Al Pacino on His Career, Working With Scorsese, and That Time He Discovered Jessica Chastain

“I see myself kind of like a tenor. And a tenor needs to hit those high notes once in a while.”


It’s kind of bewildering to think that there hasn’t been a major New York retrospective of Al Pacino’s films until now. But maybe now is also, in its own way, the perfect time. Starting today, the Quad Cinema presents “Pacino’s Way,” a 34-film salute (running through March 30) to the legendary, New York–born actor’s extraordinary career. The breadth of the work on display is staggering — obviously, it includes triumphs like The Godfather and Serpico and Heat (and Carlito’s Way, and The Insider, and Donnie Brasco, and The Panic in Needle Park, and…) — but it also includes some of his lesser-known work, like the little-seen Local Stigmatic, a passion project from the late Eighties, as well as much-reviled titles like Revolution and Bobby Deerfield. (He’s got a lot to say about those, by the way. Read on.)

Central to this retrospective are two films directed by Pacino that haven’t before had a proper release. Wilde Salomé is a freewheeling, collage-like documentary he made about his obsession with, and efforts to stage, Oscar Wilde’s notorious drama of sexual self-destruction, Salomé. And then there’s Pacino’s film of the play itself, Salomé. Both works star Jessica Chastain, who was an unknown at the time. I spoke to Pacino recently about some of these movies, his beginnings in experimental theater — and also about whether he sometimes takes things too far.

Where did the obsession with Oscar Wilde and with Salomé come from?

I was in London and saw the Steven Berkoff production of Salomé. I’d never heard anything like it. As florid as the language was, it was the real thing: real poetry, coming from a place of deep passion. I didn’t even know it was Oscar Wilde who wrote this. “I would like to meet the writer,” I thought! [Laughs] It was so unlike Oscar. I mean, his plays are classic and great, but this really spoke to me in a different way.

Then, I played it in costume, in a production that was done at the Circle in the Square. Robert Ackerman directed it, and I enjoyed the experience. But it stayed with me, for some reason. I started trying to interpret it in different ways. I saw Man and Superman done at a podium, and it was a wonderful experience hearing that play; I thought maybe a Salomé reading like that could go over — because perhaps a costume and big sets can get in the way of the play a little bit. I wanted to present it in a somewhat abstract, avant-garde fashion, and allow the imagination to do the rest. I was in L.A. visiting my youngest children, and I was going to stay there. I thought, “What will I do while I’m here?” I started thinking on doing a documentary.

Is that when you met Jessica Chastain?

I did a little reading of it, in L.A., and I was casting the part of Salomé. She was unknown at the time, and came in to read for us…and she took me over. I remember looking over at the producer Robert Fox at the time, as she was reading. I said, “Are you seeing this? Or am I dreaming?” I knew at that moment: “All right, I’m gonna film this thing.”

I remember hearing over the years about her performance in Salomé and how she basically booked a lot of her early parts out of that.

Yes. That’s true. Director friends of mine, people I’ve known, heard about it and wanted to see it, so I sent them footage of what we were doing. It was so clear that she was a real actress and that she had this charisma and this classical feeling — and yet she could also do anything, pretty much. And they hired her! Right on the spot. It was great. While we were filming, I said to her, “I only hope that this film can live up or come close to what you’re doing as Salomé.” That became my goal.

At what point then did you decide it would be two films — the documentary Wilde Salomé and then the film version of the play, Salomé?

Making the documentary, you’re sort of writing as you go, trying to find the direction. Films don’t work much as collages; they need some sort of dramatic storyline, as fake as it may be. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew there was a point for this somehow, so I made a film of the actual reading we were doing on stage; my producers thought it would be a good side thing, if we put out the DVD. But then I realized there’s something going on here; this can be a part of the experience. I thought the actual Wilde Salomé didn’t have enough; it didn’t complete itself. I really also wanted a full-out experience of Salomé and what we did. So, now, there’s Wilde Salomé, and then you can also see the film of the play Salomé.

This is very much in line with the other films you’ve directed. Not just Looking for Richard, your film about doing Shakespeare’s Richard III, but also Chinese Coffee, which I love, and which is about two writers who get tangled up in each other’s fictions. All of these films are about the creative process. You investigate it not just in terms of subject matter, but also through the very forms of the films themselves. Where does the fascination with process come from?

It probably comes from early on in my life. I would have these talks with Judith Malina, who played my mother in Dog Day Afternoon, and who was the founder, along with Julian Beck, of The Living Theatre, which was my inspiration. And that was all part of the phenomenon that was going on in the Village in the Sixties. A lot of people don’t know I came out of the Village scene, and my association with The Living Theatre. I read that little bit of that Bob Dylan book [Chronicles], which is wonderful, and I read where he was, what he was doing. We had to have passed each other in the streets. It was a great place to be because it was a renaissance, and we all sort of were part of it. And you could be poor there; I don’t know about being poor in Manhattan anymore.

Judith was the most amazing of people. We would talk about the collective work, which was coming out of the Brecht ensembles. We tried it when we were at the Public Theater doing a version of the Bertolt Brecht play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which parallels the rise of Hitler and the rise of some Chicago gangster in the vegetable business. It’s kind of farcical — a satire with horror in it. Joe Papp allowed us the room, and for months we, collectively, thirty of us, worked on the play. We had a director…we had actually two directors there. And John Cazale was a part of it, and Richard Lynch, all these people. You’d start off with a scene and you’d have thirty people looking at it, and you’d get input with thirty different ideas. You’d talk about things for hours and days, and then you’d get up and do a little of it, and you’d go back and talk about it more. What you finally wind up doing together is forming a world. It’s called the world of the play, and once you have some handle on that, it gets easier to act in those things — you do less acting and more living. I was enamored with this. That process of working is not feasible in the commercial world. But Judith Malina was a real champion of that sort of idea. I was in my thirties when it happened; I don’t know how I’d feel about it now.

Besides the one that you’ve directed, have there been other films along the way where you feel like you’ve been able to have that kind of collective, collaborative process?

I don’t think so, just off the top of my head, because it’s another world. But every once in a while, you know, you’re talking to a few of your co-actors, and it’s so interesting the way they respond to things. Actors, mainly. Because it gives them something to do other than learn the words. It’s a little more difficult in this day and age because as soon as you hit that set, they’re in it; they don’t even rehearse. It’s every man for himself. You’ve got to go in there and figure it out on your own. But Bob De Niro also once told me, “Don’t rehearse unless you rehearse with people who know how to rehearse.” He makes a good point!

I talked to Michael Mann last year about Heat and he said something interesting contrasting the way you and De Niro approached your parts. He said De Niro would be the guy who asked a lot of analytical questions about his part and about his motivations, but that you just absorbed the scene weeks in advance and had it bouncing around in your head as a way of building out the character. Does that sound right?

Yes, at times, because I work relative to what is around me. The role, the amount of time, what I’m doing, who I’m doing it with. I really like to approach roles, if I can, alone. It’s almost like writing about the character. Consuming it. I used to say “channeling it.” But I require more rehearsal than I usually get, and so I have to figure out how to cope with that. The thing I remember with Heat is saying, “Well, what are these mood changes the character has?” I thought, “All right, he chips cocaine, this guy.” And it turns out he did! Every once in a while I’d ask Mike, “Could you shoot something?” Because the audience doesn’t know he’s chipping cocaine like a nut, and they’re thinking, “What’s the matter with him?” And so we even shot something. But it’s not in the film. So, sometimes I look a little irrational. But that’s the source I used. I thought it added a kind of interesting texture to a cop.

In a lot of your earlier parts there is a kind of understated quality — the characters are very watchful, always absorbing things. In later years, you’re unafraid to go big, to at times be almost theatrical. Was that a conscious decision, or an evolution?

I think sometimes I went there because I see myself kind of like a tenor. And a tenor needs to hit those high notes once in a while. Even if they’re wrong. So sometimes they’re way off. There’s a couple of roles that, you know, the needle screeched on the record. But if I ever see a movie that I feel, “Oh, gee, I went too far,” I just fast-forward it a bit and move on. [Laughs] If I had to do it again…I don’t know, I might still do it that way. I think what happens is once you do it one or two times, it becomes a signature.

In Scarface, for instance. Brian [De Palma] said right at the start, “This is an opera, and this is what we’re gonna go for. This is not down-and-dirty realism.” And we called it Brechtian. That’s what we went for. Oliver Stone allowed for that in his conception and writing of the script. I saw that character as bigger than life; I didn’t see him as three-dimensional. It’s like, you know, Icarus and the sun; I saw him fly with that thing. That was the dynamic of Tony Montana that we went for.

When I saw Paul Muni do the original Scarface, I only wanted to do one thing and that’s imitate him. And of course my performance is not at all like what he did, but I think I was more inspired by that performance than any I have seen. I called Marty Bregman after I saw it, and said, “Marty, I think we should try to redo Scarface. Howard Hawks of all people!” And of course he got Lumet, who came up with that great idea of having him come in on the boat lift — a Cuban refugee. That broke the ice. Oliver went in there and wrote that script. Then somehow Lumet and Marty Bregman didn’t agree on the way to go with the film, so Brian did it. And he did a great job.

When [the Quad] offered me this [retrospective], I thought, if we’re going to do this, I would rather it be a lot of roles that are different — including roles that I sort of failed in. That’s sort of what it’s about: You’re seeing an actor’s struggle, and getting there and not getting there. An actor isn’t even aware that that’s happening. Because you take each thing on, hopefully, like it’s the very first thing you ever did.

There are a number of films in this retro that weren’t well-received when they came out. I’ve always quite liked Revolution, which was a huge dud.

It was absolutely destroyed. There are people who have throughout the years known what Hugh Hudson did in that film — some of the work he did in that as a filmmaker is just simply extraordinary. We stopped filming six weeks too early, and we should have gone back. At the same time, I said, “Hugh, I think there’s a step to be made here.” And for twenty years we kept trying to communicate and get together. We wrote a narration, which is in the film now. We spent money to do that. They cut a little more out, too, I guess. It all seems to help the film; it lifted it.

There’s another thing about certain films that didn’t work. I don’t like to look at them again, but when I watch them in retrospect, sometimes I’ll see something interesting. I was never a big fan of Scarecrow, for some reason. I don’t know why, at that particular time. And probably I don’t know still if I’m a fan of it or not. I haven’t seen it all. But Quentin [Tarantino] has this theater where he shows different movies from different eras, all in 35mm. To me, that’s the test: 35mm. He says, “Al, take a look at this. Come, take a look at Scarecrow.” I said, “Well, you know…” I was reluctant to see it. But he said, wisely, “See the first five minutes, Al. Just look at the first five minutes.” Well, I went and I saw the first five minutes, and it was…a revelation. Because you have Vilmos Zsigmond, you have Jerry Schatzberg, together. Two great photographers, working on a location. And that opening on 35 is shocking! Jerry Schatzberg gets these two guys in that five-minute span to connect when they absolutely are opposite ends of the world.

We have something here in this country that everything should work. Well, I don’t believe in that. I really think there are aspects in film sometimes that in and of themselves work, and are worth going to see. I had an old European guy once tell me that. “You know, Americans have this thing with film that it’s gotta work, and what does that mean? It always works for you — a film that works for you doesn’t work for me, works for someone else, though.” But when you see a moment that is captivating…well, it’s worth it, isn’t it? You don’t look at someone’s fifty paintings. You look at the painting! One painting! That’s enough.

Another film in this series that I’m excited to see on a big screen is Bobby Deerfield, which is a gorgeous movie, but which was also considered a disappointment.

Yeah, well, I wasn’t a big fan of that. I saw it a hundred years ago, didn’t want to see it again, naturally. And then one day a couple of years ago, I was sitting in my house and it came on, and I watched it. And it is imperfect, of course — but ultimately, it got me. Because so much of the film is the time. You perceive things because of what’s around you; that’s part of our game. What I responded to in Bobby Deerfield is that in it, you saw something revealed in this character, low-key — something I was going through in my life at that time. It wasn’t a performance that was coming at you, but it was something personal, and it showed. I saw it on a TV set, in the intimacy of my home, so perhaps that had something to do with it, and so many years had passed, and the memories of it — it was revealing. Maybe on the big screen it won’t work. But I figured, you know, show the ones that didn’t work, too. You can see the effort, and the contrast. But then there’s the roles that do come along once in a while where you say, “Oh, gee, I want to do this. I want to paint this. I want to express myself through this role.” That’s the luxury. That’s when you’re lucky.

What are some parts over the years that felt like that?

They come once in a while. I had it with The Indian Wants the Bronx, one of the first things I did Off-Broadway, and a really fortunate debut for me. A big step in my life, and certainly in what they call a “career.” Because I didn’t even know what a career was when I was in the Village in the old days. I just didn’t even think about it. I thought, “Where’s the paint, where’s the canvas?” That was what was in the air, in the streets, in the cafes that we performed in. You do sixteen shows a week, so you’re getting practice. Hopefully by the end of the sixteen, you know a little bit more than you did with the first show. That’s been my mantra: Just keep doing it. But I certainly remember feeling a certain expression when I did Pavlo Hummel, which I did in ’77, ’78. I felt it there. My roles in film, I certainly felt it in Scarface — that I was speaking to something. I was thinking just the other day, there’s a performance and then there’s a portrayal, and there’s a difference. When you finally get a certain thing, it becomes a portrayal. The others sometimes fall into the category of performance. But mostly what you’re always trying to do is get to the personal — because that’s what art is. It’s got something to do with how you feel about what you’re doing.

So many of your films have been genre movies: a cop thriller, a gangster movie, whatever. Take a movie like Sea of Love, which has a fairly conventional, predictable mystery structure, but you and Ellen Barkin completely transform it. By the end, we’ve been through this intense emotional experience. That’s something few actors can do on a regular basis.

I guess when you look at the roles objectively, you can see how different they are from each other. So, probably the guy in Sea of Love is different than the guy in Heat, or the guy in Insomnia. And then when you look at the gangsters, from Michael Corleone to Tony Montana, they may be in the same genre but they’re different. I know that I’ve consciously tried to separate the two. I try to find the difference in characters. Like Lefty in Donnie Brasco is different than Carlito in Carlito’s Way.

But there’s a four-year break between Revolution and when Sea of Love came out. I stopped doing movies for four years. I just didn’t want to do this anymore. I did three things in a row that didn’t come off. One was, of all things, Scarface, which did good business, but had a real backlash — it was run through the mill. Then there was Author! Author! And then there was Revolution. Those three were not only not received well, they were really criticized in a way that made me think, “Well, what am I doing? I don’t want to keep doing this.” I did the films, yes. You do them sometimes because you try things. And my great friend and producer, Marty Bregman, who produced some of the biggest films I did, said to me a while back, “What’re you doing, Al? What’re you doing?!” I said, “What do you mean what am I doing? I want to explore certain things.”

He says, “You don’t explore with this! Go Off-Off-Broadway, explore! Don’t do it on the street!”

I said, “Well—”

“No! It’s not…no! Don’t do it there!”

He was right, because there is such a thing as a career, and I’d never looked at it that way. That’s why they have tryouts out of town, you know? You don’t do everything there on the main stage. Because you’re not there for the avant-garde films you make; you’re there because you made successful films that were commercial. That’s why you’re there. You start understanding that.

What made you come back?

During my hiatus, guess what, I went broke. My accountant. It’s happened to me twice. So, there it was. No money! And I was living with my great love, Diane Keaton, and she would look at me and say, “Well, what are you doing?” Because any money I had I spent on The Local Stigmatic [a play by Heathcote Williams that Pacino spent some years turning into a film]. I had a real belief in that. I made a film of it, which I think you’ll see in the retrospective — a very interesting, crazy little thing. But I went to it, and worked on that, I had fun, and I didn’t want to be on the main stage anymore. Diane turned around one day and said, “What, you think you’re going to go back to living in a room? Like the old days?” She said, “You’ve had money for too long now. You gotta get back to work.” She used to read a lot, and had a lot of different things going on all the time. She was very active. She found Sea of Love for me. She said, “This script is good, and it’s good for you.” I read it, and I brought it to Bregman, naturally. Marty got it done. And it was a kind of resurgence for me because I came out and did that, and I did a few more films. You know, the old comeback.

There are those movies, what would you call them? More. A movie that will reach a larger audience. I would imagine The Irishman will have a larger audience. You’re playing with someone like Martin Scorsese, one of the great film artists of our time. At the same time he’s doing something that has come to be known as popular. Did you read that book, I Heard You Paint Houses? It’s wild. Wow. It’s a very interesting script. And there’s Marty at the helm of this tapestry he’s making. You never know what something’s going to be, but I think he’s really going to make something interesting there, no doubt about it.

Everybody’s excited obviously because it’s the first time you’re working with Scorsese. But you’re also reunited with De Niro, and then he’s reunited with Joe Pesci — all these expectations now.

Absolutely, yes, yes. But Scorsese’s got the script that he’s written with Steve Zaillian. The composition is there. Certain films have a shot. [Scorsese] is a great, great man. He’s a great person to work with, and to work for. There’s a trust you get with some of these directors. Barry Levinson’s one of them, too. They just make you feel like you’re taken care of. Warren Beatty too, same thing. No matter what, their equilibrium, their judgment is something you trust. And it gives you a certain freedom.

Have there been directors along the way who pushed you, or challenged you, in ways that you didn’t quite anticipate?

There have been some in the theatre. But I remember…well, this one’s a sad story. I was doing a play, and the director came up to me in front of the stage, he pulled me down to the foot of the stage and said, “Listen, Al, here’s the thing. This guy goes here and this guy does this, and when he does this, he does this. And he’s been doing that, and does this. You see?” I said, “Yeah. You know a lot about this character. I think you should play him yourself!” And that was it — we were finished after that! No more talking, no more friends. It was over. But that was me early on. Not me now, I have to say; I’ve been through so much that I wouldn’t do something like this again. Not that I’m against it. To this day, I don’t care for people who tell me what the character is. I can’t believe it’ll help me.

The best direction I ever got in my life in the theatre was by my mentor and dear friend Charlie Laughton. I was young, and doing Richard III. Charlie had helped me throughout my life; I met him when I was seventeen. He was older, he was a teacher of acting and a poet, and he was with me in Boston when I was doing Richard, with the great David Wheeler, the Theater Company in Boston. I had done The Godfather, and my life had changed. Everything had changed. I was drinking and doing everything you do when you’re going through this sort of drama, you know.

So, anyway, there I was in Boston doing Richard III. It was the opening, and I was working in this experimental way of doing it. Then we got to The Loeb, in Boston — I hope I got that right. And when I came out for the second act, two thirds of the audience was gone! [Laughs] And I thought, “What the fuck did I do?” My experiment had gone awry. And the set, which was all wrong for the play. And they were leaving. But as it went on, I continued on with it, and by the end of the two- or three-week run, it sort of got a little better — I mean, they weren’t all leaving. I was getting ready to leave, and Charlie said, “No, don’t go yet, Al. There’s something going on there.” David Wheeler said, “Let’s go,” and we went to the Church of the Covenant, and did it in a church. And I came out of the pulpit for the opening: “Now is the winter of our discontent…” and that was it. I was there. So, it happened. I tried it again…I even made a film of it. At that time, my life was so big, it could absorb Richard, you know. It stimulated my imagination.

But I remember doing a scene where I said all kinds of things, and I came out and I talked to the audience to tell them what I was going to do next. And I did it, and Charlie called me afterward, and said, “Al, remember one thing. When you come out to talk to the audience, everything you’ve done already, they’ve seen!” How about that? Talk about that changing you. I mean it was extraordinary. That’s the kind of direction one can tolerate.

‘Pacino’s Way’
Quad Cinema
March 14–30

Wilde Salomé and Salomé
Open March 30th, Quad Cinema

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