An eight-time Oscar nominee—and winner for Scent of a Woman—two-time Emmy victor and five time Golden Globe winner, Al Pacino is not a legend who rests on his laurels. The star of such iconic films as The Godfather, Scarface, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, And Justice for All and so many others impossible to list took matters into his own hands in bringing his latest role to the screen by acquiring rights to Philip Roth’s The Humbling. Made for $2 million and shot partly using director Barry Levinson’s own house, this low-budget indie—a scathingly funny story about an actor trying to navigate a deep professional and personal crisis—scored big in Venice and Toronto and now has brought Pacino yet another memorable character to add to his impressive gallery.
You actually optioned this movie for yourself, right?
I did, years ago. I read the book and I thought, “This is interesting.” If I’m going to do anything, this is at least something I’d know how to (take) from the book to the screen, and I did. I asked Barry (Levinson) if he’d be interested and he was. And we got Buck Henry out of wherever he was and he wrote (the script). It took time and we got together and talked about it, figured out a way to go and wanted to see if we could get some of the vitality from the book that the movie needs, the humor. And I think that was the right choice of having Buck and Barry write the text.
Your character does Shakespeare, does stage, does film. You do all of that, so how closely did you relate to him when you read this material originally?
Oh, that’s why I think I took (this project). At least to make the leap—get a book and turn it into something like this—it’s good to be able to say, “Well, it’s at least a world I know about.” There’s a connection to it. It’s in, as they say, my wheelhouse. And I would feel that way, too, if I did a play. I’ve directed things myself, when I had a great feeling for something, like I did for Salome. It’s still about a world I know. Shakespeare was a world I knew, and also there was a need to try to understand why American (actors) had trouble with it. So there was motivation there. There was energy there. Pretty soon, you like to get involved with something that you have some energy about. You feel connected to something—getting up in the morning and going there and doing it. Although, we didn’t have a regular schedule, Barry and I—I don’t know if anyone knew about that—we were doing the film in increments. You know, “Hello, where are you?” “I’m in Austin right now, but I’ll get free in a…”
So you did this over the course of…
Three months; 20 shooting days, actually. But they were in increments. A lot of that was helpful because then Barry got a chance to look at the footage we did. That was the fun of it. So we were making it as we went.
And made it in his house.
Some of it. That was a lot of it. That’s what I remember most about the film—going to that house in Connecticut. It was fun.
Here’s a guy who’s directed 30, 40 movies, and he actually allowed a film crew to come in his house.
As he says, “I like to wake up in the morning and go. I like going into the other room, seeing all the people with wires trying to put things together. I enjoy it with my coffee.”
You’ve done a lot of independent and studio films, but it seems as if independent is the way to go if you want to get anything that’s really good.
That’s sort of true. The only difficulty with (independent films) is the amount of time they give you to shoot. It’s just not enough. In the old days, we shot fast. We’d shoot in five or six weeks, but we had three-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal. Now, that time is added to (a project)…now it becomes a 10-week film, you know what I mean? But the rehearsal pays off because you sort of know what you’re doing and you’ve got a director like Sidney (Lumet) or Barry. You know they know what they’re doing. You just feel you can trust them.
So you didn’t have rehearsal time at all with your costar Greta Gerwig or anything to develop your characters’ relationship?
No. Not much. So casting becomes important. The way Greta makes this stuff work, I mean, she fits in. She actually looks like she comes from that kind of world and anything goes with her, so it helps this relationship. You’re not thinking so much that he’s old and she’s young; it’s more like they’re like a couple of freaks. So they belong together. What I mean by freaks is they come from an environment and a lifestyle that doesn’t sort of fit the normal thing. And they’re completely eccentric. But at the same time, the image is very important. There’s a level of believability there, I think, that they would actually find each other interesting.
You also had another small movie, Manglehorn, at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Yeah. I did two of those movies in a row, or together, I don’t know, I forget. It was a shock to my system, to be honest with you. How do you go to a festival with two movies? I just thought, “Well, this is what happens sometimes.” It was a strange experience. You’re talking about one movie and you sort of have to adjust on the red carpet every four or five minutes, you know, “What am I doing on this carpet?”
The marketing of movies and the selling of them has become just as important to get them made, so that you can do more.
It’s a changing world. You’ve got to adjust to it in some way.
You’ve done pretty much everything. Is there something that you still really want to get made that you haven’t been able to?
Oh, my great line with that is I’d like to take a basket with me so when they cart me away, I’ll be ahead of the game. That’s a funny thing. I love the stage, which has been my handle, so to speak. So when I can go on stage, there’s something. And doing movies that answer, “Where am I in all of this?” Where does your cycle take you? We get older and we go into different areas and I believe in the cycle thing—what kind of frame you’re in. That’s a strange, interesting way to approach work, which is, “How do I feel now and is there anything in this material that I can be of some service to? What is it in me that will provoke me to do something?” And you just have to trust that instinct.
Do you have more desire to direct other stuff now too?
I would only direct what I really feel. I don’t feel I belong in that area. I’m a novice. I’m learning when I do it. I do think through all my years of working with great people, I’ve learned a little bit and sometimes I enjoy the idea. I fell in love with the idea of making movies—the idea of taking something and then watching it happen; if it does (happen), if you’re lucky enough. And I don’t mean just the movie itself. Just a scene from the movie. Or a moment here and there. It’s magical. And you learn about movies. I wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t connected to something I wanted to say.
I was talking to your friend Robert Duvall recently and he just directed a very small western called Wild Horses that comes out, he hopes, next year. And he said, “That’s it. I’m done. That’s my last directing.” It’s just too hard to get them financed and made anymore.
That’s the thing. Orson Welles said it. What finally becomes debilitating is trying to get films made. And the going around begging, begging for finances.
I saw Martin Scorsese in Cannes a couple of years ago. He said, “I’ve never done this before.” He was on boats there, you know, meeting with financers trying to get money… This is Martin Scorsese! And he said, “I have to do that now.”
That’s our world. And I did it for a long time when I was on my own with my own dime. And then I ran out of those, you know. The quarters turned to nickels. That’s it. I can’t do it now. But I knew back then what I wanted to do, the things I wanted to say, and the kind of movies I wanted to make—for me, anyway. They wouldn’t be acceptable because they wouldn’t have a big audience, so the only way I could do it with the freedom I needed was with my own money.
Last question. Of all the films you’ve done, when you look at your whole career, when do you think you were happiest as an actor? Is it now? Was it when you were just starting?
It certainly was not when I was just starting. Certainly not. But I think there were periods where I felt I was into something. Believe it or not, as hard of a movie it was, as draining as it was, I enjoyed doing Scarface. I really enjoyed the atmosphere, the people, and that time of my life. I was in love at the time and, so, that was an experience. When I look back on it, I found there was something creative about it, too. I’ve never said this actually. Isn’t that funny? It’s got a lot to do with the components that it had, the things happening in your life and where you are in your own.
Photograph of Al Pacino by Mark Mann