Pacino's way

On-screen, he's the archetypal tough guy, womanizer or psycho. But the actor hates guns, drinks only coffee and yearns for a girlfriend.

Published December 3, 2004 3:11PM (EST)

I have been watching Al Pacino movies for days now. Pacino movie after Pacino movie. I'm getting to a stage where I can't tell one from the other. They all involve good guys turned bad or bad guys turned good, or guys constantly wavering on the moral compass so you just can't tell -- cops who kill, killers with fierce codes of conduct. In five movies on the trot he is shot -- "Dog Day Afternoon," "Scarface," "Serpico," "Carlito's Way," "Insomnia." In two of them, he manages to die at the beginning and end. I wake up in the middle of the night and watch another movie, "Heat." He doesn't get killed, but he sees off Robert De Niro. I wake up early and watch another movie, "The Insider." As in "Heat," he wins, but it's a pyrrhic victory. He's destroyed. The final shot shows him walking away -- walking away from life.

I'm beginning to feel like the cop he plays in "Insomnia" who loses his mind through lack of sleep and too much conscience. My pupils are getting bigger and bigger, and less and less discriminating. All I'm seeing is the guns; all I'm hearing is his screaming. His voice seems to get louder and louder in his later films. As Michael Corleone in "The Godfather Part II," the movie that really made him, you could barely hear his voice. Pacino, so young and grave, did the "Method" -- he didn't act so much as inhabit his characters. He expressed himself in the tiniest gestures. He showed ambiguity with consummate economy, saying one thing with his voice and something completely different with his eyes.

In "The Merchant of Venice," which just premiered in London and opens Dec. 29 in the U.S., he plays Shylock, yet another man emptied of hope and defeated by life. His Shylock could be another Carlito or Corleone: a monster, but possibly the most moral man in Shakespeare's Venice; a man who keeps his word, or, as his Tony Montana says in "Scarface": "All I have in this world is my balls, and my word, and I don't break 'em for no one, 'jou understand?"

After quitting the movies in despair for four years in the late 1980s (after the epic flop "Revolution"), Pacino has had an incredibly successful '90s and noughties. People often complain that he is hammy, a parody of his former self, but he is huge box office. In the 1990s he won his first Oscar (after six nominations) for the soppy "Scent of a Woman," and scored huge critical successes with Michael Mann's "Heat," "The Insider" and "Donnie Brascoe." A Channel 4 poll last year named him the No. 1 movie star of all time.

I'm not looking forward to meeting Pacino. I suppose he scares me. The press officer tells me I should have seen the men lining up for "The Merchant of Venice" premiere -- hard nuts with "Scarface" posters who worship Pacino. He says he'd never seen such a crowd. Another press officer brings in a cappuccino for Pacino before he arrives, then replaces it a couple of minutes later because it might have got cold. I am told to prioritize my questions -- Mr. Pacino does not answer in sound bites. Too right. He is famous for mumbling his way through interviews -- talking with tremendous gravitas about the visiting muse and those who need to act as opposed to those who like to act.

He schlumps into the room, almost as broad as he is wide, belly sagging, face weathered but perfectly intact. He is dressed totally in black -- jacket, sweatshirt, trousers, socks, shoes, ring, squiggly pendant round his neck. Al Pacino looks like a gorgeous dosser. He flew into London from L.A. Thursday, and hasn't caught up with his sleep. (Actually, he says he hasn't slept decently since making "Insomnia.") The "Merchant" means a lot to him. Pacino loves his Shakespeare. Having directed the documentary "Looking for Richard" (a lovely, funny film that tries to make sense of Shakespeare and his stage version of "Richard III"), this is his first straight Shakespeare movie.

I ask him if he thinks of Shylock as a hero or a villain. He ums and ahs, and tells me, Well, this guy has suffered such loss and taken so much shit from so many people -- and then he apologizes for being inarticulate. "I get all sluggish when I talk about it." Straight answer, I say -- you've got two seconds, hero or villain.

"Because I see good and bad in all of us, I can't answer that question. I have to say a good-bad man." He'll probably read this quote one day and change his mind, and decide Shylock is a bad-good man. He says he often reads things he has said, and thinks he didn't quite mean that -- it's not that the words have been distorted, it's simply that he didn't quite articulate what he meant.

As he struggles to make up his mind, I ask him about another character -- useless bank robber Sonny Wortzik in "Dog Day Afternoon": hero or villain? He laughs. "You know I'm not going to answer in two seconds. I love the way you say that. What's going to happen to me? Am I going to fall into a pot of water?" Sonny is another villain who stands by his word -- until the police kill him. "He seems like a hero to me." OK, then, what about "Scarface's" Tony Montana, recently voted "biggest movie badass" of all time in Maxim magazine? ("He murders, survives a chainsaw attack, whacks his boss, snorts coke like he's breathing air and kills his best friend," the magazine eulogized.) Pacino thinks. "Well, it depends on what side of the street you are walking on," he says. Two seconds, I say. He grins. "You know I'm going to say 'hero.' Anybody who says 'go shove it' when somebody's got a chain saw that is about to take your head off -- I think pretty much that is a hero in anybody's language."

The new cappuccino arrives. He doesn't drink these days, or take drugs, or smoke. But he does coffee big time. Friends call him Al Cappuccino.

"For you?" the waiter says.

"I believe it is for me," Pacino says.

"Nice to see you," the waiter says.

"Nice to see you," Pacino says. He's incredibly polite. I've stopped feeling scared.

I tell him how depressing I found it watching his movies en masse. He says I'm not the first person to have said that. "Does the pessimism of the films reflect his worldview?" "Wellllll," he says, Pacino style. "In the end you're just playing a role." He says he is just like a cellist or painter, but he is painting pictures or making music with his body.

The stories are legion of how he got lost in his roles -- how when he was playing a lawyer and a friend told him he was having conveyancing problems, he asked to see his contract; how he fell with his eyes open, just as a blind man would, when playing Lt. Col. Frank Slade in "Scent of a Woman"; how he did shifts in a cafe, tossing pancakes, to prepare himself for "Frankie and Johnny."

But what about when you were playing those psychos, I ask. Surely if you were Method-acting a monster, you became a monster? No, you've got it wrong, he says quietly; they are not monsters. "One doesn't see it as a monster. You don't look at it like that. It's passion and emotions, and it's in all of us." You have to look for the human in all the characters you play, he says.

Did you become a nightmare to be around? "Well, I was ... I was affected by it." He stammers. "You know we're, we're ... you have to ask somebody else." He pauses. Actually, he says, he thinks what saved him when making "Scarface" was his girlfriend. "I'll tell you something," he says. He puts down his coffee as if he's about to tell me his greatest secret. "And this is a fact. When I was doing 'Scarface,' I remember being in love at that time. One of the few times in my life. And I was so glad it was at that time. I would come home and she would tell me about her life that day and all her problems and I remember saying to her, Look, you really got me through this picture because I would shed everything when I came home."

Does he like guns? "I'm not crazy about the guns. I got to tell ya, that's not my thing." Has he ever owned one? "Never! I've never cared for guns. In fact, when I did "Scent of a Woman" I had to learn how to assemble one."

Is he as hard in real life as he is in movies? He looks at me as if I'm bonkers. "I couldn't possibly be. I couldn't possibly be."

You know, he says, he never planned any of this. Having told me what isn't him (guns and violence), he tells me what is him: theater, Shakespeare and comedy. "Did you know I started out as a stand-up comic?" He looks embarrassed. "People don't believe me when I tell them." He performed in revues in New York's Greenwich Village, doing physical comedy, and that's what he really loved. "That's how I saw myself, in comedy, and I didn't know I would do this with my life. I didn't know what the hell I was going to do." If you look back to say, "Dog Day Afternoon," he says, you can see the physical comedian in him. "That's where humor lives for me. In the body. The Steve Martin kind of stuff or Jim Carrey, that's what I like. I've always felt that's what I would like to do."

In some more recent roles, such as "Scent of a Woman" and "The Devil's Advocate," he has hammed it up to great effect. His critics suggest that he hass also hammed it up in his serious roles. He looks a little hurt when I mention it. "You can't call Shylock hammy," he protests. No, I say, but there are certain films ... "Yes, certain roles you go too far," he concedes. " Some-times-you-go-too-far ," he says, syllable by syllable. "But part of what you hope to do is not censor yourself, and then find a way to pull back, and sometimes you don't censor yourself and you get caught off-guard."

He says it's the director's job to rein him in, and they don't always bother. "Sometimes it seems that directors just say, 'Give me more Pacino, more Pacino,'" I say. "Yeaaaaaah," he roars. "That has happened, yes." At his best, directors such as Sidney Lumet seem to ask him for less rather than more. "Sidney is a great director, one of the greatest I have known. And one thing Sidney does do is rehearse you. You have three weeks' rehearsal, like you're doing a play. And in the rehearsal these things are sorted out. And the more rehearsal I have, the more likely I am to find the right levels. I think Michael Radford did that to me in "The Merchant." If I was concerned about anything it was that it was so low-key."

Back in the 1970s, when Method acting took him over, he took to drink. He found filmmaking and life exhausting. After "The Godfather," he had become so famous so quickly, and he couldn't cope. When did he realize he had a problem? "When it replaced work. Drinking became more attractive than working." He snorts back his snot, unselfconsciously, and continues. "I like what Norman Mailer said about alcohol: 'Drink has killed a lot of my brain cells and I think I would have been a better writer without it, but it would be one less way to relax.'"

"Sfffhhhhhchhhhh." He snorts again. Drink allowed him to be quiet, at ease with himself, I say. "That's right! That's right! We know the best feeling in the world is the one between the second and third martini. That was my deal. I just enjoyed who I became when I was drinking, so that was something hard to break. I became much quieter, and funny. I must say, that kind of thing came out." In the past, he has called himself a depressive with a sense of humor. And when he was sober? "Well, I was looking for a drink." Perhaps the problem with fame was that the roles were so iconic and his fans thought they knew who he was and that person was so alien to him. "Yeah! Yep! Yeah!" At times he talk-shouts with such animation, his hands gesturing all over the show.

"I really like it better in the world when I can see things clearly and I can remember things, and I feel like I'm a part of things and I'm more tuned in to what's going on, and not backing away from stuff." He hasn't drunk alcohol for 20-plus years. "I can't say I've been sober though. I don't like that word. What does it mean? 'Sober! He's very sober,'" he says to himself with contempt.

He's right, sober is an inappropriate word for him. At 64, he's still known as a man who operates better at night than in the day. He has had numerous famous girlfriends (Debra Winger, Diane Keaton) and numerous unfamous girlfriends, and he has never married. He has a daughter of 15, and 4-year-old twins with a different mother, Beverly D'Angelo, from whom he is separated. I ask him if he is seeing anybody at the moment. "I'm single and I don't particularly like it. I'm certainly the kind of person who prefers ... it ... it ..." He struggles for his words. "It's good to have someone in your life that you're going through this thing with. It's good. That's a thing in life that I aspire to." He asks me if I'm still with the mother of my children. Yes, I say. "Well, that's good, good for everybody. Particularly good for the children if you are in synch." He comes to a stop. "You understand after a while why people stay together because of children. I never knew that." He sounds so innocent, so regretful.

Well, perhaps we could put in a little personal ad at the bottom of the piece, I say, trying to cheer him up. He bursts out laughing and says only if I really despise him would I do that.

Pacino says he finds everything so much easier these days -- life, movies, being himself. In the early days, he almost lost his soul to his work. Yes, he says, he is still attracted to those complex baddie-goodies and goody-baddies, but he hasn't got a clue why. "When I try to explain anything I always end up trying to be right usually, but not truthful necessarily. Trying to give the right answer or what I think is the right answer. It's a human instinct. You try to be as clever as you can be. You're trying to come off like you really know what the hell's going on, when you don't!" You're pretty gentle at heart, aren't you, I say, a bit of a pussy? He equivocates. "There are times when I have a temperament. Yes, my temperament is there ... but I hope I'm gentle. Yes, I think I am."

I ask him if his hair is really that color. I had always assumed it was dyed. "Yeah, here take a look at it. I had to dye it for 'Insomnia.'" I ruffle my hands through it and find the odd silver streak, but the rest is pure brown. "I got this from my father." His chest hair is gray. What is the pendant on your chest? "A friend gave me this. It's copper. It helps your immune system. It seems to have helped me. Maybe it's psychological."

Winter's setting in; the afternoon's getting dark and eerie. I ask him what he dreamed about the previous night. (I don't tell him why, but a colleague dreamed that she had slept with him.) He looks surprised. "How did you know I had this strange dream? Well, that is for me to know, and you to find out. I'll give you the number of my therapist."

Have you really got one?

"I knew you'd say that. Yes, it's good to have someone to talk to; it's helped me a great deal in my life." I ask him if he manages to talk to his therapist in full sentences. He laughs. "No, I don't, but he likes it that way. The problem with me is, I guess, the way I express myself, you have to be with me 50 years before you can get a sense of what I'm talking about."

Has it taken him that long to understand himself? "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, it has."

By Simon Hattenstone

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