Al Pacino Explains Why Acting Makes You Freer

December 7, 2019

In a recent Variety Uncovered interview, the great Al Pacino waxed poetic on the craft of acting as well as the liberating nature of playing a film or theatrical role. Looking straight gangster in a silk suit and unbuttoned black shirt, Al opened up about some of his most iconic performances and his approach to getting in character. 

“When I’m talking in my own voice, in speech, I tend to sound a bit, ya know, stiff. But when you have a character to play, you get less inhibited. You’re freer in terms of your responses to things,” the Academy Award-winning actor shared.

How fun is that? Acting affords you freedom! Consider this: James Earl Jones, he of the iconic baritone and the bottomless bass of Darth Vader and “the Voice of God,” actually stuttered as a child. Jones described his childhood as “painful” as the other kids would laugh when he attempted to read his lessons aloud. In fact, his stuttering became so severe that he refused to speak altogether for eight years. However, one pivotal high school teacher challenged young James to recite his poetry to the class; he accepted the challenge and thereby commenced upon a path of language and poetics. James’ newfound confidence led him to the boundary-busting world of acting—and he speaks like a stentorian scholar to this very day!

And in yet another vein, Al Pacino claims that when it comes to playing a real person, the actor’s journey can become even more intriguing. For instance, concerning his portrayal of the iconoclastic whistleblower and anathematized policeman Frank Serpico in the 1973 film Serpico, Pacino had this to say: “When I played Serpico, he existed. And you spend time with the person, and you ask questions—intimate questions—and I asked Frank once, ‘Why did you fight this thing? Why didn’t you just take the money and give it to charity and move on with your work, with what you loved?’ And he looked to me, and he said, ‘If I’d done that, who would I have been when I listened to Beethoven?’ Now how do you get that kind of research?!” 

With that revelation, Pacino is quite literally at a loss for words. He seems completely in awe of the courageous man and erstwhile cop, as well as absolutely electrified by the opportunity to play such a complex and tortured soul. Indeed, Al goes on to say, “As soon as I met him, I wanted to play him.”

If there’s one thing Pacino is known for, it’s his uninhibited, fearless, intense, and indeed, explosive performances. His roles in The Godfather trilogy, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, Glengarry Glen Ross, Scent of a Woman, and now The Irishman are defined by his unfettered commitment, to be sure.

Another real person Pacino has been charged to portray is the teamster boss and mysterious American figure, Jimmy Hoffa, in Scorsese’s latest gangland epic The Irishman

“When you research Hoffa, there’s the books, there’s the good scripts, but there’s so much footage on everybody,” he explains. “So, you watch it, you study it, you think about it, you engage in it, and you really devote your time to that—who this guy is, and trying to absorb it. And the intensity of Hoffa is well-known. Also, his devotion to what he did. And the feeling that he was a visionary.” And perhaps most considerably, Pacino says of Hoffa, “He was fighting for something he believed in.” 

Not surprisingly, Al Pacino has already won the Best Supporting Actor trophy for the Hollywood Film Awards, and he is said to be in Oscar contention for his latest no-holds-barred performance. 

The Haven of Theater

September 29, 2011

Many successful actors say when they found theater arts they found a haven.

When you first see Crash’s Thandie Newton, it is easy to assume with her stately exotic beauty, talent, and successful career that she always had it easy. However, Newton describes the painful experience of growing up in two distinct cultures and never feeling like she belonged. Challenged with issues of identity, she was able to find peace by “plugging into” various character roles, and being in the moment when she joined the theater.

At 17 years of age, Al Pacino was bored and unmotivated in school, even to the point of flunking most of his classes. But Pacino found a haven in school plays, and this sanctuary compelled him to commit to acting classes and pursue auditions despite dropping out of school. His newfound passion helped sustain him through a period of depression and poverty. In the midst of all the turmoil of his early life, the peace he found onstage proved to be a strong foundation for his prolific acting career—one of the most successful in cinema history.

In theater, it’s not only safe but actually required for the players to fully embrace and freely express human vulnerabilities—those which the world often expects people to mask or numb. Actors must deeply expose their emotional framework without shame or judgment through the vehicle of another person’s point of view or character.

Brene Brown–who studies human connection, including our ability to empathize, belong, and love—calls vulnerability the birthplace of belonging, love, joy, and creativity.

Expressing vulnerability is critical for human connection. This is the heart of theater arts.

Watch Brown speak about her inspirational findings about vulnerability here.