Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Film greats crave the stage

"You're a tightrope walker, and you have the wire up 100 feet," Al Pacino tells an audience at the Telluride Film Festival.

All the world's a stage, and some players make it into the movies. Switching to a different acting medium doesn't work for everyone.

For every Al Pacino or Angela Bassett, there are scores of Victor Garbers and Patti LuPones: outstanding stage performers who never quite adjust to performing for a camera after playing to the rafters of legitimate theaters.

Funny, though, that so many film actors rush back to the stage when their careers are secure. The money and perks of stage work aren't comparable to those in Hollywood, and the daily grind of stage engagements is tougher.

Established Hollywood stars have chosen that option with regularity, especially on Broadway. Oscar winner Kevin Spacey moved theatergoers as Hickey in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, while Magnolia co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly swapped roles nightly in a revival of Sam Shepard's True West. Glenn Close, Nicole Kidman and Jessica Lange also have wowed Broadway in recent years.

Those actors didn't need the jobs, yet somehow craved them. Pacino credits this to the daredevil attraction of live theater.

"You're a tightrope walker, and you have the wire up 100 feet," Pacino philosophized earlier this month at a panel discussion of stage and screen acting at the Telluride Film Festival.

"You start going across, and if you get shaky, you have to either get to the other side or go back again and start over, which you certainly don't want to do. That's theater.

"Movies are like the same thing, only the wire is on the floor.

"In films, there are other chances to get a performance right. But anything can happen on the stage. You get used to that adrenaline thing the theater has. All kinds of chemicals start to work for you in your body. You can start to miss it. You want to get back to that kind of feeling, 100 feet up there."

Pacino and others, including Bassett, Willem Dafoe and Stellan Skarsgard, conceded that performing on film provides a safety net. Everyone has a mark to hit, a properly angled camera, and extra takes if mistakes need to be concealed.

But those factors can limit an actor.

Pacino made an name for himself on- and off-Broadway in the late 1960s in The Indian Wants the Bronx and Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? The performances earned him his first screen lead, as a heroin addict in The Panic in Needle Park.

Pacino also got his first lesson in the creative differences between stage and screen.

"I never wanted to know where the camera was going to be," Pacino said. "I didn't want anything to keep me from doing things the same way I did them on stage. That doesn't work.

"In the theater, you're employing the entire instrument, voice and body, in one continuous performance. In movies, it's a close-up for one line (of dialogue) and a medium shot for another, then the performance is patched together in the editing room.

"For some people, it's a tough period of adjustment. There is a temptation to get a little lazy or distracted."

For nearly 90 minutes, the actors spoke warmly of the riskier business of stage plays. Conversation bounced from one performance aspect to another, chasing elusive answers about the appeal of putting oneself on the line before a live audience.

"Rehearsal is a big difference between the two mediums," said Skarsgard, a veteran of the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, Sweden, before starring in films including Breaking the Waves and Good Will Hunting.

"In theater, you learn to construct your role, to build the curve that your role is going to take," he said. "It's a slow process, taking weeks to perfect before actually taking it to an audience. There is so little time to rehearse for movies that when you do the scene, you're still exploring it. I don't ever think a scene on film is finished."

Neither is a stage performance, countered Bassett, whose stage credits include a 1998 stint as Lady Macbeth for the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York. The former St. Petersburg resident noted that external factors bring new shadings to performances from day to day.

"Your co-star may be (acting) different, what they're bringing for your character to react to," Bassett said. "Every audience's response is different. If you're aware and open to how you're being affected by that, your performance changes. Not drastically, but it does change. That's exciting, and it leads to some electric moments."

Yet, those "glorious accidents," as Skarsgard called them, that may embellish a role have a short shelf life, according to Pacino. He recalled a stage role early in his career when an impromptu response to another actor left a fresh, effective impression.

"Whatever it was that I did, it was spontaneous," Pacino said. "It worked, and I kind of fell in love with it.

"The next night, I tried it again, and it fell flat because it didn't come from the source. It was spontaneous before, but now it just seemed like another bit. I realized that I needed to put that particular acting choice to rest."

Perhaps Pacino's audience that night didn't notice anything wrong. But he did and felt uneasy enough to learn a privately embarrassing lesson. Live theater encourages such acting traps and escapes, without the margin for error that filmmaking provides.

"It's a real training ground, learning who you are in relation to the role, expanding yourself," Pacino said. "We have a tendency in the movies to work in naturalism, which is sort of the operative today. You play roles that people can recognize as themselves or the people down the street.

"But, what happens is that there can be a sameness in the work, doing the same kinds of roles in the same situation. You get pegged into a certain type of character.

"In theater, especially repertory, you're doing all kinds of roles that aren't mirrors of what goes on today. Grand plays with bold characters: Shakespeare, O'Neill. It widens your horizons, opens your imaginations.

"If there is a problem with film acting today, it's that too many young actors don't experience the stage first."