Pacino on Pacino - Impressions after seeing the great actor on May 20, 2011 at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC)

First Impressions:

When he first comes out one's struck by how short he is. You don't necessarily expect him to be tall, but he's shorter than you expected.

A second impression is that if you had to cast a Keith Richards role in a film or on stage, Pacino would clearly be your guy. The impish smile, the wrinkled visage, the swagger - it's all there.

New York Origins:

Pacino says he's from South ("Sout") Bronx and then moved to Greenwich Village later in while in his 20s. He's obviously a New Yorker through and through - you hear a lot of "Dese" and "Dose" and he's spent a lifetime watching the denizens of New York under his actor's microscope. He's obviously played a lot of New Yorkers over the years. Being a New Yorker informs his world view - he has that particular mix of cynicism, world weariness, optimism and delight at the passing human parade that I think you especially find in New York.

Needless to say he's a natural performer - ostensibly he's to be interviewed by Richard Brown - an NYU film professor and a long time friend.  There were two stuffed leather chairs arrayed on stage to further convey this format. But Pacino doesn't sit still for long and inevitably ends up downstage center looking out and engaging the audience while the professor was often left waiting in the wings.

There are many dichotomies that are discussed as the evening goes on - some of these include film vs. stage, risk vs. reward, but implicitly there seems to be the dichotomy (or duality) of actor vs. movie star. While he plays the role of "Movie Star" admirably - he can crack wise while being asked a serious question, wave to the audience, be appropriately irreverent - I get the feeling that Pacino more plays the role of "movie star" than truly embodies it.

On the subject of Film vs. Stage:

Stage for him is scary and therefore adrenalin fueled because anything can happen up to and including forgetting lines which is especially scary if it's Shakespeare that's being performed. Yet because anything can happen the danger is also the fun. Also on stage the style of acting is different - the voice has to project as well as the body language. Not so with film.

As a stage actor you can grow into a part through the weeks, even months, of rehearsals up through and including the actual performances themselves. Perhaps you and your co-actors can find something in the play through the performances that wasn't there initially.  For the most part this isn't possible in film.

With film, the biggest difference is you can have multiple takes until you get it right. If you forget your lines, or mess up you just shoot another take and it's no big deal. So with each medium there is an idea of repetition - but somehow multiple takes on film does not, in practice, equate to the collaborative  process of days, weeks and months of rehearsals and performances on stage.

The other big difference with film is the freedom to try different things because if it doesn't work it can simply be discarded. This freedom simply does not and cannot exist on stage.

To illustrate this point there is a scene from Dog Day Afternoon where Pacino's character comes out of the bank and engages the crowd (played by extras). Pacino said that before the take one of the Assistant Directors told him to invoke the recent events at Attica Prison as an experiment to get the crowd (i.e. the extras) engaged.  Pacino tried this and it was this that resulted in the scene where the crowd chanted "Attica Attica Attica". At the time Pacino himself didn't know much about what had happened at Attica - he did this experiment purely on the basis of the AD's suggestion. And it worked.

Sources of Inspiration:

Which brings up a general observation that I got from listening to this great actor. Earlier I said that he's more actor than movie star. Which maybe means that he checks his (admittedly) healthy ego at the door.

A consequence of this is that he's happy to get ideas from wherever they might come. At one point he spoke to this point explicitly. He says that people have the misconception that there is some mystical ability that great actors have to find the essence of their characters from some magic place inside themselves.  Nothing really could be further from the truth. Pacino works hard to find what he needs to portray a particular character.

This sort of work can be quite varied. It might involve reading about the character or the historical figure. It might involve speaking to those who knew the person or people like him. But it might also involve working with the costume person to find just the right nose or just the right hand. Or working with the ex-military person who had him strip down a .45 blindfolded who said "hoohah" when he got it right. Or the AD who had him say "Attica" to the crowd. Or a dialect coach in getting the accent right that he needs for a particular character.

One gets the feeling that Pacino would take every possible lead, every possible bit of information that in the end he would put together into a character. That it's about putting in the hard work to get to the bottom of the character but also about not being too proud or too egotistical to think that the prop person or the makeup artist or the consultant doesn't have something to bring to the whole process. One gets the feeling that Pacino welcomes this sort of contribution. From his point of view, if he can use something to enhance his performance why not use it? He also said something about all of these inputs going into the mix but that in the end only some of these things "stick" (his words). The "hoohah" in the Scent of a Woman falls into that category - something that "stuck" while he was preparing for that role.

On directors in general and on Coppola in particular:

Pacino (in what is now a pretty famous story) talked about how Coppola was, at the time Godfather was made, an unknown director who insisted on an unknown actor, Pacino, to play Michael Corleone. Pacino thinks that Coppola saw something in the young Pacino that he (Coppola) had to have in his movie. In fact, the studio disagreed with nearly all of Coppola's casting decisions - Pacino, Caan, Duvall, Brando. But Coppola obviously ultimately prevailed.

Pacino said that one of the most important functions that a director can perform is that of casting the important roles in a film.  The director can read the script and see or envision a certain actor playing that role and that is a key part in putting a movie together. Apparently Paramount studios wanted Robert Redford for the role of Michael Corleone. Pacino stated that he owes Coppola everything - he's eternally grateful to Coppola for giving him that opportunity.

The Play's the Thing:

My biggest insight into Pacino as an actor is also the hardest one to easily support based on quotes from the show. But here it is anyway. It seemed that time and time again Pacino kept returning to the printed word as the basis and certainly as the starting point for his acting. Maybe this is fairly self evident.  Before a film can become a film or a play can become a production it must of necessity be a screenplay or an actual play. It is this text that first the director and the producer and then after that the actors must confront and interpret in the process of producing the film or the actual play. But then again we hear about method actors reliving traumatic scenes from childhood in achieving their lifelike performances.

For Pacino it all seems to start with the text. He recited poetry, read from Mamet's American Buffalo. He recounted how his first real start in acting was reading the Bible aloud in church (very dramatically). The insight is basically that if you give Al a text he can create magic with said text. In reading the American Buffalo there are 3 or 4 voices and he easily went back and forth between the voices, as the narrator in an audiobook might. Given that this is Mamet, this becomes that much harder due to Mamet's style of speaking in half sentences with one character talking independently of another.


Rumor has it that during the production of Glengarry, Glen Ross the actors referred to it amongst themselves as "Death of a F****ng Salesman", no doubt due to the number of F bombs in Mamet's original play and later screenplay. And there have been many other Pacino roles that were rated L for language. So much so that it's become part of the Pacino persona, one might say. Pacino made use of this technique from time to time during the evening and honestly it felt manipulative and cheap. It had its intended effect on the audience - you could sense a little squirming in the seats followed by a sense that some secret had been revealed. To me it seemed a way to get a cheap laugh or reaction so therefore seemed calculated and unnecessary. Put another way - leave that stuff to Ricky Roma and Tony Montana - it works in that setting.  In this setting it seemed to fall flat.

Pacino as Lifer:

The other strong feeling you get is that Al is a "lifer".  Pacino, one feels, is going to be doing some form of film or theater for as long as he's around.  In some ways this was one of the biggest surprises for me as it seemed that with all of his "classic" roles behind him, and now making what seems like a "Victory Lap" tour, he would be more of an eminence grise than a hungry, dedicated actor or director. I don't think this is the case. He makes films for fun. He's directing and acting in an upcoming production called Wilde Salome. He revealed that Scorsese, DeNiro and himself are collaborating on a new project. I suspect he would perform for free in Central Park if the occasion presented itself. He thrives on the energy, the challenge, the adrenalin and the chance that he might make a mistake.

Pacino on Pacino - Conclusion:

To sum up what does Al Pacino see in the morning when we wakes up? I would say that the Pacino that Al sees has wrinkles, is afraid of failing (but not so much so as to refuse to try), has worked incredibly hard on each of his many varied roles, and has been fortunate to work with some very talented actors, writers, directors, cinematographers etc. He would say that he's worked hard, achieved some measure of success, and had fun along the way. On the other hand he probably sees an older version of the same actor that was passing the hat in Greenwich Village for food and rent money. He'll probably never pass the hat again but you get the feeling that he wouldn't find anything particularly odd about doing so.


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