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Al Pacino Q&A: On Manglehorn and the wisdom of experience

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When most people think of Al Pacino today, they think of AL PACINO. Like his colleagues Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, other young turks of ’70s Hollywood whose performative idiosyncrasies gave gainful employment to entire generations of comedic impersonators, many of Pacino’s most remembered scenes are the ones with the most bombast: “Attica!” and “The whole trial is out of order!” and, always and forever, “HOO-AH!

But the actor also has quieter successes, like the complex internalizations of Michael Corleone in The Godfather films, or the existential exhaustion of Insomnia, or his latest work in David Gordon Green’s small and slightly surreal Manglehorn. Pacino plays the title character, a lonely, difficult man with an oddly poetic soul, a locksmith but one straight out of Saul Bellow. EW spoke with Pacino about the role and how he approaches his craft in his his sixth decade of screen work.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: David Gordon Green wrote this character with you mind, is that right?

Al Pacino: He had a meeting with me when I was up for some commercial. It was a big commercial and I thought, “Well, I’ve never really done too many of them, but I couldn’t connect with it.” David was doing it and we had a big board meeting and everybody was sitting there and I was just a fish out of water. I just sat there wondering, “What do they want me for?” It’d be nice to do it if I could because it was interesting money and everything, but I found myself unable to connect to any of it. And he was there and we watched me struggle through the whole thing and finally I didn’t do it. I guess he found it interesting enough to write a movie with me in his mind.

Knowing a role was written for you like that, does it change your approach?

No, it’s the same thing really. You look at a character and say, “How am I ever going to play this? Where is this coming from?” Especially one as exotic as Manglehorn. Who is he? So you pick a couple of things. When I got the script I thought this guy was probably on the spectrum somewhere. Somewhere low, but that’s the sense I got. I got the idea that his past was checkered, if you like, something that happened years ago that affected his life. 

You’ve said that you’ve had difficulty shaking certain characters once they’re in their head, especially Michael Corleone. Is that ever still an issue for you?

No, not really. I was at such an impressionable age then and I never thought I was right for the part, but Coppola did. And consequently he saw stuff in me that I had no knowledge of. I learned from that experience. And the same could be said for other roles I’ve played throughout my life—some of them work, some of them don’t. Even with this role I felt, “I don’t know what David is seeing but I’m going to try to find my way there.” But I didn’t keep the character or hold onto it in any way. I find what happens, when you have enough experience, there are various parts of yourself that you can turn on and turn off. Because the understanding of what you do and your understanding of life in general changes somewhat. You can get more objective with age. Or that’s how it’s been so far for me, luckily, fortunately—otherwise I think I’d go jump off some roof.

Where are you in your career at this point? What do you look for in projects?

There’s two levels. There’s the level of what actually is acceptable to do, what audiences will believe me in, and then there’s the other one, which is more experimental. I go back and forth a little bit, but stuff that’s more connected to my place in the world is stuff that I can do that’s age-appropriate and connects to something that I’ve come to understand in life, my own life, or exercising some ideas I have. But basically I’m trying to get to a point where I can take a bit of a rest and not feel like I have to do something for whatever reasons. I don’t have a problem with taking a break—you’d think I did because I’ve done so much lately. I wonder what happened to my ability in my younger days to be leisurely. I don’t know if my children, my youngest children, have produced that in me. I don’t know, but I certainly more and more want to be with them and that life and that world. That’s important for me somehow, so I’m trying to gear things toward that.

But there’s always the chance something will come up. The Mamet piece [China Doll, beginning on Broadway in October] is daunting and is something that I’m confronting. Very challenging in a way, a two-character play. At a certain point one just says, “I need the time to do it.” In movies you don’t get as much time anymore, you’re confronted with the clock all the time, and that can be difficult because you have to make something work within the confines of your six-week shoot. And that’s not enough time usually, so the work reflects that. You wish you had more time, even if it’s just to get to know the players you’re with or talk with the director about your character. In the old days, [Sidney] Lumet would do movies in six weeks, too, but he had three weeks or a month rehearsal. That’s not the case anymore. You rarely find a movie that’s a film of a serious nature that has time to get the actors together to rehearse. It’s not the priority.

Do you miss that?

When we shot The Humbling, I don’t even think we rehearsed. No, wait—I think we rehearsed on the set. Then again you’re dealing with really great actors: Dianne Wiest and Greta Gerwig, these are people who are more flexible about this stuff. Not me. I have this sort of need to rehearse, to learn the notes, see where they are and be able to find the freedom. Repetition keeps me green, that old saying, but I haven’t practiced in a long time. But movies are also great for that spontaneity. Things happen. When I said “Attica!” in Dog Day Afternoon, that was told to me by an assistant director. He came up to me and said “Say ‘Attica,’” and I went outside and said “Attica!” and the audience responded in the street. Only in movies can that kind of spontaneity happen.

I just happened to notice this, but today (June 15) is actually the 25th anniversary of the release of Dick Tracy.

You serious?

I am.

That’s news to me. I thought you were going to tell me it’s my 25th birthday. Well, you give me pause and you give me a bit of a smile. Twenty five years, whoo. Feels like 25 months. That’s how time goes.

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