He’s played Michael Corleone and Tony Montana. He knows where the bodies are buried.
Originally published in Playboy US December 2005.
PLAYBOY: You’re considered one of the best actors of your generation. And yet some people might say…
PACINO: I know, I haven’t made a good film since Dog Day Afternoon. Somebody at a press conference once asked me, “Do you think you’ll ever be as good as you were in Dog Day?” And I said flatly, “No.” That answered that.
PLAYBOY: That’s 38 years ago. Fans of Scarface may disagree.
PACINO: Well, that’s one in 38 years. How’s that for a batting average? [laughs]
PLAYBOY: Come on, we don’t have to remind you of what you’ve done. You even won an Oscar for 1992’s Scent of a Woman.
PACINO: I’m horsing around here. I don’t think I could compare my films. It’s a matter of evolving and changing, going one way, then sideways, then up, then down. It’s what we do. Everybody who has achieved a certain amount of success as an actor has certain seminal pictures.
PLAYBOY: So if you could select five or six of your works to put in a time capsule, which would they be?
PACINO: To show who I was? I would have to go back and painstakingly look at every one of the films I’ve made and discuss it with some people and come up with some conclusions. Just off the top I’d say Godfather I and II, Scarface, Serpico, Looking for Richard and Dick Tracy.
PLAYBOY: How do you account for the lasting impact your Scarface character seems to have had? Tony Montana is on T-shirts, sweatshirts, headbands, posters. Rap singers such as Snoop Dogg and baseball players such as David Ortiz have called it their favorite film.
PACINO: Scarface somehow captured people’s imagination. It has all the ingredients of the movies of old, the guy bucking the odds. It’s such a visceral picture you either go with it or you don’t. I must say that I did find I had galvanized my energy when I did that character. Everything sort of came together for me. Scarface was vilified, for the most part, when it came out. It was more of an underground movie. But here it is, almost 33 years later, and it’s still surviving with tremendous gusto. That’s why you have to stay with a thing if you feel it.
PLAYBOY: When you go to parties, are you ever asked to imitate Tony?
PACINO: It depends on the party. And since I haven’t been to a party in 55 years, I can say only that I’ve
dreamed I’ve been to a party where people asked me.
PLAYBOY: The generation before yours produced three actors that others emulated: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. Your generation’s three are you, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson. Who belongs in the generation that has followed yours?
PACINO: Sean Penn, Johnny Depp and Russell Crowe. They should be in The Brothers Karamazov together.
PLAYBOY: Were you surprised Penn wanted to get out of acting some years ago?
PACINO: Sometimes you go through these phases. He has a real gift for directing, too, and writing. Part of it is his need to be in control of things. When you’re an actor you have to be able to let go of that control. I think he’s come to terms with that. He’s a great actor in movies. Look at Bobby De Niro, he waited a long time to direct, and he made a wonderful movie with A Bronx Tale. He’s quite capable of directing.
PLAYBOY: Why aren’t you?
PACINO: I don’t know why. There’s a misconception about directors. They’re people who can bring you into a story in a certain way and tell the story directorially. Warren Beatty can do it. He’s a sensational actor, but he’s also a great director. Robert Redford can do it. He speaks in a language only a director can speak. I don’t see the world that way. I wouldn’t know how to do it, nor would I care to. Only on occasion did I know I could direct, as with Looking for Richard, which was an extension of my vision of something I wanted to say. Sometimes I’m very inarticulate unless I’m emotional. I can’t speak in a cold, clear, meticulous way. I’m not good at that. That’s not the case with acting, because I’ve been doing it my whole life. Acting comes more naturally to me. Or it used to. I don’t know, now bullshitting comes more naturally to me.
PLAYBOY: Yet you have a box set of three independent films out on DVD. You directed two of them, Chinese Coffee and Looking for Richard, and you were heavily involved with the third, The Local Stigmatic. Why did it take so long for you to release them?
PACINO: I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t know what the hell I was doing by not letting them out. Why didn’t I? Frankly, I don’t know why.
PLAYBOY: Are you concerned that since some of these works have never been shown in theaters they may be
interpreted as failures?
PACINO: The truth is, they could have been released. Distributors wanted to release them. But Fox Searchlight Pictures and I came to the conclusion that it was better for the films to be released on DVD. It’s like putting out a paperback instead of a hardback. Our world has changed; DVDs have become more acceptable now. When we consider the film, we have to consider what we’ve got and not pretend it’s something else. We’re not pretending these movies are going to compete with other movies in theaters.
PLAYBOY: Would you say The Local Stigmatic, a violent, dense film about two Cockney lowlifes, is a good date film?
PACINO: [Laughs] If you happen to be a resident of a mental institution and you get breaks periodically. It’s only 52 minutes long. Maybe if you take your nurse or psychiatrist.
PLAYBOY: And what about Chinese Coffee, a grim story about two older artists whose lives haven’t turned out as expected?
PACINO: Well, if you weren’t a resident of an institution, you’d be joining one shortly after seeing both of those films together. I just hope people get through them without falling asleep or turning them off. Basically these are pieces of material that I enjoyed, that I liked when I read them. There’s something about getting a reaction to a work that stimulates you. You want to share it with someone. That was the principle of it. Who am I to hold on to this stuff when a lot of work I’ve done is already out there, open for scrutiny, and these aren’t nearly in the same class as some of those things? So I thought, What the hell, I might as well release them. What can happen? If people like the set and it becomes a collector’s item or if they don’t and it doesn’t, I made the effort.
PLAYBOY: When you read reviews, whether good or bad, do you ignore them?
PACINO: Positive ones can be as harmful as negative ones. When I was a young actor I hoped to go unnoticed. I hoped only that they would say I was adequate, which I thought was better than being told I was lousy. When I was in a play called Awake and Sing! at the Charles Playhouse in Boston, we were backstage while the play was going on. An actor was reading something and banging his fist, saying, “Wow! Fantastic!” I came around the corner and said, “What’s going on?” And he said, “Oh, nothing.” He got a little nervous. He then said, “Just a great notice.” I said, “Oh yeah?” And I started reading it, and it was a fantastic, glowing notice, until the last paragraph, where it said, “With the one exception of Al Pacino. If you could tolerate him.” As I was reading it I heard my cue to go onstage. [laughs] And I started laughing. I thought it was funny. I was 25. I’d love to be at that stage again, when I could laugh at the magnificent timing of it all.
PLAYBOY: Two for the Money, starring you and Matthew McConaughey, came out shortly before your DVD collection. How do you decide which to promote?
PACINO: I do try to help out a movie that cost a certain amount of money to make. But Two for the Money had a different audience than the DVDs of my small films, so how I promote each is different. The DVDs will have to find outlets; I could see myself on Charlie Rose or perhaps Larry King talking about them. On Charlie Rose I could just stare and let him do the talking. I’m not big on being on television.
PLAYBOY: Why don’t you like the talk show circuit?
PACINO: I don’t think I function very well on camera. Maybe I just haven’t done talk shows enough. I grew up when actors didn’t do that sort of thing, and today they do. I’m a little behind on adjusting to it. But here we are talking about my DVDs, and I’ve become a promoter. Next thing we’ll be promoting the heavyweight championship between me and Dustin Hoffman. Did you know that Alexander Cohen, the great impresario, had an idea many years ago to go to a boxing ring in Madison Square Garden and have me and Dustin put on the gloves? I wonder if he ever mentioned that to Dustin, because he mentioned it to me. All I said was, “Can we do it without gloves?” People have these ideas. I swear to you, that was his idea.
PLAYBOY: Godfather I and II are at the top of most lists of great American films. What’s the problem with The Godfather Part III?
PACINO: You know what the problem with that film is? The real problem? Nobody wants to see Michael have
retribution and feel guilty. That’s not who he is. In the other scripts, in Michael’s mind he is avenging his family and saving them. Michael never thinks of himself as a gangster, not as a child, not while he is one and not afterward. That is not the image he has of himself. He’s not a part of the Goodfellas thing. Michael has this code; he lives by something that makes audiences respond. But once he goes away from that and starts crying over coffins, making confessions and feeling remorse, it isn’t right. I applaud Francis Coppola for trying to get to that, but Michael is so frozen in that image. There is in him a deep feeling of having betrayed his mother by killing his brother. That was a mistake. And we are ruled by these mistakes in life as time goes on. He was wrong. Like in Scarface when Tony kills Manny, that is wrong, and he pays for it. And in his way, Michael pays for it.
PLAYBOY: In retrospect, what should Michael have done with his brother Fredo?
PACINO: Banned him, exiled him in some way. He was harmless. That part of Michael is off, just as when he denies the mother of his children. How could you do a thing like that? You hurt the children. That’s what makes it powerful. But where do you go from there?
PLAYBOY: The American Cinematheque honored you with a lifetime achievement award. Are you getting to a time in your life when such honors make you feel as though you belong in a museum?
PACINO: I love it. [laughs] Do I feel I belong in a museum? I feel like I am a museum.
PLAYBOY: You and De Niro were recently named the two greatest actors over 50. How does that affect your hat size?
PACINO: I’m just hoping that when we reach 102, he and I will be the best actors over 102.
By Lawrence Grobel
Published in Playboy South Africa March 2013