Al Pacino: An Evening With Al

Just about every young actor in Hollywood--from Leonardo DiCaprio to Frankie Muniz--would love to ask Al Pacino a few questions about his long career. Instead, a handful of UCLA students got the chance.

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I was sitting under a patio umbrella playing chess with Al Pacino at the Mulholland Tennis Club when I told him that Tom Wortham, the chairman of the English department at UCLA, had made me an offer. There were 1,400 English majors at the university, the largest number of such majors at one institution in the country. Wortham was concerned about what profession these students were going to enter because the job market is increasingly dominated by business, engineering, computers and science. As I am a UCLA English major graduate who's made a career of writing for magazines, he asked if I'd teach a class in the art of the interview.

"How can you refuse?" asked Pacino, who has been a friend of mine since I first interviewed him for Playboy magazine in 1979. He paused, then moved his knight aggressively. He has become a much better chess player than I over the years because he practiced a lot, especially on movie sets. And since he's been in a moviemaking mode for the last few years--he's done Simone (written and directed by The Truman Show scribe Andrew Niccol), Insomnia (a remake--directed by Christopher Nolan of Memento fame, and costarring Hilary Swank and Robin Williams--of the 1997 Norwegian film), People I Know (about a New York publicist and costarring Téa Leoni, Kim Basinger and Ryan O'Neal) and Chinese Coffee (a small film based on the two-character play written by Ira Lewis, which Pacino personally financed, directed and costarred in with Jerry Orbach)--he's become proficient at castling, trading queens and knocking off an opponent's king.

"Would you come to one of the classes and let the students interview you?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. "I can walk in unexpected. Surprise them. See how they handle it."

A week later I met with him again to play paddle tennis and told him I'd accepted the UCLA offer, and that I had come up with an idea for him: "There's an organization called The Friends of English. They do fundraisers and give scholarships to English graduate students. Why not come one evening to the Fowler Museum and show selections from your personal films--_Looking for Richard_, The Local Stigmatic and Chinese Coffee--and talk about the process of turning plays into films? I can ask my 15 students to interview you before that event."

"I'm on," said Al.

A few weeks after that, he stuck his head into the classroom and asked, "Am I in the right place?"

The class, which was scheduled to meet in the early evening just prior to the Friends of English event, had been warned he'd be coming to the Fowler Museum and had prepared questions for him, but they were stunned to see him in person.

Q: Why did you agree to come here?

A: You go through life saying, "No, no...yes...no...yes." This was one of the yeses. You don't know why, really. I rarely do it. But Larry and I are close friends, and he asked me.

Q: What motivated you to be an actor?

A: What motivated me as a youngster was that I could express myself through acting, in certain kinds of plays, certain material. It was that simple. I was able to say how I felt about something. What is this class, anyway?

GROBEL: The students are learning how to ask interview questions.

A: That's what we say in acting all the time, when we're working on a play. We say, "Ask the question." You don't have to answer it, just ask it.

Q: Will you watch The Godfather trilogy again now that it's out on DVD? A: No, I don't think so. You know when I watch The Godfather? When I'm flipping through the channels and the first Godfather comes on--it's so constructed, it's just a story. It's so interesting. It holds your attention. It was one of those lucky, magical things that happened.

Q: Do you feel that way about The Godfather Part II?

A: I feel that way more about the first one than the second, though the second said a lot more, it was more risky. But the first one is great storytelling.

Q: What about The Godfather Part III?

A: A major mistake was made in Godfather III, I think, which was they tried to redeem Michael Corleone. I don't think the audience wanted to see Michael Corleone as someone who is wanting or needing of redemption. It got a bit esoteric. It would have been better if it was done in a more subtle way. I appreciated Francis [Ford Coppola] striving for that, but it isn't where that character's power is as a hero.

Q: What was it like working with Francis Coppola?

A: He's got that kind of a largeness. That's why he can do some of the things he does, because he really can listen. He's one of the most intelligent people I've ever met. His intelligence is a kind of sensor for him.

Q: Do you get excited when you're switching through the channels and you see yourself in films?

A: Excited? I got a lot of problems, but that's not one of them. [Laughs] I'm grateful for that.

Q: In Looking for Richard you asked, "What's this thing that gets between us and Shakespeare?" What do you think that "thing" is?

A: It's prejudice. It's what we heard about it. It's all myth. We get a kind of atrophy of the ear as soon as we hear Shakespeare. We don't want to know. It's a knee-jerk reaction to it.

Q: How did you get comfortable with the language of Shakespeare?

A: You start by tasting the words. You try to make them your own. You serve them and they in turn serve you.

Q: Why did you eschew a traditional approach on Richard III when making Looking for Richard?

A: Richard is different for me onstage. I was being kind of a moderator for Looking for Richard, so my Richard was colored by my own moderation of it. It didn't quite have the kind of thing I would do if I had a director and I was doing Richard alone. I would have approached it much more seriously. I was doing it more tongue-in-cheek for the film. If I did Richard now, it would be different.

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