The boys and the black stuff
Al Pacino as Satan? Keanu Reeves as his unwitting disciple? Sounds like a marriage made in heaven. Andrew Collins chases the two illustrious stars from New York to London to unearth the secrets of the diabolic Manhattan murder mystery called Devil's Advocate...
"How old were you when you first got your ears pierced?"
Not much of a chat-up line, or an opening gambit of any kind, but it was this very enquiry which convinced Devil's Advocate's female lead Charlize Theron that she was in the presence of uncommon greatness during an initial improvisation with Al Pacino (she plays the wife of Kevin Lomax, Mary Ann, who also becomes intoxicated by John Milton, but hears alarm bells long before hubby, and then goes bonkers).
"I was truly affected by the question," gushes the former dancer and model, adding, " Al's so beautiful to watch.. God!"
She was two years old when she had her ears done, incidentally.
Empire is here, in New York, to meet the two stars of Devil's Advocate. One a local lad, one not. Tempter and temptee: Al Pacino, who plays Milton, the enigmatic, sexually magnetic boss of an all-powerful New York law firm; and Keanu Reeves, who is Lomax, the hotshot Florida lawyer lured to NY with the prospect of moving in higher circles. The irony - and the eventual, blood-whisking horror - is that Milton's circles are more like the concentric circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno.
Pacino doesn't have his ears pierced, but you wouldn't put it past him; offscreen he does wear this stubby little ponytail, a fashion statement which would normally read, "I am in advertising! ", but actually looks quite raffish on the diminutive legend as he sits here today, aptly dressed in black. (This is a 57-year old man who carried off a baseball cap worn backwards in Looking For Richard, remember.) We're in a devilishly smart hotel on Central Park South, a safe 50 blocks away from Harlem, where Alfred James Pacino was born. He went to live with his grandparents in The Bronx, where the neighbourhood kids called him the Little Dude, because of his gran's habit of taking him in and changing his clothes every time they got dirty. To avoid getting his head kicked in, he pretended he was Texan and had ten dogs in an effort to make himself seem more interesting.
During the 1970s, Pacino was about as interesting as a thirtysomething thesp could get: The Actors Studio, The Godfather Parts I and II, five Oscar nominations, affairs with Jill Clayburgh and Swiss actress Marthe Keller, booze problems, Dog Day Afternoon, and the sight of angry gay rights groups waving placards during the filming of Cruising that read "Pacino Sucks!" Though the 80s weren't so hot (apart from 1989's commercial hit Sea Of Love), the Little Dude is having a fine old 90s.
He'd actually turned down Devil's Advocate four times during its eight years in Warner Brothers script limbo (so, among others, did Reeves) but, as the film's director Taylor Hackford (An Officer And A Gentleman) puts it, it was originally "a monster movie, a scarefest", which he and Dolores Claiborne screenwriter Tony Gilroy duly tailored to suit Pacino. "Rewritten from page one", it was transformed into what Hackford grandly now describes as a $57 million "righteous satire", describing Milton as no less than "a Nietzschean Devil".
"Look at me!" exclaims Milton in the film. "Underestimated from day one. Do I look like a Master Of The Universe? They never see me coming!"
Such good stuff was written specifically for Al.
"I did think of the other actors who've played the Devil," he muses. (De Niro as Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart, Jack Nicholson as Daryl Van Horne in The Witches Of Eastwick.) "And it's comforting to know that they're still around..."
You seemed to be enjoying yourself up there.
"Well, you're walking that thin line between farcical horror and relevant horror," he avers, hinting that he believes he hit the right balance.
"As Brecht once said, you can only understand horror through farce."
Do you believe that lawyers are evil?
"It's any profession you wanna pick," Pacino fudges. (Hackford is more decisive: "The legal profession controls America totally. The presidency, the legislative branch of the government and the judiciary are 95 per cent lawyers.")
Do you have a good lawyer, Mr. Pacino?
"I hope!" he chuckles. "I just like the idea of a character who's able to answer the question, 'What was your favourite century?' I read a couple of masterpieces, Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost. I never read Paradise Lost before, and I never thought I would, and I'm grateful for that alone."
Talking of literature, there's a touch of your beloved Shakespeare in Devil's Advocate (temptation, jealousy, madness). What is it with you and the bard?
"I think it's pretty much what everybody feels," he shrugs. "I enjoy reading Shakespeare. Just the other day I was looking through my Shakespeare volumes to see what play I would like to read. There are many I haven't read. I picked Timon Of Athens, which is one of them."
Back to Devil's Advocate. Another Al Pacino film set in New York: is this a mere coincidence? The man with the office in Manhattan and a house upstate smiles, knowingly.
"You can get into a lot of trouble if you choose to do a film just because it's being shot in a beautiful, exotic place, because then you start to rationalise the film's shortcomings. I've seen actors do this."
Do you, as Milton does in the film, ride the New York subway?
"I used to, but it's been so long, I'd get lost!" he pleads. "I always did. I grew up in Brooklyn and I would ride a bicycle into Manhattan, but before there were lawsuits, I got hit a couple of times by buses. After that I rode the subway! But I learned the streets."
Would you consider playing God?
"I won't touch it!" comes the swift retort, firm and not a little menacing. He's joking, of course.
"That's George Burns' territory, he earned it."
It's estimated that there are 28 million rats in New York, which makes four for every person living here. Nice town, we'll take it. While the shorthand Big Apple of Woody Allen's films embodies dappled, crime-free uptown streets and glorious, monochrome skylines, director Taylor Hackford's vision for Devil's Advocate will be remembered for its foreboding, speeded-up skies, its demon joggers in Central Park and an eerily deserted 57th Street, not a soul in sight as far as the eye can see, and shadows as long as Death himself. To quote Paradise Lost: "No light, but rather darkness visible."
The New York of Devil's Advocate is the anti-Manhattan, presenting an Apple rotten to the core - the core being Wall Street, the Financial District, City Hall, the World Trade Center, wherever deals are done, or Faustian pacts are made.
And while Pacino finally gets to play the Devil himself (who but the Dark Prince would have such a fine head of hair at his age?), Reeves gets to soak up the Italian-American master's actorly genius in the same way that a string of fortunate young Hollywood bucks have done in the latter 90s: Chris O'Donnell (Scent Of A Woman), Johnny Depp (Donnie Brasco) and John Cusack (City Hall).
"He's a very mysterious man," observes Keanu of Al. "He's very funny, he's unique, and that gives him an interesting point of view. He's a great actor but he's very available. "
The praise is fulsome and awe-struck (Hackford later confirms that "Keanu worshipped Al"), but enquire of the forelock-tugging Chinese-Hawaiian-Canadian pretty-boy if Pacino was a teacher to him, and the message is absolutely clear: "No." If the Devil does have all the best tunes, our handsome young Faustus isn't admitting to humming any of them.
Later in New York - where, by the way, his family lived for just a year in 1968 - 33-year-old Keanu Charles Reeves looks every crumpled inch the take-me-as-you-find-me scruff of legend. There's "that" world-famous, heart-melting, eight-figure face, and there's a tweedy, shrift store jacket with a single loose thread poking conspicuously from the sleeve above what looks like a big old toothpaste stain, a black T-shirt and a week's neo-beard.
He still looks fantastic.
Asked if he thinks New York is an evil place, he says: "No. It's got evil people in it."
Empire then chucks the rat statistic at him, and his response is what can only be described as Very Keanu: "Ah, but how many ants for every rat? How many birds for every beetle? Ecosystems, you know."
Makes you think, doesn't he?
Two months later, we catch up with Keanu in London, inside an equally luxurious, parkside hotel. He's wearing a suit this time, but it's topped off with a black winter scarf, which curiously, he doesn't remove, even though we're indoors.
What have you been doing since New York?
"I've had some neck surgery", he reveals - under the scarf, it turns out, is a grubby neck brace, but Keanu even wears that well. "I had some compressed discs in my spine, so they took them out and put a plate in my neck."
Far from incapacitated, Reeves has been kung fu training in reparation for his second sci-fi movie Matrix (which he describes as "Japanese anime meets the Coen brothers meets Billy Wilder"), he's also played two shows with his band Dogstar, and moved house.
Taylor Hackford pokes his head round the door and asks if Keanu's joining everyone for dinner later. He's not, as he's been getting "the chills" all day (something he ate last night), and anglocentrically concludes, "I'm so fucking knackered, man."
During the filming of Devil's Advocate, Keanu woke up in the middle of one night with a ringing in his right ear. In true actorly fashion, he puts it down to the stress his character was going through.
"Sometimes you take on things that your characters have," he explains, winding the scarf back round his neck. "Kevin's life is going totally insane. He's 32 years old, he's suddenly in New York City and representing the equivalent of Donald Trump on a triple homicide. He really has got a lot going on. I'm filming 18 hours a day, trying to do good work, keep my life going, and suddenly Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Like steam coming out of a pot from my ear. It was terrifying, I didn't think it was ever going to go away. It lasted all night, and then I woke up and it wasn't there and I was singing, 'Hallelujah! I'm alive! I don't have to cut my ear off!' "
Playing a hotshot lawyer who has never lost a case seems quite a stretch for an actor generally characterised by playing innocents (Ted "Theodore" Logan, Dracula's estate agent Jonathan Harker, Chevalier Danceny in Dangerous Liaisons) and action men (Point Break, Speed, Chain Reaction).
"It's ... fun," he understates. "It's akin to a soliloquy. It's just you on stage. Kevin is a really meaty part, and the relationships are really ... fun. I get to be ambitious. I get to make love. There's romance."
Keanu is big on fun. In preparation for his role, he spent time with defence attorneys in Jacksonville and New York, and that was "fun". Playing with his band? "It's fun." All this promotion? "Fun." But he's not as inarticulate as he's sometimes cracked up to be. In fact, beneath the cool mountain breeze of his personality, there appears to be a genuinely deep intellectual soul trying to be heard, and, for all its crowd-pleasing hokum, Devil's Advocate offers plenty of bookish meat for Reeves to get his teeth into. Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost, Goethe's Faust... mention the implicit literary aspects and he lights up.
"I agree with you completely," he enthuses, "And this is my problem with a lot of American studio pictures - everything seems to be about plot as opposed to behaviour or content. In most films it's like this: I have to go to court, I'm going to court, I'm in court, I have to win a case, and I win, and I leave. Every moment you're watching is there to move the plot forward. In this film, when something unfolds, the point isn't always obvious."
What's his idea of heaven?
"Acting heaven would be Hamlet," he states, without hesitation. "With Lear in the afternoon."
Very Keanu. This Young Dude's soul is well worth $10 million. We doubt even the Devil could afford it.