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Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain took to the stage at London’s BFI Southbank following a special screening of Salome, a new film of the pair’s 2006 L.A. stage performance of Oscar Wilde‘s celebrated play, and Wild Salome, Pacino’s 2011 documentary chronicling his obsession with the play, Wilde and the difficulties of putting it together.
Speaking in a Q&A with Stephen Fry — who is also a noted Wilde expert — Chastain talked about playing the famed princess of Judea and daughter of Herod II, her first film role after having been picked from relative obscurity at the time by Pacino to appear at the Wadsworth Theater.
“I started with the arc of the character, because for me whenever I approach something I go ‘how are they different from where they were at the beginning?’ ” she explained. “At the beginning, she comes onstage and talks about the moon as a chaste, pure thing, different from the court, so she wants this life that’s chaste, different and not like her mom, which she’s kind of against in the beginning. She ends the play kissing a severed head — necrophilia — so it’s the greatest arc I’ve ever played as an actress.”
Pacino, who is seen in Wilde Salome going through several stages of emotional distress to juggle both the film and the play, was described by Fry as “grumpy Al, mad Al and all shades of Al in between.” Pacino then discussed directing the documentary and choosing to leave in his bad-tempered moments.
“I knew we were being photographed all the time, but there I was in the setup, and I thought, ‘I’m an actor right, so let’s make a meal out of this,’ ” he said. “So I think I just gave it a little more,” he joked.
In a lively and well-received discussion, which was broadcast live to more than 200 cinemas across the U.K., Fry recalled a moment in the 1990s when he saw Pacino at The Groucho Club, a popular London hangout for the media.
“Someone said there was a bum out by the front desk, and I thought I’d never seen the manager deal with someone from the streets in this club,” Fry recalled. “So he went out, and there was this man with this big coat and with his hands thrust into it. And somebody coughed. The man turned around, and the manager said: ‘Mr. Pacino, how can I help?’ ”
Pacino spoke about his love for the U.K. capital, where he first saw the play Salome by Steven Berkoff and a famed occasion while performing on the London stage.
“I came to London to work on the West End, you created theater here,” Pacino said. “We had a few nights of previews and are playing this show. We’re in the middle of it, first act and some woman sails down the aisle to the front and has a cigarette. She looks up at me and says, ‘Got a light?’ “
In closing the discussion, Fry read the last paragraph of a biography of Wilde written by Richard Ellman. “We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs more to our world than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of the scandal, his best writing is validated by time. He comes before us still, a towering figure, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.”
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