On 'Irishman,' teaching De Niro and Pacino to act younger

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This image released by Netflix shows Robert De Niro, kneeling center, on the set of "The Irishman" as movement coach Gary Tacon, right, looks on. Tacon had to help the film's aged stars move like they were decades younger. (Niko Tavernise/Netflix via AP)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Would you have the gumption to tell Al Pacino to act his age?

That was the unique position Gary Tacon, the movement coach of “The Irishman,” found himself in on the set of Martin Scorsese’s crime epic. On Pacino’s first day shooting, the scene called for the 79-year-old actor, playing a 40-something Jimmy Hoffa, to jump out of a chair as he screams at a television showing the election results for John F. Kennedy.

In the first take, Pacino didn’t exactly leap up. Scorsese, who had waited decades to direct Pacino, wasn’t inclined to start off by telling Pacino to get younger, fast. He turned to Tacon for help.

“What’s funny about that story is I hadn’t been introduced to Al yet. So, when I said to Marty that he’s supposed to be much younger, he said, ‘Well you tell him,’” Tacon recalls. “I said, ‘You gotta tell him. I haven’t met him yet. Who am I to tell him?’”

Yet Tacon, a longtime stuntman and yoga instructor, was repeatedly in the ears of the stars of “The Irishman,” playing a small but vital role in a landmark film that’s up for 10 awards at the upcoming Oscars including best picture and supporting actor nods for Joe Pesci and Pacino. It wasn’t an easy job. When Tacon first met Robert De Niro, the actor was dubious. “You’re going to help me with my spine?” said De Niro. “Old dog, no new tricks.”

The extensive “de-aging” computer-generated effects of “The Irishman” have been much analyzed since the movie was unveiled. But the arguably more challenging task of the film may have been to get De Niro and Pesci — both 76 — and Pacino to move like they were four decades younger, and to match their physicality to their digital faces. Computers could remedy their wrinkles. Tacon had to fix their walks.

Actors frequently don prosthetics and makeup to age up. Aging down, though, is far less mapped territory. Tacon may be the movies’ first movement analyst tasked with shedding years off of a film’s stars. And they happened to be a few of the greatest actors alive.

“For them to invite me to participate the way I did at that level, it’s like being asked to be a backup singer on an original Beatles song,” Tacon said in a recent interview at his apartment along the Hudson River in Nyack, New York.

Being part of such a production, Tacon figured he would, at most, receive a small notice in the credits. He didn’t expect to become one of Scorsese and De Niro’s favorite talking points throughout the film’s march through awards season.

At the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival, Scorsese told the same story about Tacon and Pacino. Talking to Seth Meyers, De Niro said: “We had -- I don’t know what you call him -- a movement coach named Gary Tacon who would come behind and tap me on the shoulder and go, ‘You’re 39. Sit up straight.’” Appearing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Scorsese and the host joked that Tacon was like a superhero named “Posture Man.”

Tacon, 68, isn’t a superhero, nor is he even an orthopedist. But he’s an ardent advocate for physical therapy who will in minutes have you thinking about improving your posture. “Flexibility is everything,” he says. One of his favorite tools is a patented a cushion designed to improve slouching. He urged the actors to spend five minutes every morning with the it to help straighten their spine.

“After working with him, you’re a few inches taller,” said “Irishman” producer Jane Rosenthal. “Bob in particular spent a lot of time with him. He made everyone on Bob’s hair and makeup team work with him. It was just part of his morning routine. It was an extension of how they prepared their roles and embodied those characters.”

Part of Tacon’s usefulness also came from his decades of experience on film sets. He knew when to step in and when to step aside. Tacon began as an actor. His big screen debut was in “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” It’s Tacon who steals Miss Piggy’s pocketbook and then takes off through Central Park. (Miss Piggy chases him down on roller skates before launching herself onto him.)

After that film, Tacon fell in with famed stunt director Victor Magnotta. Without injury, he has spent 35 years doing stunt work, from “Miller’s Crossing” to “The Bourne Ultimatum.” He was Alec Baldwin’s personal stuntman for 10 years. While raising a family and renovating an old Hudson Valley carriage house, Tacon carved out a career in movies through tenacity and pluck. “In this business, you’re only as good as your last job,” he says.

For “The Irishman,” veteran production manager Richard Baratta, an executive producer on the film, suggested Tacon.

“He called me up and he said he had a director who’s losing his mind: ‘They have to de-age these characters. He doesn’t know if he has to chop their heads off or what,’” recalls Tacon. “He didn’t say their names. He said, ‘Do you think you can get them to move around like younger guys?’”

At first, Tacon had to figure out how he, in an uncommon role on an imposing set, would fit in. Aside from the morning stretching sessions, the first week during production was uncertain. “I just whispered to Bob,” he says.

The visual effects for “The Irishman” were supervised by Pablo Helman, who’s also nominated for an Academy Award along with Leandro Estebecorena, Nelson Sepulveda-Fauser, and Stephane Grabil. They used an innovated technique developed by Industrial Light & Magic to de-age the actors, technology that may pave the way for more such performances -- and thus more movement coaching -- in the years ahead.

Most have found the results, while imperfect and sometimes slightly eerie, impressively convincing. From early on, Scorsese sought to put equal emphasis on the actors’ movements, but “The Irishman” also suggests a limit to just how spry 70-something men can be. Some scenes, like when De Niro’s character violently assaults his daughter’s boss on the sidewalk have a rigidity to them. But even those moments evoke an inflexible kind of menace that suits the characters.

Tacon found he could do a lot with a subtle gesture of reminder to the actors or a few choice words. For a scene, later cut, in which De Niro runs down the stairs, Tacon suggested: “A little Gene Kelly, that’s all.” Citing “Raging Bull,” he calls De Niro “a genius athlete.”

For a scene in which Pacino exits a car and enters a house, the actor initially performed it so hunched over that an exasperated Scorsese turned to Tacon and sputtered, “I mean, with Al?” Tacon quickly came up with a strategy to straighten Pacino up.

“I had to walk up to Al and I say, ‘My name is Gary. I’m a movement analyst for the film. As you approach the house, look up at the number above the door and don’t grab the railing,’” says Tacon. “He said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’”


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP