At 74, Al Pacino is still chasing that next great role

Al Pacino, 74, says while a rocking chair & porch now seem inviting, he's still chasing that next great role

He knows that when he enters a room, his reputation precedes him. At age 74, with a long and legendary career behind him, he's well aware that he can easily intimidate people. They look at him and see Michael Corleone from "The Godfather," Sonny Wortzik from "Dog Day Afternoon," Tony Montana from "Scarface," Ricky Roma from "Glengarry Glen Ross." Eight Oscar nominations and one win. Two Tonys. Two Emmys. He's Al Pacino!

He knows all of this. He feels it every day. And yet, even after all these years, it still somehow seems to surprise him.

"When I talk to people, no matter where I go, they want to talk about things I've done," Pacino said on a recent afternoon. He paused. "That's so interesting to me. People ask me about the '70s — sometimes I just say, 'I don't remember the '70s!'"

In person, Pacino goes out of his way to put others at ease, to shrink himself to human size. (That he's only 5-foot-7 helps.) Shy by nature, in his early years of superstardom he built a protective wall around himself and could come across as remote and inscrutable. But over the years he's become more at ease with being a public figure. Now he doesn't mind doing interviews. He seems interested in reflecting on his own life and work and has even appeared on stage around the country in the past year in a one-man show, sharing stories and answering audience members' questions. "It's just talking," he said.

He smiles frequently. He cracks jokes. He's comfortable showing vulnerability, pulling himself out of his seat at one point with a wince and pacing around to alleviate the pain of a longstanding rotator cuff injury. ("When it flares up, I'm not too fun to be around.")

Where some may see an icon, he says he sees himself as just a working actor who's trying to get it right — and not always succeeding.

"When I do a part, it's an empty canvas," he said. "I don't know anything about acting. I'm not exaggerating. I must know a lot about acting if I've done it this much, but I don't feel like I know it. I go, 'What am I going to do?' There are some times I just can't put anything on that canvas. I either get lucky or I just don't do it well."

In the new film "The Humbling," which opens Jan. 23 after a brief Oscar-qualifying run last month, Pacino plays an aging actor who finds himself unable to put anything on the canvas. Deep into a career as an acclaimed stage actor, Pacino's Simon Axler suddenly feels his talents and his desires — and his grip on reality — starting to slip away.

"He's feeling the ravages of time: the memory going, the stamina going, the tools eroding," Pacino said. "The panic sets in and the breakdown comes when he realizes, 'What will I do with my life? How will I live?' "

As an actor himself, Pacino can certainly relate to Simon on some level, but he's quick to put distance between himself and the role. "That's one of the reasons I took my name off as a producer," he said. "I thought, 'Gee, they're going to think it's this biography of me.'"

Though the film has earned mixed reviews, critics have praised Pacino's performance as one of his best in years, on par with his similarly nuanced turns on the small screen as Jack Kevorkian in the 2010 HBO film "You Don't Know Jack" and as Phil Spector in a 2013 HBO movie on the notorious record producer, who was convicted in 2009 of murdering actress Lana Clarkson. In The Times, Gary Goldstein called Pacino's turn in "The Humbling" "inventive, dizzying, profound and often hilarious."

In the original 2009 Philip Roth novel on which the film is based, Axler's descent into despair is unremittingly grim. But Pacino, who is a longtime fan of Roth's and optioned the book, saw the potential for dark comedy in the aging actor's plight and brought on director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Buck Henry to help draw it out.

"We thought it needed to be funnier," he said. "That would help buoy up this dirge, this tragic journey. Otherwise, who would want to watch that?" Loose and occasionally surreal, the film was made for just $2 million, with much of the filming done in Levinson's Connecticut home. "We felt like we had to do it on the run, so to speak," Pacino said. "I like working that way."

Pacino has certainly earned the right to parachute into a movie and just coast on his Pacino-ness — and, in fact, though he's managed to hold on to a greater degree of dignity than some of his peers, he has been accused of occasionally doing that. ("Pacino looks half asleep throughout, no doubt concentrating solely on his cheque," one British critic wrote of his work in the 2008 thriller "88 Minutes.")

But Levinson — who first met the actor in 1979 when they worked together on the courtroom drama "... And Justice for All," which Levinson co-wrote, and later directed him in "You Don't Know Jack" — said Pacino isn't one to phone in a performance.

"He has such an appetite to learn, to try, to experiment," Levinson said. "He's not locked into his ways. He jumps in, and he's willing to sink or swim. There is no caution to the work, and that's what makes it so exciting to work with him."

A Method man

Along with actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, Pacino was trained in New York's Method-oriented Actors Studio (he serves as its co-president with Ellen Burstyn and Harvey Keitel) and came up in a vastly different — and in many ways more creatively energized and risk-taking — era in Hollywood.

"'The Panic in Needle Park' was made by a studio — that was a Fox movie!" he said of his 1971 breakthrough as a big-screen lead actor, in which he played a heroin addict and small-time hustler. "Even without the business changing as much as it did, there just aren't that many parts out there for anybody — even younger people."

That's not to say he turns up his nose at today's studio fare. He was a fan, for example, of last summer's "Guardians of the Galaxy." "My kids took me, and it was so impressive," he said. (Pacino, who has never married, has three children, including two 13-year-old twins, and lives in Beverly Hills.) "This inventive, funny stuff that they did — I was very taken with it."

Vaulted to worldwide stardom in 1972 by "The Godfather" — a film that Paramount Pictures executives, skeptical of his star quality, nearly fired him from — Pacino did not have an easy time getting used to the limelight. On and off over the years, he battled with alcoholism and bouts of depression, and for four years in the late '80s, he stepped away from movie making and worked exclusively in the theater.

Born in East Harlem, N.Y., to Italian American parents who divorced when he was 2, Pacino — who dropped out of school at age 17 to pursue acting — could not have been less prepared for fame.

"I was blasted out of a cannon," he said. "It was so alien. I remember my great friend and mentor Lee Strasberg looked at me and said, 'You know, darling, you simply have to adjust.' So here I am. Maybe not too adjusted, but I'm still standing — let's put it that way."

Greta Gerwig, who costars with Pacino in "The Humbling" as a much younger woman with whom he has a complicated, semi-romantic relationship, said she feels an instinctive urge when she's around the actor to shield his sensitive nature from any slings and arrows of fame.

"It's odd to say I feel protective of him, because he's fine, but I do," Gerwig said. "I have this feeling, like: 'This man is an artist! He's not for sale!'"

Pacino continues to work at a steady clip. He has two more films set for release this year: the drama "Manglehorn," in which he plays a small-town cobbler, and the comedy "Danny Collins," in which he's an aging rock star. ("I have to sing," he said a bit sheepishly. "I just cringe when I think of myself singing. The jury is out.") He's also set to costar with De Niro and Joe Pesci in the long-gestating mob drama "The Irishman," to be directed by Martin Scorsese, with whom he's never worked.

Sometimes, he admits, he wonders why he keeps at it after all this time. "What happened to going to bookstores and taking walks and seeing friends — and not having to learn more words?" he said with a gravelly laugh. "This is starting to get a little redundant! I would like not to act for a while — that's the truth. I have this beckoning passion for a rocking chair and a porch. I would like not to find something that gets my fancy."

But who's he kidding? For better or worse, it's how he's built. Like Michael Corleone, every time he tries to get out, something pulls him back in.

"I'm doing a David Mamet play ["China Doll," opening on Broadway this fall] — I'm starting to work on it now," he said. "That keeps the appetite." He sighed. "It's a workaday world. I like that saying 'Bring the body and the mind will follow.'"

Even after all these years, he has no idea where the next great role or scene might come from.

"Look at the 'Attica! Attica!' scene [in 'Dog Day Afternoon']," he said, referring to one of his most indelible on-screen moments. "How do you do that? That was a guy coming up to me, one of the [assistant directors], and saying, 'Say "Attica" to those people outside.' I said, 'Attica!' — and the next thing you know, the whole crowd erupted."

He shrugged, as if content to let some things remain mysteries. "That's film," he said. "That's what can happen."

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

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