity, but also the
tradition. Here you could go and approach roles and anything else, all for free. There
would be directing sessions with Elia Kazan, acting sessions with Lee Strasberg, dance,
fencing, voice training, a whole social life. The studio had - and has - foundations such
as the James Dean Memorial Fund, which support actors who cannot pay their rent or are in
a financial mess. Obviously, if you become successful, you put back as much as you can.
Born in Bronx, of Italian descent, he learned 'the method' from Lee Strasberg at the
Actors' Studio in New York and also trained at a small theatre company in Boston, before
his screen debut in 1969 (Me Natalie) - and his first major role the following year (The
Panic in the Needle Park). His international break came with the magnificent, Oscar
nominated role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather.
Between films with such directors as Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, William Friedkin,
Norman Jewison and Francis Ford Coppola, which earned him another seven nominations and
finally the statuette itself (for Scent of a Woman ), he found time to perform on
stage and be artistic director of the Actors' Studio. His feature directorial debut,
Richard III, was selected for the official program at Cannes in 1996.
"Indeed I have played many gangster characters, but the real gangsters know that I
am just an actor - at least most of them," he says.