PARK CITY, Utah-- "Somebody asked me today, do I like acting?" Al Pacino was saying. "That stopped me. I had never been asked that." What did you say?
When don't you like it?
"When I'm not working. Bogart was like that. After every picture, he thought he would never work in the movies again. Well, right now, I don't have a single movie on the books. Does that mean I will never work again?"
Unlikely. Pacino at 62 works in what he wants, when he wants, moving back and forth between movies and the stage. "The only problem is, I don't have the appetite to make my own pictures. I don't want to direct. So I'm always in a kind of passive position, waiting for someone to come to me with a project. That I sort of don't like."
We sit in a meeting room of the Yarrow Inn, sipping our coffees. He is dressed in a black suit and black sweater, his hair an electric riot, his eyes framed by lines of worry and humor. Unlike many actors who have been so famous for so long, he is unwound and approachable; in conversations he likes to listen, is content to be there, is not looking for openings or recycling sound bites.
It is the day after the Sundance premiere of "People I Know," in which he plays an exhausted, strung-out New York press agent, a man torn between compromise and idealism, using drugs like M&Ms. It is a carefully tuned and perceptive performance, in which the character descends into a long night of drugs and is finally so tired and confused, he doesn't know if he has witnessed a murder, or not. Later, when he's stabbed, he misses that, too.
The performance walks a tightrope between the character's willingness to cover up a scandal of his last remaining client, and his determination to lure celebrities to a benefit for one of his own liberal causes. The character is said to be inspired by Bobby Zarem, an omnipresent and much beloved New York publicist, although the drugs and the plot are fiction. "I've known Bobby a long time," Pacino says. "I don't know if he even drinks." He has listened to him so closely that if you know Zarem and you close your eyes, it sounds like Bobby's voice from the screen.
The movie, written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Dan Algrant, is about the passing of a way of life for the free-lance press agent, planting his clients' names in gossip columns one day and trying to keep them out the next. "I don't think," observed Pacino's own famous publicist, Pat Kingsley, "that I would like to have this movie be made about me." But Kingsley is at the top of her field and heads a big agency, and Eli Wurman, the Pacino character, works out of his rumpled suit and cluttered office, badgering a hapless young man who works for him: "Do you have Regis for the benefit! Call Regis!" ("But, Eli, it's past midnight...")
Eli's client (Ryan O'Neal) assigns him to bail out a famous model (Tea Leoni) and get her on a private jet to whisk her out of town and trouble, but the two end up at a millionaire's sex and drugs orgy, after which the evening descends into confusion. What is fascinating about the structure of the story is that the fate of the model and the danger to Eli are all held beneath the surface; Eli is so intent on his benefit and so spaced out that he never quite focuses on the immediate situation.
"I like that about the movie," Pacino said. "There was an earlier draft in which the crime stuff was more in the foreground, but no, this isn't a crime movie, it's about Eli's personality. He has a key line: 'I just can't stop.' This is what he does. He knows people. He fixes things. He's got his causes. Maybe he's gay, but he's never explored that possibility. He just keeps moving."
Kim Basinger plays the widow of Eli's brother, who is worried about his health (so is his Dr. Feelgood physician, played by Robert Klein). She offers him a refuge on her Virginia farm, no strings attached, but can Eli stop running?
"When we were getting ready to make the movie, I said it had to be made cheaply," Pacino said. "It's that kind of film. Close to the bone. I was even thinking it might be good to shoot it on digital and blow it up, to give it a kind of immediate feel. There's an edge that you get."
Pacino works both sides of the fence, with big and little budgets. His next release will be Roger Donaldson's "The Recruit" (opening Jan. 31), where he plays the CIA boss of young operative Colin Farrell. Then comes a project done for love, not money: the HBO mini-series "Angels in America," with Pacino as the powerful lawyer Roy Cohn, a gay-bashing, closeted homosexual.
Pacino is "one of the greatest of all movie stars" (it says so on the Internet Movie Database), but these days he uses his stardom to open doors to non-star kinds of acting.
"After I won the Tony Award for 'The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,' I got up there without any kind of a speech prepared, and I found myself saying: 'I am grateful to the theater, which made the movies possible for me, and now I am grateful to the movies, which make theater possible for me.' "