In his dazzling career, Al Pacino has made a lucrative habit of tackling notorious onscreen characters.

He is part of that elite Hollywood band that includes Streep, De Niro and Eastwood, actors of such stature that they are known simply by their last names. He first caught our eye in l972 as the straight-arrow Michael Corleone, who transforms into a ruthless mafia don in The Godfather and its sequels. It was movie history in the making.

Since then he has continued to deliver mesmerizing performances in such films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface, Glengarry Glen Ross and Scent of a Woman, for which he won a best actor Oscar in l992. He seems to relish climbing into the skin of flawed, real-life characters. He does it again in HBO’s Barry Levinson-directed film Paterno (which debuted on April 7) about Penn State’s revered “winningest” football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired as a result of the child sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky.

In January, I spoke with Pacino (now 78) via satellite from the set of his new Netflix gangster film, The Irishman. He plays Jimmy Hoffa opposite De Niro’s Frank Sheeran.

Do these flawed characters have something in common?

I did Roy Cohn in Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s masterpiece. Then there’s Kevorkian and Spector. And now Paterno. I’ve chosen these characters throughout my life because they’re attractive for actors.

How are you able to climb into their skin?

It’s important to channel these people, and that takes a while. But at the same time, there’s always footage on them — and so many interviews on them. As an actor you get a certain credibility, because these things really took place.

What subtleties did you look for in Paterno?

I worked with John Caglione (Oscar winning makeup artist) and I’ve done quite a few films with him. We sort of go over the idea, and we don’t make a replica, but we try to see if we can come close to a sense of the character. We discuss it, sometimes for many weeks, until we come up with something that hopefully conveys something.

Did Paterno cover up for Sandusky?

I tried to take any prior knowledge I’ve had of him and get the general sketch, like everybody else does. I really go by the script. That’s my orientation as a stage actor and it’s always what I go to. Whatever comes is usually from that. I don’t have an opinion about it before I go in. I like to keep that canvas blank and try not to be influenced. It’s not the question, too, of what he knew, but what he did about it.

But surely he knew about those Sandusky rumors.

He was like an emperor, like a king, or our understanding of the king. But he didn’t take up with it because it was out of his control, and this is a character who is used to control. But he was unsure of himself, and it wasn’t something he felt comfortable with.

So what was your final verdict?

I guess I have to make a decision on what I saw and what I knew. I did make that decision in a way without consciously making it. Like Barry [director Levinson] says, at best, that it’s ultimately a human tragedy. It’s about going on this trip and learning as you go. Believe it or not I’m still learning about this character.

Out of the Box is a semi-regular column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.