Film: Looking for Al Pacino

Following his flirtation with Shakespeare, the Godfather of Mafia movies returns to the Mob in his latest film, 'Donnie Brasco'. Has he played one too many wise guys? Maybe. But, as he tells Lesley O'Toole, he was born to play the part
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If only voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures could have let Al Pacino hang in a little longer before proffering that long- overdue Best Actor statuette. But his taciturn Scent of a Woman character was blind and they do so love a disability when it comes to allocating votes. Had they waited, Pacino would probably have won next year for his latest role as the ageing Mafia hitman Lefty, who gives his all for one last stab at promotion in the essentially true story, Donnie Brasco.

If Pacino has seen it all before, so, of course, have we. But neither British director Mike Newell nor young American buck Johnny Depp have ever been part of the Mafia picture. Nevertheless, the young actor, in tandem with Newell, helped elicit from Pacino a performance as understated as it is masterful.

Donnie Brasco is an alias for Joe Pistone, a hotshot young FBI agent who inveigled his way into inner-sanctum Mafia circles in the Bronx at the expense of the people who had taken him into their confidence and hearts. The FBI took the ringleaders to court and a high-profile New York trial ensued. Lefty is an amalgam of several of the characters whom Pistone came to know. Back in the Eighties, when Stephen Frears and then Barry Levinson were mooted as directors for Donnie Brasco, it was Pacino who was being earmarked for the Brasco/ Pistone part.

Pacino, though, will be 57 tomorrow. "And you just sort of get these signals in yourself and from other people that certain things are not going to happen. I was going to play Modigliani for a long time but we never got the right script together and then I read it the other day and realised it was past me. It's over. This is really a new feeling for me." With Lefty, though, he was on familiar ground, playing an angst-ridden wise guy with more than his fair share of personal problems but a large heart. Pacino, however, insists that all his underworld characters are unique. "I've played more bad guys than cops but they're all different. The guy from Serpico and the guy from Sea of Love are in the same sort of world but they're different."

Although he admits he's been around this territory several times, he was intrigued by Lefty's struggles to make it day to day. "I think there are things in his struggle that civilians outside of the underworld can relate to. We can see a lot of his needs and frustrations in ourselves. That's what I latched on to, that and the subsequent sort of father-son relationship with Johnny which I thought was an interesting element in this milieu."

Even given his familiarity with the mafia genre, Pacino insists it was "Newell who educated me" and not, as one might expect, vice versa. It was Newell who made the contacts and played cards with the people he was making a film about.

When I ask Pacino if he came up with his own contacts for the film or has a regular man on the inside he can consult when yet another mafia role comes up, he circumvents the question and launches into a spiel, albeit an amusing one, about visiting East Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie in 1980. "I was amazed that they all just knew me. And I guess that's the thing. Actors have access. People let us in and allow us to watch and observe. We are, as Shakespeare called us, the chroniclers of our time." He then adds, "You are a chronicler of our time too, but I guess they keep out reporters!" When pressed again about his access in mafioso circles, he demurs and says, "Oh, I leave that up to the producers."

Pacino met Johnny Depp for coffee before filming began and there began a bond he had never previously enjoyed with a younger actor. "We've become friends," he claims, rather proudly. "He made me laugh all the time. People often say that about people they work with but I truly found working with him a joy. He's just fun to be around."

He applies this desire for fun to the choices he makes about which parts to play. "When you're searching and figuring out who a character is going to be, that's both the real fun and real creative part. And this goes back to the question of why I play these characters again and again. When you do the same character it becomes that character in another situation. But on each occasion, you find out who you are going to be and whether he stimulates you enough to really want to do it again."

Lefty, he says, was "so beautifully etched" that it was actor-proof. "Any actor who had a feeling for this kind of thing could have played it."

One of the quirky devices used by Newell was to bring an unhappy, kidnapped lion on set. I suggest to him that perhaps the appearance of such an unruly beast in the script may have put some actors off the role. "You know, I looked at this lion and thought it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. And then they said, 'You've got to walk it, Al.' I said, 'What about security?' And they replied, 'Well, we're here, you're here, the lion's here - and it's got a chain." "The crew were saying, 'I wouldn't want to do it, you know, but it's in the script.' "

A trainer took one end of the chain and then, when the lion wasn't looking, handed it to Pacino. "There was some boy on the side but there was nobody with a gun, just this huge lion at the other end of a chain who didn't know I was there. And I'm thinking, 'What if the lion just turns and sees me?' " Pacino's face, even while regaling the tale, is panic-stricken.

"And then it pulled a little bit and I felt something I'd never felt. What's that movie about with all those things? Tornados or something? Well, it was my first tornado and it only pulled about a centimetre. I numbed up. But eventually they didn't use the scene. I tried and tried to get Mike to put it in but he didn't. He finally decided that nobody would believe that Lefty would be out walking with the lion. But I thought he was wrong."

There is more than a hint of a wind-up about the whole lion incident. Perhaps it was simply Newell and the crew staging a little light relief. If Pacino was duped, he doesn't seem to mind, and is more than happy to laugh at himself. Asked to describe how he imagines cinema audiences perceive him, he says, "As one of the guys that was around in the Seventies."

As his own heroes, Pacino cites the likes of Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando and James Dean. I ask how it feels to have his name dropped repeatedly as an influence by Depp's generation. "Well, I'm flattered to hear that. I never thought that was so but if that's out in the street, well, yes, I'm flattered."

On the subject of Hollywood's portrayal of Italian-Americans as simply gangsters or violent characters Pacino is cagey. "I look at the material, the story, the entertainment value and I can tell you this film doesn't seem to be pushed by violence," he explains. "Of course, we romanticise exotic figures outside the law and outside society. But Lefty is a guy with dreams and aspirations and is almost a prototype for anyone sharing the same kind of predicament, albeit in the more accepted legal world."

While admitting that he's been typecast - "but then I look the part of an Italian-American" - Pacino's mafia roles have now surely come full circle.

He had never before played what Newell called a "soldier", one of the low-level men who aspire to become the Michael Corleones. If he's disappointed not to have won his Oscar for a Godfather or Scarface, he certainly doesn't show it.

"You know, it's not about deserving it, it really isn't. It just was my turn and it was wonderful. The feeling you have afterwards is hard to describe because people keep coming up and congratulating you so that keeps it afloat. I have never experienced anything like that ever. It was like winning something at the Olympics. I never won anything in a sporting event, though."

The Godfather is being re-released in America this month and a flurry of written treatises on the film's timeless excellence has appeared, not to mention a spectacular ad campaign.

This news seems to have passed Pacino by. "Am I still in it?" he asks ironically. He is now now half way through filming Devil's Advocate with Keanu Reeves. "I'm playing the head of a law firm, who's... a gangster. No! Joking! Joking!".

'Donnie Brasco' opens 2 May