Al Pacino

The Merchant Of Venice

Interviewed by Stephen Applebaum

“It would be hard to play a character you don't like ”

Al Pacino began life as a theatre actor and in his acclaimed documentary, Looking for Richard, revealed his love for Shakespeare. He now tackles one of the Bard's most controversial characters, Shylock, in Michael Radford's star-studded version of The Merchant Of Venice.

What attracted you to the problematic role of Shylock?

I felt Michael Radford had created a role that captured a certain human condition and that could reflect a human experience. That to me was important, because there's been controversy over this type of material throughout the years. Michael Radford's script addressed that, and as soon as I read it I thought, 'Now I can do The Merchant Of Venice'.

Do you like Shylock?

It would be hard to play a character you don't like - for me anyway - or can't find something in them to like. I got a lot of help from Michael Radford. Together we tried to figure out the back-life of Shylock and what led him to his state when the movie opens and how he got to where he is now. Of course, when you do that you're likely to come across stuff that is relatable to our life. With Shylock he was alone, his wife died recently, he was a victim of an abusive life, of a restricted life, and he had a daughter that he loved. Generally, the tone of his psyche was, I think, sad and despairing. It was in his nature but also it was activated by the world around him. Of course it was really agitated by the flight of his daughter, I think. So it was trying to find things that justified his behaviour, really. That's what I spent a good deal of my time trying to connect to.

What's the difference between doing Shakespeare on stage and on film?

Because it was written for the stage, there's a tendency to project and try to reach the second balcony. But in film one needs to condense that, break it down, to make it work for the frame. Michael Radford is really an expert in that area and was absolutely responsible, I believe, for our performances - at least mine. He helped me through the times when you would want to project, especially in the part of Shylock, and he turned it into a movie performance. I do believe, and I will always believe, that Shakespeare on film is really something that should be tried more often because it is an opportunity to take the humanity that Shakespeare writes into characters and express it.

You're being tipped for an Oscar race with this performance. How do you feel about that? Also, what other Shakespearean roles would you like to do on film?

There are a lot of roles in Shakespeare, basically. If I feel that the script is a movie, I would be interested in doing any role of Shakespeare's. I have not thought about the Oscars until now, and it's a good thought, actually.

The Merchant Of Venice is released in UK cinemas on Friday 3rd December 2004.