Two weeks later, I sat in on a reading among the actors, while a cameraman filmed it for the documentary. The chorus of Jews, Nazarenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees behind Al seem to have figured out a way to make themselves heard: arguing over whether the Messiah had really come and whether he really had done what John the Baptist claimed he could do. Turn water to wine. Raise the dead. Pacino picked up on their energy and said, “I see what you’re doing here. It’s…interesting. I wonder if we should stop and talk about it. Or should we just continue, to get through the play? It’s really something about modulation…do you keep it at this level, or do you modulate it, go up and down with it?”
Then he started talking about his kid’s hamster, how he was watching it get angry with its food, picking up the small bowl and crashing it against the cage, sending the food outside. “What was that about? He was horny, that’s what. His little red thing was protruding all the time. And that’s like we are, actors are always horny, we always want to get off.”
Was this his way of trying to tone down the chorus behind him? Using the metaphor of the hamster as his way of saying, ‘Don’t ham it up too much back there.’
He stood up and started to improvise a scene, playing Herod as a batty monologist, wandering lost in his mind, playing on words not written. He was performing for the camera, but he was also trying to find something new to insert into the play. People would be paying $200 a ticket for the best seats and it was only a reading, a “presentation.” No costumes. So he was trying to find a little Pacino magic to include, and not throw all the actors off.
When the Baptist (whom Wilde called Jokanaan) started shouting his predictions and Herod talks about the prophet’s prophecies, Pacino stopped to wonder about what was being said. “The prophet says he talked to God. How do we know this? Let me ask you something,” he said to one of the production crew, “have you ever talked to God?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Sure you have,” Pacino said. “We all have. We just never like to admit it. But the prophet, he admits it.”
“He doesn’t actually say he talked to God, but to Jesus, who he claims is God,” one of the actors said.
“And that’s what we challenge. We don’t believe it’s God he’s talking to,” another actor suggested.
“Al,” I piped in, “Herod says he’ll accept the water to wine, but he won’t accept the raising of the dead. So where does he stand in his belief about all this? Does he believe the Baptist when he talks about Jesus?”
“Herod’s a guy who covers his bets,” Al said. “He isn’t sure, but just in case, you know?”