Al Pacino on His Great Roles, Frustrations with Fame, Return to Form in 'The Humbling'

The legendary actor also tells THR that he loved 'Guardians of the Galaxy,' wants to work with Martin Scorsese and prefers one 'Godfather' film over the others
 Fabrizio Maltese

"I was sort of blasted out of a cannon," the legendary Al Pacino told me when we sat down last week for an hour-long conversation about his life, career and most recent performance — his best in years, in my opinion — in Barry Levinson's The Humbling. "Five films, five Oscar nominations. I blew out with The Godfather and I didn't know what was happening to me. I was drinking and doing and having fun and not having fun and dying and going crazy — I was doing all of those things — but I kept going. I didn't know where I was... I knew how explosive it was, but I was inebriated most of the time. I was trying to numb up to get through it."

The south Bronx native obviously got through it — he cleaned up his act, won an Oscar, became a father and, at the age of 74, was happy to sit in a room filled with fellow actors (at the SAG Foundation in Los Angeles) who had just seen The Humbling (he himself bought the 2009 Philip Roth novel and recruited his You Don't Know Jack collaborator Levinson to direct it) to discuss his journey and views.

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Pacino recalled that his first appreciation of his fame was when he hit on a stranger who greeted him back as "Michael," the name of his character from The Godfather films. He shared the story behind his famous shouts of "Attica!" in Dog Day Afternoon. He talked about the years in which he walked away from the movies and thought about staying away, and how his then-girlfriend Diane Keaton lured him back. He gushed about Jessica Chastain, the young actress who he discovered. He admitted to loving Guardians of the Galaxy so much that he took a meeting with the president of Marvel. He revealed that Martin Scorsese is the filmmaker who he hasn't worked with who he most wants to work with — and discussed plans that are in the works to make that happen. And he even answered that classic movie question: "Godfather or Godfather II?"

For more, check out the video and/or text excerpts below. (Some of the comments quoted below were made during two other half-hour conversations that I had with Pacino this fall.)

The root of his interest in acting...

"My eighth grade teacher had me read the Bible, read the psalms for assembly... Only I didn't read them, I read them. And the teacher kinda liked me for some reason — nobody else did, but she liked me — and she went up to the South Bronx, to my tenement on the fifth floor [where I lived] with my grandmother and grandfather and mother... She walked all the way up six flights, went into my apartment, and was having coffee with, of all people, my grandmother, and she was telling her that I should do this with my life. So I think that was a turning point — not for me, but for my grandmother!"

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His early interest in theater work...

"I was a very young guy when I started to do Strindberg and things like that — I was very effected by that — because I thought, 'This material is like playing the cello because I can kinda just express things in myself,' and it gave me a more universal sense of things in myself because I was doing things that happened years ago. I was out of the south Bronx, I was out of the life I'd come from, into another world that was giving me all this stuff. It was a gift... At that point I thought, 'This is what I'll do with my life.' And nothing mattered — being famous, being rich, nothing. Only doing this."

The Actors Studio...

"I was only 26 when I was accepted, and it made my life — I mean, it gave me an identity as an actor... The Actors Studio is one of the great institutions in our country. I mean, here is a place built for actors to go in and experiment. They audition young actors, old actors — it doesn't matter who you are — and if they accept you, it doesn't cost you a dime ever... It is the most spirited and beautiful thing in acting that I've ever — it's our RADA... When I went, [Elia] Kazan was teaching — well, they don't 'teach,' they have sessions... You just go in and experiment."

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His big break...

"The Panic in Needle Park was my first movie... I think that's the reason The Godfather kept me, because I think they were gonna let me go. They didn't want me — well, [Francis Ford] Coppola did — until they showed eight minutes of The Panic in Needle Park to the producers and the studio. That was really lucky because it changed everything."

When, right after The Godfather, he first realized he was famous...

"Sometimes I would walk in New York and stand at a curb and if there was an attractive woman, sometimes I might say, 'Hi.' I wouldn't be overbearing or anything, I'd just say, 'Hi.' I remember getting on a corner, and I saw this beautiful girl and I looked at her and said, 'Hi,' and she looked at me and said, 'Hi, Michael.' Well, you could have knocked me over. I thought, 'Oh, my God, it's over,' meaning, 'I'm not anonymous anymore. There's no going back.'"

On early success...

"I was sort of blasted out of a cannon: five films, five Oscar nominations. I blew out with The Godfather and I didn't know what was happening to me. I was drinking and doing and having fun and not having fun and dying and going crazy — I was doing all of those things — but I kept going. I didn't know where I was... I know how explosive it was, but I was inebriated most of the time. I was trying to numb-up to get through it... Lee Strasberg was a dear friend and a mentor and he did say, 'Darling, you simply have to adjust.'"

What makes the The Godfather films great...

"I guess you would say it's a compilation of things coming together... I saw it a few years ago and I remember thinking, 'Here it is.' It starts and there's this guy talking about, 'I believe in America,' and he's talking to some figure, and then he starts to talk about what happened — what they did to him and how he could go nowhere — and the world got hooked because that's what we all feel, we feel the injustice of things... When you see it, it's hard to stop watching it."

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Which Godfather film he prefers...

"Well, I think Godfather 1 for the story — that story is so good, the original Mario Puzo story. Godfather II doesn't quite exist without the first one. But Godfather II, I think, is more personal to Francis."

Which film he knew would be great even while it was still being made...

"Dog Day [Afternoon] — Dog Day I knew. When we did it, [Sidney] Lumet came up to me and he said, 'Al, it's out of our hands, man. This thing's got a life of its own.' I said, 'Yeah'... You could feel that energy that Lumet was able to provide with this movie. It was really special."

The producer Marty Bregman...

"Marty Bregman [who is now 83 and retired] was a great producer. He produced Scarface, Dog Day [Afternoon], Serpico, Carlito's Way and Sea of Love — he was my guy. I'm missing a lot not having him around anymore, I must say, because he was what is so rare in what we do: a facilitator. You need a facilitator."

Discovering Jessica Chastain...

"I was casting for Salome and a lot of very good actresses were coming in and I wasn't gonna do it — how am I gonna do it?! Finally this girl comes in and she says, "Hi." I knew that somebody had recommended her — that's why she was there, I heard that she was interesting. And she got with this other person and she started to just read from the script in front of me and this great guy, Robert Fox, a great English producer, a very big theater producer... She starts the reading and I couldn't believe I was seeing this, so I turned to Robert Fox, who was sitting next to me, and said, 'Are we dreaming?' And he said, 'No, we're not dreaming.' And I looked at her and thought, 'This is an acting prodigy.' It was astounding. It was like she was Marlon Brando or something... Six years later, she's this great star."

How his fame impacts his twin 13-year-old children...

"Sometimes it effects my younger children. They have to learn about it a little bit — you know, you can't go to places and stuff. But that's okay, they go off with other people. They've learned to adjust. Pretty soon I'm gonna say to them, 'Darlings, you simply have to adjust.'"

The Al Pacino screen persona...

"When you put Tony Montana with Michael Corleone, they're two different variations — I mean, they're both living in that world [of gangsterdom], but they're different. I mean, Birdman and The Humbling are both about actors, but they're two different movies, two different worlds. I mean, if someone's a painter — you're gonna see a [work by] Jackson Pollock [the painter famous for splattering paint on canvases] and you're gonna know it's a Jackson Pollock; there's a signature there and you're gonna know it's a Jackson Pollock."

The 2014 Marvel blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy...

"My little kids took me to see Guardians of the Galaxy and I was awed by it. I thought, 'What is this?!' The sound and the invention in the movie? It made Birdman look a little pale. It was really the big stuff — I thought it was witty, and it was funny and it was dark. It went a little long in sections, but the point is it was very, very impressive. Then I was in Venice and I was being interviewed and they said, 'What did you like lately?' And I said, 'I saw this movie Galaxy of the Gates or whatever,' and I said, 'I was very impressed with that. I was impressed with the ingenuity, the invention of it — you know, come on, you can't be a snob, although I try. But the point is, it was good in a lot of ways.' And then the next thing you know, it was all over the place that I liked Galaxy — it was all over the Internet! And I met with the guy [Marvel president Kevin Feige] actually — nice guy."

His current outlook...

"I feel I'm working too much, to be honest with you. I feel I'm doing too many movies — I did three in a row and I thought, 'Woah'... But, at the same time, there's a canvas up there, and it's blank, and you look at it and you say... 'Gee, I'd like to paint that.'"

The director or actor who he's never worked with but would most like to work with...

"Well, Martin Scorsese... I'm supposed to work with him in a year with Joe Pesci, and [Robert] De Niro and Bobby Cannavale — but that's a ways away."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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