When Logan Lerman was offered the lead in ‘Hunters’, he did what all actors do: He cast about for inspiration.
For portions, he had only to look inward. Like him, his character Jonah Heidelbaum was Jewish, allowing Lerman to draw from experience both personal and inherited. As for the fact that Heidelbaum also helps hunt down and kill Nazi fugitives trying to start a Fourth Reich in America ... well, the character’s motivation was easy to understand.
Still, other aspects were harder to pin down — for one thing, Heidelbaum was from the mean streets of ‘70s Brooklyn and Lerman, 28, grew up in Los Angeles. So the actor looked to gritty New York movies from the period — specifically Al Pacino’s work in films like ‘Serpico’ and ‘Dog Day Afternoon’.
“I was looking at ‘Panic in Needle Park’, I was looking at all these roles that he did,” Lerman recalled. He sent photos to the pilot’s director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the first of which was a brooding image of a young Pacino.
“It was like, this is who I want to model the character after,” he said. “I never told Al that.”
It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. Lerman didn’t know it at the time, but Pacino was about to sign on for a central role in ‘Hunters’, which debuted February 21 on Amazon. (Jordan Peele is an executive producer.) For Lerman, that meant the beginning of an experience that “was just beyond expectations,” involving a man he called “one of the greatest actors ever”. For Pacino, who in conversation graciously deflects such praise, talk of the old days prompted nostalgia, but also a few laughs.
“I just can’t remember the ‘70s — I mean, it was wild times,” he said, chuckling, in a phone interview last month. “At that time in my life, I don’t think I was completely, uh ... sobre? Everything came like this monsoon.”
It’s hard to believe that one of the world’s most celebrated actors might, at 79, still have boxes he needed to check. But the entertainment industry has changed more in the past 10 years than the previous 40, and Pacino is adapting, finding late-career success in forms that didn’t exist a few years ago. His ninth Oscar nomination came via a Netflix film, Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’. ‘Hunters’, which marks his episodic television debut, will be released on Amazon in a bingeable 10-episode chunk.
The role that lured him was Meyer Offerman, a wealthy Holocaust survivor who leads a band of multicultural, multitalented assassins who sniff out Nazis hiding in plain sight. Set in 1977 Brooklyn, the show draws inspiration from real-life Nazi hunters like Simon Wiesenthal and investigators with the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations. It imagines a world in which Offerman’s group operates entirely in the shadows and outside the law, acting as judge, jury and executioner.
Offerman and his hunters aren’t exactly superheroes, in that they don’t have supernatural powers or wear spandex. Heidelbaum himself begins as a reluctant accomplice, a comic-book nerd thrust into the hunters’ world by a family tragedy. But the show frames them that way, embracing a brightly coloured, self-aware pulpiness that nods to comic book lore (Batman references abound), as well as to exploitation flicks of the ‘70s like ‘Death Wish’ and ‘Cleopatra Jones’.
David Weil, the series’s creator, said that both the story and the genre-inflected approach came from a deeply personal place. Like Heidelbaum, he grew up hearing stories from a Brooklyn grandmother who had survived the Holocaust.
“Hearing those stories as a young kid, they felt like the stuff of superheroes in comic books, and that kind of became the lens through which I began to see the world,” he said. “It was a world of great good and great evil — a world of a lot of death and suffering and darkness, but a world where hope was possible if we took it upon ourselves to make it so.”
The action-hero assassins of ‘Hunters’ are clearly fictional. (Offerman, as much Professor X as Wiesenthal, is the closest Pacino has come to playing a comic-book character since his Oscar-nominated performance in ‘Dick Tracy’.) But vigilante assassinations did occur historically, as in 1985 when Tscherim Soobzokov, a former Waffen SS soldier, was killed by a bomb outside his home in Paterson, New Jersey.
“Everything we put into the show could have happened, it could be true,” Weil said. “The history books may not have caught it, the newspapers may not have covered it, but we like to play with the idea that this may have all actually happened.”
However playful, ‘Hunters’ is, at its core, intensely serious. Flashbacks set in concentration camps are unsparing. Revenge is a moral quandary served cold and soaked in blood — all at a time when in the real world, anti-Semitic crimes are rising.
Still, the shifts in tone and genre were a big part of what gave the series such an “interesting style,” Pacino said. And it was evident from the first couple of scripts, he added, that the story was intensely personal for Weil.
“It varies,” Pacino said of the style. “It’s generally surprising, but it’s always on the line — sometimes it’s outright horrifying, and then it’s also tongue-in-cheek.”
As the shoot progressed, Pacino and Lerman’s relationship deepened. They met on weekends to “crack open the scripts,” as Lerman put it. When they weren’t swapping notes, Pacino shared stories about his roles in all those old films Lerman loved.
At bottom, Lerman argued, ‘Hunters’ turned around a single central dilemma: “Does it take evil to fight evil?” It was a difficult question, and not many actors have grappled with difficult questions more prominently or on a grander scale than Pacino. But he always brought things back to the task at hand.
“The whole process of working with him and getting to know him just demystified the legends, demystified the image I had of an icon, and someone who’s a genius, as just being someone who’s open, hardworking, generous, and a true artist who’s exploring,” Lerman said.
Don’t miss it!
‘Hunters’ is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.