He broke into movies when Martin Scorsese, a fan, cast him as a campaign worker in "Taxi Driver." But Brooks often eschewed other acting roles to pursue writing and directing his own films—cerebral comedies such as "Modern Romance," "Lost in America," and "Defending Your Life"—whose respectable but hardly blockbuster box office didn't fully reflect the enormous cultural impact his work had. (Anyone who has ever called someone a "little brain" owes a debt to "Defending Your Life.")
Outside of his own projects, Brooks has flourished. He earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as an underappreciated reporter in "Broadcast News." And he's beloved by children and adults as the voice of Marlin, Nemo's fretful father, in "Finding Nemo." At 64, Brooks seems to have accomplished everything he set out to in the entertainment world.
But with 2011, Brooks might be having one of his best years yet. He released his first novel, "2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America," a look at a future in which curing cancer has drawbacks and health insurance inanities still exist. And this week, audiences will have the opportunity to see him as never before, playing Jewish gangster Bernie Rose in "Drive."
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, best known for violent thrillers "Bronson" and the "Pusher" trilogy, and starring Ryan Gosling as a man known only as Driver, the stylish film has earned raves along the festival circuit since debuting at Cannes, where Refn won the best director award. In a cast of greats, including Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman, Brooks stands out as the most sinister, threatening, and amusing villain seen onscreen in a long time.
"I don't know whose idea it was to cast Albert Brooks as a badass," Gosling admits. "But we're all in competition to take credit for it now."
Everyone wants to take credit for casting you in "Drive" how did the role come to you?
Albert Brooks: I don't know whose initial idea it was. And Ryan's not joking. Nicolas takes credit for it now; even Bryan Cranston says, "I told them!" I don't know whose idea it was, but I liked the idea. I got a call from my manager on a Thursday; the following day I was going to San Francisco. The casting director Mindy Marin had said [to my manager], "This director's in town for two days; I'd like to send you a script. If Albert likes it, will he go meet with him?"
It all happened within an hour: I got a script, I read it, I really did like it, and I went and met him. They didn't say, "It's yours if you want it"—they just said to go meet him. So we had this weird dance. It was like an interview for a law firm. Nicolas says, "So, why do you think you should play this?" And I had a very good answer for him. I said, "The same 10 people always play the bad guy, so if you want everybody to think your movie's old hat, cast them." We talked some more, and he told me that when he was younger he sat in a theater and watched "Lost in America" and I scared him when I yelled at my wife. So then I pinned him up against the wall to show him I had strong arms, and I left.
Wait, did you really pin him? Did he know you were going to?
Brooks: I really did. He had no idea. And let me tell you something; for a guy who films all this violence, I don't think he likes to be touched. I just grabbed him. It was at the end of the interview and I was walking out and we were by the door. And I grabbed him and said, very quietly, "To be violent, you don't have to scream at people."
That's a bold move, but I guess it didn't backfire?
Brooks: As I was doing it, I thought, "I don't know if this is the right move." But I wanted to do it. I was sort of pissed at the slow interview, and I wanted to do something. I mean, if this had been for, like, a secretarial position, I wouldn't have done it. But I thought it was important to show actual physical strength.
Were you at all surprised you were being asked to play a villain? I can't remember seeing you play a bad guy.
Brooks: I played a bad guy in "Out of Sight," but he was a pussy. He needed protection in prison, he needed people to stick up for him, he had security guards around him. He wasn't a guy who would take action himself; he paid people to do it. So I've never played a guy who you wouldn't want to cross physically, for your own safety.
Because you've created so much of your own work, you've bypassed the audition stage quite a bit. When you sign on to a film as an actor only, do you generally have to audition?
Brooks: I have a lot of meetings with directors. Mostly because I made my own movies, I turned down so many great roles, and those were offers. But there have been a few times where I fought for something. I remember I wanted "One Hour Photo." I met the director, and I think in his mind he'd already cast Robin Williams. We met at the Chateau Marmont; I prepared for the meeting, I really thought about it. And when I left I thought, "Jesus, I'd give it to me." But I don't think it was ever in question; I think it was just a formality.
As a director, do you understand that?
Brooks: Sure, if your heart's set on somebody, it's hard to yank it away. But if you're not set on anyone, these meetings are good. But somebody has to not have it precast, otherwise they're just agent thank-you meetings. And believe me, I've gotten those calls on my films: "Would you meet him, please?" And I said, "I know who I want. I love them but I don't want them for this." And I don't take the meeting, because I think it's an insult; if I know I don't want you, I don't want to waste your time. With "Drive," Nicolas either wanted me, thought he wanted me, or had no idea who he wanted. That was a meeting I was happy to take, and by the way, you're doing it for you, too. You want to sit in a room with someone and say, "Can I work two and a half months with this person?"
"Drive" is a fun movie that audiences seem to love, but have you been surprised by all of its critical success?
Brooks: It came out of Cannes shot from a cannon. And I was nervous about it. I said to them, "Is it good to take it to Cannes?" Because it's weird: If you have a movie like this and you go there and fail and you're coming out in September, you have the summer just to die. If it's the opposite of word of mouth, you're dead. I was on a book tour so I couldn't go, but Nicolas and Ryan called me and were so excited and saying, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God!" I was getting this contact high. So when it came out of Cannes, I started to get excited because I've been in many movies where I loved the performance, but no one saw it. I shot a movie in Toronto called "Critical Care" with Sidney Lumet where I played an 80-year-old alcoholic doctor, and I was very proud of that whole performance, and seven people saw it.
Is that heartbreaking or just part of the business?
Brooks: It's just the way it is; sometimes they go nowhere. Years later, someone might stop you on the street and say they saw it, and that's a great feeling. I made this movie I thought was very sweet called "My First Mister." It was released exclusively at Lincoln Center two weeks after 9/11. Not only that, it was the theater that had the anthrax scare. If there was a black hole, that would have been a better place to show it.
As a filmmaker, what do you attribute the critical success of "Drive" to?
Brooks: I think that's Nicolas. He's showing some chops here, just in the way he constructed the movie. If you took this movie on paper and gave it to 10 other people to make, eight would be a movie you've seen before and wouldn't do much for you. To really be able to make this into a cinematic experience, which he did, is an accomplishment. Both my wife and I saw it, and usually when I see a movie the first time, I'm looking at what was cut out, but with "Drive," I got lost in it. And more importantly, four days later I had these images in my head and the music was haunting me. It stuck with me, and I don't even know how that happened exactly. It was like subliminal advertising—he might be throwing in some "Deep Red"s there!
You mentioned before that you've turned down some great roles. I know you were offered "When Harry Met Sally…"
Brooks: I was offered "Pretty Woman" I was offered "Big" and "Dead Poets Society." But what was important to me in those years was to make movies, to make these Albert Brooks movies. And if you take your eye off the ball, you don't get the funding. You can't stop once you've started; you have to bring it to completion. There was one part I really wanted, and I had just begun preproduction on "The Muse." It was the Burt Reynolds role in "Boogie Nights." I really wanted to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, but once you start to even assemble a skeleton crew, you can't say to everyone, "Hey guys, I'm going to go off to film this other movie."
Did you ever think, from a business standpoint, that if you did those movies, it might make you a bigger name and help your films get funding?
Brooks: But the thing is, the goal was never to be a star; the goal was to try to write these movies and get the creativity out. It was really important to get my movies made, or they never would have been made. There's a time when it's right to do those things. And I'm happy with every decision.
I don't think the goal is, how big a star did you ever become? I think the goal is, were you able to express yourself? And if you're able to say yes, in any field, you've won. If you paint, write, do mosaics, knit—if it's solving that part of your brain saying, "I need to do this," you've won. Nobody gives a shit if your career is here or here—it's all temporary anyway.
As an actor, do you think you have empathy for actors who audition for you?
Brooks: Definitely. And I'm a good person; I wish all the times I had to go through that, I could have someone like myself because I do it and I understand it and I'm very respectful of the craft. When I audition, I understand what it takes and the insecurities that come with it. If I do anything, I put actors at ease. I used to tell directors who weren't actors, the best thing they could do was take an acting class for a couple of months. Just to understand. Because some directors don't have any feeling for it, and you're on your own.
What would you like actors who audition for you to know?
Brooks: Auditions are just part of the job. If you take any of this personally, you're in the wrong business. It has nothing to do with you. How many people didn't get a part who would have been better than the person who got the part? Thousands.
But it feels very personal.
Brooks: It does, because a person is saying no, thank you. But it has nothing to do with you. Somebody has a preconceived notion of what they want, and you might give a better performance or be a better person than what they get, but you look like their aunt and they don't want to spend a week with you. You don't know the reasons. It's like going out on a date. Why do some people get turned down? What do you do? You go on to another person. People's decisions come from things that have to do with them; it's not about you.
I read somewhere that you didn't intend to be a comedian. So how did your career in comedy come about?
Brooks: It's true, I never wanted to be a comedian—I wanted to be an actor. I came back from a year at college, and at 19 I couldn't get any acting jobs. I had a couple of comedy bits I did for my friends, one of which was the world's worst ventriloquist. I did it at a party, and somebody heard about it, and I was offered "The Steve Allen Show."
So I started on network television; there were no comedy clubs. So at 19, 20 years old, I started coming up with stuff in my bathroom. Then I got "The Dean Martin Show." These weren't big breaks—these were just laying pipe. I had done about 60 television shows, from "Ed Sullivan" to "The Hollywood Palace," before I ever went to "Johnny Carson." At the time, that was the showcase for comics. And I couldn't believe it.
When did you truly feel you had broken through?
Brooks: I'll tell you the moment my whole life felt different. Bob Hope used to walk on "The Tonight Show" a lot unannounced. It's fine when you're watching it at home, but when you're on it and he shows up, it's a little jarring. He shows up 10 minutes before the show, and you know he wants to walk out and plug his special. In those days, Johnny Carson used to always tell me I was crazy. He'd say, "You're insane, where do you get this stuff, you are crazy!"
And Bob Hope's whole act was using celebrities as punch lines: "Hey, I just saw Helen Reddy—boy, I'm a woman now!" That's all he did. So after he plugged his show, Bob Hope said, "Hey, I gotta run but you've got a lot of great people here. I just saw Albert Brooks; he's on the couch now!" And he got a big laugh. I thought, "Oh, my God, Bob Hope got a laugh saying I'm insane! I've made it!" I recorded that and for about eight months, it was on my answering machine.
– Other films Brooks wrote, directed, and starred in include "Real Life," "Mother," and "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World"
– Spent two years on the road opening for Neil Diamond
– Penned an infamous essay for Esquire magazine called "Albert Brooks' Famous School for Comedians"
– Was offered a job on the first season of "Saturday Night Live." He didn't want to continue with sketch comedy but agreed to make several short films for the show, which he considers his "graduate course in filmmaking."