At 75, Al Pacino is on fire: flirty, jokey and with his lust for life, acting – and coffee – undimmed
I’m meeting Al Pacino in the kind of cafe that you would expect to be Al Pacino’s local: an old-school joint in New York’s Upper West Side with leather banquettes and good coffee. I assume he will be hidden in an alcove. But there he sits quietly waiting, elegantly dishevelled in his civilian uniform: black suit, louchely arranged silk scarf, a full head of electrified bed hair. After four decades of exponential 'legendary’ status, he simply owns the room by doing nothing at all.
'I used to be fairly reclusive for many years. Now I come out much more. I like the people,’ he explains. 'When I go to restaurants and they want to sit me in a private room I say, “Hey, I can do that at home!”’
Pacino is fuelled by two things: his enduring volcanic fervour for acting, and caffeine – he drinks in both as if they were his oxygen. There’s a takeaway cappuccino on the table, a black Americano in a cup, and he’s getting a refill. 'This is how I used to order when I was drinking in the 1970s. I’d have a beer. Then a martini. Then a beer. And then a martini... The bartender would look at me and say, “Who the hell are you?”’ He chuckles. (He has been teetotal since 1977.)
These days, his downtime indulgence is the odd game of low-stakes poker with his cronies, 'a way to get off’ his roles. His 'old buddy’ Jim turns up with an envelope full of 'ones and fives’ for later and wants to take a picture of Pacino in my hat. Much boyish larking about ensues. His iPhone rings twice. Kathleen Turner pops over to the table. It seems everyone wants a piece of Pacino. He apologises profusely, but I’m starting to worry that this could be like holding the attention of a high-spirited toddler.
Yet Pacino is already sharply tuned in. Sensing my angst, he fixes me with eyes like two black olives, and spends the next few hours listening intently to my questions – though he’s not a big fan of talking about himself in interviews. 'But it’s fine. I’m just chatting to a girl. In a hat. That I met at a bar. Why not?’ he roars, good-naturedly. 'Did that before!’
Pacino has a way of making you forget, very quickly, that he’s 'Al Pacino’. True, he has the kind of presence that makes all 5ft 7in of him seem almost overpowering; he is charismatic – in life, as on screen, you can’t take your eyes off his face. Yet he is low-key, easygoing and incongruously humble. Pacino still appears genuinely bemused by the commotion he has caused since he became the poster boy, along with Robert De Niro, of the golden age of US cinema in the 1970s.
In the space of five years, he conquered a series of self-eviscerating outsider roles that are still considered some of the greatest in film history: the inscrutable, passive-aggressive Michael Corleone in The Godfather I and II; the dogged idealist Frank Serpico; the wired gay bank robber turned media hero in Dog Day Afternoon.
Out of step with the power franchises of the next decade, he fell out of favour in the 1980s – though the operatic paroxysms of Scarface struck a popular chord. His box-office weight was reinvigorated in the more nuanced films of the 1990s, with Carlito’s Way, Heat and Donnie Brasco, but he has been periodically mauled by critics in recent years, perhaps for not re-summoning the rawness of his youth.
'But you can’t go back.You have to move forwards.’ Great parts, he says, like great loves, are very rare. 'Most of the time you’re just trying to survive. All the work isn’t the same. Sometimes there’s only so much you can do in it. You reconcile yourself to that. Only occasionally you find a role that really asks you to go there.’
Still, he has 'gone there’ more times than most. He has performed in about 100 films and plays, has been nominated for eight Oscars – he won for The Scent of a Woman in 1993 – and has been awarded numerous Emmys and Golden Globes. He also has two Tonys and was nominated in 2010 for his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway. He is not the kind of guy to 'sit back and smell the golf balls’.
For Pacino gives no sense that he has in some way 'arrived’ anywhere or, indeed, that he is a master of anything – he is still 'striving’ for all of that, he says. He is insatiably questioning, grappling for the right words to accurately express what he feels more as instincts; conveying his meaning instead with a glance or a pause. As the director Mike Nichols has said, 'Al is consulting somewhere else.
And the somewhere else doesn’t have to do with words.’ He prefers the certainty of a text on which to project his emotions; it 'frees him up’, he says. 'It’s all about the play for me,’ he declares with the zeal of a wide-eyed undergraduate. It is remarkable that he is so unjaded. It was his 75th birthday only a few days ago. His girlfriend, the actress Lucila Solá, 36, and his children, 14-year-old twins Olivia and Anton, threw him a party. 'It’s three-quarters of a f***ing century! I have no understanding of it. It’s good when you’re not thinking about a clock, don’t you think?’
But he has been ruminating on the decline of old age of late, partly due to a decision to accept only roles that are 'part of what I am going through; it’s got to be a little autobiographical’, after a few films in the past four years taken on for financial reasons. (He lost millions in 2010 when his business manager was found to be embezzling his money.) His recent work heralds a potential fifth-act renaissance where he is once again emotionally in tune with his material.
He won an Emmy for his role as Jack Kevorkian, the euthanasia activist, in You Don’t Know Jack in 2010. And late last year he delivered a self-reflective performance in the darkly comic The Humbling, about the sixtysomething actor Simon Axler, who, having lived vicariously through his roles, finds that, when forced to abandon the theatre, he has no real life left to speak of.
Pacino’s own compulsion for the stage seems inextinguish-able – by his own acknowledgement acting is the very life-giving force of his existence. 'It’s sort of like breathing to me. It gave me life. It educated me, as little as I am educated. It saved me.’
In his new comedy, Danny Collins, he portrays a Rod Stewart-style geriatric rock star who was heralded as a folk genius in youth. There are resonances for Pacino. 'As a kid [Collins] was touted as the next Bob Dylan. He’s completely shaken by that. He’s so sensitive, fragile.’ And he engaged with the older Collins as 'a survivor’. The script doesn’t do Pacino justice, but he is still irresistible as an aged musician, jadedly living on sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, who attempts to connect with his only son, the product of a groupie tryst, after receiving a lost letter from John Lennon, written to him in 1971. (The plot is loosely based on the story of the British folk singer Steve Tilston.)
Collins is less Pacino than a version of the man he could have been had he not stopped drinking. Like the young Dylan, Pacino was a 'purist,’ a South Bronx street kid turned ardent theatre actor who was entirely unprepared for the distorting lens of fame that The Godfather brought him in 1972. 'I had a strange reaction to it. The reaction wasn’t positive. I was catapulted out of a cannon. People are more accepting of fame today because of all the media outlets. Young people even aspire to it,’ he says with incredulity.
But Pacino 'felt bombarded by life’ and by people who approached him on the streets. 'I became more aware of myself, constantly reminded that I had this name because [strangers] kept calling me by it.’ Pacino says he has always been 'a loner’, 'very sensitive’ – he still is. 'Being an outsider is part of being an artist. You try to conform. But some of us just can’t. I didn’t know what was expected of me. I still don’t.’
The details of this time are sketchy because he has simply 'forgotten the 1970s. It was wild. Who knows what was going on! It was a bit of a blur.’ This is because he was drinking, seeking 'an anodyne’ to fame and a respite from the exhaustion of assuming his characters’ identities. 'That’s how I played things then. I had to absorb the character. I never protected myself. Michael [Corleone] affected me for quite a few years afterwards. I sort of kept that internal thing.’
It did not help that his mentor and acting coach, Charlie Laughton, was also 'an absolute drinker. We went all over the world in various states of inebriation.’ After Laughton finally sought help for his own addiction, he intervened. 'He made me see… that I was destroying myself,’ Pacino says. 'I like it here, where my senses are. I don’t need to be “put out” any more.’ The steadiness of therapy, which he still does several times a week, also helped to support him. 'I’d be on seven times a week if I could,’ he says, chuckling.
It would be easy for a psychologist to view Pacino’s life as defined by the abandonment of his father at an early age – and a subsequent search for paternal substitutes. Twenty-year-old Salvatore walked out on his 23-year-old wife Rose when Pacino was two; mother and son moved to her Italian-American parents’ three-room flat in a tenement block in the South Bronx.
Forty years after The Godfather, the absent father-son dynamic still seems to be fertile territory for Pacino. 'Danny Collins reminds me of [my father]. He was a great singer and dancer; he felt that was his calling. He wound up as an insurance salesman. He was married five times.’
'Sonny’ (Pacino’s nickname; he was christened Alfredo) was instead close to his grandfather, a plasterer, and – above all – his mother. Her various jobs included cinema usher; sometimes she took him to work with her. An only child, he retreated into his imagination, re-enacting scenes from the cinema to 'fill up the loneliness’. At five, he was doing some of Ray Milland’s most dissolute alcoholic scenes from Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend.
It is clear that Pacino felt deeply connected to his mother. 'They used to call her Ava, because she looked like Ava Gardner,’ he tells me, showing me a picture on his phone. 'She was very well read, sensitive and intuitive, but troubled.’ He sighs. 'She suffered from depression on and off.’
Pacino’s life changed when he began hanging out on the streets with a group of newfound compadres. By the age of nine he was smoking and, at 13, was supplied with booze by the local cop. His baseball team doubled as a quasi-street gang. 'They were the best friends I ever made. A lot of them died very young with the needle, heroin.’ (In his first film, The Panic in Needle Park, in 1971, Pacino played a junkie, a role that he based on his lost friends.)
He left school at 16 and moved to the West Village, working odd jobs to save for drama school, and joining the 'fervent’ cafe theatre scene. It was here, at 17, that he met Laughton, who would become a crucial professional and emotional fulcrum for Pacino, helping to shoulder the catastrophic blows of the deaths of his mother, when he was 21, and of his grandfather the following year.
He channelled his disorientation and grief into his performances at the Actors Studio, which he joined at 23, under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg, who encouraged him to mine the emotion of real-life experiences. The class was predominantly 'educated’ students. Pacino hints at lingering feelings of inadequacy at that time. 'I knew I was this vagabond kid,’ he says.
His freewheeling approach to acting and an abyss of emotional potential was precisely what lent his performances their potency, enabling him, as a short, working-class Italian-American, to break into Broadway theatre in 1969, and then into film two years later. But he had to fight. He auditioned three times for the role of Michael Corleone – Francis Ford Coppola alone wanted him. Paramount wanted Robert Redford or Warren Beatty – until Marcia Lucas, the wife of George, who edited the multiple screen tests, told them, 'Cast Pacino. He undresses you with his eyes.’ Through them alone, Pacino would drip-feed us glimpses of what lurked beneath Michael’s froideur. None of this Pacino can explain. Acting, for him, is 'freeing the unconsciousness, allowing it to take over. Mostly consciousness gets in the way.’
In 1973, when playing Richard III on stage in Boston, he was so consumed one night that he wept after the curtain closed. 'I was doing Richard, but it was all part of what I was going through. I was drinking. I was alienated from the world that I knew.’ He understood Richard, as an actor-king, who could be corrupted by power, as he could be overwhelmed by fame. 'I was in this state. I was feeding it into the role.’
Richard III has remained one of Pacino’s obsessions, joined by Oscar Wilde of late. (He directed the docudramas Looking for Richard, in 1996, and Wilde Salomé, in 2011 – both complex, torturous ventures, which he 'fiddled about with’ for years.) Pacino’s pet projects have become creative outlets for his old purist self, allowing him to go back to basics. His first was the self-funded Pinter-esque film The Local Stigmatic in 1990. Just before this he had undergone a four-year hiatus from the film industry after a run of box-office failures that culminated with Revolution in 1985. 'I was blinded by the spotlight on my face. I needed to turn it around so that I could see out again,’ he says.
In 1989 Diane Keaton, his then girlfriend, had lured him reluctantly back to film with the script for Sea of Love, about a detective who becomes romantically involved with his murder suspect. Their 20-year on-off affair, like most of his relationships, was 'complicated’. In her 2014 memoir Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, she wrote, '… those eyes! I kept trying to figure out what I could do to make them mine… For the next 20 years, I kept losing a man I never had.’
A lone wolf, Pacino has never married any of his girlfriends, a long list of strong, smart, generally unstarry women including Jan Tarrant, the acting coach with whom he has a 26-year-old daughter, Julie, and the actress Beverly D’Angelo, the mother of Olivia and Anton. He has been with Solá for the past seven years. Will he ever marry?
'I don’t know about marriage yet. But when you are in love, that’s the height of it. So, I probably should have got married a couple of times [back then]. I wish I would have.’
His mobile rings. The twins are calling from the West Coast (they live between LA and New York, where Pacino is still stalwartly based). He slips outside but, on his return, proudly shows me their pictures on his phone. 'My kids are part of why I’m still here. When you have children you attack roles differently. They become the priority.’ He tells me his 'bunker’ at his home in Beverly Hills, a Pacino-esque version of a garden shed where he goes to focus, has been taken over by them. 'So now I’m pottering around the house trying to find new corners to work in. They just bought me a rocking chair for the porch.’ He beams.
It 'bothers’ him that he has to schedule time with the children during the next few months because of work commitments – he has David Mamet’s China Doll opening on Broadway in the autumn, and he is currently on a global tour with An Evening with Al Pacino. His new movie, Manglehorn, in which he plays a small-town Texan locksmith, comes out in August. And he is in talks over a script about Napoleon’s final days. It sounds rather morbid. 'Hey,’ he laughs, 'where else am I going to go?’
He’s late now. But he wants me call him again tomorrow because he knows he doesn’t speak in soundbites. He insists on paying the lunch bill – 'Tell the paper it’s on Al.’ The next day, when I call, he’s navigating uptown traffic. 'I’m a New Yorker. I drive like a cabbie,’ he cries. He is fired up after seeing a production of Hamlet last night. 'It’s so wild that play. I’ve read it since I was a boy, but I still can’t get over it. I could see it a 1,000 times a year. The joy! And I’m not even in it.’
He’s just being Pacino: a juggernaut of boyish enthusiasm. 'The theatre is the flashlight for me. It’s done everything for me since I was three years old. I’m not in the playpen now. But I’m still playing.’
Danny Collins is released on May 29