The American actor was in Ireland to pick up an award for his documentary on Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.
Al Pacino was back in Ireland in February for a very fond return visit and to be presented with a Volta Lifetime Achievement award by President Michael D. Higgins. Guest of honor at the 10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, he also screened his documentary Wilde Salomé, part of which was shot in Dublin and which is about Oscar Wilde’s notorious 1891 play. The Oscar-winning actor spent five years making the documentary, his third directing endeavor.
It’s the second time Ireland has honored Pacino. In 2006, he received honorary patronage of the University Philosophical Society at Trinity College, during which visit he filmed some of the scenes in this documentary.
Before this latest visit, I sat down with him at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where he waxed philosophically on life, the universe and his beloved profession. A generally warm and engaging character, he was in good form, playful and engaged, looking forward to returning to Ireland.
As though testing me and looking for a response, one minute he’s delivering fiercely intense stares from those penetrating brown eyes that suggest a low tolerance for the media, then seconds later he’s all flirtatious charm, full of chat and surprising anecdotes.
We are seated in the shade in the garden drinking coffee. He is dressed in a long navy blazer over a grey t-shirt, with his dark brown hair teased and back-combed dramatically, adding about three inches to his stature. Deeply tanned and sporting a trim goatee flecked with grey, it’s kind of hard to believe that the man who so terrifyingly embodied Michael Corleone could really be 72.
His New York accent sounds as unmistakable as it does when he’s on-screen, and the changes in mood, many and frequent, flash across that very lived-in face of his.
A beloved cultural icon and easily one of the most accomplished actors of his generation, Pacino has been doing things on his own terms for decades, as a stage and screen actor and sometime director. Yet at the same time, he admits that he’s just like any other actor – waiting for his next gig.
“I’ve played characters I would never want to meet and then I’ve played characters that I’ve met and got to know, and you’re always looking for that thing that connects you humanly,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as anything but an actor struggling to find the next role and when I do get it, to see if I can find my way into it. You have to read and you have to observe and you have to educate yourself. He who persists in his folly will one day be wise. I’m waiting for that day to come!
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘why do you act?’ I don’t know why. I’m going through a pretty good patch right now. My children are getting a little older and my temperament has changed vis a vis my relationship to what I do. I still have the appetite to do this. It’s been six years now that I’ve been doing the Salomé project.”
Pacino is the father of three children, from two different mothers. His eldest child Julie Marie, 21, is the daughter he had with acting coach Jan Tarrant. He has a twin son and daughter Olivia and Anton, 11, from a relationship with the actress Beverly D’Angelo. Although he’s had a string of relationships with actresses, Pacino has never married. He is currently involved with the Argentine actress Lucila Sola, who is 40 years his junior.
“I wish I knew why I never married,” he says with a baffled shrug. “I don’t think about it too much, and I’ve learned to live with it. I don’t exclude it from my life. If it comes, I would do it. I’m more likely to do it now. I’d better do it now! Pretty soon, I won’t be around to do it! Maybe I’ll go into that unknown country from who’s born, no traveller returns. Maybe I’ll try it and see if it perks things up. I have young children, and that certainly perked things up!”
Pacino was born in the South Bronx and raised by his mother, Rose, after his father, Salvatore, an insurance salesman, just 18 when Al was born, abandoned the family when Al was two years old. He and his mother remained close all her life, and he tells me he learned all he knows about women from her. The Pacino family roots are in Sicily and as the clock ticks on his life, he thinks more and more about his origins.
“Those days growing up in the South Bronx were so valuable to me. The relationships I formed back then were extremely valuable. I think about that and my Sicilian roots – I grew up in what was called a melting pot, where you’d hear all these dialects and accents from Europe and Asia. The tenement building I grew up in, we’d go up on the roof at night and I took it for granted that this was the way the world was.
“I come from a broken home, which is very different from the tradition of the Italian family. I was raised by my grandparents and my mother. My grandfather instilled in me a great thing about the work ethic. He loved his work. In those days, he was involved in plastering and I remember seeing him mix the plaster with a kind of focus that I thought was very impressive. He was always doing odd jobs for the landlord to try and keep our rent down.
“As I get older, I see how much he gave me and I completely believe that I’m only here because of him and my mother. He had a tremendous influence on me, the image of him working or reading the paper and picking out a horse with that same focus. He was the head of the family, but it was also a very matriarchal household. As Kipling said, ‘I learned about women from her.’”
Pacino began studying acting at 17, training with Lee Strasberg in the Method acting school, which quickly propelled him to mega stardom. It was his bravura performance in the quirky Panic in Needle Park in 1971 which caught the eye of Francis Ford Coppola who cast him as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, opposite Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro. He dominated both Godfather movies, maturing from a cherubic war hero to a cold-blooded mobster who coolly orders executions, including that of his own brother, with a finely calibrated volatility which audiences understood. He was twice nominated for an Oscar for the role of Corleone. He won his first Oscar in 1993 for a very different role in Scent of a Woman.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to get some honors, and at the ceremonies it always seems kind of daunting when you look back. You think ‘where was I when that was going on?’ I think not so much about the role I played, rather than where I was in my life at that time I was making them.
“It’s interesting when you see the reactions of people who come to your house. They look for an Oscar or a Golden Globe and say ‘where is it? Where are they?’ It’s sort of like paintings you have around the house, but you don’t have a room just for paintings. My awards are all in different places in the house. One picture I love is of my oldest daughter when she was about three, holding my Oscar after I’d won it. I like that picture. That’s in my office where I can see it.”
For the record, why does Oscar Wilde mean so much to Pacino and why did he feel the need to revisit the scandal of Salomé?
“Oscar Wilde is a prophet. When I saw Salomé for the first time, I didn’t know who wrote it,” he said. “As soon as I found out, I had to devour everything of Wilde’s. To come to this place where his roots are and to be allowed free rein; it was very beneficial to the movie and I am just deeply grateful.”
Watch a trailer for Wilde Salomé: