Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn on the Actors Studio
On this small stage in Los Angeles, maybe 20 feet from a seat bearing his name at the Actors Studio West, Al Pacino talks about one of his earliest movies. There's a chance you've seen it. "I saw this film recently, it's why I can remember it," Pacino said. "For 25 years I didn't look at it, I didn't see it."
The scene, from "The Godfather," with Pacino as Michael Corleone, speaks volumes about Michael's mindset just hours after his father has been shot. He's cool, collected, yet capable of ruthlessness – all of it conveyed without saying a word. "The secret is the giveaways," Pacino said. "When the [other] guy is shaking, and [Michael] just lights the cigarette, and he is aware enough to discover that he's not shaking."
"Michael's self-discovery is happening with the audience's discovery," said Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.
Pacino agreed: "He's surprised, he notices it."
Getting to that point was a process for Pacino. Acting – his craft, his passion – is a constant education. "How to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! You can't just walk in," he said. "So, the same thing with the actor. There's one thing, to have the desire, which is the most important, the appetite to do it."
Pacino, and generations of actors, directors and writers, began whetting that appetite inside an unassuming brick building, a former church, on the West Side of Manhattan: The Actors Studio.
Pacino said, "This was our place to go to have that feeling of belonging to something, that you are a part of something, that what you had chosen to do with your life, which is so random and is so full of rejection, to have a place you could be accepted and then go to."
Consider the list of Actors Studio alumni: There's Paul Newman and James Dean, Sidney Poitier and Jane Fonda, Marilyn Monroe and James Baldwin, Jack Nicholson and Sally Field. That's merely scratching the surface.
Pacino is a co-president of the Actors Studio along with another Oscar-winner, Ellen Burstyn. Mankiewicz asked her, "What does this place mean to you?"
"Oh, God," she laughed. "It transformed me as an actress, but also as a person."
Founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford and Bobby Lewis, and for decades led by artistic director Lee Strasberg, the studio gives actors freedom to take chances, to experiment, and to allow creativity to blossom. At the heart of it all is an approach as famous as it is mysterious: the Method.
It has, said Burstyn, "revolutionized the business. It is a method of training the senses to respond to imaginary stimuli."
Pacino said, "As Ellen Burstyn says to you how she perceives the Method, I'm sure Harvey Keitel would tell you something different, Paul Newman would tell you something [different]. Everybody has their own approach to things, and they all can do it here."
The Method transformed acting in America. The New York theater crowd saw it first on Broadway in 1947, when "A Streetcar Named Desire" announced the electrifying arrival of one man, Marlon Brando.
Pacino said of the "Stella" scene, "If you isolate it, you will not see an actor; you will see a tornado."
"His performance changed everything?" asked Mankiewicz.
"It did. I would say he's the closest that I've ever seen to acting genius."
The Method is many things to many people. It's Daniel Day Lewis staying in character when the cameras aren't rolling; Robert De Niro becoming a real cabbie to prepare for "Taxi Driver"; and Nicole Kidman staying in character for five months on the Hulu show "Nine Perfect Strangers."
What the Method is really about is truthful acting.
Isaac Butler, author of "The Method: How the 20th Century Learned to Act," said, "In that post-war moment, you have this younger, rebellious generation that needs a way of speaking the truth. And the Method was very, very attractive to that younger generations that was feeling oppressed by the kind of conformity of the late 1930s, early '40s moment."
He pointed to a scene from the film "In the Heat of the Night," in which Lee Grant's character learns from Sidney Poitier that her husband is dead. "That's actually my favorite scene in the movie," Butler said. "There's others that are more famous. But that, for my money, is the best-acted scene in the whole movie. These two characters, they have a conflict that's playing out both internally and externally. Poitier's character needs to comfort this woman, he needs to get information out of this woman. But as a Black man in the South, he's also got to protect himself in that moment.
"Meanwhile, Lee Grant's character is overwhelmed with emotion. She does not want to show it to him. At the same time, she's a human being who's grieving; she needs comfort. And you see all of that conflict play out."
To become a member of the Actors Studio, applicants must endure multiple auditions. Once in, they're members for life. They pay no dues. But those auditions are grueling.
Just ask Justin Marcel McManus: "It took me two years," he said. "And just as soon as I got on the stage, I got it. I was, like, 'Yeah, this is what I need, to have a safe space to be around people who understand the work, all the legends who are here.' You can feel it when you go up to the stage. That lights something inside of you."
Oscar-nominated actress Carol Kane has dazzled audiences in both drama and comedy. She's been a member for nearly 50 years. "The thing that keeps coming into my mind over and over is permission to make mistakes," she said. "It's really rare that there's an environment which allows you the freedom to make mistakes and not be judged."
They don't call them classes at the studio; they're "sessions," where actors perform in front of other members, who then assess the work.
Pacino's first session was in front of the godfather of the actor's studio. "Lee Strasberg was the moderator," he recalled. "He looked at the card, and he saw on the card a guy named 'Al Pacino.' Nobody ever called me Al Pacino, because P-A-C-I-N-O is a silent ch, and nobody knows that unless you know the language. They say, 'Pakini,' 'Pasino,' yeah. And he pronounced it correct, and I said, 'He's got my heart.'"
For the first time in its 75-year history, the Actors Studio let "Sunday Morning" inside to document a session, moderated by Burstyn, with Justin Marcel McManus and Leland Gantt performing on stage. The sessions have been shrouded in secrecy, never before captured by an outside camera, until now.
Afterwards, Burstyn broke down the scene with McManus:
Burstyn: "Justin, how did it go for you?"
McManus: "It was successful."
Burstyn: "What does that mean?"
McManus: "I wanted to come in here, respect him, but also tell him how I felt."
Burstyn: "You kind of got what you came in for, and then, what were you doing for the rest of the scene?"
Burstyn: "You kind of jumped the gun on yourself."
McManus told Mankiewicz, "When you come here, you just work. You can work on whatever you want, and that's what I want. I want that freedom to just do anything. On TV or film, I'm gonna get cast as the 'handsome Black guy.' But here I could be a woman, I could be a dog! And it doesn't matter, because I'm doing it for a reason."
Burstyn: "It's so nice to see your work, Justin."
McManus: "Thank you."
Burstyn: "You have a beautiful future ahead of you."
Mankiewicz asked Burstyn, "Next 75 years. what's your sense of the future of this place?"
"It is an essential service to actors," she replied. "And I hope that the actors that have been trained by this generation will continue providing this service to the acting community, because it's essential."
Pacino said, "There was something about the Actors Studio which brought me [the feeling], 'I guess I've arrived. I belong in this world doing this. This is my community.'"
WEB EXTRA: Watch this extended interview with Al Pacino:
For more info:
- The Actors Studio, New York
- Actors Studio West, Los Angeles
- "The Method: How the 20th Century Learned to Act" by Isaac Butler (Bloomsbury), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound
- Justin Marcel McManus on Instagram
Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Ed Givnish.
for more features.