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The Merchant of Venice - Al Pacino talks Shakespeare



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 flesh.

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 work.

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 on film?
A:
It depends on how the artist who is going to make the movie or do the play is responding to this particular Shakespearean play.
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 up.
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 Shylock?’
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 there!
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 lives…

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 even years.
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 up?’
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 you?
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 out there?
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 wonderful.
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.

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