Al Pacino might be known for playing ruthless killers, and is currently promoting his latest gangster role, but in the flesh, he’s really not so hard, says SUSAN GRIFFIN
With the likes of The Godfather, Scarface and Donnie Brasco under his belt, Al Pacino has become synonymous with playing movie mobsters. But while he might look menacingly comfortable handling guns on the big screen, the man himself is far from easy with weaponry.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Do you own a gun’? I never owned a gun in my life,” says the legendary actor. “I have no interest in them, and never thought about having one.”
Not only that, but he has to remind himself how to use a gun convincingly each time. “I completely forget how to do it,” he says.
It was the same with the tango, which he learned to dance so memorably in 1992’s Scent Of A Woman.
“It took me forever to figure out how to do the tango and immediately afterwards, I forgot. It’s unfair,” he laughs.
The 73-year-old had to brush up on both skills for his latest role in Stand Up Guys, a tough but touching action comedy in which he and Christopher Walken star as retired gangsters Val and Doc, who reunite for one epic last night.
Despite the strong script, esteemed co-stars (Alan Arkin also appears) and the Oscar-winning director Fisher Stevens on board, Pacino reveals he was a little hesitant about signing up.
“I tend to think twice when I’m given things in that genre because I’ve done a few and you don’t want to repeat yourself,” he says.
“But I felt this was a little off beat. It was a little bit about friendship and had a certain humour to it. And it’s a character that I don’t think I’ve played,” he says of Val, a man released from prison after serving 28 years for refusing to give up one of his criminal associates.
“I like the idea of someone being away for that long. Imagine being out of touch for all that time,” says the actor.
Dressed head-to-toe in black and with a myriad of rings and chains, Pacino might look tough but he proves easy company and there’s an unexpected softness about him. Not least when he’s talking about his 12-year-old twins Anton and Olivia from his relationship to the actress Beverly D’Angelo (he also has a 23-year-old daughter, Julie, from his relationship with the acting coach Jan Tarrant), who he credits with keeping him young.
“It’s their presence, their ideas,” he explains, though admits they still haven’t managed to teach him how to use a computer.
“They’ve given up on me but I said to my daughter, ‘You’ve got to teach me how to do that iPod’,” he laughs.
You wonder what they must think of their dad’s status as one of the greatest actors of all time. Pacino certainly hasn’t got his head round the accolade.
“But I’m always flattered and happy that people appreciate what I do and show it like they do. It’s great, it’s really gratifying but do I myself believe it? I don’t know, to me it’s almost abstract,” he smiles.
Born Alfredo James Pacino in New York’s the Bronx, Pacino studied with Lee Strasburg at the Actor’s Studio before making his professional acting debut in off-Broadway productions.
“Theatre is where I started and what I enjoy going back to,” says Pacino, who talks wistfully of once spending seven months on a production of Oedipus, not to perform it for an audience but purely for the enjoyment of preparing it.
“The way I like to do things is to get together with people, sit and talk, and work for months and months [on a project,]” says Pacino, but he acknowledges that this is a luxury within the industry.
“We’re at the mercy of the clock and time is money, so we feed into that through our ideas and ways of working, and give ourselves a limited time,” he adds.
Pacino says he’s guided by the script when selecting projects.
“That great Shakespearean line, ‘The play’s the thing’ said by Hamlet. If it’s there between the pages, then I’ll do it. That’s my only guide to [choosing] work.”
Well, that and whether it looks like it will be a viable project.
“Making pictures today is a different ball game [to when I started.] So you have to ask yourself, ‘Will it get made?’”
The eight-time Oscar nominee regards himself as lucky to have begun his film career “at a time when the great directors were making certain kinds of movies,” he says of films such as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, which he shot in the 1970s.
“The films had a certain social significance and at the same time, they were entertaining. That’s the whole point, you’ve got to do both.”
Pacino made his screen debut with a small role in Me, Natalie but it was his Oscar-nominated turn as Michael Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather that turned him into a movie star.
Looking back on his career though, he’s as (if not more) proud, of his less popular movies.
“Some of the ones I preferred didn’t get seen, like People I Know,” he reveals. “And Looking For Richard [a 1996 docu-drama about Shakespeare’s Richard III, which he conceived and directed] didn’t get recognised. I was very happy about that [project] but then it was my own picture.”
While Pacino hasn’t yet had the “luxury” of spending time with a writer to work on his autobiography, he has hosted talks and seminars in which he’s discussed his career in front of an audience.
“I find them really very enjoyable and revealing - about what I’ve done, and how it relates to me now and relates to an audience,” says Pacino. “It’s almost like sharing memoirs with them.”
Pacino isn’t showing any signs of slowing down and says he doesn’t really ponder age or the reality of embracing the twilight years of his career.
“I saw a director in his mid-eighties the other day and I thought, ‘Why is he so young?’ I mean his eyes were young, his energy was young. But then there’s a difference between being literally old and acting old,” he says.
“That said, sometimes when I see myself on screen, I look at the old guy and go, ‘What the...?!’”
As he looks to the future, Pacino’s keen to spend time in front of the camera. “My appetite’s for acting, not making movies,” he says. “And if there is something that interests me, then I’ll do it. I’m just waiting for that to happen.”
Stand Up Guys is released in cinemas on Friday, June 28.