Al Pacino comes dressed in black and gray, wearing multiple bracelets and an unkempt tuft of hair poking up from his scalp. He speaks in soft whispers, even softer than the ones he uttered as Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy. This is not the boisterous version of Pacino, the one we saw as Tony Montana in Scarface or as Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman.
Pacino has arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival to promote his film The Humbling, which sees him reuniting with Barry Levinson, who he worked with on the critically acclaimed HBO movie, You Don’t Know Jack, about infamous euthanasia activist Jack Kevorkian. After they wrapped up production, Pacino approached the director with a novel by Philip Roth called The Humbling with the intention of making it his next project. He wanted Levinson on board. “We were very much on the same page in a sense,” the seasoned filmmaker tells The Daily Beast. “I think the way we worked together it would be exciting to do something else. Al really wanted to do a thing about an actor and he’s one of the few movie stars who continue to work in theater over the years, and he can bring a lot to the table.”
The Humbling focuses on Simon Axler (Pacino), a veteran stage actor who loses the desire to act. Unlike Axler, Pacino says he has yet to lose his, though many critics would beg to differ. One glance at his Rotten Tomatoes score over the last decade shows how sharply the press has turned on him. Like his contemporary, Robert De Niro, Pacino has become something of a critical punching bag of late, a thought that seemed almost impossible for the majority of his career. Not that that bothers Pacino. He’s just doing what he wants to do—at least in the 20 minutes I spent with him, where he seemed happy yet driven.
Below is an edited version of our conversation, where Pacino discusses The Humbling, whether he’s worried about losing his desire to act, an upcoming project with Martin Scorsese (which, according to Pacino, is still in the works after multiple stop-and-start moments), portraying Joe Paterno in the upcoming film Happy Valley, and his thoughts on the critical disdain he has faced over the years.
How’s your day going so far?
Well, I am talking.
Yeah, that’s a good sign. I am coming from Venice [Film Festival], so I am a little bit out of the time loop.
Well it looked like you’ve been having a good time the past few months. I just saw a photo of you hanging out with Paul Pierce.
Oh yeah! I was doing something in Vegas and he was there. I was there doing a seminar.
A seminar on what?
On a, well, you don’t call it a seminar. I was sort of doing an interview.
Ah, yeah, when you said seminar I thought you attended some sort of corporate speech.
Yeah, like a podium or something. But I wasn’t doing that. I don’t know how it feels if I was standing at a podium doing something.
So you don’t do speeches?
No, I don’t do that. I prefer questions. I get questions, I can turn it into speeches. That’s what happens when you’re older, it takes you three or four paragraphs before you can get to any point.
In this film you play Simon Axler, an aging actor who loses his desire to act. Do you ever worry about losing yours?
I have been looking forward to losing the desire! I am trying not to do anything that doesn’t appeal to me. There’s stuff out there that still does. As Shakespeare says, the play’s the thing. And if you find that play, and assuming it’s good, it ignites you, it stimulates your imagination. You think I haven’t done that. Or, That’s territory I haven’t been in yet. I am at an age now that I can speak to this in some ways. You can get kind of turned on by it, and you say “Gee, I thought I wasn’t going to work for awhile but this is here.”
The Humbling was different, because I read the book and I thought That’s an interesting idea. I can relate. I am an actor, this is a Philip Roth novel. There was something amusing to us about an actor who wants to move on with a new life. I think he feels like What did I miss out on? And there he is out in the world. It seems as though he goes into areas he wouldn’t go into because he’s certainly not used to it and keeps making these profound mistakes.
When you were at Venice promoting The Humbling, you said the best advice you ever got was from Lee Strasberg telling you to constantly “adjust,” or live for the present and avoid reflecting on past failures or glories.
Yeah, I am one of many who live by that! Live in the moment. Seize the day. Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to look at both of them [failures and glories]. I mean, all bets are off.
The reason I bring that up is, aside from the parallel to this film, when it comes to past glories, so many of your earlier projects—The Godfather, Serpico, Scarface—are completely entrenched in pop culture. I feel like it would be very hard to not reflect on them in some way. Do you agree?
Well the truth is, I still sort of don’t [talk about them]. I must say, I am very grateful that I was around, especially in the ’70s, which were kind of a renaissance. But man, I have no memory of the ’70s! You have to understand, I was in another world! I didn’t know what was going on. But I am glad it worked out. So when you meet somebody who met you once—because I meet a lot of people and they know you because you’re an actor—it’s nice to know that when you meet that someone they say, “You were nice to me.” It’s just interesting. I’ve always appreciated the journey. They say it’s not the destination but the journey. So it still means something to me to be able to have an opportunity to be involved with something that I feel I have something to say with. It’s a form of communication. I still love the stage. I like doing that, but I wish I could define how it’s changed, because it has changed.
Acting in general?
Acting in general. I just want to do things that I feel would be in some way part of what I am going through or have some sense of. What you really do as an actor is you try to find in the role something that you can relate to that you feel can ignite you and give you the appropriate energy to commit to it in that way. Some of the movies I did early on I had that in general. Now I would find that it would be hard to do something that I couldn’t say something with.
And the roles you’ve chosen in the last few years definitely reflect that. You played Phil Spector and Jack Kevorkian. You also have Joe Paterno coming up for Happy Valley…
Yeah, we’re working on that.
How’s that going?
It’s developing. I see [the story] as a major fall—it’s a fall of a person.
It’s Shakespearean, Paterno’s story.
It is! Did you see the documentary Happy Valley?
I did. It was very good.
Stunning movie. And I kept thinking, it’s not the story of Paterno—that’s part of it, but it’s about Happy Valley. And it’s about all of us. It’s the way it’s sort of depicted and the intensity and the thought and how it makes you think. You go feeling one way and you leave and you sort of don’t know what to do.
How’s it being back with Brian de Palma [who’s directing Happy Valley]?
I love Brian. You know that. I love that guy. There’s a few things I am working on now. I am doing a new play with David Mamet.
Are you still doing The Irishman?
The Irishman. Wow. Oh yeah, Steve Zaillian script.
Yeah, and Martin Scorsese directing.
Yeah, [Joe] Pesci, [Robert] De Niro, Bobby Cannavale.
You’ve never done anything with Scorsese, which is interesting because you would assume you would have at this point.
Isn’t that something?
Have you guys gotten close to doing anything together?
I don’t think I’ve gotten close to doing something with Marty. I know him. He’s such a great director. But I am sure there are other actors who Marty hasn’t worked with.
Of course. But you’re very much associated with that community of actors and filmmakers.
Yeah, I know. But at that period [in the 1970s] we were sort of split. Scorsese made movies with De Niro and I was making movies with [Sidney] Lumet. But I can’t think of a Scorsese movie that I would have been right for.
I assume it will be nice working with Robert De Niro again.
Oh, I love Bobby. I love him. Getting the opportunity to work with him, especially on something that is with one of the greatest directors ever.
Critics weren’t too kind to you and De Niro’s last project, Righteous Kill.
Well, that one was not [pauses]… You want to do something again that you feel good about.
Do you pay attention to critics at all? In the last decade, they have been pretty brutal about the films you’ve done.
Well, something happened, because it’s all about the Internet. How do you not pay attention and then how do you pay attention, is the question. Because you get a sense of things and you get a sense of where it’s going. That’s why you try to just keep going. I have always been aware [of the bad reviews]. It’s not wise to stick [with them]. Unless you can find good criticism, which is hard to do, because you get too subjective.
So, like, constructive criticism?
Yeah, I mean, I love that. I especially like it in live theater. If you know what you’re doing, it’s fulfilling something in yourself, then it doesn’t matter as much. It still matters. We’re all sensitive to it. It’s when you feel a little bit on the fence about what you’ve done and you’re concerned about it. It’s like Tennessee Williams said, “You can always depend on the kindness of strangers.” You can’t do that here [laughs]. You know what I mean?
I mentioned Scarface earlier. Have you heard about this remake Universal is doing?
I’ve heard of it!
What are your thoughts on that? They are kind of changing the story apparently. It’s going to be set in LA.
Well, if it’s inspired by the movie, I think that’s good.
I think it’s inspired by both. The original and yours.
That’s what we were doing. I saw the Scarface with Paul Muni on Sunset Boulevard at the… whatever the name of that theater is, the Tiffany. I said, “Oh I love this Paul Muni so much, I just want to make a movie and imitate him. That’s all I want to do.” And I called [my agent] and said “There is a movie here for us to do now.” It was 50 years old but it says so much. So we got De Palma, we got Oliver Stone to do the screenplay…
I think it’s fascinating the second life the film has taken on, especially in hip-hop.
Yeah, it still goes on. And the fact that it was so eviscerated when it first came out was a bit surprising, because we thought Brian deliberately tried to make it operatic. There was a whole thought in the 1980s, that Wall Street greed thing and this sense of avarice was in the air. And this movie sort of covered it, and it was Brian’s vision, which I went along with completely. I thought it was the way to go. And I think critics didn’t quite follow that. But audiences kept coming and stayed around. And they just kept coming and it had this resurgence. We always felt there was something there. But at the time, like all things, it wasn’t in fashion. The fashion was more in naturalism in films. Low-key stuff. There were so many wonderful movies being made during that. But this came out in a different fashion and it didn’t belong in the pantheon of things.
Do you see a lot of recent films now?
No, I don’t get out that much. I have young children. I did see this wonderful movie, Guardians of the Galaxy.
Ah, yes, I heard about this.
My kids were into it. And then I heard [my quote] was all over the Internet and everything about Marvel. But the truth is, I love the movie. I thought the movie was inventive and funny and interesting and dark sometimes. It was very, very impressive. But it somehow got out [that I wanted to be in a Marvel film]. And I am perpetuating it now, which is fine by me. But I don’t get out much. I always see what are considered the best films. And I try to see offbeat films. Sometimes these good films don’t get a life. Maybe they don’t have stars in it, or even if they have stars in it! I don’t think they get their proper viewing.
I believe films…you know, enough with this watching it on an iPhone! That’s what I love about festivals, you get to watch it on the big screen. I saw The Humbling last night on the big screen. You see things on the big screen. You can’t pause it. Your experience is different. And that’s the way films were. I think we should have more of that kind of encouragement. When I get to a festival I am still like “I get to see my movie on the big screen!”