Al Pacino tackles another controversial role as Penn State’s Joe Paterno. “We never really know him,” admits the actor, who remains — in his words — “a sucker for the challenge.”
If it's axiomatic that actors must be able to defend their characters, Al Pacino has once again set a high bar for himself, this time with the title role in HBO's Paterno.
The film reenacts the explosive sex abuse scandal that rocked Penn State's football program and campus in 2011. Discovery of the scandal led to the imprisonment of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno after 45 years on the job.
Paterno, it was said, hadn't done enough to stop or report Sandusky's longtime misdeeds, which, it was alleged, he must surely have known about. Familiarizing himself with the scandal, Pacino says, left him "distressed." He adds: "I guess I went through those stages of grief — first denial, then anger.…"
He came away from the project (which debuted April 7 and available on demand, on HBO Go and HBO Now) with mixed feelings about "JoePa": seeing him on the one hand as a "savant" whose obsessive focus on the game burdened him with a kind of tunnel vision, while also recognizing there were "things he understood and chose not to understand" about the horrific events taking place around him. "He's a complicated character," Pacino concludes.
That kind of complexity has long been a hallmark of Pacino's career, from the eponymous renegade cop of 1973's Serpico, to Sonny, the hopelessly conflicted would-be bank robber of Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and, of course, to Michael Corleone in the Godfather saga.
With Paterno, the 77-year-old actor has notched a triptych of HBO biopics on problematic living legends. First came 2010's You Don't Know Jack, about assisted-suicide pioneer Dr. Jack Kevorkian, which netted Pacino a lead-actor Emmy. Next came the title role in Phil Spector (2013), about the music producer who became a convicted murderer. Even before these roles, Pacino had won an Emmy for his performance as villainous attorney Roy Cohn in the network's 2003 adaptation of Angels in America.
"I feel as though I'm a studio player, like in the old days," Pacino says of his work with HBO. Regarding his penchant for controversial figures, he notes, "Their lives are spectacularly interesting, and what happened to them is profound, so you say, 'Well, let's see how that can be done.' Sometimes I'm a bit of a sucker for the challenge."
One of the challenges of Paterno, he says, was to find a palatable tone for such an unsettling tale. For that, he turned to Barry Levinson, with whom he first worked on the 1979 drama …And Justice for All (Levinson cowrote the Norman Jewison film) and who later directed You Don't Know Jack.
"We're dealing in the medium of entertainment, and yet Barry brings a certain experimentation to it," Pacino explains. In Paterno, he says Levinson "does some beautiful stuff, things that make you feel like he is in it, like he's a young auteur. But he's not young. But he is."
That auteurist touch is evident in the film's opening, which shows a blurry Paterno shuffling down a hospital hallway, and also in its treatment of Paterno's 2012 death from lung cancer. Pacino acknowledges the message of these bookending scenes:
"We never really know him, or know exactly what he knew and how he felt about it." Ultimately, he says, "You see a man defeated — by his conscience, his lack of understanding or need to look away. Human things, of course." Pacino closes on a hopeful note. "In the end, the victims' tragedy trumps whatever the why, how, who and what Paterno was going through," he says.
"How do we take on the responsibility so that it doesn't happen again? If the film succeeds at anything, let's hope it succeeds at that."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2018