Al Pacino Wishes He Were as Smart as Jack

HBO: You get to pick and choose your projects. What was the biggest draw to this one?

AL PACINO: I read the script and it was so interesting. Very rarely do you find something that makes you say, “I want to play this.” It had a good script, a good solid story, and yet, the character was elusive and different for me. I’ve never played anyone like this, and I knew that it would have to be an extreme character. I thought it was interesting to try to find a way to express what it is to be a true zealot. The way I believe Jack is. He’s the real thing. And of course it had Barry Levinson as the director, which is a big, big plus.

HBO: The film is called, You Don’t Know Jack. What did you learn about Dr. Kevorkian?

AL PACINO: I didn’t know that he was as committed as he was. I didn’t know that he was as humorous and intelligent as he was. And I didn’t know how creative and interesting a person he was. Painting, writing, music — even teaching himself Japanese while he’s in a court of law. All these things are so admirable to me. I would like to be that smart. And here was an opportunity to actually play someone that smart. That’s fun. That’s what being an actor’s about. The other thing I learned about Jack was that he wanted to be there for people. His patients and their families felt more comfortable and safer when he was administering euthanasia. They could’ve done it by themselves, but they would’ve been upset because they wouldn’t know what to do if it went wrong. They were so fearful of that. He was there, because it gave them a comfort zone.

HBO: The story deals with some heavy issues, but it doesn’t feel like a heavy film — why is that?

AL PACINO: This is the trick that Barry pulled off. The story just keeps unfolding. It doesn’t feel like it’s taking a stand on one thing or another. It’s a very eclectic kind of movie, and Barry did that. At one point I had said to him, “You know, those biopic kind of movies can get a little tiresome.” But Barry said, “No, I think I can do this the right way.” And he did. He actually did.

I didn’t know that he was as humorous and intelligent as he was. And I didn’t know how creative and interesting a person he was.

HBO: Tell us about your character’s relationship with Janet Good, and what it was like working with Susan Sarandon.

AL PACINO: Susan plays Janet Good, and Jack had great admiration and love for her. She was one of the only people who could control Jack, and without her, he was rudderless. Susan plays a part that she can really understand, being a bit of a zealot herself. Not only is she a great artist to work with, but I also worked with her first husband, Chris Sarandon, in a movie called Dog Day Afternoon. He played my lover. And she almost played my lover in this.

HBO: What was Jack’s relationship with Neal Nicol (played by John Goodman)?

AL PACINO: Jack Kevorkian and Neal Nicol go way back to the early stages. When Jack was experimenting with cadavers, he was actually taking the blood from cadavers to save lives. This is when he was doing organ transplants. Neal was right there with him and they both did it, and they both got Hepatitis because of it. But there was this desire to save life. That’s a misconception about Jack, his desire to save life. He’s a doctor, and he cares for patients. Jack needed his small circle, which was Janet Good, his sister and Neal and they all worked in concert. Jack had to be stalwart to continue his efforts. And Neal was right there with him.

HBO: Do you think the film is a tragedy?

AL PACINO: When the moment comes when he’s rejected finally — the final humiliation — there is a sense that he’s out of his arena. He’s not familiar with the whole world of law and there is a contrast of this idealist lost in the middle of court procedure. That’s where the tragedy builds. I hope there’s humor in it. In all drama, that’s the thing you look for. I saw it in Jack. Believe it or not, in all the footage I looked at—because I didn’t meet Jack — I saw his humor. As I watched all this stuff and I read his books, I got a sense of the dryness of his humor, and I was hoping it could seep through somehow. I hope it does.