IAR INTERVIEW: Al Pacino Talks 'Danny Collins' and His Signature Role in 'The Godfather'

Tuesday, 17 March 2015 22:17 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR INTERVIEW: Al Pacino Talks 'Danny Collins' and His Signature Role in 'The Godfather'

In my time as Managing Editor of IAR, I’ve had the pleasure to check several illustrious names off of my “interview wish list,” including Oprah Winfrey, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Bruce Willis, Mel Brooks, William Shatner, Adam West, Stan Lee, Mike Tyson, and Oscar the Grouch. But I can now cross off my wish list the name of one of the greatest screen actors of all time … Al Pacino!

It almost seems redundant to list Mr. Pacino’s incredible body of work, but here goes anyways. The Academy Award-winner made his screen debut in The Panic in Needle Park, but it was his iconic role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather that made him a household name. He would go on to appear in some of the best movies ever made including Serpico, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, …And Justice for All, Scarface, Sea of Love, Carlito’s Way, and Heat. The actor has won four Golden Globes Awards, two Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, and been nominated for eight Oscars, finally winning Best Actor in 1993 for his performance in Scent of a Woman. Pacino’s latest film Danny Collins, which is one of his best in recent years, opens in theaters on March 20th. 

Danny Collins features Pacino as the title character, an aging rock star who decides to change his life when he discovers a 40-year old letter written to him by John Lennon. After reevaluating his life, Collins attempts to reunite with his long lost son Tom (Bobby Cannavale), and Tom’s wife (Jennifer Garner) and daughter. The musician also befriends a hotel manager named Mary (Annette Bening), and soon begins writing new material that puts him at odds with his longtime manager (Christopher Plummer) and his fans. The film was written and directed by Dan Fogelman (Last Vegas). 

I recently had the honor of sitting down with the great Al Pacino (along with a few other members of the press), to talk about his work on Danny Collins. The legendary actor spoke candidly about his new film, his process as an actor, how it’s changed over the years, what real life rock stars influenced his performance, and his signature role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather

After Mr. Pacino entered the room, I began by asking him to discuss his process as an actor and if it has changed over the years. “It has changed a little,” the actor admitted. “First off, once I got this script for instance, I was aware the director wanted me to play the part. So when a director wants me, there's obviously something they see in me, in the role. Then if I like the script and connect to it in some way I can see myself in it. Then I set about working on it, which is usually the same as I've always done. I start with an empty canvas and hopefully I start not knowing this is my empty canvas. I have to paint something on there so you sketch a little bit, you draw it, and you stay with it.”

“The best thing an actor can get is someone real that you're playing,” Pacino explained. “You've got a model. If you don't have a model you have to start to think. For instance, in this one I started to think about rock n' roll. Who does he look like? What is he going to be like? What kind of songs does he sing? Then you start going to the story. You try to understand the story more and the reality of that. It's complex. A lot of things come up. The early instincts are the ones you stay with and I had the instinct that Danny Collins is a cross between Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart.”

I followed up by telling Mr. Pacino that when I saw the film, I thought Danny Collins was a cross between Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond. “Hey you know, I should have used those,” joked the actor. “That's true because Bob Dylan is the younger Danny. I just put them in my head. I didn't mimic them, I didn't think about them much, except in the way I formulated certain things. The story itself I think is where I got a key because the story is about this kid that is touted as the next Dylan when he first comes along. He writes the song and all of a sudden he is a super star. The fall right afterward, especially for a twenty-one year old, I don't think that's expressed this much in the movie, but that's the backstory. He has to recover from that. In a way he didn't recover and in a way he did. The way he recovered is he went to other attributes he has. He can dance, there was a certain look he had, and he was also a bit of a charmer. He could put over a song. He didn't have a great voice, but he's a writer. That was just eviscerated. He had to survive and that's the way he survived. He's a survivor. That's one thing that got me going, he was someone who is a survivor.”

“He had a certain pace and energy,” Pacino continued. “I was happy that those were some of the keys, and of course naturally the wearing out of someone like this. He relied on dope, alcohol, women, wives he can’t even remember, the loneliness of that lifestyle, and the isolation of it. It’s sad. Yet at the same time a lot of us can identify with it. You don’t have to be a rock star to know it. So I like that. To be able to get to that point in your life where a letter from John Lennon that was sent thirty years ago is kind of a good catalyst. Maybe ten years earlier he wouldn’t have done anything about it. But the fact that he uses that shows that he is a survivor because he’s at the end of the line. It’s very interesting that that would be the thing. It makes sense to me and I can understand it all happening. That helps in acting and the performance.”

Finally, one of my colleagues asked the Academy Award-winner a brilliant question. In the film, Danny Collins is best known for his signature song “Hey Baby Doll.” Pacino was asked what he believes is his signature role or performance. “The Godfather, naturally,” he answered. “The Godfather was the start of something big really I guess. The Panic in Needle Park is a film I love by the way. It was my first film and it was wonderfully done. The Godfather was so much of a shock really for me because Francis (Ford Coppola) really wanted me in that film. Again when a director wants you for something, you perk up. I was unknown at the time. We had known each other and he wanted me for another movie because he saw me on the stage. He wanted to use me in that picture but it never got made. I spent almost a week with him in San Francisco and I didn’t hear from him for a year. I guess that was a very valuable week because we connected and then he saw me in that part.”

“Nobody could shake Francis from casting me and everybody wanted to, including me at one point,” Pacino confessed. “But he stayed with me. It turned out to be extremely fortuitous and lucky for me, and at the same time I have no regrets. The fact is that it will continue to be this seminal role for me in terms of my career, but I’ve done a lot of parts now. You go through stages too when you’re young versus when you’re a so-called movie star, it’s a different world. When you’re an actor it’s all about anonymity, and the use of anonymity, which I so loved and cherished. But then you learn to live with the Fame. It seems to me that the most sensible thing ever said to me was by Lee Strasberg when he saw that early on in my career I was having a little trouble navigating. He just said, ‘Darling, you simply have to adjust. That’s all.’ It was a refrain in the back of my mind hearing his voice say that. It was very helpful when you’re ready to hear things like that”

Danny Collins opens in theaters on March 20th. 

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