The Irishman Week: Al Pacino Q&A

The Irishman – Al Pacino

by Nick De Semlyen |
Updated on

In the run-up to The Irishman arriving in UK cinemas, Empire Online presents The Irishman Week – a series of features to get you ready for Martin Scorsese's latest gangster epic. The latest is an interview with Al Pacino, a surprising first-time collaborator with the director.

Al Pacino had, incredibly, never worked with Martin Scorsese before The Irishman. They’d come closest with a biopic of suffering artist Amedeo Modigliani that would have featured Pacino chugging absinthe, but in the 1980s financing was not forthcoming for such maudlin subject matter. Almost two decades on, actor and director finally got together, with Pacino playing flamboyant real-life labour leader Jimmy Hoffa, who mysteriously disappeared in 1975. Empire called Pacino at his LA home one morning for a lengthy chat about his process, his iconic roles and shooting The Godfather in a graveyard.

The Irishman spans multiple decades, with the leads playing a lot of different ages. Was that daunting, to keep the whole thing in your head?

Well, everything’s daunting, my friend. Keeping your head in your head is daunting!

Robert De Niro has said he sometimes had to be reminded, “Today you’re 30.”

Oh yes. Yes. “Your head is on the floor — it should be up above your shoulders. What are you doing?” You forget that you didn’t quite move when you were 39 the way you do now. So you have to be reminded. As if acting isn’t tough enough, you gotta move to the age, as they say. I would say that was probably the most daunting part of it. Because when you have good text, when you have good story and you’re working with actors that you know and have played with before, then it’s a little less daunting. It’s trying to get your body to act like it’s 39. Only Meryl Streep could do that. That’s all I can tell you!

De Niro also said there was a scene where he had to go down some stairs as a young man that took a lot of honing. Was there anything like that for you?

Somehow, when I ran upstairs, I managed to do it with real alacrity. And after the take, I of course had to be rushed off to the hospital. Just joking. Just joking. (Laughs) But during the take, it was powerful. I did think, “How did I just do that?” There’s something to say for staying in shape. And I don’t know if anyone is in better shape than Robert.

You can’t be doing too badly yourself.

Well, yeah, but I’m not in 39 year-old shape. No. I’m a borderline 70.

With Jimmy Hoffa, you’re playing a real-life figure, who was a very charismatic guy.

He had to have been. And he started young. I mean, at 17 he was in the unions there. And so he took a lot of knocks and stuff. He was motivated. He was pretty smart too.

Did you dive into the history books for research?

Well, I took advantage of what’s accessible to us today. Today’s world, everybody’s photographing everybody. They got footage of me next year walking around! Of course, Hoffa was famous and so he was apt to be photographed more than someone like a Frank Serpico. When I played Frank Serpico, there was nothing of him, but there was no need for footage because Frank was there, so I had him. Any actor will tell you that having the real person you’re playing is a real advantage. And actors usually take access to that because it’s so available and you learn from it and it stimulates you. That’s what you’re always looking for. So I had a lot of footage of Hoffa and I just said, “I’ll look at this stuff, inundate myself with it and then hopefully some of it will reach my imagination.”

The Irishman is an event movie, given it’s bringing together you and Bob and Joe Pesci and Martin Scorsese together. Was that in your mind while you were shooting it?

Oh no, I didn’t think of that. I just thought, “It’s awfully cold outside. I hope we don’t stay in this scene long, because I don’t wanna go out there.” New York can get real cold. Laughs Those kind of thoughts. But there’s also another thing. Because when I have done movies before, early on, especially in the ’70s, you did the appropriate amount of rehearsal. Especially with Lumet. He’d rehearse it three or four weeks, almost like a play, when you went into a movie. But they don’t do that as much anymore. Although Marty does and Marty had given me a lot of books. He talked to me about things. Which is, I have to say, very valuable. But this is a world and I know these people. I know Marty and Bob and Joe and a couple of the other people so well. I’ve known Bob practically my whole life. I knew him when I was a young actor in the ’60s. And as far as Marty, I’ve known him well over 30 years. So there’s a familiarity. With Bob especially ’cause I’ve worked with him and am very close to him. So when you get there you’re around people that you’re familiar with. It’s a bit of shorthand, as they say.

While De Niro and Scorsese were making all their ’70s and ’80s classics together, was a part of you envious you were being left out?

I had a relationship with [Sidney] Lumet. And I had a relationship with Marty Bregman, who was my manager at the time. So I had my own thing. And Marty had his relationship with Bob, and also with Brian De Palma and Francis Coppola and Spielberg. They were all together. Francis once told me, “You should meet his guy. His name is Marty Scorsese. He’s a great director, you should meet him.” This is when I was a youngster. So we were in the area. We almost did a film together. We worked on a film, Marty and I, years ago. But like all these things, they take time and then they don’t turn out.

You’ve said The Irishman reminded you of the 1970s, in the way it was made. Can you elaborate on that?

I’ll tell you one thing: we weren’t worried about getting it done in three weeks. That’s all. You know, it was like you had this big studio behind you and there was room for exploration. There was room to feel as though you were making a big film, because you weren’t being rushed all the time. Whereas most films today they’re looking at the clock. You gotta finish at a certain time or it’s too costly. [With The Irishman] there was a kind of largesse. It was given a lot of good backing, I think. I remember one moment from the 1970s that I’ll never forget. It was The Godfather, and I was new to movies. And I remember we were doing a scene in the cemetery, ’cause we were burying the Don. And after the day was over, about 6pm, Coppola was sitting on a gravestone and he was weeping. I went over to him and said, “Francis, what’s wrong?” He looked up and said, “They don’t want to give me one more set-up.” I was amazed at it. I thought, “Hey, this may be a very good film.” (Laughs)

That’s pretty amazing.

I was amazed at it. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t realise there were set-ups and time constraints. I had no idea of that. But there were. And that was a studio. That was Paramount. But that’s how much it meant to Francis.

He had to get that little bit more.

Sometimes when you don’t get the footage you need, you do weep. I mean, whether you weep out on the gravestone, I don’t know. But you do weep in a way, because sometimes it’s these extra shots here and there that make a movie. You don’t realise that until you learn the hard way.

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