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Al Pacino on Greta Gerwig, Burger-Flipping and Barry Levinson’s ‘The Humbling’

In “The Humbling,” one of his two new movies (along with “Manglehorn”) having their North American premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, Al Pacino plays a legendary actor in career freefall. But talk to Pacino for a while about his characters and his craft, and it’s clear that one needn’t harbor any concerns about life imitating art.

When he first read the script for “The Humbling,” which was adapted by Buck Henry and Michael Zebede from the Philip Roth novel, Pacino called the movie’s director, Barry Levinson, and told him he thought the only way to play the role was to find the humor in it. “I can’t help it: it struck me as funny,” Pacino recalls over lunch at Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. “This idea of an actor who’s been doing this his whole life wanting to quit because he’s lost his talent and he wants to now go out and live the life that passed him by. It just made me chuckle. I don’t know why.

“Of course, I see the tragedy in it too, because one has to get into what it is that makes this guy lose his appetite, because we know we need appetite in life.”

Jet-lagged and suffering from an allergy attack after flying in from the Venice Film Festival, Pacino reaches for his sunglasses. “I may put these on from time to time, because I’m tearing up,” he says. “I have this allergy and it’s coming and going, and now I’m crying. If you’re interested in why, it’s not you. Not yet.”

Between Pacino and his “Humbling” character, Simon Axler, there are certain similarities. The actor admits that when he appeared on Broadway in the 2012 revival of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” in the role Jack Lemmon had played in the film version 20 years earlier (where Pacino played a different role), he began the run under-rehearsed and without knowing all his lines. “Somehow I felt because I’d been in the film…but no, this was an entirely different person,” he says. “I just feel…I can admit things. I know what I need. You’re not being a harsh critic of yourself if you go on stage and you haven’t gotten your words yet.”

Indeed, the 74-year-old Pacino says it’s rare in his nearly 50-year career that he’s ever had the amount of time he truly desires to get into a character. He speaks lovingly of a workshop of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” he did at the Actors Studio in New York a dozen years ago, where he and co-star Dianne Weist devoted themselves to the play for seven straight months. Ditto his lauded Tony-nominated Broadway run as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” in 2010 — a role he’d previously developed for a 2004 film version.

“I thought I was able to reach a certain level there, simply because I had the time,” he says. “I had the time to come up with something. I had been doing it long enough, so I had no thought at all, except that I knew the words inside. And that’s what you learn them for: you learn them to unlearn them, the way ballet dancers go on stage and leap in freedom, because they can, because they’ve done all that training.”

But rehearsal periods on movies are rare, and so Pacino works on his own, usually in a room of his Beverly Hills home he calls “the bunker,” and sometimes out in the real world, as when he immersed himself in the milieu of New York diners for his role as a short-order cook in 1991’s “Frankie and Johnny,” opposite Michelle Pfeiffer.

“I sat in there, watched them, got to know them,” he says. “I did it for a couple of days, that all. And the memory of it, what sticks, is what I’ll use. Maybe one guy likes to chop a certain way, and I really like that in my mind, but that’s not what I end up doing. I end up flipping the burger the way this other guy did, because that’s what stayed with me. That’s how I work. It’s connected to time, because the longer I do it, the better it is for me.”

By the way, Pacino says, he really got to like being a short-order cook. “My fantasy was doing it, but only lunches! It’s crazy. You’re so busy. It’s like sleigh riding. You don’t have time to think. You’re going down that snow and the rush of it is so exciting. The time just flies by!”

For most of his career, Pacino thought of himself as a man of the theater, and despite all his iconic roles in the New Hollywood masterpieces of the 1970s (“The Godfather,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Panic in Needle Park,” “Scarecrow”), only really began to love movies when he took a four-year hiatus from acting in them in the late 1980s — a period of time he spent making own directorial debut, “The Local Stigmatic” (1990), a 52-minute film adapted from the play by British writer Heathcote Williams.

When he returned, with the 1990 hit “Sea of Love,” it was largely at the behest of his then-partner, Diane Keaton. “I’d probably be a short-order cook right now if it wasn’t for Diane,” he recalls. “I’d become kind of detached from everything and I was enjoying a life out of the mix. She’s the one who found ‘Sea of Love’ and told me I should do it. She said, ‘You’re not on the A-list anymore, buddy. Are you going to go back to living in a rooming house? You’ve been rich too long. You’re an adult now.’”

Pacino has stayed steadily at work ever since. Whereas, in the ‘70s, he only made eight movies in the entire decade, he’s now made that many just since 2010. In addition to his two Toronto premieres, already in the can is Dan Fogelman’s “Danny Collins,” where he plays an aging rock musician opposite Jennifer Garner and Michael Caine; and just ramping up is “Happy Valley,” a reunion movie with his “Scarface” and “Carlito’s Way” director Brian De Palma in which he’ll play embattled Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. “It’s dangerous,” Pacino says of the project. “So one has to understand it, what happened, and explore it and try to find the tragedy in it.”

He admits he’s made his share of poor choices along the way. “I don’t regret anything, but I have made mistakes when I went to work not because I had any connection to what I was doing, but because it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Now, he’s more inclined only to do those things that truly interest him, which means less studio fare, more indies like “The Humbling” and “Manglehorn,” whose writer-director, David Gordon Green, first met Pacino to discuss making a TV commercial together.

“And for some reason, he went home and wrote a movie for me,” Pacino says — a movie about a withdrawn, mild-mannered Austin locksmith who pines for the long-lost love of his life, even as he begins a hesitant new romance with a local bank teller (Holly Hunter). Together, they share a dinner scene that’s one of the best things both actors have ever done on film: a long, wistful monologue about the woman he loved and lost, which Pacino recites without realizing the pain he’s inflicting on Hunter’s own fragile self. “It’s worth having done the picture just for that scene,” says Pacino. “Holly Hunter is so marvelous.”

He also has high praise for his “Humbling” co-star Great Gerwig, whom he calls “an amazing actress. Not since Jessica Chastain [Pacino’s co-star in his 2011 directing effort “Wilde Salome”] have I seen someone walk in with something like this, where you just go, ‘Wow.’ There was such originality, the way she stepped into it. We immediately locked. Something connected in that way.”

In short: don’t look for Al Pacino behind the lunch counter anytime soon. In addition to his film projects, he’s also working on a new Mamet play and says he’ll always return to the stage when he has a chance. “Why would I ever not want to continue doing this?” he says. “It’s a lucky charm.”

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