Al Pacino on Cats, Bees, Liking Guardians of the Galaxy, and Wanting to Play Joe Paterno

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Photo: Leonard Adam/Getty Images

They might as well have named it the Al Pacino Toronto International Film Festival this year. The screen legend, at age 74, was not only the honoree at TIFF’s third annual fund-raising gala to kick off the festival, he had two very different movies in competition, too. The Humbling, based on a Philip Roth novel, is a sharp satire about a washed-up stage actor who attempts suicide while doing a Shakespeare play, winds up in a mental hospital, and takes up with a feisty, gold-digging thirtysomething lesbian (Greta Gerwig) who’s been inappropriately obsessed with him since she was a child.

Pacino was instrumental in getting the movie made, recruiting Buck Henry as screenwriter and his old pal Barry Levinson to direct. For Manglehorn, he answered the call of a much younger director he admires but had never worked with, David Gordon Green, who wrote the part of a bitter and brokenhearted locksmith in this magical-realist fable specifically for Pacino. (Green has said he wanted it to feel like Gepetto finding his Pinocchio.) It’s a remarkably inward and quiet performance for Pacino, who spends the very slow film writing letters to a lost love, attempting to start a new romance with his bank teller, and wandering through a surreal landscape of occasionally stunning setpieces. We spoke to a very relaxed Pacino about how he picks his projects these days, his love of Guardians of the Galaxy, and his distaste for the “rush, rush” of interrupting publicists.

Scene: Pacino alone in an empty meeting room at a big round table strewn with Halls lozenges and wrappers and various half-eaten bags of snacks. A publicist tells him he’ll get to break for lunch as soon as he finishes speaking with me.

You must be starving.
Well, what happens is you start off the day with nothing, and then by the end of the day — I’ve spread all the stuff I’m accumulated, so pardon me. This is cool. I’m fine.

This is a crazy festival for you.
It sure is, because I got the two films. I know it is. [Laughs.] It’s not what I expected.

How are you picking your projects these days? You seem to be having a bit of a renaissance.
Well, I have four movies coming out. My own project that I worked on a long time was Wilde Salomé, a documentary [about the play Salomé and its author, Oscar Wilde] that’s going to London in an omniverse presentation, which means you show it simultaneously in a hundred different theaters, one performance. So it’s for specialized kind of movies, they do it for opera and stuff.

And then there’s a movie coming out next year called, I believe it’s called Danny Collins, about an older rock star. And then there were these two movies.

Why were you interested in doing The Humbling?
It’s good when you get an opportunity to make a movie about something you feel that you know a little bit about, such as what an actor goes through, and the whole world of theater. He’s mainly a stage actor. He also does movies at a certain point in his life. And the dealing with what decline is. And when I read the book, I found a lot of things in it amusing and also tragic. So I went to Barry Levinson and asked him if he would read it and see how he felt about it, because that’s how I saw it, as a tragic comedy. And he really felt that way about the movie. We got [screenwriter] Buck Henry and developed this movie. We felt going in that we should do this low-budget, partially because it was the way things were going, and also it’s somewhat in our wheelhouse — since we had a sort of confidence about the world we were in. We did it in increments. I kinda like that. I like doing five or six days, going away, coming back two, three weeks later. I went off and did Manglehorn in the middle of doing Humbling.

So you hadn’t finished filming The Humbling at that point?
No. We shot it in 20 days, The Humbling, so it gave Barry some time to look at it and see where he wanted to go more with the way the film was turning out, and edit it. So when I came to him again, he had definite ideas, certain places. And somehow did two movies at the same time.

You did!
I did! What do you think of it?

Have you had a personal humbling?
No, I don’t think so. What’s devastating to the character in Humbling is his loss of appetite or desire, because especially as a stage actor, it’s a rigorous thing to do, to go out onstage doing Shakespeare and stuff. You must have some appetite to do it, otherwise I don’t know how you can coast in that sort of thing. When you’re an athlete, it’s more obvious when your time’s running out. With an actor, it’s not as obvious because there are roles as you get older that are appropriate.

Like King Lear?
Well, King Lear among others, I guess. I don’t think you’re playing Romeo. But there are some great parts in Romeo and Juliet that are older. Although I think that Eleonora Duse, great actress of the past, at age 60 played Juliet, because it’s the theater, you can do a lot of those things, and you’re able to.

[Takes out a Halls cough drop from his mouth.] Excuse me, I can’t talk and suck at the same time.

In theater, because you’re not seen on a big screen, you can do stuff that’s appropriate to where your state is — because to me, acting is a state. I mean, the more you can give to a performance is when you can bring your state of mind, your emotional state, because it works with you, and it’s a form of expression.

Have you had a loss of appetite for acting?
No, never. The only thing I might have is I have a loss of appetite in doing things I don’t want to do. So let’s put it that way.

And why Manglehorn?
I knew of David [Gordon Green]’s work. And David came to me, he wrote it specifically for me. I was flattered. I knew when a director wants you, it perks you up, you say, "Well, there’s a reason they want me in their film." It goes back to The Godfather. Francis [Coppola] wanted me in The Godfather. It didn’t matter what all the other people around were saying, including myself — "I don’t think I can do this," basically. But he wanted me. And I think I’ve stuck with that because there’s a tendency when you get notoriety and fame and stuff, for people to want to use you to get a play or a movie made — in the old days, to get a movie made. So you sometimes are doing parts that you wouldn’t normally do. There’s good in that, too, because there’s a lot sometimes you don’t know that you can do until you do it. So in a way, you’re taking a chance. But I really like when a director truly wants me in a part because I’ve got a feeling there’s something they want to say or know about me that I don’t know.

What did you find that you found out about yourself from David doing Manglehorn?
The idea that this character is writing to this lost love, to me, was touching; that in order to cope with the loss, he wrote letters. It was a form of therapy for him, a way for him to tolerate this very difficult pain, this pain that is so impossible to resolve when you can’t reach someone. I don’t think there’s anything worse. It’s a real living pain. And it was his way of coping. And so, in a way, it became a vocation, writing these letters.

What did you find interesting about working with David? Did you know that the movie was going to look the way that it does? It’s unusual for you, for instance, to have a scene where you’re tearing up a room and your director has turned all the sound off.
Well, that’s the beauty of working with David, because he does that. You come in, you think you’re gonna do one scene, and he says, “Well, what if we just turned it around and look this way?” And when you learn that what he’s doing is what he’s doing, he has a vision. So you learn to just trust that. At one point, I would do anything he said. You could feel his animation. He is after something, and you know he’s after something, and you never question it because it’s got something to do with the abstract or his mind or his imagination, his instinct — it’s what he knows. I’ve never done that with someone, so it was very interesting.

In The Humbling, I thought your character’s relationship with Greta Gerwig was just so entertaining and insane. Your girlfriend, Lucila Sosa, is much younger than you. Was that something you could draw from? 
Well, if you see the movie, since there’s an eccentricity to both of them, I never questioned the age thing with them. I haven’t heard anybody talk about that. I thought, yes, there is an age difference, it even says it, but somehow the greatness of Greta is in the way she morphs into things — a very special person, she is, in that way. I don’t know — [laughs] it just doesn’t feel like an older-man-younger-woman story, does it? It didn’t to me, but I don’t know …

Well, when they’re having sex, he has all sorts of erection problems, or he’s throwing out his back. 
Oh, yeah, there’s those comments. And she’s gay, so there it is! [Laughs.] What more do you need? It works.

I also noticed that you act with cats in both of these movies. How was that?
Well, it’s animals, you know. You never know what they’re gonna do, and so you should learn from that. If you can have that kind of spontaneity, because you’re feeling it, certainly — say I don’t want to be up on this tree and, you know, and the cat doesn’t, either. You have to acclimate and adjust to it. But David’s sensitive, so he worked the room on that.

Your character in Manglehorn is constantly sending letters and checking for letters at a mailbox that has a beehive on it. Were you getting stung?
Yeah, I got stung a couple of times, and they told me that they weren’t dangerous, and so I went in there and got stung. It was fine. It didn’t bother me.

But did a beehive on the mailbox feel necessary?
I think it was necessary for David. I was neutral, as Al. I just said, “Okay, there’s bees there.” With that movie, I was just dealing with whatever happens, like the guy comes and starts singing in the bank. It has a significance because it’s not like we’re sitting in the park and the guy comes singing to us. He’s singing to someone else in the bank, and Holly and I are in the bank—

[Gets distracted by publicist coming in to tell us our time is up.] Sir, could you give us a minute or so, because I was a bit late coming in.

[To me] It’s the new world — rush, rush. It’s in the films, it’s in the very fabric, the films they make today, rush, rush. You gotta do it fast.

You were saying you felt the bees were necessary in the world of the film.
It seems that way, when I saw it. It has some sort of effect. As I once said to David, when he showed me, I said, “It somehow belongs.” It’s how he does it. That’s his, I guess, vision. That’s his motif, that’s the way he works. And he feels it.

Just because we’re getting rushed out of here …
Oh, we’re not going to be rushed. [Smiles.] Ask me what you want to ask.

You said that you’re trying to avoid things you don’t want to do. So what is it that you do want to do? You’ve mentioned your love of Guardians of the Galaxy.
Yeah, yeah. I thought the Galaxy thing was a very interesting movie. In its genre, it was done very well. I saw it with my little kids, and they liked it and I liked it. I thought it was inventive and funny and dark at times. I thought, Gee, it’s a big movie and you saw it in a big screen with sound, and it was, I thought, well produced, well directed acted. I was happy sitting there.

But do you want to do a movie like that?
I wouldn’t know how to do a movie like that. you know, I’ve done movies you might say were — like, I did Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty directed that, and it was a lot of fun doing that character. I actually got nominated for an Oscar for that part, so anything can happen.

But would you want to do an action or superhero movie?
I don’t know. As I say, I go with the flow. It’s what I can do, what my life is at this point, having young children too, I have older children. Whatever my life allows me to do, I will do. And sometimes I go a long time without working, though I’ve been doing HBO stuff, Spector, Kevorkian.

[Publicist comes in to tell us this will be the last question.] And that sort of has been my — I’ve done things there. [About the publicist] When they do that, I sort of forget where I am!

I feel sometimes like I do what my life dictates. That’s kinda what I’ve been doing. And hopefully, you go with the flow. If something is there and you feel it — I can’t say some of these projects that are out there — but I want to do films that develop. If you’re gonna do something about a particular subject, and you have an opportunity, and if all parties are in sync, it takes time to develop a thing, certain subjects. You hear it all the time, “It took me eight years to make this movie.” You hear it. And it does. You have one more? [To publicist] Give her one more, please!

I’m most interested in you possibly playing Joe Paterno.
Well, for instance, Joe Paterno is a major subject. I really love that documentary they did [Happy Valley]. I found it really powerful. It wasn’t about Paterno, it was about us, our world. And I was responsive to it. So this movie about Paterno, and Brian De Palma is my friend and I love him as a director, I’ve made movies with him. But yeah, we need to find a way to tell this story in a way that has the power and the tragedy that it deserves. So in order to do that, one has to come up with the text. And that’s what we’ve been working toward. There’s other things: I’m working with David Mamet now on a new play. A live play. He did the Spector [movie] with me, I’ve known him a long time, and he’s just great to work with. And he’s a collaborator, too, at the same time. So there’s things to do.