Compiled by: Jack Foley
SEVEN-time Oscar nominee, and regularly dubbed the greatest living
actor of his generation, Al Pacino may have made his name playing
gangsters and cops, in films like The Godfather, Serpico and Scarface.
But as accomplished a stage actor as he is screen, Pacino’s
love for Shakespeare in particular knows no bounds.
After his 1996 directorial effort Looking for Richard, a documentary-like
investigation into the Shakespearean character of Richard III,
he has returned to the Bard for his latest film, Michael Radford’s
version of The Merchant of Venice.
Co-starring with Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes, Pacino, now
64, plays Shylock, the spurned Jew who will have his pound of
Q: What do you see as the difference between acting
Shakespeare on stage and on film?
A: Shakespeare is expensive to produce on stage, with
a huge cast usually, so if you’re doing it commercially,
it requires a big theatre, so there’s a lot of people. Therefore
you have to project more. And you’re doing it every night
to a live audience. There are no close-ups.
There is nothing that is going to take the scene and say ‘Well,
this is what’s really going on in the scene’ because
we’re going to cut to you. And certainly there’s no
visual enhancement to explain the story or give background. So
that, too, puts another burden on the performance and it asks
you to reach in a certain way.
So you’re liberated but also confined, because the performance
is yours. So you have that freedom. But at the same time, the
audience there is seeing a scene, and they’re hearing it
as much as seeing it. In the movies, they’re seeing it first.
So it is motion pictures, and that changes how you approach the
Q: What do you think of the British tradition of Shakespeare?
A: First of all, the British do Shakespeare great. Because
they’ve had a history of doing it.
I love the way they do Shakespeare – especially certain
actors, some of the great ones. Today, we have Mark Rylance, who
runs the Globe Theatre in London, and he’s one of the greatest
Shakespearean actors I’ve ever seen. But one thing I have
to say, is that the British have encouraged us Americans.
The temperament of Americans, as the Brits have even said to me,
is more Elizabethan. What really means a lot to me is how encouraged
I’ve been by the Brits, in terms of doing Shakespeare. They’ve
been the most encouraging.
That’s all part of Looking For Richard. So many Brits came
to talk to me about it, and said, ‘Americans should continue
doing this…’ I don’t think anybody will ever
have the elocution and the taste of words the way some of the
great English actors have, and are able to communicate such dynamic
excitement to the way they round out the words and penetrate with
them. It’s anybody’s game. That’s the thing.
Q: What do you think of the contemporary updates of Shakespeare
A: It depends on how the artist who is going to make
the movie or do the play is responding to this particular Shakespearean
For instance, you’ve got Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and
Juliet, which is this modern thing that takes place in Venice,
California. And it was great!
You could see the director having this great idea that he was
going to reach the young audience by using all their anachronisms.
I saw Jonathan Pryce 25 years ago do Hamlet. And he has an exorcism
on stage, and the ghost of Hamlet’s father comes out of
his stomach. I had never seen anyone do that. It was one of the
most terrifying things I’ve ever seen on stage; confronting
and powerful. And it was Shakespeare’s Hamlet. So it’s
there for us.
Q: How did you prepare to play Shylock?
A: The thing with Shylock is, you have Michael Radford’s
script, which is an adaptation of the play.
So you have a movie orientation; the guy is dealing with movie
images. So he sets you up, so there’s something there that’s
informing the character. So I was informed by the way it was set
Once I saw that, I thought ‘I can understand now how to
approach it, because I’m getting the support from the visuals.’
So we understand where Shylock’s coming from, and how he
got there. We can identify with his condition; the condition of
his life and his deprivation. Once you see the images, someone
spitting at somebody, you start to understand his motivations
and relate to them. That’s what I thought I would try.
Q: Do you start by trying to find a relationship between
Shylock’s story and contemporary life?
A: The thing is, if you’re approaching something
and saying ‘Where is the human condition and dilemma of
If you take it from that point…you start from there. And
hopefully in that process you find a metaphor that is communicated
and becomes relevant. You are really starting out with the very
basics; who are we in this place and what are the conditions of
our life as actors in this world that we’re doing now. And
you try to be as faithful and as real as that. And hopefully the
relevance will come.
Q: Were you encouraged to
act in Shakespeare when you were younger?
A: Like I said, most actors do Shakespeare if they’re
encouraged to do it. I don’t think back then, in my generation,
and from where we come from in New York, that there was much encouragement
to do it. It sort of belonged to another group – I don’t
even know who that group is, but apparently there’s a group
But especially because of Joseph Papp, who started Shakespeare
For Schools and has the Shakespeare Festival in Central Park…what
he did was break through and made Shakespeare casting universal.
He cast all kinds of ethnic groups – Asians, African-Americans,
Latinos…so it’s opened the world to Shakespeare. And
that has been a big thing. It’s like if you were a musician
and you played the cello, you would be interested in the great
composers. You’d want to engage with that.
Q: Do you think your film, Looking For Richard, helped
change the perception of Shakespeare at all?
A: I don’t think my film made any difference. I
don’t think it changed anything. At least I’m not
aware of any changes, although I haven’t looked into it
deeply, to be fair about it.
But I hope Looking For Richard becomes something that is used
in schools. There’s an effort by certain people involved
to bring it into the schools. Because I do think Shakespeare should
be in the curriculum and should be taught. Shakespeare doesn’t
need me to promote for him, because he’s going to be around
– there’s not a doubt in my mind!
But for certain people who could get some benefit from this, and
be able to experience it and find in their lives something that
would be meaningful to them, to learn Shakespeare where it’s
not force-fed, but is seen as entertainment relevant to their
Q: As an actor, you must feel blessed that you’re
exposed to the Bard’s works regularly…
A: The only way I can think about it – and I speak
from experience because I’m an actor – is that an
actor learns about any play differently from one who sees or reads
the play, because you are engaged in it for weeks or months or
So your understanding, of course, will eventually become more
sophisticated than people just seeing it for the first time. So
my feeling is we turn the world on and everybody becomes an actor
– but that won’t happen!
So the next best thing is when we’re younger, we can at
least say ‘I know that material because I played the role
in school and I got a chance to understand it on a deeper level.’
I think in elementary, junior high and high school, it’d
be really interesting to learn about a piece of Shakespeare that
way. If I were a teacher, that’s what I’d do.
Q: How do you keep going as an actor?
A: It’s not about achievement for me. It’s
about ‘what’s next?’ or ‘what’s
As long as the canvas is blank for me, I look at it and say ‘I
think there’s a lot to paint’. A lot of things happen,
and I do consider myself lucky – above all things, I must
say. So if there’s something that I’m encouraged by,
I am lucky.
And if there’s something that engages me in that way, I
am lucky. Most of the time that doesn’t happen. You just
go out there and do something because it’s there. You try
to find in it something you can connect to.
Out there are things that I’m going to be lucky to be a
part of. I haven’t been as excited since I was doing Looking
For Richard, because I felt that’s when I was engaged in
something that I was trying to do and say. I’d wake up every
day with the excitement of inquiry and hopefully invention.
Q: You keep seeking out younger directors like Chris
Nolan, on Insomnia. How was that?
A: Chris Nolan…he’s someone I would love
to make another picture with. That was really a treat working
with him. Talk about your remakes – that was tough to do.
Q: As you filmed The Merchant of Venice in Italy, do
you feel connected to the country?
A: Well, I probably unconsciously connect with it a great
deal. It’s my roots, my background and my family. But I’m
an Italian-American, so I’m all over the place! When I’m
in Russia, I feel connected to that.
Q: Do you think you still have a rebellious streak in
A: I don’t know. There must be some of it there
in me. Maybe it’s a streak, but it’s sort of there.
I guess. I think. When I look at what I do – I don’t
know I’m doing it when I’m doing it, it’s not
conscious – but when I see the holes I dig for myself, I
think I guess I must be up to something.
Q: Do you ever watch your old movies?
A: I never do. I never do. Except in this day and age,
we have a thousand channels, so one is always ready to pop up,
especially when I’m not sleeping in the middle of the night,
and there it is.
Q: Do you work at night?
A: I don’t work at night. But when you’re
working on a project, at night you dream about it. You engage
with it and it gets into your psyche. I would prefer to sleep
through the night.
Q: I hear you may be reuniting with director James Foley,
a thriller called 88 Minutes?
A: He’s developing something that I hope turns
out because I really like Jimmy Foley. I liked the way he made
Glengarry Glen Ross. I respond to him. He is really an enthusiast
and he’s making progress for this piece, and I’m hoping
it could be my next picture.
Q: What do you think of the new generation of actors
A: My opinion is that they are great. Their understanding
of the medium and their application of their gifts, from Sean
Penn to Johnny Depp – guys I’ve been lucky enough
to work with. Edward Norton – he’s great too. They’re
Again, it’s a lot to do with the fact that they’ve
taken this movie technique and have been able to really refine
it. They’re great movie actors. I always encourage them
to go on stage, because the very act of it has a way of stimulating
and opening you up more and giving you more variety and serving
your own craft. It’ll serve their movie acting. But they’re
great actors. I love them.