People I Know
Ebert didn't write a review of "People I Know" because it never opened
in Chicago. But after he saw it at Sundance, he spoke with Al Pacino.
Here is that interview
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
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 Robert Baitz and directed by Dan Algrant, is
about the passing of a way of life for the freelance 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
Eli's client (Ryan O'Neal) assigns
him to bail out a famous model (Tea Leoni) to 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 death 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," Pacino said, "I said it had to be made cheaply. 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, big and little budgets. His next
release will be Roger Donaldson's "The Recruit," where he plays the CIA
boss of young operative Colin Farrell. Then comes a project done for
love, not money: The HBO miniseries "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 Pablo 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