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TheWrap Screening Series: Al Pacino Identifies With ‘an Actor on the Way Out’ in ‘The Humbling’ (Video)

Pacino reveals the character losing his mind on screen has a lot in common with the actor playing him, and other aging movie stars struggling with memory loss

Al Pacino can relate to the character he plays in “The Humbling,” because he sees himself as “an actor on the way out.”

At least, that’s what the 74-year-old Oscar winner — best known for meaty roles in crime movies including “The Godfather, “Dick Tracy” and “Heat” – told an audience attending TheWrap‘s Award Series screening of the Barry Levinson-directed film at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles on Wednesday night.

Then again, Pacino gives one of the best performances of his career as famed thespian Simon Axler struggling with the sudden loss of his talent due to memory loss, so it was hard for spectators to consider for even a moment that Pacino could possibly be losing his mojo, too.

Pacino, also a producer of the film based on author Philip Roth‘s 2009 novel of the same name, began developing the project shortly after reading the book upon the recommendation of his agent.

“It was about an actor, so I thought, ‘Gee, it’s possible I could make this into a film.’ Because at least it’s a little something that I know about — an actor on the way out,” Pacino said with a stir of laughter from the audience following. “The world it’s in, it’s sort of my wheelhouse.”

Al Pacino Humbling Screening Inside

“It’s an advantage to know the world you’re making a movie about,” Pacino added.

“The Humbling” is hard to label. It’s probably best described as a tragic psychological comedy, if it’s possible to imagine that. Although the mental deterioration haunting Axler is so severe that it’s hard to tell what he’s imagining and what is real, it’s also quite funny. The laughs flow consistently and organically as the man embraces a new chapter in his life, which leads to a romantic relationship with his friend’s lesbian daughter, played by “Frances Ha” star Greta Gerwig.

The film begins with Axler snapping out of a nightmare that he wasn’t allowed into his own play, only to realize he’s due on stage any second. Once he gets there, it doesn’t go well. He forgets his lines, and starts spewing out dialogue from different plays, until eventually throwing himself off the stage.

The situation was very familiar to Pacino, an iconic Hollywood star who is no stranger to the theatre world.

“Oh yeah, I’ve had these experiences,” Pacino said. “I was in a Shakespeare play — I’ve done quite a few Shakespeare plays — and I was in the middle of this one… and I realized I went into another Shakespeare play. And I thought, ‘Oh, f–k! I’m in ‘Hamlet.'”

Pacino then gave a priceless tip to any actors who find themselves in the exact same situation.

“In the old days, all the actors doing Shakespeare would learn 8 to 10 lines, random, and they’d go to those lines when they forgot their lines in the play,” Pacino explained. “Because it doesn’t sort of matter, because the audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying.”

All audiences that sit down to watch “The Humbling” should be able to understand the tragedy unfolding on screen when they’re not distracted by Pacino’s perfect, and seemingly effortless comedic timing.

“Simon is losing his memory … and his confidence is going,” Pacino said. “It’s terribly frightening. I can’t think of anything more frightening than being on stage and not knowing your words, and how you’re going to operate.”

Pacino said he has lived through that same situation, but was lucky enough to have a “sympathetic” audience that wanted him to finish the scene. That was about 20 years ago, he said. While the moment was just a hiccup in his career, Pacino revealed he knows a number of actors whose livelihood is being threatened by their own struggles with memory loss.

“I’ve heard some stories about some actors we know, and will remain nameless, who are right now going through that. And they’re not very old, either,” Pacino said. “Their memory won’t grip it. It just won’t hold it. So that’s tragic. Again, this is what we do. This is not just our living, it is our vocation and it’s our spirit, so when that starts to go — and it will go, if you last long enough.”