From The Archives: Al Pacino

by HFPA March 5, 2013

by Jack Tewksbury

For forty years the HFPA has recorded interviews with famous and celebrated actors, actresses and filmmakers. The world’s largest collection of its kind — over 10,000 interviews — is now in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences Library. The audios are fascinating. Below is an excerpt: in the late 1990s, with several films coming out  (Donnie Brasco, The Devil's Advocate, The Insider)  and a very successful run as Richard II on Brodway, Al Pacino looks back into the foundation of his work as an actor-- how a character is born.


"Years  ago, as  an  unemployed  actor, I  went  for a  Santa Claus  job  at  Macys  on  34 th. Street  in  New  York  City. I told  them  I  had  worked  as  Santa  two  Christmases  in  a row  at  the  largest  department  store  in  Brooklyn.  The Santa interviewer  said,  "That's  fine  for  an  off-Broadway store,  but  we want  Broadway  experience."

When  I  was  younger,  I  was  more  or  less  in  character all  the  time,  but  you  learn  as  you  grow  older.  You  still stay  in  a  general  state  throughout  the  day,  although  at certain  moments  it's  not  quite  as  intense. This  doesn't  necessarily  mean  that  if  the  scene  calls   for  you  to  be  cranky,  you're  cranky  all  day.  Sometimes   you  go  in  the  opposite  way,  but  still  in  character.  You develop  a  way  of  getting  in  and  out  of  a  role.

You  need  an  escape  so  you  learn  to  keep  yourself  and the  part  you're  playing  separate. I  once  played  a  lawyer in  And  Justice  For  All.  Since  that  time  I've  been  involved  with  courts,  going  over  contracts.  I  can  remember someone  talking  about  a  problem,  and  I  asked  them  to   hand  me  the  contract,  just  out  of  reflex,  but  I  don't think  that  happens  much. Even  after    Richard  III  closed,  around  eight  o'clock  I'd  find  myself  walking  with  a  limp.

The  first  day  of  Dog Day  Afternoon I  wasn't  happy.  I  told  the  producer  we might  have  to  do  those  scenes  again.  I  don't  feel  I  had  the  character  down,  I  stayed  up  all  night  with  the  script and  in  the  morning  I  had  it  from  that  day  on.

With  a  real  character,  you  take  the  actual  person  and mimic  them  subliminally,  sometimes  consciously.  But  then your  imagination  takes  over.  It's  like  a  painter. You  don't actually paint  what's  there  but  how  it  affects  you.  Invariably  it  becomes  your  own.

With  fictional  characters  I  don't  want  to  sound  like  I'm some  authority  on  the  subject,  but  you  gather  all  these   things up, they  stay  in  the  back  of  your  head,  and  then come  out.  But  ultimately  I  approach  every  part  as  though  I  don't  know  anything  about  acting.

I  try  to  maintain  that  it's   all  new.  Hopefully  the  experience  of  thirty  years  comes  into  play.  The  rigors  of  the   stage,  doing  things  job  after  job,  night  after  night  enable  you  to  develop  a  way  of  coping  with  different  roles."