HERE’S a meme doing the rounds depicting acting legends Al Pacino and Christopher Walken in 2012’s The Stand Up Guys, with their trousers a little too high and their faces a little too grouchy.
‘Grumpy old men: awesome edition,’ it’s captioned. It’s what springs to mind when seeing Al Pacino for the first time, in the glare of epilepsy-inducing flashlights at the London premiere of Danny Collins. With his wild charcoal-grey hair, a guiding arm on his elbow and glazed look, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s entered old age. It turns out that’s just the effect of the hectic red carpet. And his hair.
Meeting him later, in calmer surrounds, he’s razor-sharp. Pacino is full of enthusiasm about the movie, of John Lennon (whose letter to folk star Steve Tilston inspired the plot) and his return to Broadway in David Mamet’s new play China Doll. Those eyes have changed and show boyish charm (“I kept trying to figure out what I could do to make them mine. They never were,” wrote his former flame Diane Keaton). Yet make no mistake — he embraces every one of his 75 years.
“Growing older has its drawbacks, but it’s also comforting,” he says. “It’s important to take roles that are appropriate for your age. Although I don’t know what that is — I’ve seen 70-year-olds play 50-year-olds, and 50-year-olds play 70-year-olds.
“But I just like it when I get up in the morning and I’m able to get out of the bed. I find rolling out helps, otherwise you’d get hurt.
In his current film, Pacino plays an ageing rocker who is given impetus to right his wrongs when he uncovers a letter to him written by Lennon 40 years earlier.
“It seems hard to believe that this kind of thing can be true, that it happened to someone,” he notes. “I like doing movies that has some truth to it, which gives credibility to what you’re doing. But also the movie embellishes it, like writers do.”
He leads an all-star cast including Bobby Cannavale and Jennifer Garner, who decamped to Pacino’s house for a string of weekends to rehearse the feelgood film. Pacino’s title role sees him play a sparky comedic character: a far cry from his forte of Italian-American gangster, but a role to which he still gave due care.
“It was fun, but it’s complicated because [playing the character] is still a craft,” the ever-meticulous Pacino says. “You’re still trying to find all the trials and tribulations with it. I liked the script, and I love all the cast, and these are the components that keep you interested.”
These aspects are also included in his long-mooted project The Irishman, about the notorious New York mobster Frank Sheeran. It’s hugely anticipated as it will bring together heavyweights like director Martin Scorsese and actors Robert De Niro, Pacino and Cannavale in one film. But given their respective A-list status, it’s no surprise to hear the project is on ice for now.
“I hope it does happen,” he says. “It’s wonderful, one of the best scripts I’ve read. We had a reading of it — Scorsese, Bobby and everyone — in a big Tribeca room, and it’s just a matter of dates and getting people together.”
Until then, he’s becoming an Irishman even more temporarily as he visits Dublin as part of his ‘An Evening With...’ global tour. The publicity it’s received is as much about the sky-high prices as it is the opportunity to have the living legend regale fans with anecdotes. VIP packages include a 20-minute meet and greet (€3,500), lunch with the man himself (€10,000) and even a ride in his private jet, if you have €35,000 in the change purse. But what of the diehard fans who aren’t so rich?
From his startled look, it may be the first time he’s been challenged over the prices.
“People don’t have the money? Well I say write me. Just write me. When I did theatre, sometimes I used to tell the producers to make sure we have seats for a lot of the people who can’t afford them. And they did. If it’s my shows that’s easy for me to get to do. I will do that. Definitely.”
If it were anyone else, you might doubt his intention. But Pacino is a ground-up actor, well aware of how both halves live.
Raised by his mother in the South Bronx, he dropped out of school and left home when he was 16, earning a crust working a string of menial jobs, from janitor to cinema usher. He joined a local theatre group, began acting in the cafes of New York, and was taken under the wing of acting guru Lee Strasberg who nurtured his love of the craft, particularly in theatre.
With only director Francis Ford Coppola on his side, Pacino won the iconic role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather under the nose of established actors like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. The 1972 game-changer was the first of a string of classics for him, from Serpico to Dog Day Afternoon, though he describes the 1970s as “a blur” thanks to the excesses involved (he’s teetotal since 1977). Hits (Scarface) and misses (Cruising) followed, but his first Oscar, for 1992’s The Scent of a Woman, was vindication enough.
Along the way, he courted a string of girlfriends — including Diane Keaton and his current partner, 36-year-old Lucila Sola — and fathered three children, with whom he has a close relationship.
Given his prominence in Hollywood during its creative glory days of the seventies, one can’t help but wonder what Pacino makes of the rise of TV-based shows, particular as they arguably strangle the lifeblood of Hollywood by upping the game and lowering the prices.
“The only problem I have is that I like movies,” he responds. “Movies are a certain size of the screen, there is no pause button — you watch and experience it as a movie. And when you realise that, you see there is a plentiful lack of that today.
“You have to go with the times. Television is fine and Netflix does wonderful stuff, but I just wish they were doing more movies.”
It’s time for Pacino to leave to continue promoting his latest film, but not before he wags a finger at me. “We gotta get those people some tickets,” he smiles. Form an orderly queue, people...