In Stand Up Guys, Al Pacino stars as Val, a freshly minted ex-con who reunites with longtime friends and aging associates Doc (Christopher Walken) and Hirsch (Alan Arkin) for a final, epic night on the town. But as their quixotic-comedic adventure ensues – launching our veteran wise guys into more mayhem than most mortals will experience in a myriad of lifetimes– they are also offered a chance to reflect on their looming mortality,the glories of youth and their unshakable bond of loyalty;the code of honor which has made them the men they are today.
Born in East Harlem and raised in the Bronx, New York, Al Pacino is one of the movies’ true living legends. Having first made his mark as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Pacino is an eight-time Academy Award nominee whose films include: And Justice For All, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Glengarry Glen Rossand Scarface. Pacino finally won his Oscar for a starring turn in Scent of a Woman (1992) and has appeared in such recent hits asOcean’s Thirteenand HBO’s You Don’t Know Jack (as euthanasia activist, Jack Kevorkian), for which he received both Emmy and Golden Globe awardsfor Best Actor in 2010/2011.
A familiar presence on the New York stage (Richard III, Merchant of Venice, Salome), Pacino has also worked as a producer and film director (Looking for Richard, 1996; Wilde Salome, 2011).
Stand Up Guys marks Pacino’s first prominent pairing with Christopher Walken, his second with Alan Arkin (with whom he costarred on screen in Glengarry Glen Ross in 1992) and his first film with veteran character actor and up-and-coming director, Fisher Stevens (producer of the 2010 Oscar winning documentary, The Cove). Dressed in a black leather blazer, a cotton jerseyand jeans, Pacino met with the international press at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.
What attracted you to Stand Up Guys?
I thought it was an interesting script. I liked these characters. They were sort of unusual, kind of exotic. It was a small film, but it had a certain touch to it, a certain lightness to it. And, you know, Chris Walken was involved and I love Chris. So part of it was that. And then part of it was that Fisher (director, Fisher Stevens) told me he was directing. I really like the guy and always have; he’s a very special kind of person. He’s a wonderful actor and he really knows how to direct. Anyway, he told me he had this picture and I knew they were going to do it here (in Los Angeles), so I’d be close my young kids. So I thought:“Ok, let’s do it.”
I understand Fisher Stevens was part of your inner circle when you lived in New York. He used to play poker with you?
He did, many years ago.
What kind of a player was he?
He wasn’t very good. But the good thing about Fisher is he thought he was. So we liked to encourage him. And if he reads this I’m(laughs)... What I like about poker more than anything else are the guys that we get, the group. A lot of them are old friends and people I’ve known my whole life – even as a teenager I knew some of these people. I like that gathering. There’s something comforting about it. It’s for very low stakes, so there’s a friendliness and people confer… People talk.
What was it like working with Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin?
It wasn’t as hard as movies usually are because we’re all friends. I’ve worked with Alan Arkin before (Glengarry Glen Ross). I’ve known Chris all his life practically. We almost did Hamlet together once for Joe Papp (at the New York Public Theater). We almost did a lot of things, you know. So here was an opportunity to really work with him and I’m so glad I did. I really enjoyed it. Every day, to be with a guy like that.
You still perform regularly both on stage and on screen. After all these years, do you still prefer the theater?
Yes, maybe because I started in the theater. I feel freer there. I feel closer to that environment and ultimately it gives me more pleasure in expression. I’ve always felt that. It’s a little more taxing in some ways because no matter what, even if it’s just at night that you perform, your day is sort of occupied. You’re thinking about it all the time.
What is it about acting that’s held your interest all these years? Do you still enjoy it?
Every time I get the urge to act, I lie down till it passes (laughs)... That’s Oscar Wilde, who says that about exercise (laughs)... I mean, I love it when I’m in the environment that makes it possible. But mostly it just varies from project to project. You know, sometimes I wonder, why am I doing this? It’s like anything else.
Have you ever considered retiring?
Oh, no, I don’t even know what that means, really. Retiring to what? I think it’s all about understanding what you’re capable of doing. If a role interests me, excites me or challenges me, then I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t try it. If the roles become far and fewer between, then that’s ok too, because then I’ll find other things to do.
Do you get a sense of accomplishment from directing?
None whatsoever. Sometimes when I do a movie and I’m sitting there to see a [test screening] of the movie – you know, you do that just to get a sense of what the audience thinks. And I’m sitting there and I’m thinking…“I hope somebody grabs hold of that film right now and re-cuts it and makes it good!” (Laughs)… That’s my fantasy. I do enjoy it, though, I have to say. I don’t know that I have a sense of “accomplishment.” But I enjoy doing it, and when it’s done it isn’t the worst feeling in the world if it’s pretty entertaining and an audience responds to it. But it’s not what I… I look at the world as an actor. That’s my, for want of a better word, that’s where I find my expression. Through that.
Are you an easier to direct as a result?
Is Fisher Stevens around? (Laughs)… I think that when I was younger, I was much more difficult. If I’ve learned anything from directing, I’ve learned what directors go through with actors. A certain amount of empathy is gotten out of that by doing it yourself. I understand directors a little more…
Do you think you’re a better actor now that you’re older?
Well, there’s no doubt that I’ve gotten easier to work with. There’s no doubt. I mean they tell me that! But I do think so. You start to understand things. When I was younger, it was tougher.
How do you deal with negative reviews?
It depends. I hear about things all the time, but I don’t… The thing is, once it’s done, it’s done. I don’t mind people giving notes while we’re working. That’s one thing. But when something is completed, what’s the point? You just say, “Excuse me, there’s nothing I can do about it now, I’m sorry. See you next year!” I tend to keep a politic distance.
Have you ever had a stand up guy in your life? Either now or in the past, someone who’s there for you, in your corner, who you knew you could always rely on?
Well I have what I think is, yes, a couple of people. But when I was growing up… I come from the South Bronx. So when I was growing up, I had people around me who I could really depend on. I felt that closeness. I think that’s one of the things that I wish my kids had more of. These friendships that develop early on in life that I had. We were out in the streets and that’s where I learned all my… My social education came from having to deal with that, my peers. And I’m so eternally grateful for that. Without that, there’s no ‘me’ here at this table, that’s for sure.
Can you tell us more about them?
Well, there’s my great friend (the acting coach) Charlie Laughton, who’s unfortunately afflicted with MS and is completely paralyzed. I’d write him every day practically when I was in New York - he’s out here. And several others. Maybe a couple of guys that I play cards with too. In movies and plays, you find people you gravitate to, but what we do is so all over the place that it’s hard to maintain those kinds of friendships.
Are you a stand up guy?
I like to think I am, yeah… The thing is you like to think you are, but it’s all about the moment it comes, you know. We like to think certain things and then we’re surprised, one way or the other, when the moment comes.
Is that what attracted you to this film - the idea that the concept of loyalty is something which is disappearing from today’s world?
That, I couldn’t speak to – whether it’s disappearing or not. I really don’t know; it’s all relative. But it was one of the things that drew me to it because I felt, in a way, I understood it. I’ve been through it, you know. I’ve had very close friends in my life, two or three, that were as important to me as anybody else [now]. I met them early on in my life and they died of course. But my relationship with them was… It was vivid. I can look back at it now and it’s still vivid. This all happened before I was sixteen…I [still] have a lot of friends. I have some wonderful… I have friends who are, you know, people that Icould have been married to that now are very close friends of mine. They may be the closest of my friends, believe it or not. “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds or bends with the remover to remove” (Shakespeare; Sonnet 116). Love is there. It’s always there, right?
I notice you have two books in your pockets.
Well this is Othello, Shakespeare.
And the other?
This is an Edward G. Robinson biography (laughs)…I like biographies. I’m also reading Richard Burton’s diaries now, which I’m enjoying. Robinson too;he was a great actor and a great guy. But Burton – I had the joy of meeting him, and it’s a funny story with him. Like Marlon Brando, he was one of the people I really admired. Anyway, I saw him do Camelot when he was older and I got to meet him. “Oh, oh, oh… good to see you,” he says. And I said, “Mr. Burton you were really wonderful up there.” And he says, “Yes, I was thinking maybe we could get together. Can I have your number?” Anyway, I was so nervous that instead of my number I wrote: “Best Wishes, Al Pacino.” That had to be what, thirty, forty years ago (laughs)… And reading his diaries now – well, very interesting stuff. Yeah, I’m always reading something.
What about your autobiography? Would you like to write one?
Yeah, but you know, as long as I can express things in my work and whatever…I do give [talks] occasionally… I do readings, and then I do question and answer stuff. I find that as you do that, you remember things. I mean, it’s a long time I’ve been doing this. So the stories do come… The stories do come.