The careers of Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey didn't have to overlap.
Pacino is an actor's actor, an eight-time Oscar nominee whose critically acclaimed performances ("Serpico") are mandatory viewing for aspiring stars everywhere, while his more over-the-top work ("Scarface") has ascended to the level of pop-culture iconography. McConaughey, meanwhile, has earned a reputation as a carefree beefcake whose string of crowd-pleasers ("How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days") has only occasionally been interrupted by the speed bump of an overlooked gem ("Lone Star"). The two stars could have easily played out their days on the silver screen without "Two for the Money," but when the opportunity presented itself, they decided to take a gamble on one another.
Then Matthew McConaughey heard the word that would forever change how he approached his craft.
"Fly," the 35-year-old actor whispered with reverence, a roguish smile crossing his lips.
It is the most valuable piece of acting advice the "Sahara" star received from Pacino, a one-word tip offered early in the production of their gambling drama. Until then, the Texas-born star had doubts about whether he should attempt to hold his own opposite the acting legend; afterward, he simply spread his wings.
"I was responsible for Brandon Lang," McConaughey said, referring to his character, a former athlete whose football wisdom gives him an advantage in the world of high-stakes sports betting. "That was my job, to be able to make a believable character who you can understand and go through the whole story with."
"He sees the gift," Pacino said of his character, gambling veteran Walter Abrams, and, perhaps, himself. "He sees the real thing, and he's very turned on by that. An old friend of mine used to say, 'If I dig it, it's mine.' And I think with Walter he digs him, he digs what he can do, and therefore it turns him on and he knows he can help him."
As McConaughey remembers it, Pacino's word of advice was quick, simple and unforgettable. "When you're there," he marveled, "you either know what it means or you don't; it means something different for everybody. Fly. Take the roof off, man. Fly."
While McConaughey may never forget it, the typically modest Pacino insisted that he doesn't even remember saying it.
"I think every time out, no matter what you're doing, you learn a little something," the 65-year-old star said of both his perceived wisdom and of what he continues to learn from younger actors. "Either you learn that you really can't play the part, or you learn something about yourself in relation to who you're playing. You didn't know that was in you, or it was wonderful to go into that aspect of your personality. That's one of the fun things in acting, I think.
"Also," he added, laughing, "the locations are fun."
According to co-star Rene Russo, both men had an equal amount to teach. "[McConaughey] has experienced a lot in life," said the actress and former model. "A lot. I think that you can see it onscreen. He's casual but he's intense, kind of a dichotomy."
As for Pacino, "Working with him is a surprise," she said. "You never know what he's going to do. And he doesn't do the same thing twice, so you have to be on your toes. He would tease you. He's like a little kid."
"It was a big dance, working with him," McConaughey said of Pacino. "It was a lot of new moves that I've never seen before, but always with the rhythm. It was a real vital experience. It's easy to go out there and tell the truth, because you're in a scene and you catch a wave, so to speak. You're not conscious of where you're going, but you're on a wave. And usually those turn out to be either the worst take or the best, but all you need is one that's the best, you know?"
There are some more obvious benefits the seemingly dissimilar Pacino and McConaughey gained from working together. While the younger actor laid the groundwork for future dramatic work by learning how to "fly," the elder found an opportunity to once again maintain relevance by mentoring a young actor both onscreen and behind the scenes, as he had with Johnny Depp ("Donnie Brasco"), Keanu Reeves ("The Devil's Advocate") and Colin Farrell ("The Recruit"). Oh, and they also got to talk about one of their favorite topics, gambling, all day.
"I love to gamble, man — all different kinds of ways," McConaughey admitted. "As far as wagering on sports, I've got some friends, we make some friendly bets and sit around. As we [say], we're buying a ticket to the game because we're watching every single play. And then you win, and you get to walk around for days and say, 'I knew it.' And if you lose, you get to walk around and say, 'Yeah, but you cheated.' But basically it's friendly wagers, and I go to Vegas here and there."
Pacino, who admits to a recreational obsession with the roulette wheel, bet his time, energy and box-office clout alongside McConaughey as they both stepped outside the expectations of their respective audiences. Will the gamble pay off for the duo? That ball is currently bouncing around on the big red-and-black wheel, in theaters nationwide.
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