Al Pa­cino goes for laughs in ‘Stand Up Guys.’

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY STYLE -

At 72, Al Pa­cino is one of drama’s kings. But a funny-guy role in ‘Stand Up Guys’ brings him back to his roots.

APa­cino, en­er­gized by a con­ver­sa­tion that has in­evitably turned to the in­tri­ca­cies of act­ing, is snap­ping his fin­gers. “When you get me on the act­ing trail, I get on that train,” he says, punc­tu­at­ing what he calls an im­pro­vised “the­sis on time” with stac­cato snaps. The 72-year-old may be gray-haired and a lit­tle worn, but he re­mains, like a dancer, al­ways on his toes, and still en­am­ored of the “crazy, crazy, crazy thing” that is act­ing: “You’re al­ways look­ing for what’s go­ing to feed you, what’s go­ing to feed the spirit and get you go­ing.”

And Pa­cino is still get­ting go­ing. Yet the sub­ject of time — how much is needed to find a char­ac­ter (years in some cases, he says) and how it dic­tates the parts he chooses now — played a large role in a re­cent in­ter­view with the ac­tor at the Wal­dorf As­to­ria in New York.

“Some­times I’m tempted to say, ‘Why am I do­ing this? Why am I still do­ing this?’” he says. “Then, af­ter I don’t do it for a while, I say: ‘Oh, now I know why I still do it.’ If I sud­denly didn’t want to do it any­more, that’d be fine, too. I’d prob­a­bly be an usher again in a play­house.”

If Pa­cino is feel­ing rem­i­nis­cent of his early days as a Bronx-born as­pir­ing thes­pian knock­ing around in 1960s down­town New York the­aters and cafes, it’s partly be­cause his re­cent work re­flects on his be­gin­nings. Not many know that Pa­cino started out as a co­me­dian. He jokes that though he did a movie with Robin Wil­liams (“In­som­nia”), “he didn’t know that I really wanted to be him.”

Pa­cino, funny guy, has cer­tainly been glimpsed be­fore. But af­ter a ca­reer bet­ter known for gang­sters, crooks and Shake­spearean vil­lains, Pa­cino has lately been ex­er­cis­ing his com­edy chops. Af­ter fin­ish­ing a re­vival run on Broad­way of “Glen­garry Glen Ross” in which he played up the laughs as the des­per­ate, over-thehill sales­man Shel­ley, Pa­cino stars in the crime com­edy “Stand Up Guys,” which Lionsgate re­leased Fri­day.

In it, he plays a former gang­ster, Val, re­leased from prison af­ter 28 years and taken around town to cel­e­brate by his old friend, Doc (Christo­pher Walken), who does it re­morse­fully know­ing that their boss wants Val killed by sunup. Their pal Richard (Alan Arkin) joins in the romp.

As he showed in “Scent of a Woman,” Al Pa­cino is good com­pany for a last-hur­rah. Part of his en­dur­ing ap­peal, af­ter all, is his pul­sat­ing zest for life. Whether fir­ing a ma­chine gun at the hip (“Scar­face”), pur­su­ing a story (“The In­sider”) or whip­ping a crowd into an “At­tica”chant­ing protest (”Dog Day Af­ter­noon”), Pa­cino is the great agi­ta­tor of Amer­i­can movies. Crit­ics will make claims of over- act­ing, but no one ever slept through an Al Pa­cino per­for­mance.

“Some ac­tors aren’t con­nected and they don’t in­vest,” says “Stand Up Guys” di­rec­tor Fisher Stevens, a veteran New York ac­tor and doc­u­men­tary pro­ducer. “Al is com­mit­ted to ev­ery­thing he does, even if it’s just play­ing poker. He does ev­ery­thing that way.”

Stevens first met Pa­cino when he came to see him in a play two decades ago. It’s the way many en­counter Pa­cino; there are count­less ca­reers he’s helped pro­pel, from Kevin Spacey (whom he sug­gested for the 1992 film “Glen­garry Glen Ross”) to Jes­sica Chas­tain (whom he cast in his Los An­ge­les pro­duc­tion of Os­car Wilde’s “Salome”). Pa­cino made a film about the pro­duc­tion, “Wilde Salome,” but it — like Pa­cino’s beloved, largely un­seen “The Lo­cal Stig­matic” — re­mains un­re­leased.

“That’s what Al does with his movies, he just holds on to them like he’s keep­ing his kids,” says Stevens.

Pa­cino and Walken hadn’t worked to­gether be­fore (ex­cept for sep­a­rate scenes in — get ready for it — the Ben Af­fleck, Jen­nifer Lopez film “Gigli”), but they’ve been friends for decades, go­ing back to the Ac­tors Stu­dio, where the long-in­volved Pa­cino is cur­rently co-pres­i­dent. Read­ing through the parts, the two de­cided to switch roles in “Stand Up Guys.”

While Pa­cino’s “God­fa­ther, Part II” cos­tar and cin­e­matic coun­ter­part Robert De Niro has fo­cused on com­edy late in his ca­reer, Pa­cino has been more scat­ter­shot. His most no­table work in re­cent years was play­ing Shy­lock in an ac­claimed 2010 pro­duc­tion of “The Mer­chant of Venice” and an Emmy-win­ning turn as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the HBO film “You Don’t Know Jack.” (In March, Pa­cino will re­turn to HBO in an­other high-pro­file biopic, this time on Phil Spec­tor.)

His fond­ness for broad com­edy, though, helps ex­plain the most in­scrutable credit in Pa­cino’s fil­mog­ra­phy: the 2011 Adam San­dler film “Jack and Jill,” in which he, among other things, rapped a pseudo Dunkin’ Donuts ad as “Dunkac­cino.”

“What hap­pened to me is in life, I started to get used to other things be­sides my­self do­ing some­thing funny or coming up with jokes, and I started to get into what is the play­wright and what the play­wrights say and that the play is the thing, like Ham­let says,” says Pa­cino. “That’s the rea­son I stayed in the pro­fes­sion be­cause I fell in love with drama, whether it’s com­edy or tragedy. ... I be­came more or less sort of se­ri­ous about things.”

It’s ironic that the great­est ac­com­plish­ment of an ac­tor so well known for his big­ness (de­spite his 5 foot-7 inch height) was a per­for­mance of ut­ter con­trol: Michael Cor­leone. The strain of that ti­tanic per­for­mance — the mat­u­ra­tion of an arm­chair despot through the “God­fa­ther” films — left a mark on Pa­cino, who though nearly 32 at the time, had only two pre­vi­ous movies un­der his belt.

“That char­ac­ter was so con­sum­ing,” says Pa­cino. “Part of the rea­son why was be­cause of its re­straint, be­cause of what is de­manded of it in that style. The in­nards of that char­ac­ter, what his psy­che was go­ing through. To por­tray that prob­a­bly af­fected me in some way.”

Since then, the knock on Pa­cino has al­ways been that he some­times chews scenery, or rather, swal­lows it whole. That’s some­what un­fair, says Stevens, who notes that Pa­cino tries many de­grees of a char­ac­ter, leav­ing it to the di­rec­tor to cal­i­brate.

But if Pa­cino some­times veers into car­toon, it makes him all the more suited to com­edy. In con­ver­sa­tion, he’s ev­ery bit as lively, er­ratic and funny as you’d ex­pect. “I’m throw­ing im­ages at you!” he bursts be­tween re­flec­tions. He grins mis­chie­vously when he brags that he got Stevens to open up his col­lar. And when the ques­tion of whether he’ll take up that Shake­spearean moun­tain that sig­ni­fies the au­tumn of an ac­tor’s ca­reer, he says, yes, per­haps in a movie, but not on stage.

“King Lear? Why don’t you ask me if I’m go­ing to climb the Em­pire State Build­ing with a wire?” Pa­cino ex­claims. “King Lear? What have I got to do with King Lear? Isn’t that for other kind of peo­ple? It’s some­body else play­ing it. It’s Ge­orge C. Scott or Ian McKellen. I don’t do that. I’m in ‘Stand Up Guys.’”

VIC­TO­RIA WILL/IN­VI­SION VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

IN­SPI­RA­TION: “You’re al­ways look­ing for what’s go­ing to feed you,” Pa­cino says.

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