At times it felt like an exit interview — the ultimate exit interview.
The details are still so surreal that when I tell people who was there, the words sound as though someone else had dreamed them: Al Pacino walked into the room. Then Christopher Walken walked in. Then we sat, had coffee, talked. About their lives, friendship, acting. Though mostly, we talked about age.
They agreed to do this, of course, because, one, they were in Chicago (in the fall, attending the Chicago International Film Festival) and two, they had a movie coming out, "Stand Up Guys," which opens nationally this week. Directed by Chicago native Fisher Stevens, it's something of an elegy to a generation of realism-minded actors who rose to fame in the early 1970s. It tells the story of a pair of aging wiseguys (Pacino and Walken) who decide to roar one last time. And to be honest, it's pretty terrible, almost a parody of its well-meaning intentions: "You look like (expletive)," Pacino says to Walken, who deadpans: "You look worse."
On the plus side, it does bring together for the first time two of the most familiar cadences in movie history. Three, if you count Alan Arkin, who has a small role. He was also in town for the festival. He was supposed to come with them, but when I arrived at the Peninsula Hotel, a publicist took me aside to apologize: "Alan is an old man and he's tired. Like, his friends? They have, like, walkers."
For the record: Arkin is 78. Walken is 69. And Pacino is 72. He arrived first, wearing sunglasses, a white T-shirt beneath a loose-fitting fall coat, most of his head swaddled by a large dark scarf. He curled into the corner of a couch and picked up his coffee cup and watched Walken make slow strides across the room — Walken is as lanky as Pacino is compact — sit, splay his arms along the rests of his chair and smile.
"Alan's not coming," Pacino said.
"Why?" Walken asked, surprised.
"How's your back?" Walken asked.
"Pretty good if I do the exercises," Pacino said.
"You know Woody Harrelson?"
"He does yoga. I told him I have trouble."
"I got a treadmill."
"Does it help?"
"I haven't gotten on it yet."
"But you just walk, Al. You walk slowly and watch TV."
They spoke in voices — vaguely bewildered (Walken), a growling sing-song (Pacino) — you can hear playing in your head. After a few moments, the door clicked and Fisher Stevens walked in and said hello.
"Where were you during shooting?" Pacino asked.
"I sat in my trailer and watched sports," Stevens said.
"I know a director who actually did direct that way," Pacino said.
"From the trailer," Walken said. "Oh, I know who you mean. Are you going to stay with us, Fish? Sit down. I would call Fish into my trailer and shut the door, and then I would ask Fish if he had sex the night before."
Stevens sat and sighed.
Walken turned to me, expectant.
I said I enjoyed listening to them. Walken laughed and said: "Still, I think you should ask me a question." I said OK, there is a very resonant line in "Stand-Up Guys," when Pacino says, "We're all still here." I asked if that line resonated with them as much as, say, it might for someone who grew up watching their pictures.
"Well, it resonated for me," Pacino said. "Because the dream is still here, and life is like a dream. I don't know what I mean, but things, situations, you see them repeating, resonating all the time at this age, slightly different each time. It's like, I carry this stuff with me all the time, everything that's happened, then suddenly there is a flash of memory, and it's right there again. Does any of that make any sense to you?"
Walken said: "Yes, Al, it does. I come from a show business family. My brothers and I were in show business at 5 years old. Still being here is like a miracle. Actors drop like flies. I am here 185 years later."
"Like flies," Pacino said.
"I saw John Gielgud in a play and he was in his 80s. For a long time, I looked younger than I was," Walken said. "That moment everything catches up, I don't know if it's happened. But you do remember the day your ass fell."
Pacino rolled with laughter. Then righted himself and said: "They call it ageism today! One time when I was younger, I remember I mentioned (Elia) Kazan to somebody. I said 'Wouldn't it be great to get Kazan?' They said he's too old to direct. I remember thinking, 'What the (expletive) does that mean? Too old?' I imagine it's out there (for me), but I have just been working a lot. I don't know if I feel age as much, but I remember years ago, talking to Fish about a play and he said to me, 'Oh, yeah, you play the father?' And I'm like, 'What the (expletive)? The father?' The play is the thing to us, not the age. If you play tuba, you go and play (expletive) tuba!"
Walken looked confused, then said: "The upside, Al, is you play uncles, grandfathers. It's new territory."
"People are coming to me to do Onassis," Pacino said. "There is a push to do Napoleon. I never played King Lear yet, but King Lear is nothing to sneeze at. I saw Chris recently do a reading of 'Romeo and Juliet.'"
"Which is interesting, Al," Walken said. "There are parts it's better to play when you're young. King Lear. You have to be young to get through it. Romeo. If you are Romeo's age, you have no experience yet."
"He's like 15, 16," Pacino said. "And I played him in my teens. I was terrible."
"I played him in my 20s and I was terrible."
They grew up an hourlong subway ride apart in New York, Pacino near the Bronx Zoo, Walken in Astoria, Queens. Pacino's catalyst was a teacher who told him to read the Bible in the school auditorium ("With verve and with gusto, and I didn't know what I was saying but I would give it a lot of gusto"); Walken's was his mother, a classic stage mother ("I doubt I would have stayed with acting if it wasn't for her, because kids at that age, they don't want to be in show business"). Walken went to the Professional Children's School on West 60th Street in Manhattan, and Pacino went to the High School of Performing Arts on West 46th Street.
Decades later, I said, does it bug them that, despite everything they accomplished in the intervening years — "The Godfather" and "The Deer Hunter" and "Serpico" and "Catch Me If You Can" and several million more, some classic, many forgettable — it all boils down to being known for playing a very specific type of person?
Is this all there is?
Walken said, "Movies are expensive things to make, and when you do something that people like, or don't like, it tends to stick. I made a couple of movies early on where I was, you know, twisted, and that stuck."
Pacino said: "That is so true, but I have never heard it put so succinctly and clearly. You don't even know it's happening. The material might be different but you find yourself playing similar roles. I have been doing things on HBO because of this. It's like a playground for me. Still, what you're saying, it's not like being typecast. It's more like — I call it the wheelhouse. Is this in my wheelhouse? You think of Bogart, Cagney, Edward G. Robinson — who was the best ever and thought of as a gangster, but quite the opposite of that."
Walken said: "A very cultured person. Robert Mitchum too. Very well-read. You know, I did once try to sink California into the sea with hydrogen bombs (in the James Bond movie 'A View to a Kill'). Those are the parts I get."
"But had you been James Bond, you would be getting those roles."
"I auditioned for 'Star Wars.'"
"And I was offered 'Star Wars'! Because I had made successful films, so they offered me 'Star Wars.' I gave Harrison Ford his career! (Pacino laughs loudly.) Let me go on the record as saying that!"
"I auditioned with Jodie Foster for it! She and I read. She was Princess Leia and very young."
"I was offered Han Solo. I read it, and I'm like, 'What the (expletive) am I supposed to do with this?'"
You guys ever feel taken for granted, I asked.
"Well," Walken said, "I've been stinky."
"No," Pacino said.
"Yes, Al. Yes. I get lucky. Any given day, there are scenes I'm good or bad in."
"That's so comforting. We all feel like that, don't we? That sentiment, it's spot on," Pacino said. "I would prefer to stop making (movies). I don't know. Daniel Day-Lewis, a great actor, but I wish I could be as discriminating as he has been. Which has allowed him to work in a certain way. And he chooses well, and sometimes — and correct me if I'm wrong — actors get caught up in staying active because you never know when it will end."
"Paul Newman said, 'If I wanted to just make the movies I liked, I would work every five years.' And if your lifestyle allows you to do that, why not? But I like the action. It gets you out of the house and out of town."
"(It's been said that) to do this job you have to be sensitive and have the hide of a rhinoceros," Walken said.
"And what if you're a bull in your own china shop?"
There was a loud boom from the street. They turned, then turned back.
"The great thing about being an actor," Walken said, "if they want you, you keep going. (John) Gielgud, he was being thrown this big birthday party at 96. He said he couldn't go. He was shooting a movie. I like that."
"To die onstage! Literally, not figuratively. What could be better than that?"
Seriously? I asked. He sounded serious.
"What?" Pacino said, "And die in bed alone?"
Walken interrupted. "Fish," he said.
"Yeah?" Stevens asked.
"Fish, tell me: Did you have sex last night?"
"Yes, Chris, and it was good."
"But after we ate that big meal and everything? That's disgusting, Fish."
Pacino's face contorted with laughter. The coffee in his tiny porcelain cup sloshed over the side. "Oh, man, Fish," he said, "Why didn't we put this in the movie? Let's go back and let's shoot this. It's not too late."