For over forty years, Albert Brooks has been a comedic Renaissance man, writing, directing and appearing in short films for the first two seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” before making classic comedies like Real Life, Lost in America and Defending Your Life. Throughout that time, he’s kept an acting career going with roles in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, an Oscar-nominated performance in James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News and voicing a fish looking for his son in Pixar’s beloved animated film Finding Nemo.
Brooks has been absent from the big screen since his 2005 movie Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, but he returned to theaters last year in Nicolas Winding Refn’s acclaimed crime-thriller Drive, playing Bernie Rose, an L.A. mob boss who makes a deal to sponsor a race car driven by Ryan Gosling’s character, a deal that goes sour when the latter gets involved with a failed robbery. It’s a powerful dramatic performance from Brooks that diverges from his natural comic sensibilities but leaves a huge impression on anyone who has seen the movie.
Brooks is a fun interview and a delight to talk to, as ComingSoon.net found out when we got a surprise phone call from Brooks a few weeks back. What’s impressive about Brooks is how he’s successfully managed to remain in the zeitgeist thanks to his hilarious Twitter feed, while keeping up with internet trends. (For instance, we learned he knew and read ComingSoon.net.)
ComingSoon.net: I’m sure you’ve heard this already, but this is a fantastic performance in a terrific film, and it’s great to have you back.
Albert Brooks: Why, thank you. I was hanging in a meat locker. (Laughs)
CS: I know Nicolas really wanted you for this role, so did he come to you in a normal way, just sending the script to your agent?
Brooks: The casting director called my manager on a Thursday; I was going to San Francisco on Friday. Nicolas was here for three days before he went back to Denmark, so this had a sort of, “Would he read this tonight? If he likes it, do you think he could see Nicolas before he leaves tomorrow?” So it had urgency with it, which is always good because it sort of means that things are serious. The casting director said to my manager when she called–Mindy Marin is her name, and she said–”I know you say that Albert’s always looking for something out of the ordinary, a villain, an interesting twist, you should read this.” So, it came like that, which was obviously good. Ryan was attached. Nicolas was attached. I had seen “Bronson” independently before I ever met Nicolas and I really liked it, so it felt before I read a word, it was like, “Oh, this has got a good little group started.”
CS: Nicolas likes telling the story of how he first met Ryan, being sick and on medication and driving around. Did you guys have a similar type meet-up or was it more conventional?
Brooks: No, I don’t know what medication he was on when I met him. (Laughs) I came to his house. He opened the door. I’ve been doing Q&A’s with Nicolas, Ed. I’ve been hearing this story a lot; it seems to be getting longer with each Q&A. (laughs)
CS: When I spoke to him in Toronto, I had about 15 minutes and after he told the story I only had time for one more question.
Brooks: Yeah, well, that story’s about 46 minutes now. It’s now almost in real time. But anyway, I went to his house and we did that little dance and he said, “Why do you think you should play it?” I said, “Oh, okay, you’re going to be that guy. Cast one of the five people that everybody else casts and you’ll have an ordinary movie.” That was that. He then told me that when he was younger, when he saw “Lost in America,” the way I yelled at my wife scared him and he never forgot about that. Then on the way out, I did one of those things that was sort of like you wonder if you should do it, but I figured, “What the hell?” I was at his front door and there was nothing definitive said, and I pushed him up against the wall right by the door and I held him by the collar and I said in a very quiet voice, “I was a football player and I have a lot of physical strength, just so you know.” I let him go, and then I left. As it turned out, all that stuff was good. I think he was sort of set on wanting me. I think that meeting, in retrospect was more like, “Could I talk him out of it? Could it be so weird that he would say, ‘I don’t know how to make this work?’” But, that was it. It was pretty straightforward. Then, once I got the part, I was cast, I think Bryan Cranston was cast, Ryan and myself, then other people started to come on. Then, once Ron Perlman came on, we spent a lot of time at Nicolas’ house. Yeah, because then there was a team. To me, there was always, in my mind it was like George and Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.” That’s the way I looked at it.
CS: Your scenes with Bryan Cranston are great and I wondered if you had met him before.
Brooks: I’m trying to think if I met him. No, no, I never met him, no, but Bryan’s good, and to me, it’s always like a tennis game, and anytime you play with somebody who’s good, you’re better. That’s what acting is more than anything. You can’t really do anything if the person you’re staring at isn’t giving you a real person to do it with, you know? I’ve acted with people who were giving me nothing, and I’m telling you, it’s difficult to almost have to do it all yourself like some sort of green screen. But you get a guy like Bryan, and he’s so solid. He pitches it so fast and straight every time that it makes it really very, very, very much like a match.
CS: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but had you spent the time since doing “Comedy in the Muslim World,” looking for other roles or have you been writing and not really worrying about acting so much?
Brooks: You know what? I’ve made seven of my own movies, and I would say that the average was three years, so that’s about 22 years where you take yourself – because once you start a movie, once you start to write it and then you sniff around for the financing and it’s your baby, you don’t stop to act for six months for something because the balls fall out of the air. Yeah, so I had written a book, and the timing had been really good because the book was just about finished when Nicolas called. My only job at that stage was doing proof, and I had not started another project in a way. So, the last year I did that. I did Judd Apatow’s movie this last summer, and I’m still reading scripts as an actor. If I start my next movie myself, then I’ve gotta stop the acting. I’d like to see if I can get some things now that I’m in a period where it might be interesting.
CS: I’d imagine now would be a good time to get one of those screenplays you’ve been working on out there and do something new I’d imagine.
Brooks: No, I mean, the thing is writing the novel gave me the creative juices as a writer, so it wasn’t like if I wasn’t making a movie I wasn’t writing. I don’t know if you’ve read my book (“2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America”) or if you saw it. It’s a pretty interesting book. It’s way different than a movie that I could make because it’s about the future and it’s a canvas that would be too expensive for a movie, so I didn’t just write a book that should’ve been a screenplay. I wrote a book that could never have been a screenplay, not one that I could’ve made anyway – maybe Jim Cameron could make it. I was getting my creative writing part of myself, that was being satisfied. I like the acting. It’s how I started, and I sort of feel that if I don’t give it a little shot now and I go back, then I’m pretty much done with it. I mean, at what age am I going to do it at? Although, when you see Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow doing it, I guess the answer is 80. (laughs)
CS: You might be the young guy at the Oscars this year. I don’t know. We’ll see.
Brooks: We’ll see. By the way, first you gotta get nominated, but second of all, it’s the only American name I see. (laughs)
CS: I want to get further into the process of working with Nic. Had you ever done anything like this before where you met with the cast at someone’s house? He mentioned to me that this was part of developing the movie.
Brooks: This process was a similar process in “Taxi Driver.” It wasn’t Marty Scorsese’s house, but the character that I played in “Taxi Driver” was not then fleshed out, so what we would do because the idea of improvising while the film is being made is silly. It never works out. You know, when cameras are rolling, improvisation doesn’t feel natural. The pressure is too great. You’re on a time schedule. You’ve got 60 crewmen. I’ve done it in my own movies that I’ve written; I would myself, maybe carry on a speech a little longer and say all the things I have, but I would never ask another actor to do that. The place to do it is before. I’m thinking of “Taxi Driver,” we spent weeks in a hotel and Marty recorded everything and the best of what we did became the script, so when we shot it, we stuck to that. It was funny because at the wrap party, (screenwriter) Paul Schrader said to me, “I want to thank you. That was the only character I didn’t know.” I said, “It’s the only character that didn’t kill 15 people.” (laughs) That’s sort of scary.
CS: Making a comparison with “Taxi Driver” is a great analogy. It sounds like this came together in a similar way.
Brooks: Listen, there are some movies that are set in stone and the writer or the director does not want to change, but I’ve never worked on a movie, including my own, that didn’t take advantage of a rehearsal process. Listen, you write a movie and then I cast you instead of him, so I’m stupid not to use what you can give me. I mean, that’s what actors can do. Once you decide on a person, as long as you have the ability to write and you have the ability to change, to not take advantage of that person is sort of silly, to not fit things. If I thought a character should scratch his head all the time and I cast a guy who’s bald, maybe I change that, I have him rub his eye. I mean, but you have to do that. At the same time, when you get to the set as when you’re photographing a movie, me personally and Nicolas worked the same way. You keep your eyes and ears open. Sometimes the very day, it takes, where are you going to put the camera? Other people are different. They sketch it out. They know what they’re going to do before they get there, and basically they’re fulfilling a storyboard, like what commercials do. Commercials don’t screw around very much; they have story boards. Most directors that I’ve worked with, including myself, take advantage of as much of the rehearsal process as possible to do all of the fine tuning. With Jim Brooks with “Broadcast News,” we spent weeks and weeks rehearsing. It was a chance for him to change what he wanted to change, to see his words come to life. There was more of that on this. The writer Hossein Amini flew in from London and spent three weeks at Nicolas’ house, so the cast sort of figured out a lot of stuff and he would write it and then it would be committed to paper. Then, we would do it again. I felt the script was in pretty good shape when I read it, but when you hear Nicolas talk, he says it was nothing compared to what it was.
CS: The film has such a distinct visual style and tone so was that stuff that was obvious from the first script you read or was that something that developed as Nicolas worked on it.
Brooks: No, I have to say that developed, because when I saw the movie the first time at the LA Film Festival, I was just captivated. I mean, a movie like that can go 1,000 different ways, but even his music, when he hired Cliff Martinez, I loved, loved, loved the music in that movie. I thought it was really effective. You could imagine “Drive” with a John Williams score, but with anybody (else), it would be a different movie. Those are the choices that Nicolas makes as he goes along and when I’m not there watching, that I was very happy because I thought it turned out well. People say, “Were you surprised?” I said, “Yeah. Of course you’re surprised. You’re surprised when anything works, you know?” It’s not the norm. You’ve gotta be happy about it.
CS: So much happens after you do your acting that you don’t know about since they’re working on it for months and months.
Brooks: That’s right. That’s the difference of being an actor or making your own movies because when you make your own movies, you’re never wrapped. You always know about it. You never can get it out of your mind, but these you forget about, you come in maybe two months later for a looping day and you see, “Oh, look what you did. Oh, I see. You took that shot.” Then when you see the whole movie, you see all the days you’re not there. I mean, I loved the Carrie Mulligan, Ryan Gosling relationship. I loved the quiet. I loved the silences. I didn’t know that. I think the movie got more silent as they shot it. I think that as he went along, they just took out words and I don’t think those stares and that ultra silence between them was necessarily indicated in the script. I think that developed.
CS: I’m not sure if this is a spoiler, but when your character is washing the razor blade after slicing someone, you reach for the dish soap, which is something so brilliant and instinctual and yet, I only noticed it the second time seeing it and when I ask others about it, they miss it. But it’s comic genius and I wondered if that was something improvised on the day or was that something very specific and the dish soap was there just for that reason?
Brooks: No, no, that wasn’t when we got to that kitchen, I asked for it. I wanted to do that. I knew I wanted to do it because it felt to me like doing dishes. (Laughs) It just felt like a thing you’d do after eating dry cereal, so I remember saying, “I want the soap here. I want some soap,” because they had a bar of soap. I said, “What am I going to do with a bar of soap?” That was sort of developed. That was sort of asking the prop guy, “Could you get me some dishwasher stuff?”
CS: It’s terrific, because we’ve seen people wash off knives or blades after killing someone, but I don’t think anyone’s ever reached for dish soap to do it.
Brooks: Yeah, well you know, Bernie liked his knives. He wasn’t going to put that knife back in the case unless it was very clean. Look, that’s what you do. You use dish soap. You’re not going to have special soap to clean a knife.
CS: Obviously, you’ve been through this whole awards season meshugas before. It must’ve changed a lot since you’ve been involved. How has it been this year doing all the parties and the Q&A’s?
Brooks: I’m thinking of “Broadcast News,” which was so long ago now, it seems like it’s increased twentyfold. It seems like it is such a big business. There are so many avenues that they use for this. It’s become a big business. I’ve watched it from the outside in the last few years. With “Broadcast News,” there was no internet. There was the six places, and now there’s like 50 things and it just seems like it’s a big business. These television shows, I remember years and years and years ago when George Schlatter just began a television program, invented the American Comedy Awards, and somebody said (to me), “You’re going to get an American Comedy Award.” “Okay.” “Well, but you have to show up and you gotta be on television.” It was like one of those things where you went, “Well, wait a minute, you’re just calling it an awards show so you can sell an hour to NBC.” (chuckles) Obviously it’s somewhat to do with that, these shows get sponsors, they get a network to show them. It’s like a big business.
CS: Do you at least have fun with it? Are you enjoying it?
Brooks: You have to do it. The truth is I’ve been in so many movies where there’s no attention at the end of the year, so like I said to somebody the other night, “Who wouldn’t want the movie to be having traction in December?” It’s great. It just means that the movie’s working. You never do a movie and not want it to work. You accept whatever it is. You have to, but nobody in their right mind would not want the movie to be getting talked about at the end of the year. That’s only a nice thing. It means that something worked as opposed to just I’ve done performances in movies that I was immensely proud of and the movies didn’t take off like a rocket at Cape Canaveral, it didn’t take off. Nothing happens to those performances, so it’s wonderful if the movie itself can be when this came out of Cannes, it came out of Cannes with such a gunshot, and that was exciting because that’s where I think its fate was sealed. It’s a movie like this that is not ever going to have a huge ad campaign. If a movie like this fails at Cannes, you’re dead.
CS: I’m glad the overall movie is getting attention, as well as your performance, because it really is a terrific film.
Brooks: Yeah, well, just the fact that you and I are talking is cool. I’d rather talk to you than not talk to you about it. I’m just happy that “Drive” is still on the radar, that’s all.
CS: I’m assuming you can’t say much about the Judd Apatow movie (“This is Forty”), but the fact that you two are working together is brilliant, because I can only imagine what that might produce. What was that experience like? Was it very different from the other comedies you’ve done before?
Brooks: Well, I’ll tell you one thing. He’s a whole different way because he writes, but he also lets the camera roll, and not only does he want you to think of everything you can think of, he then starts yelling lines at you from offstage. (Laughs) He gets everything he can get, but he’s got a script, he’s got a form. You’re not arriving there with nothing to do, he just wants to do everything that any brain on the set can think of before the cameras go home. That’s fine with me. To be honest with you, I was Paul Rudd’s father, and I didn’t feel like Paul Rudd’s father in life because I had younger kids and I kept saying to Judd, “Should I gray my hair a little more?” He said, “No, you’re all right.” “Really? Okay.” Then, I was at a Fourth of July party with Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson was there. This was after I had finally stopped worrying about it. Paul told Owen, “Hey, Albert and I are in a movie.” “Oh, what are you doing?” “I’m playing his father.” Owen Wilson started to laugh, “Oh, I couldn’t believe that. No, you should play his brother.” I was right back to square one. Oh my god, are they going to believe it? But apparently, they believed it. By the way, if I had him at 20, I could be his father, but I don’t feel like the father of a man that age, so that was a departure for me.
CS: Have you had a chance to see anything yet? Obviously doing so much while on set, you have no idea what’s going to be used.
Brooks: This movie doesn’t come out until December of next year, but listen, he has I would say sixty hours of material to work with, and I’m happy about it. Choices are great, they’re great. I hope he picks my favorite ones, but he’s got choices up the kazoo, so that’s really going to be where he decides what he wants it to say and he really has so much to choose from.
Drive is out on DVD and Blu-ray on January 31. If you missed it in theaters, check it out!