Back in 2006, I took a seminar class called “The Art of the Interview” at UCLA with Lawrence Grobel, a writer and journalist who has interviewed hundreds of celebrities including Truman Capote and Marlon Brando. For the record, this was the best class I ever took in college. Larry Grobel is an amazing teacher, and this was probably one of the only classes that I actually learned real-life skills, as I regularly interview writers and artists for magazine pieces. (Check out my work on http://www.artanimalmag.com.) As part of Larry’s class, we interviewed Al Pacino. I was going through my old computer files and re-discovered the interview I wrote:
I didn’t know what to expect when meeting Al Pacino. Would Tony Montana walk through the door? Michael Corleone? Shylock? Frank Serpico? Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade? The devil incarnate? With so many well-known characters under his belt, one of them had to resemble the real Al Pacino. My question was which one would it be?
As it turned out, Al Pacino was a character of his own. With cameras filming in the room, he readily admitted that he was playing a character close to the “real” Pacino, but still not the true Al. He breezed in the room, comfortable and confident, exclaiming, “Is this the room? I’m too big for this room!” True to Hollywood celebrities, he even answered his cell phone during the interview. He wore all black: a black blazer, black slacks, and to my delight, black Crocs. The last person I had seen wear Crocs was a Hare Krishna who kindly handed me a pamphlet on the Bhagavad Gita. The image of Pacino wearing colored robes while dancing and drumming came to mind, but was quickly replaced by that of Tony Montana holding a smoking gun and uttering the famous line, “Say hello to my little friend!” It was hard to differentiate the man from his characters.
And that was probably because there is a bit of the “real” Pacino in each of his characters. During the interview he confessed that if he didn’t relate to a role, he would turn it down. He could only play parts he identified with. Interesting, considering the range of characters he has played. Apparently Al Pacino struggles with addiction like his character Bobby in “The Panic at NeedlePark,” feels like the world is coming to him, like Tony Montana in “Scarface,” and battles with obsession like King Herod in Salome.
He certainly seemed a bit obsessed with not only the play Salome, but also his new work-in-progress, “Salomaybe,” a docu-drama of the behind-the-scenes making of Salome. He talked at length about his vision for the work, frequently mentioning that he was not only an actor, but also an “artist.” He even referred to his having a “diva temperament.” But despite this larger-than-life attitude he possessed, he was also humble and even self-deprecating at times, though it was masked in humor. He made several remarks about how old he was. I would have thought he was world-weary, except he seemed so vibrant and full of life.
I came away from the interview with the sense that Al Pacino was on to something big with “Salomaybe.” It wasn’t the same vision I might have, but I was inspired by the idea of a man pursuing his own dream and vision of the world. He seemed driven, confident, and happy. But maybe this was just part of his character. His parting words as he left: “I love you all!”
One thing that must be very exciting in your life right now is that you just received the 35th Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Do you believe that you were born great, you achieve greatness, or you had greatness thrust upon you?
Throwing Shakespeare at me! First of all, thank you that’s very flattering that you say something like that. I don’t know. I think I am just lucky. That’s not a cop out. I put a lot in. Some of what I have done has affected people, which is just great. It’s all news to me. I just go with it and I feel something there. I am lucky that I wanted to do something with my life, even though my early stardom was at first overwhelming. I was just lucky that people gave me jobs. I think that I was just born lucky. Let’s put it that way.
How was your early stardom overwhelming?
My early career was very rushed. I was quite overtaken by success and fame. I responded to it in a negative way. I needed acceptance of what was happening to me. That’s part of the reason I am here. I found that speaking live to young people was very good for me. I wanted to ask young people about things. This was a stepping block back to recovery. It was very therapeutic. And here I am now, 150 years later (laughs). I enjoy the exchanges, I enjoy the talking and especially now because I feel I have something interesting to say.
There are cameras in the room right now. Is this the real you or are you acting?
Well after looking at “Salomaybe” I don’t know who the hell the real me is! I think its closest now, to the real me, because I am used to this. So even though I am a little shy, I am pretty comfortable. I am naturally shy, but if you do something enough, you get better at it.
Salome is obviously a true passion of yours. What is it about this work and your part in the play that keeps bringing you back?
I sensed early on that it encompassed so many motifs and themes on life, that it was something great. It gets to the very core of passion. And she cuts his head off! These are feelings that are so big! They possess us. They charge our soul. It’s so wonderfully articulated and expressed in the play. I can’t say enough about it. It will be so interesting to get a sense of the spirit. I fell in love with it when I first saw it in London. I love Oscar Wilde.
What do you hope to show the audience with “Salomaybe”?
There was once this great actor George C. Scott. He was playing Shylock in the Merchant of Venice at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. And at one point he took his robes and started flipping them up in the air, out of nowhere. And later someone asked him, “What on earth were you doing?” He said, “They were sleeping.” He wanted to catch the audience off guard. You are always trying to catch them. We are charlatans! We are magic people! We are trying to engage you. Part of the behind the scenes thing is trying to loosen you up, trying to make you a part of it, to make you feel that you are
experiencing it. When I am doing this style, I am on firm ground. I am secure, I can direct, I can manipulate, I can write. If I can weave it into the play, get the audience interested, you know, robes and all. They will pay attention long enough to consume it.
What is the making of “Salomaybe” like?
Well when you do these things, you are sort of doing a journey. And the journey can last a long time. It is my journey as an actor, as a director, as a person struggling with things, my own celebrity in my own life. It is semi – autobiographical, in the sense of my commitment. It’s very difficult, a struggle, to do a play and a movie at the same time, and to be at the helm of each one. It has an effect on both. I knew the camera is on me when I am throwing that fit, where I crack up, and, by the way, that is one of my favorite scenes in “Salomaybe.” It was as close to the real thing, real feelings as I could get. I was only having them because I was in that situation – I was tired, I was trying to do this play, I have children, little ones, and I was trying to take care of them too, it was a whole thing. It was fun to see it afterwards. Do we take enough risks in cinema? Do we try to tackle and venture into the unknown? I don’t know.
Are your visions for Salome and “Salomaybe” different or the same?
They are connected. I don’t know what my vision is. I am sensing something, and I am going along with it, like Jackson Pollack.
How is your vision like Jackson Pollack’s?
Jackson Pollack is a great artist. I love his work. Someone once mentioned that when he died he went through a windshield. He was always trying to break through (laughs). Point is, he said he destroyed a painting whenever he can make out what it is, because it no longer comes from his unconscious. Jury’s out though on how far I will go with “Salomaybe.” I am not going to try to go far, because that defeats the purpose. But how far can I go? I challenge and make the audience uncomfortable. We are always trying to make it work, to satisfy the audience. That’s why we bow at the end of a show; it’s all for you. But here I have the opportunity to show my views on things, my feelings, how I see things, and my vision of the world. I don’t have to satisfy the audience. That’s an unusual experience. But I have the chance to do it.
Which other artists have affected you?
Kirk Douglas. There is something about him and the impression he must of made on me when I was young. Something profound happened when I met him for the first time. It was intense. He affected me in a deep way. He was once a theater actor that became movie actor, a great star. We shared that. I could feel it. When came to see me after a play in my dressing room, he sat there and looked at me. He said, “Al, not everything is art.” And I was thinking, “Then what would it have to do with me if it wasn’t art?” I didn’t say that, but I was thinking it. I was too shy (laughs).
Did you learn anything new about yourself from “Salomaybe”?
You know that character in “Salomaybe,” that isn’t me. It’s a part of me, like all the characters are. But I know I am in a certain mood, like I am in a certain mood here now. I know there is a camera. Anyways, I found out how temperamental I am. And sometimes that is off-putting. I am not a violent person, but I have this temper. I guess it’s my being Italian. We are very outgoing with our emotions. I always had this temper as a child. I have a bit of a diva temperament. I recognize it in others, and boy do I love it. I speak my mind; I let people know where I stand
How has this experience directing changed your acting?
Well I am an actor first. Everything about the way I perceive things, the way I perceive the world, has been in relation to characters and how I would want to play those characters. There has been some great characters, great scripts, but I didn’t do them because I couldn’t relate to them. I never saw myself as a director. I like the control of a director, though. I can do whatever I want. But when I look at a book or a script, I don’t think, “Oh I have to make a movie of this.” “Salomaybe” really came to me because I knew there was something about it that I wanted to get on the record. It took me 10 years to start taking the step to make it a movie. I am still terrified that it wont become a movie – that I will struggle with it. But I am going to go down trying. There is magic in film, putting different pieces together. It’s just amazing. But I’ve never fallen in love with directing. The idea that I direct something? It’s not what I think of first. But hey, if you have anything you want me to direct… (laughs).
To you, what makes a director?
One time, when we were shooting “Scarface,” I remember getting up and getting a coffee in the morning. I was looking out and looking at the beach. And I saw a hundred people looking out to the ocean. I thought a whale washed up on shore. I stood up on a table and looked, and it was the director, Brian De Palma standing there alone by the surf, and there was the crew standing around waiting to be told where to put the camera. And I never forgot that. Because it represented to me what a director is, what a director does. It’s really all you. Some personalities really love that. It made me understand directing more. Its miraculous that all these people will do anything you say.
How do you understand directors better now?
I admire directors much more than I ever did. I was always rebelling against them as a youngster. I didn’t want them to control me. I had no identification with them. In “Salomaybe” I talk about identification. That’s the road to recovery, really. When you can identify, you can empathize with them. This guy, Cheney, the vice president, this guy really understands about gay marriage. Why? Because his daughter is gay! That’s the only way. I don’t think he would understand gay marriage if he didn’t have a gay daughter. Do you? He doesn’t seem the type. I mean, if someone straps an M1 on you and throws you in Iraq, boy, you will wake up fast. You will understand things real fast when bullets are flying over your head. You want every judge to spend five weeks inprison, just to make sense of it. The point is, when you make movies, you get a whole new perception on the other side of the camera. It’s an interesting world. Isn’t it?
What are your feelings on the war in Iraq?
My feelings are that I am uneducated. So I have this basic overview. But I do not believe what I see on television. I believe a part of it, a percentage. It’s coming through a filter. I don’t know what to believe. So when I look at it, it’s unreal and uncomfortable. But being in a position of celebrity, where words carry such unnatural weight, I reserve that for my brother and sister actors, the people who know a whole hell of a lot more than I do. They participate. They assert themselves. So you take a guy like George Clooney, who goes out to Darfur. He goes out there and get things done. It’s extraordinary. I don’t like what’s going on in Iraq. But I do not know the whole story. Something is off there. Vietnam was the same thing.
What do you think of celebrities like Brad and Angelina who are in the spotlight?
I love them both. I know them both, very well. I don’t envy them, let me tell you. I don’t know what they are doing. The world is different today. But they have taken that mantle. They obviously have found a way to cope with it. I know Angelina very well. I have known her since she was little. Her mother and father are dear friends of mine. Her father even saw “Salomaybe!” I know she has had a lot of exposure to things and she can handle it, so already her makeup is different.
Has public exposure changed you?
It’s amazing how people know a lot about me. All over the world people know me. They know me how they would know me here. It’s funny. When I was younger there was the “sex thing.” That category. When I was younger the sex thing went with it; a lot of ladies liked me. I was one of those guys, like the DiCaprios of today. That was a hundred years ago though. They didn’t have television then (laughs). It’s a right of passage. I wasn’t offended by it, but it was disconcerting. Finally it sort of went away. I don’t want to go to retirement homes because they flip over me (laughs).
Do you ever feel like you are struggling in an industry that is always trying to find the new “it” actor?
Fortunately for me, I don’t feel that way. Things like that are more prevalent with women. They have a tougher time of that. I can imagine struggling and not getting anywhere. When I was a young man I didn’t have to worry about anything else except what I was doing. I was very young, and I imagine as I got older and the rejection might have gotten to me. But I was 26 when I was a well-known theater actor in NY City, so I was lucky. I loved it. I was liberated by my own experience of acting. My inner loins come from Italy. I am much more a European Italian than I am an American Italian. That language, and style of acting is in me. But as I get older, certain roles don’t appeal to me anymore.
What roles wouldn’t you do anymore?
The roles I have done before. They wouldn’t interest me. Some roles are generally right for age. Rare is it that I find something that appeals to me as “Al” and me as an artist. Everything changes with age. The parts change with age, your feelings about them change. Roles I wanted 10 years ago I don’t want now. Things change. I never thought I would say that. Luckily for me I am still at the point where I get enthusiastic about things I can still go for it.
Why haven’t you pursued more comedic roles?
I go and see comedies. I laughed my ass off when I saw “Wedding Crashers.” It was so funny. But I don’t find myself wishing I was in those movies. I enjoy them when I see them. But I put comedy, as much as I can, in all my movies.
With all the public exposure you endured, how could you befriend a writer like Larry Grobel, knowing that they could turn around and write about you?
Larry is my dear friend. He has the illness of all writers: they can’t help themselves. You are talking to him and you say something and suddenly you realize that he is putting in his cash register in the back of his mind. I love him, so it’s fine. This is a 25-year relationship. Larry and I got to know each other, and our friendship grew and grew. We have gone through many things together. We are both oddball enough that we accepted each other. I just trust him. There are things that have happened to me that I have expressed to Larry and there is no way he would talk about it.
How does your celebrity affect your personal life?
I have been involved in deep and profound relationships that have lasted a long time. You could almost call them marriages. They were as costly (laughs). So the point is, there are a couple of times where I wanted to marry, and it’s a mistake that I didn’t – especially once. I am not adverse to marriage. It is difficult when you are a celebrity though. It makes you lose your identity in a certain way. You lose all anonymity and that was something I went through. I didn’t feel a part of the world. I felt apart from the world. That’s really something to adjust to. So now you want to hold on to whatever bits you can of yourself. I look at these young celebrities today and what they go through. I don’t envy them at all. I’ve been there. I know what it is. It’s the price to pay. You don’t realize it. It’s cool to be free of that now. You don’t want to overstep yourself and go into an area that is embarrassing and uncomfortable and almost shameful in way, to show yourself in that light. You lose some of yourself.
What’s your best piece of advice to give anyone?
My best advice I can give is if you want kids, be careful whom you have them with!!
One final question: If you were dining with God, what would you want him to serve?
I would want him to serve my favorite: spaghetti and meatballs. Can you imagine God making spaghetti and meatballs? Wow! Because we all know God is Italian!