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The Hemi Q&A: Al Pacino

At age 74, more than 40 years into a career that has made him one of the most revered actors in history, Al Pacino still has the fire for his art, whether it’s in the new film The Humbling or onstage doing Shakespeare in his native New York City

Author Claudia Roth Pierpont Photography Sean McCabe

qandaA movie star of megawattage ever since The Godfather back in 1972, Al Pacino has never lost his commitment to the stage. Despite having earned eight Oscar nominations (with one win, for Scent of a Woman), he’s as much at home with Shakespeare as with the hopped-up streetwise lingo of the great contemporary playwright David Mamet (and he has two Tony awards to prove it). In 2010, at the age of 70, he returned to the stage in the extraordinarily daunting role of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”—first at Shakespeare in the Park, playing outdoors in Central Park, and then on Broadway—because he’s an actor who loves acting, who loves the stage, who loves challenges and who frankly seems inexhaustible.

For Pacino, it’s all about “appetite,” a word he emphasizes as he sits across from me in a midtown Manhattan hotel room, dressed all in black and revealing several gold chains beneath his shirt when he moves his hands to talk—he’s Sicilian, after all—his enthusiasm palpable as we discuss the actor’s life and craft and his passion for the stage. The occasion is the opening of his latest film, The Humbling, directed by Barry Levinson. But, lest you think that’s at odds with a discussion of the theater, the film features Pacino playing a great American Shakespearean actor who, in the words of the bleak Philip Roth novel on which the movie is based, finds that he’s “lost his magic.”

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Al Pacino: I knew I wanted to do this part as soon as I read the book. It’s about something I really know about: an actor falling apart.

Hemispheres: But surely you don’t know the terror he experiences onstage, do you?
Pacino: Yes, I know the terror. Absolutely. Every actor knows it. The terror of being out there and losing your concentration, the terror when you go up and you don’t know your lines.

Hemispheres: Has that actually happened to you onstage?
Pacino: Yes! When I was younger, too—it’s not just a matter of age. I was doing an evening of Shakespeare soliloquies, and doing eight shows a week you can get more than exhausted. I had already done a matinee that day and I was in the midst of this speech and I was suddenly sure that I had just said this before—but I mean right before, I had the feeling of saying everything twice. I thought maybe the audience was just being forgiving because they knew who I was.

Hemispheres: What did you do?
Al Pacino: Well, it turned out I wasn’t actually doing it; it was just an impression, but that didn’t make it any less frightening.

Hemispheres: So you just snapped back into it?
Pacino: [Laughs hard] I staggered off the stage and found some corner to sit in and re-collect myself. But it’s the worst. And then I’ve done that thing where you start a speech and suddenly you’re in another play, because one word reminded you of something and led you off. It’s a rigorous job—the theater is a rigorous job. You can’t play any of these roles, especially Shakespeare, unless you go in there and rrrrrrrrrwwwwwwww! [Perfectly mimics the sound of a roaring engine]

Hemispheres: You must love it­—to go and do a demanding role like Shylock on the stage when you could be resting easy. That really takes some guts.
Pacino: And the desire. The appetite. But then, with age, you start to lose track of the words, and it really becomes difficult. I know actors, great ones, who don’t go onstage anymore. Because you have to grip it!

Hemispheres: So the stage is harder.
Pacino: The stage is much harder! What you try to do is get fewer performances a week so you’re not always struggling with exhaustion. I remember as a young actor doing David Rabe’s play “Pavlo Hummel”; it was the most physical role, three hours on the stage, a great play, a great part, but I said “I don’t think I can be an actor anymore if I have to do this eight times a week.” So I restricted it when I went to Broadway with it and I only did six—and that became my rule. Although when I did “Merchant” I did seven, which is a lot.

Hemispheres: How did a boy from the Bronx get started in all this?
Pacino: I started very young. My teachers in elementary school and junior high school encouraged me. Not that I had any desire to be an actor. I wanted to be an athlete, like everybody else. But I had a natural bent toward acting. I remember my great teacher Blanche Rothstein came to my house—to my apartment, I mean, to my tenement—to talk to my grandmother. It must have been eighth grade. Imagine a person like that! A teacher who comes to my house and climbs the five stories and has coffee with my grandmother and says, “You’ve got to encourage him to do this thing.” It breaks my heart.

Hemispheres: And that was all it took? Did you have any other eureka moments?
Pacino: I remember seeing “The Seagull.” I come from the South Bronx, from the kind of world where we don’t get exposed to that stuff. I must have been 14. This traveling troupe came to the Elsmere Theater, this big old vaudeville theater, and there in this huge 3,000-seat movie house there were about 15 people in the audience. I was transformed. I’d never seen anything so powerful and moving. When I got out, I got a book of short stories by Chekhov. I was just starting in the High School of Performing Arts, and there was a Howard Johnson’s on the corner of 46th and Broadway. So I went in for lunch, and there behind the counter was the star actor from “The Seagull” and I thought, This is an actor, a real actor, and I said to him, “I saw you! I saw you!” And he was nice to me. That was so great. I said, “Oh man, I loved you!”

Hemispheres: And then you knew exactly what you wanted?
Pacino: I sort of understood it, but I didn’t. I moved to the Village and got involved in plays. We did a lot of café theater: You just came in off the street and put something on and then passed the hat. Sixteen performances a week! That was how we ate, and it was a great time. But when I was 21, I got in a Strindberg play, and that was the moment when I realized that This Is What I Do From Now On—that I could express everything that happened to me through acting. It was no longer about making it or getting money for it, it was This Is It. This Is What I Do.

Hemispheres: So you’ve had just the career you set out to have?
Pacino: I didn’t ever think in terms of a career. The term somehow sanitizes it, seems to make it all about a plan and having money and a house. This never was my interest. The only thing I’ve found really interesting are relationships, naturally, and doing this stuff.

Hemispheres: Would it have been easier to do this stuff—the theater, Shakespeare—if you were English and had a National Theatre or a Royal Shakespeare Company to be part of?
Pacino: The English have incredible advantages. They’re brought up with Shakespeare. If I’d had that, I would have been a spear-carrier in some of these plays to start. I would have watched and listened the way I do when I work with great directors on a movie set. It’s not a deliberate kind of learning, but something gets layered in there. There’s a familiarity with the material, and so confidence is built. It becomes yours.

Hemispheres: Did you have anything in place of these institutions, or were you working alone?
Pacino: I had the Actors Studio. For me, getting in there was the greatest thing. That was a place where I had my comrades. It was a place where you could go to exercise and express and experiment with stuff, where you weren’t on the line to get the part. Imagine me going to audition for a Shakespeare play when I was a kid. I would be told, “You don’t speak right” or whatever. But there I did Shakespeare, I did musical comedy, I did Ibsen and Chekhov. And after that, I had the great Joe Papp, when he ran the New York Public Theater and the Shakespeare Festival. People like me didn’t even think about doing Shakespeare until Joe Papp brought this cross section of people to it—the ethnics—and said they could do it. This was the New World.

Hemispheres: Are there any advantages to being American in playing classical roles?
Pacino: Well, as the Brits have said to me many times, “You guys have the real temperament, the Elizabethan temperament. You’re from all different places and you’re all different types. You’re much more suited than you think. And it’s your language, too.”

Hemispheres: Are there any great roles you still want to do?
Pacino: Well, I missed Hamlet.

Hemispheres: Why didn’t you do it?
Pacino: It’s my favorite play, but at the same time I didn’t feel I was suited to it. I started to do it once, for Joe Papp. The whole cast was sitting around the table, reading it—Meryl Streep was going to play Ophelia, and there was Chris Walken and Gloria Foster and Jaime Sánchez and Raúl Juliá. And I got a little difficult, I guess. I wanted to know so much more than I did, like what the father was like before he was a ghost. I said I wanted to sit at that table every day with those great actors and just talk about the play, make up things to create a world and then just have a reading of the play after we’d had five weeks of exploration. And of course they threw me out on my ear. End of story.

Hemispheres: It takes time.
Pacino: If you don’t take time with it and learn it right, you’re just chasing it; you’re not embodying it. Most actors today get a four-week rehearsal period, and then you’re just learning lines. You’re not living in it. With Shakespeare especially, it’s best if you’ve done it before—because by the time you’re getting to any place of understanding, the run is over!

Hemispheres: You play a short scene from “King Lear” at the end of The Humbling. Has this kindled any desire in you to play the full role?
Pacino: You have to have appetite to play King Lear. Right now I don’t think I have the appetite to play it onstage—but the more I think about it, maybe I could do it on film. You know, these things are exhausting, and there are only so many things you can do. I have young children, and I don’t want to take time away from them. And it takes more time to do things, with age. You have to ask, “Can you do it physically? How am I going to put all that text in my head and remember?” You know [laughs], you can’t coast as King Lear.

Hemispheres: What about the stage again? Do you have the appetite?
Pacino: I’m going to do David Mamet’s new play [in the fall]. I’m trying it again!

Claudia Roth Pierpont is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She hopes Pacino never loses his appetite for acting.

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