Paterno: Interview with Al Pacino, Star of HBO Show of Sex Scandals, April 7

On March 31, 2011, the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania ran a story, headlined: “Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State football staffer, subject of grand jury investigation.”

The investigation revealed sexual abuse dating back decades and a cover-up. Sandusky, the former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator, was found guilty of molesting 10 boys; 3 university administrators were sentenced to prison for child endangerment; and legendary head coach Joe Paterno was fired, two months before dying from lung cancer.

The two weeks that followed Sandusky’s November 4, 2011 indictment are the subject of a new HBO movie, Paterno, which airs April 7.

Oscar winner Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman) plays Paterno, and Oscar winner Barry Levinson (Bugsy, Rain Man) directs.

Interview with Pacino

Connection with the Role:

Al Pacino: t was an opportunity to play a tragic character, one who has thrown at him all of these things and has to cope in this world that he is in, and deal with what has happened.  It was HBO that came to me, I have a relationship with them and I have done films for them, and they thought that this would be something that I would be interested in and should do.  That was five years ago, and so you go through all the incarnations of the thing until finally, there were a couple of scripts, trying to find the right texture and world in order to do this film. It took time, and I didn’t think we were going to do it and I don’t think they thought we were going to do it.

Director Barry Levinson

AP: I had a conversation with Barry Levinson, who I am very close to and who made quite a few things with, and we started talking it. He had an instant read on it and he really sensed what it was and it connected for him, which is always kind of great with a director.  He went off and took care of the rest.  He wrote the script, he got it together and the ideas started to flow and he came back and we got together and went to HBO and they said, let’s do it.

Relevant but Scary Subject

AP: It’s disturbing, let’s put it that way, more than depressing, it’s disturbing.

Fear for his Own Children

AP: You are always worried, whether it’s with the help with you have, if you have help with the school.  Yes, but not to the point where it was, I mean, everyone that worked in my household was always screened and I am fortunate that it never happened.  I have three children and it never happened with my children.  It’s when it’s microcosm, and it gets pointed and focused like it was at that particular school.  When you look at the averages, it’s not going to happen to your kids.  But it’s the averages, you never go by that. But so far I have been lucky,  But it’s not as much at the back of your mind as other things like drugs.  So you are not thinking of that. It is out there and it happens.  Part of this film, part of the whole point of it, is it brings and heightens awareness.  And once awareness is heightened, you get a third eye.  You can’t help it, you develop a third eye.  And I think that’s part of this film.  If it’s not even recognized in the place that it was actually happening, at Penn State, it wasn’t fully recognized or fully understood as to the disaster of it, the fact that it’s so harmful and dangerous, that it wasn’t quite understood.  I think more and more as we become enlightened to this, we see that it’s out there as is so many other things.

Coach Paterno

AP: In this film, even the coach Paterno had difficulty with accepting it, understanding it.  I really don’t know what the actual Paterno went through, I can only imagine, because as we do these things, when we play roles that really happened, there’s a sense of always feeling that it’s a bit revisionist.  So we are reliving a thing, but at the same time, we weren’t there.  So I think even his family had difficulty with it.  He himself, I don’t know why, except I had to interpret the role that was written, the part that I was given to play, which goes through the various stages I guess, from being angry, being in denial of it, getting depressed about the situation, getting angry about it, feeling remorse and guilt for not recognizing that this was going on to such a disturbing degree.  So this is all part of who this character was, and the way I played him is.  And I think with the help of Barry Levinson, I was able to go through this more freely and try to just go with the flow in a sense and deal with what the situation was, and knowing that I had Barry there to be a guide and also a censor for me, so I was allowed to play it.  And it’s a complex person, sometimes, as I have said before, he actually goes through all these things within the same scene.  And how the audience identifies with it is how they sense who it is.  And at the end, I guess the feeling is pretty much, I would imagine, is one of being looking at this and trying to figure this out yourselves and being disturbed at such a thing happening, and the ending itself, the very last scene, which I hope we don’t announce to the world, I think says a lot.  It gives you a real punch.  And, that’s part of Barry Levinson’s vision.  And so you are really left with this event.


Going to the Movies as Boy:

AP: I remember totally when my mother used to take me to the movies, I was just three, four, five years old.  That was me and I would see movies.  I remember my mother taking me to see “The Lost Weekend,” with Ray Milland at five.  I guess all bets were off with my mother.  She worked and she wanted to be with her baby and she wanted to see a movie.  And I saw that film and I was so affected by it, in a way that I would really do this when I saw all films that my mother took me to. We didn’t have TV so we had these movies she took me to.  I would go home and enact all the parts in the movie that I saw.  I would play all the roles, I was able to do that at that age. I am glad I don’t have to do that anymore, I just get one role and that’s enough. But at the time I remember, playing the Ray Milland part, where I loved the scene in there where the bottle of booze, he left it somewhere when he was sober, and he left it somewhere when he was drunk I guess.  But now he needs it because he’s sober and he needs more drink.  And he can’t remember where he put it.  And that scene, when he starts searching the house, well I would do that scene sometimes for relatives, if I was visiting someone and they would say, go, sonny, do the scene from “The Lost Weekend.” And I would do this scene of such intensity and the guy can’t find it.  And he’s going out of his mind and he is distraught beyond words and he has to find it.  And as I was doing it, my relatives would be laughing.  And I thought, this isn’t funny, why are they laughing?  Well it’s because I was five.  And so I only realized that recently, I was five, of course they were laughing!  It wasn’t my acting.

New Mediums: TV and Streaming:

AP: You go with the glow.  There seems to be things the way things go, when they come back again and they go this way.  They have been here for a long time, a certain kind of thing and it’s been taken over by cable television, the great ones like Netflix etc.  Netflix produced “The Irishman,” a movie I just made with Scorsese and DeNiro and Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannivale.  And we were doing this movie in New York with a lot of freedom.  And a lot of feeling of it being like a movie that we used to, films we used to do, it took six months and took eight, nine months a year to film, it was the same feeling.  But only it was done by a cable franchise.  And so there’s that and there’s television.  And there’s two kinds of television.  I could discuss this with you ad nauseum here about what is the difference between television that goes on and on and on, great acting and great writing, but it goes on and on.  So you take that and you then turn it into a two hour film that has a start, a middle and an end.  That is what I was always used to growing up as what this art form was about.  It was about a certain structure, you went to it, you built to it, and it ended.  And that isn’t what it’s about now as much if you know what I am saying.  And I still don’t know how I feel about that, I just don’t know. Because it’s like I sit there and watch things on cable, I haven’t gotten to streaming yet, I haven’t gotten to a computer yet, kids do all of that for me.  But I do feel that it’s, look I watch it and it’s great, and it’s an hour and it’s all the production and acting and writing in it I love.  But it goes on then and you have to see it again and again and again.  And that’s a whole other adjustment.


College Football as Economic Power

AP: I don’t know what that pressure is.  So I am always reluctant to comment on things I don’t really know about. But off the top of my head, I have played two football coaches, I am a fan of football.  I have always been.  The same thing with basketball in College, and receiving the money it generates etc, I don’t know the specifics.  All I know is that when Paterno was doing it, that he was a very pro education.  That was his big thing, was I graduated 85 percent of my players.  But the world is full of different ideas and ways, I don’t know the intricacies of that.  I would tend to think it gets confusing cause it’s massive, it’s absolutely massive.


Did he Know about Sandusky?

AP: Whether the real Paterno knew or not, I don’t know.  I can only answer for the character I played.  I think he had a vague sense that something was going on. And the character I played, I think was reluctant to get involved in things that he didn’t have full control of. He seems to me like a character who needed to own it and then dictate it because that is the character I was playing.  Because without that, he is not on firm ground, he’s got to ask questions and he would be reluctant to go ahead with something if he didn’t feel 100 percent sure.  He actually says in the scene with his son, I didn’t see it.  And now that is a very interesting note for this guy.  But I do think he was partially influenced by his own needs and I was working is what he says to his wife, when this guy was throwing his kids up in the pool.  I mean what does that say?  You have to think about that, everybody has to think about that.  You can’t point a finger at that, you have to think about it, before you point a finger.  His own kids in the pool, was he thinking about the Sandusky guy taking all these kids up in the pool?  I don’t think so.  I think he was working.  I think if he looked and somebody told him that, he would have, but you have to understand the kind of a person who encompasses all these things and with this devotion to work and focus.  He actually says, I was working, and she says, I knew you wouldn’t know, because you allowed the kids to go up and down the pool.  And he says, I wasn’t looking at the pool, I was working.  So that’s very revealing and there are these sections, these moments, that Barry Levinson has put together in the movie, which reveals certain things.  What it all adds up to I don’t know, except that punch at the end and I think that makes us all think and feel something.