Al Pacino Explains How Eccentricity Can Work Against You
What was it like to act in a film written by David Mamet?
It’s a delight for any actor to play Mamet – he’s one of the great writers of our time. He writes for actors. He writes with this alacrity and power – he puts this kind of verbal stamp on his work. Then, when you go deeper into it, you see what’s underneath and it feeds you.
He also directed 'Phil Spector.'
He did, and he did it very well. He created a very interesting style for this movie. It was a special thing that only he could have done. It’s great to work with him [as the director] too, because the writer’s talking to you about the character. You know that you have to take the script in and make it your own language, but it’s still helpful to know what was going on in his head when he wrote it.
Was David Mamet seeking to capture the real Spector?
My feeling is that with a great writer like David Mamet - or Tony Kushner with 'Angels in America' – they are inspired by a real person, and then they fictionalize the character for themselves. The way Shakespeare did with 'Richard III.' It was a sounding board for him - a stepping stone. And I think that’s what Phil Spector is – it’s David Mamet putting forth his reaction to this particular real, live person and turning it into a character.
He never seems to come out and say Spector was a murderer.
It’s very interesting on that level; Mamet tries to stay away from any kind of, “This is the way it was. He was guilty and this is how he dealt with it.” He just leaves it open and I think that’s going to be very interesting and maybe a frustrating situation for some people.
There's this idea that Spector is going to be convicted of, “I don’t like you.”
Yeah. Spector is a genius and brought music to another level with the Wall of Sound. But the fact is, he is this reckless, almost anarchic character who's hard to reach. He doesn’t fit in – he’s always been different. Weird. When this incident occurred he had been a recluse for a long time and had a reputation already. That eccentricity turns on him and people start to formulate an opinion of who he is.
Initially, his lawyer Linda, Helen Mirren's character, thinks he’s a murderer.
Right. She’s completely convinced he’s guilty but then her opinion starts turning around. It’s like all things with Phil – his insights are not immediately clear, but if you listen long enough, you start to understand. I know people like that. They start talking, you don’t know what they’re talking about and you get a little concerned that you’re not really getting it…but it’s just that their delivery is different. That’s what happened with Helen’s character. She starts to hear him.
By the end, there’s a real relationship between Phil and Linda.
It’s funny, you can’t make a relationship. It’s either there or it’s not. You can appreciate someone, admire them or even not like them very much—but a contact and a connection with somebody – that’s just in the cosmos, you know?
Did Phil Spector do it?
I have no idea. [LAUGHS] I just don’t know what happened. I don’t know Phil Spector.
You didn’t meet him in your preparation?
I don’t know how helpful it would have been. Phil Spector is in prison now. I am sure I could have had access to him; I didn’t do it because this is about Phil Spector before he was sentenced. The same way "You Don't Know Jack" was about Jack Kevorkian before he went away to prison. Maybe one day I’ll be able to ask him questions, but I chose not to this time. You figure there’s enough data on the character that maybe it’s best to go with the glow, so to speak.
So you weren’t trying to imitate him.
Well, I am playing a real life character, in the same way I did with Kevorkian and Roy Cohn. It’s always a help to an actor to play a real character. In today’s world, there’s so much footage and data on these people, that as an actor, you can study him and find a way to actually have the real person feed your imagination.
Do you look for something about the real person to relate to?
Yes. It’s so interesting to play someone who became so involved in these different aspects of life. Here was this guy who was all music. I mean, his whole thing was music. And yet, he had these diversions that he went into and found pleasure in. For example, he was somewhat of a Lincoln freak. So it was interesting to play someone who aside from having such a genius and ability to make music—which is in-and-of itself consuming—he was able to be consumed by a lot of other things. That’s how he became knowledgeable and extended himself. Much like actors who portray characters. Sometimes, we are thrown into an education – we have to find out about who we are playing. I always liked that because for someone like me, a natural lazybones, you are just thrown into things and you have to absorb it.
So the real Phil Spector is, again, a stepping stone into your take on the character “Phil Spector?”
You want to be faithful to the character, but also, you want to step it up in a sense. By fictionalizing the character, sometimes you can make it much more palatable. You can say many different things about this character metaphorically, which helps give it a certain size.
What are some of your own interests – outside of acting?
I prefer basket weaving. I could do basket weaving anywhere, you know, when I go in the home. I got something to fall back on, basket weaving.
What would you say was the most challenging aspect of working on a film?
It’s usually getting up in the morning. That’s the tough one. See on big movies—major movies that are full of locations and different things you spend a lot of time in your camper. It gets boring. They said once to Orson Welles, “Well, you get paid for acting.” He said, “No, I don’t get paid for acting. I get paid for waiting.” That can really get to be a drag. So you try to find a way to get things working in your camper. Cable TV works, you get a variety of channels to choose from. So, you got CNN, you can listen to music, you can…
Read a book?
Reading is tough to do when you are working because it's too involving. But TV's just [IMITATING TV HUMMING SOUND] hmmm, hmmm, hmmm… you don’t have to use yourself much, so it helps the waiting.
Do you have favorite scenes that you remember playing?
My favorite scenes are the ones I get through and nobody says “Hey Al, what the hell was that,” you know? It’s just the best way.