Listening to Al Pacino talk about director Dan Fogelman casting him as the titular character in Danny Collins, it would seems he’s as modest now as when he started out.
“I was the guy he wanted for this, can you believe it?” exclaims the Scarface star.
“He could get a lot of people to play this role, but Dan wanted me, and when a director really wants me to play an unexpected part, I have to say, ‘OK already!’”
Pacino reveals it was a similar experience for his breakout role in 1972’s The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola wanted me to play Michael Corleone when nobody else saw me in the role, even me. Here again, Dan saw something in me that would work in this part and I will be eternally grateful to him.”
He plays an ageing rock star in the film, which also stars Jennifer Garner, and the role marks a first for Pacino, who confesses “it was odd to play a singer”.
“I wish I was a singer. I wish I was a rock star,” he says. “A lot of other actors do and they go on to record, but if you’ll notice, they don’t become rock stars. No matter how well you think you sing, you’re not a singer. So I did what I could and Dan was very reassuring.”
Danny might have fame, money and adulation, but he sold out years ago, and now simply repeats the same old songs every night.
Jaded and cynical, it’s left to his long-term manager Frank Grubman, played by Christopher Plummer, to try and shake him out of his rut.
He presents him with an undelivered letter, written to him 40 years earlier by John Lennon. Heeding Lennon’s advice, albeit belatedly, Danny decides it’s time to reassess his life. He cancels his tour, checks into a small hotel in New Jersey and attempts to rediscover his love of music, along with the family he abandoned on his way to the top.
“It just stops him in his tracks. He sees that he is living without hope, riding on the superficiality of drugs and alcohol and much younger women,” says Pacino, a father-of-three from two relationships. “The letter sparks him to change all that.”
With five decades in the industry under his belt, the Academy Award-winning actor admits he can relate to Danny’s predicament.
“The situation is funny and strange and I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to get whacked and then lauded and then whacked again. You feel like you’re in a ping-pong match and you’re the ball,” says Pacino, who was born in East Harlem and grew up in New York City’s South Bronx.
The film’s inspired by the true story of Steve Tilston who, as a fledgling folk musician and songwriter back in 1971, was asked by a journalist whether immense wealth and fame would affect his songwriting. Tilston said it would, detrimentally. Unbeknown to him at the time, when the interview was published, John Lennon read it, and sent a letter to the magazine in question - addressed to Tilston and the journalist who’d interviewed him - saying that wealth didn’t change things that much, and reassuring that it’s possible to be rich and famous and still remain true to yourself.
It was decades later that Tilston found out about it, after being contacted by a memorabilia collector who wanted to get the letter authenticated. While Tilston managed to walk the line, Fogelman wondered what would happen if someone did lose their way and started work on his screenplay, envisioning Pacino in the role.
“It was unreal to me that I was able to send this script to him and that he read it,” says the film-maker.
Pacino was starring in The Merchant Of Venice on Broadway at the time, and Fogelman went backstage to meet him. “Suddenly I was hanging out with Al Pacino, asking him to trust me to direct, even though I’d never directed anything before. I knew I had to do right by him, which was very stressful.”
The actor was familiar with Fogelman’s screenwriting, through Crazy, Stupid, Love starring Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling, the animated Tangled and 2013’s Last Vegas, in which Pacino starred with Robert De Niro and Morgan Freeman.
While he knew he was a great writer, however, the 75-year-old admits he’s always “a little tentative” with first-time directors.
“But there was so much confidence in him. He had the belief in it right from the start, so I did too,” he adds.
With Pacino on board, Fogelman tailored the role even more for him.
“Things always need to be adjusted for great actors. You have this script that’s existed for a while and it’s like getting a new car. You think, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise this car could do that thing’,” he says, laughing.
Garner, Annette Bening and Bobby Cannavale also signed on, and Fogelman recalls a dinner early on in production. “They are all theatre geeks,” he notes. “You want to know what really happens at crazy Hollywood dinners? They’re all geeking out over Shakespeare.”
During the shoot, Fogelman and the cast would spend weekend afternoons at Pacino’s home, honing scenes. It was during this period, the director got to know the man behind the persona.
“He’s an iconic figure, but he’s also a really kind, gentle soul.”
That said, the writer-director admits screening Danny Collins for Pacino was one of the most nerve-racking moments of his life.
“Al likes to watch a first cut of a movie by himself in a theatre. Nobody was there but him. Waiting was agony, and then I got a beautiful email from him. He said the final scene is the first time he’s ever cried watching one of his own films.”
As for the man himself, he remarks: “If this movie says anything, it’s about what it is in life to have somebody, whether it’s family or not.
“That was what moved me. I’m hoping it will affect other people the same way,” Pacino continues. “It will speak to you about your own life and your own relationships in a way that really means something.”
Danny Collins is released in cinemas on Friday, May 29.