Were we still in character? When a camera rolls, does anything go? This acting business was no joke, I thought. I’m costing them a lot of wasted film.
With Salerno, I was treated with more respect. We had never met when I came to the studio where he had a camera set up and a chair for me to sit in. He would be off camera, he explained, and he’d ask me to elaborate on what I thought about Salinger. But first he wanted me to get made up, something Pacino had no interest in. So I sat in the make-up chair and had my face patted down and colored beige. Then I got miked in front of the camera and once we started rolling I began to expostulate on the ascetic Mr. Salinger. I‘m not sure if what I had to say was any better “acting” than what I tried to do with Pacino, but it certainly wasn’t as edgy. I had reread many of Salinger’s stories before coming and had opinions about them. I was fascinated with the man, as most writers were, and I wondered how much of his real life seeped into his fiction. Was his own family anything like the Glass family he created? Did he have a relative who committed suicide, as Seymour did in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”? Where did his fascination with gifted and troubled children come from? How influential was his army experiences during WWII? Was he there during the liberation of one of the Nazi concentration camps? What did he think of Joyce Maynard’s memoir of her life with him? Was his silence a form of Zen? Did he watch TV? Go to movies? What modern writers did he read? The questions I had went on and on, and after two hours I had to leave for another engagement.
“Can you come back?” Salerno asked me.
“Didn’t you get enough?” I asked.
“You have such enthusiasm, such energy, I’d like you to keep going. I’ll even pay you for your time.”
He said the magic words. Up until then I was still an amateur actor. But suddenly, I was about to turn professional. All I had to do was agree to return the next day and continue blabbing about what I’d like to have asked J.D. Salinger.
When I went to the set of Salome, I tried to tell Pacino about my other film experience, but he wasn’t interested. He was way too deep into the head of King Herod, and of Herod’s creator, Oscar Wilde. Instead, we began talking seriously about his character and about Wilde as well. We were in the balcony of the Wadsworth, dissecting Herod’s motives and behavior, and we were being filmed as well. But something magical happened, for me at least. I forgot about the camera. What we were talking about was so interesting I no longer felt I had to “play” obnoxious. And Pacino seemed relieved to be able to expound on his ideas without having to take away any of my props.
When I saw Salerno again, for my debut now as a pro, I let his people make me up, mike me, and when I sat before the camera I said, “You know, I could go on and on about what one might ask J.D. Salinger, but when you really think about it, there are only two questions I’d like answered. One, has he written anything since his last published story in the New Yorker in 1965? And two, if he has, will we ever see it published, before or after his death?”
Salinger died on January 27, 2010, and soon after his death Salerno’s film was a huge topic of speculation on the Internet and in magazines. He told me that he shot so much film and had interviewed over 150 people (including Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, E.L. Doctorow, Martin Sheen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Guare, Robert Towne, Ed Norton, and Danny DeVito) that he was going to be putting out a 700-page companion book, and when the movie was finally released it would be sensational. “Am I still in it?” I asked, “or have I landed on the cutting room floor?”
“No, no, you had a lot to say. I had to edit it down, of course, but you’re still there. Wait till you see it.”
I’m still in Wilde Salome, which is what Pacino is calling his docudrama, though I’ve also been winnowed down from some of the early versions I saw, where I was almost like his sidekick. Now I’m in and out, which is as it should be. I’m not obnoxious, thank goodness. But I’m not Al Pacino either.
I’m just a guy from Brooklyn who got asked to be in two movies, and made it into the final cut.