Pacino’s process gets him in trouble to this day. Before I even bring up the subject, he mentions the controversy surrounding the revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. He’d played the role of hotshot salesman Ricky Roma to much acclaim in the film, but when he took on a different part in a new version of the play—the older, sadder, loserish salesman played by Jack Lemmon in the movie—there was trouble.
The other actors were not used to Al’s extended “process,” wherein he needs prolonged rehearsal time to find the character and often improvises dialogue. The rehearsal process stretched into the sold-out Broadway previews, sometimes leaving the other actors—who were following Mamet’s script faithfully—lost. Which led to what are often euphemistically termed “creative differences.”
Thus the “Civil War battlefield,” Pacino says with a rueful shrug, the “shrapnel flying.”
The fact that he uses the term “civil war” is not an accident, I think—it was an exposure of the lifelong civil war within himself about when the “process” has to stop. Ideally for Pacino: never. And it sounds like he’s still got PTSD from the Glengarry Glen Ross civil war, can’t stop talking about it.
“I went through some real terrors,” he says. He wanted to discover his character in the course of playing him, wanted him to evolve, but “I’m a guy who really needs four months [to prepare a theater role]. I had four weeks. So I’m thinking ‘Where am I? What is this? What am I doing here? And all of a sudden one of the actors on stage turns to me and says, ‘Shut the f--- up!’”
Pacino’s response: “I wanted to say, ‘Let’s keep that in. But I figured don’t go there....And I kept saying, whatever happened to out-of-town tryouts?”
The play reportedly made money but didn’t please many critics. Pacino nonetheless discovered something crucial with his process, something about himself and his father.
“It’s the first time in many, many years I learned something,” he says. “Sometimes I would just say what I was feeling. I was trying to channel this character and...I felt as though he was a dancer. So sometimes I’d start dancing. But then I realized—guess what, I just realized this today! My father was a dancer and he was a salesman. So I was channeling my old man.”
He talks about his father, whom he didn’t know well. His parents divorced when he was 2, and he grew up with his mother and grandmother in the South Bronx. And he reminisces about the turning point in his life, when a traveling theater group bravely booked what Pacino remembers as a huge movie theater in the Bronx for a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, which he saw with some friends when he was 14.
“And I was sitting with about ten other people, that was it,” he recalls.