LOS ANGELES — Al Pacino is wiped out. He's tirelessly promoting an independent film after hitting the red carpet circuit (or "syndrome," as he puts it) in the fall and he is, as ever, balancing a number of on-going projects, the most recent one being a David Mamet play written for him specifically. On top of it all, old rotator cuff injuries from his sporting days are acting up. But Pacino is a warrior. "No problem," he says after wincing from the pain. "I'll be fine."

Ostensibly we're talking about Barry Levinson's "The Humbling," which is angling for an Oscar-qualifying run this month. In the Philip Roth adaptation, Pacino stars as a famous actor who has, for lack of a better phrase, lost his mojo. It's a curious note in Pacino's filmography, fascinating for his commitment to the role, which he says spoke to him. In David Gordon Green's "Manglehorn," which premiered along with "The Humbling" at the Venice Film Festival and will be released in 2015, he plays a tactless locksmith who never got over the love of his life.

Both are intriguing choices for an actor who quite obviously could do anything he wants at this stage. And both had their separate challenges. Read through the back and forth below as Pacino and I chat about that, the democratization of the film medium and wariness of that "red carpet syndrome" I mentioned.

"The Humbling" begins its one-week qualifying run in Los Angeles tomorrow. It opens in theaters Jan. 23.


HitFix: So I want to talk about both "The Humbling" and "Manglehorn" here, because it's interesting. They almost feel like birds of a feather to me.

Al Pacino: Oh they are?

Yeah, just in terms of the characters being sort of outwardly unlikable.

Oh, that's too bad. I was trying to make them so likable! No, I'm joking. [Laughs.]

Well you certainly pull back layers and you give reasons to empathize, which is obviously your job as the actor. But was that part of the intrigue at all for you?

No, part of the intrigue — I think the thing I did, this thing I did that's coming out in March, "Danny Collins," that's a likable character. The script, written by Dan Fogelman, you could feel a lot of heart in it. These scripts, like when I read the book of "The Humbling," I was told to read it because it was something I might be interested in and I realized if you're going to make a movie, or be a part of a movie from its inception, that it's good if it's something you know, if it's a world you know. And I thought "The Humbling" was a world that I came out of, really. The familiarity with the subject and the world of it would help me to get a movie on, to go through the rigors of making a movie in that fashion. It's an appropriate age for me and the issues are absolutely something I can understand and relate to completely, so that's not quite true of "Manglehorn." It's a different thing. But "The Humbling" was something I felt that, if we did something and I made a connection to it — anyway, I purchased the book. So then I went in and got Barry Levinson, because I thought he'd be right for it and we talked about it. I knew we had to adapt it from the book, which means we had to give it more of whatever we know about the humor of that world. Barry felt the same way, that it needed humor to buoy it up. Because it's such a tragedy. It's so dark. But at the same time, we did find it funny. I remember the first time I read the book, I said, "This, to me, is funny. That an actor who has done this his whole life, suddenly wants to get out of it and become a real person. Or he thinks of people as real people and he's not a real person." So there was something that struck me about that.

Was that a feeling you sort of shared?

Oh, and Barry. Barry Levinson and I did. And we got Buck Henry to write it, and Buck can't think of any way to write but dark comedy. He's consumed by it. So we just let him go and Barry and him worked together, they worked apart, and they came up with this mixture, this hybrid of a script. But it became, to us, infinitely playable. It was something we can have fun with and at the same time relate to. It took us years. That's what usually happens with these things.

How long ago did you start on it?

Probably about four years ago. You read the book and you get the people and the waiting for the scripts to come and all of that. But during that time we talked about it and there was a few times we thought it wasn't going to happen. How do you do it? How do you get the money for it? Millennium came along and Avi Lerner came along and wanted us to pursue it, and again, it was not the usual kind of film for him either. Barry thought it would be good if we did it really independent, if we really went into that style. I was happy with that because little movies of my own, which was a pretty independent style of doing movies, on the run, what you can get when you can get it. I did it with "Looking for Richard," I did it with "Salomé," I did it with a few other movies on my own that I made that nobody's ever seen. I felt I could survive in that environment, and so did he. Once Avi Lerner gave us some money, we'd go and shoot in increments. Six or seven days, then we'd go away from each other for a few weeks, come back, shoot another five or six days, and actor availabilities, it's always difficult. Because we're not a commune when we come together to make movies. Everybody's separate. But we got 20 days of shooting in there. And when I was away doing something, Barry would edit. He's ever-changing, Barry Levinson. He's always doing something different in the movie, tries things.

Kristopher Tapley has covered the film awards landscape for over a decade. He founded In Contention in 2005. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London and Variety. He begs you not to take any of this too seriously.