For his latest role, Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning actor Al Pacino is taking on the role of Dr. Jack Kevorkian (aka Dr. Death) for the HBO Films presentation You Don’t Know Jack.
In 1990, 61-year-old former pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian astonished the world as he took the end-of-life debate head-on and performed his first assisted suicide of a terminally ill patient. Aided by his loyal friend Neal Nicol (John Goodman) and his older sister Margo Janus (Brenda Vaccaro), Kevorkian began offering his death counseling services to a grateful and growing list of clientele. As he earned the support of Hemlock Society activist Janet Good (Susan Sarandon), he incurred the wrath of the county prosecutor’s office and the infamous doctor started a media frenzy with his epic legal battles defending a patient’s right to die.
During a recent interview to promote You Don’t Know Jack, actor Al Pacino said that he decided to make a television movie for the opportunity to work with accomplished filmmaker Barry Levinson and this great cast. Here’s what he had to say:
Question: Did you know a lot about Dr. Kevorkian before you played him?
Pacino: I was familiar, like pretty much everybody was who was around what was going on. I had seen that 60 Minutes episode when Kevorkian was on television.
What was your opinion of him?
Pacino: My opinion is that, after I got to know Jack in the story, I reserved my opinion about it. I don’t ever give my opinion. Opinions I have about anything are in my personal life.
Given the director and the pedigree of the project, does it feel any different at all knowing that it’s an HBO film, or at this point, is the line blurred?
Pacino: It’s HBO, and HBO is television. With television, you have to do a lot, in a short period of time. That’s the only difference. Otherwise, it’s the same.
Do you feel that this is the proper title for a movie about Dr. Death? Does it seem to comedic sounding at all?
Pacino: Well, I don’t think a lot of people can really say that they know Jack Kevorkian, especially when you get his read on things and get to know more about him. Of course, if you’re doing a movie about him, you’re apt to go further into it to find out. And, you really don’t know Jack.
When you see the image that was portrayed of Jack Kevorkian during this time, you get a sense of someone quite different than the personality that I got to know. Not that I got to know him personally, mind you, but just the research and work I did, in order to get closer to who I could interpret. I think the title is apt because you don’t know this guy. And, hopefully, in the movie, you still don’t.
What was your source material for this performance? Did you meet up with Dr. Kevorkian?
Pacino: I didn’t meet Jack. I hope I will, in the future. Sometimes, for some reason, I don’t take advantage of that, and sometimes I do. With Jack, because I thought the script was so well written, it was complete in its portrait. It felt as though there was room, and I had so much research. With the media the way it is, there’s so many things you can see and study. You can read his books and get close to him, in that fashion.
Also, Jack was about 10 years older because he had gotten out of prison. We don’t do him, at that age. We cover when he’s younger. I just felt this instinctively. Barry Levinson met him and got a great deal out of it, and there were times when I wish I would have, but in the end, I felt close to him, in another kind of way. There are characters you do it with and it works, and there’s some characters you just back away from doing. I don’t know why.
For instance, with Frank Serpico, I studied and went with Serpico everywhere. I got to know him, to go back into the past. With Dog Day Afternoon, I didn’t feel like I wanted to know that guy for the role and my interpretation. If you have the opportunity to meet someone, as an actor, it’s just great fodder for you. It’s wonderful source stuff that we die for. But, I didn’t take advantage of it, and I don’t know why I didn’t.
Dr. Kevorkian’s zealotry intensified over time, as he got closer to his court case and eventually having to go to prison. How did you play that and what that was that like for you internally, as his mania grew?
Pacino: The loss of two of the close people in his life — his closest sister Margo, played by Brenda Vaccaro, and then Janet Good, who Susan Sarandon plays — set off something in him that led to this desperation inside and a need to go further with what he wanted to do, and an abandon took over. Those are the kinds of things that were percolating in my head somewhere.
Is part of the appeal of doing a TV movie the fact that it doesn’t take as long as a feature film?
Pacino: There are pros and cons in that, yeah. There’s something about going fast that catches you up, and sometimes it creates certain spontaneity. But, you’re going fast with highly tuned people who are there and are with it, and they’re not going so fast that they’re negligent. It’s just the nature of the beast.
You have to do it because it’s all about how much money there is to do these things. But, I’ve done it before. I did another HBO thing and felt the same way. It’s just that there were so many scenes in this. At one point, we did 16 scenes in two days, and that is a lot of stuff in two days.
At the same time, it was exciting because that lent an energy to the thing because you’re in the hands of Barry Levinson. You’re in the hands of a consummate filmmaker, so you know he’s operating. And, they used a lot of cameras, which is also helpful. If I had it to do over again, I would say, “Yeah, sure.” I would do it. You do get very tired sometimes, when you’re sitting around for hours in movies. You get depleted. Here, that didn’t happen.
You Don’t Know Jack premieres Saturday, April 24 at 9PM