Scrambled eggs with Al Pacino

What's it like to interview a Hollywood legend? Radio 4 producer Mark Rickards describes his meeting with Al Pacino

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Scrambled eggs with Al Pacino
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Broadcaster Mark Rickards has interviewed some of the biggest names in show business, from Dolly Parton to Little Richard. But his latest radio documentary Oscar and Al Pacino, about Pacino’s new film Wilde Salome, would take him to New York for lunch with the Hollywood legend himself. So how hard is it to get a face-to-face with Al?

The breakthrough

“It’s been a long and arduous road in many ways. It takes a long time to actually get someone like this to agree to take part. Al is quite shy. He doesn’t really like to do these kind of behind-the-scenes interviews, he likes the work to speak for him. So it was a real challenge.”

Mark’s starting point was to talk to the team behind Wilde Salome, Al Pacino’s docudrama about his theatre production of Oscar Wilde’s play, filmed over two intense weeks in Los Angeles in 2006 and premiered to standing ovations at the Venice Film Festival this September. And it was the movie’s producer Barry Navidi who gave Mark his first breakthrough.

“I met Barry in London and it was one of those strange situations whereby Al Pacino was actually in the same hotel. So, I‘m upstairs in Barry’s room doing the interview with him and I know Al Pacino’s downstairs and I’m desperately hopeful we’ll do the interview there and then.

“We went down to the foyer and Al came over and gave me a very warm handshake and said, ‘We’re definitely going to do this,’ but it wasn’t to be that day and I had to then wait to find out when the actual date would be set.”

A table for two

When the call finally came, Mark was told to head for a café in New York where Al would meet him at 3pm. Fully prepared for a retinue of minders, he was in for a surprise.

“One of the most amazing things about interviewing Al Pacino, and one of the most rewarding things, was that we met in a New York café and he came on his own. So my first sight of him was coming into a restaurant and it was a table for two.”   

How did the other customers react?

“A couple at the next table absolutely went nuts. The man stood up and said, ‘It’s only the best film actor in the world! It’s only the best film actor in the world!’ Other people were saying, ‘Sit down. Sit down,’ but the wonderful thing about Al Pacino is that he’s very warm and open towards his fans. He was more than welcome to shake hands, have his photograph taken with the chap and his wife and to play ball really. But Al appreciates that people like his work and so he’s willing to go that extra mile.”

Opening up

To kick-start the interview, rather than a list of questions, Mark had with him something he thought might spark the actor’s interest,

“I took a copy of the first imprint of Salome with me to show him, which has the Aubrey Beardsley illustrations. So we started the discussion actually looking at those and we very quickly got onto the fact that it was so extraordinary to have one playwright writing The Importance of Being Ernest and Lady Windermere’s fan and also Salome because Oscar Wilde is widely known for these society comedies and Salome is much darker.”

Pacino discussed how his almost obsessive fascination with Wilde’s one-act tragedy began with the character of Herod, who Pacino plays in the film, after having seen Steven Berkoff’s interpretation. One of Al’s comments that didn’t make the final cut of the radio show underlines the strength of this passion.

“I wanted to play it [Herod] no holds barred. I was inspired by Steven Berkoff and I just wanted to play it. I kept trying to get people to feel the same way I did about it and they just wouldn’t and I thought, I’ll try it one more time and make a movie of it.”

Love of the theatre

Although he had no expectations of getting a lot of time with Pacino, Mark’s meeting unexpectedly relaxed into a comfortable, two-hour conversation that went well beyond the original remit of the interview.

“He’s a very modest man but when you get to talk to him, he’s very open.”

Mark’s interest in Pacino’s other theatrically driven docudrama Looking for Richard, about Shakespeare’s Richard III, took the actor’s thoughts back to his early career on the stage.

“He felt that he looked back with very fond memories to his days in‘ the village’ (New York) when he was doing the off-Broadway productions, and the theatrical community that was always hugely supportive to him and hugely important. In a way, going back to the theatre and theatre productions is a way of reliving those days of new friendships made and a sense of a team working together.”

Vulnerability

Did the interview yield any surprises?

Mark recalls a moment of vulnerability when Pacino admitted, “I don’t really think of myself as a director.”

“He (Pacino) said at one stage, he’d watched another director on a movie set near the sea, and the director was down by the shore, looking out at the ocean.  The director was standing alone, trying to work out what to do, trying to work out where to put the camera. And Pacino said, ‘That for me is really difficult.’ There was almost an insecurity about being ‘that’ person, standing alone and knowing where to put the camera.”

With enough material to make two programmes, Mark finally switched off his microphone and “we ended up talking about our sons. We shared anecdotes about stop-motion filming with our children with Lego figures.”

Relaxed for radio

Could this interview have been done for television in the same way? Probably not, Mark feels:

“If we were doing it for television - Al Pacino probably wouldn’t have wanted to do it - but there would have to be a film crew. We would have to have done it completely differently. For radio, it’s a matter of sitting in a café with a small, hand-held recorder, having a chat. You get different material because of the informality of radio.”

And for those fans who need every detail, what did Al have for lunch?

“Scrambled eggs.”

Oscar and Al Pacino will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 14 November, 4pm.