Quite often, it’s the comedic actors who go out on a limb and play a variation of themselves, mostly through a satirical lens. The James Franco-Seth Rogen gang had a blast showing us what happens when you mix pot with the apocalypse in This Is The End, while Albert Brooks was a fish-out-of-water in India in his directorial Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World. There’s also the time when the somber John Malkovich was game to strut his icy absurdity in Being John Malkovich. But whenever a dramatic actor has the guts to unmask his warts and all in a serious project that mirrors reality, and does it well, such as Al Pacino in Barry Levinson’s feature adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel The Humbling, it’s nothing short of riveting.
Like Pacino, actor Simon Axler in The Humbling is an iconic thesp, who has seen the ups and down of his career. He’s tired, but finds the stamina to keep plowing ahead. Both Pacino and Axler have a deep devotion to Shakespeare and the classical theatrical works. Played out quite eloquently in the film: Sometimes an actor’s private life offstage pays the price for their brilliance onstage, onscreen. There’s a great moment in The Humbling when Axler is fighting with his much younger girlfriend Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), who knocks on the elderly actor’s energy. Axler screams at her, “Go in front of the stage, in front of the audience and you’ll see real energy. I would never waste it, I keep it for the stage…see me and you’ll see real emotion.” For the moviegoer, it’s a line that makes us think Pacino is creaking the door open to his process in terms of how he turns it on and off.
At the Awardsline Tuesday night screening for The Humbling at the Landmark Theatre, Pacino told Deadline’s Dominic Patten that his agent sent the Roth novel his way. “‘I think you’ll be interested’ my agent told me. ‘It’s about an actor who is on his way out.’ Finally, I said, something I can relate to — a movie I can make about myself!” laughed Pacino.
“I wanted to bring out someone who was tottering on the edge, who was just unsure of everything. The idea of missing the boat or missed opportunities as it’s referred to in the film — that’s fascinating to me,” said the Oscar-winning actor on how the material resonated with him.
“This character at 70 years old is dealing with eroding tools,” said Pacino.
At the beginning of the film, Pacino’s Axler falls off stage during a stage production; a suicide attempt that sends the character into a short-term stay at a mental hospital. While Pacino never took a dive in real-life, he relayed to the crowd last night his nightmare onstage experiences — not too far from what Axler weathers.
“Twenty years ago I was doing a Shakespeare play on stage, eight performances a week, five in a weekend. I’m performing this soliloquy and in the middle of it, I realized I just did the same speech a couple of hours ago. I start thinking, ‘Did I already say that?’ I realize I’m beginning to say my lines twice. I got so crazed. I looked at the audience and they looked at me as though I was having a nervous breakdown. They were so kind and forgiving. You don’t know terror until you’re up in front of an audience,” said the actor.
Moving The Humbling forward, Pacino called up Oscar-winning director Levinson who directed the actor in his Emmy-winning turn as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in HBO’s You Don’t Know Jack. Both knew that the Roth novel, given its darkness, needed to be kicked up a notch, so they brought in Buck Henry to give the actor’s story a sense of humor and “ramp up a tragic story of a guy who tries to kill himself,” said Pacino. Michal Zebede also co-wrote with Henry. By keeping the budget low at $2M, Pacino and Levinson were able to forgo the typical indie trap of casting actors whose star worth met the needs of overseas buyers, rather they hired those who were ripe for their parts, i.e. Greta Gerwig as Pacino’s lesbian lover, Charles Grodin as his dry-witted agent and Nina Arianda who plays an obsessed fan of Axler’s, who pursues the actor to kill her child-abusing husband.
“Barry is so experienced. He wrote for Mel Brooks so he has comedy in his bones. He throws in that spontaneity and I love that,” remarked Pacino on the joy of being directed by Levinson.
Speaking both to his craft and how Axler blurs the line between fiction and Pacino’s own reality, the actor exclaimed, “When you’re troubled in your past and when you find something — it can be sports or basket weaving — that’s your thing, you devote yourself to that. It’s like finding water in a desert. You know this is your life. When the continuing dedication to something goes, when the fame and success go, it’s a terror. Simon (Axler) has nothing else. He has no family. He has two ex-wives who he can’t remember! But, I like the idea of an actor who wants to be a real person, who wants to stop and be a civilian.”
Millennium Entertainment will open The Humbling on January 23.