By Anthony D'Alessandro | Thompson on Hollywood September 19, 2011 at 2:08AM
People often underestimate how good comedians can be as actors. Who knew Albert Brooks could play dark? Revered by a cadre of loyal followers for his riotous passive-aggressive romcom protagonists, Brooks’ turn as gangster Bernie Rose in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive dumbfounded many critics, who gave him raves.
Drive caps off a stellar comeback year for Brooks that includes his first best-selling novel 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America and an upcoming role as Paul Rudd’s father in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up follow-up This Is Forty. Such high marks will help keep Brooks on course during award season, not to mention he’s beloved by the industry for being hysterical both on and off the set. (Check his must-follow tweets at @albertbrooks.) Anthony D’Alessandro interviews Brooks below:
Q: What convinced you to risk playing a gangster in a violent indie noir?
Albert Brooks: Ryan Gosling was on board first, he’s the one that hired Nicolas. So I always liked him and his choices, but I had seen Bronson and knew Nicolas had style. Not to mention, I wanted to play a role like this for a long time. I enjoyed Bronson before I met Nicolas and I thought the script was irresistible.
Q: Would you have taken the role of Bernie Rose during your heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s?
AB: During that time, I was offered a slew of roles in Dead Poets Society, When Harry Met Sally, Big, Pretty Woman, but during this time, I was making my own movies which was a fulltime two-three year job. If I stopped to go act in someone’s movie, I would lose my mojo. If I raised my own money, and then went off for six months to do someone’s movie, I was afraid I wouldn’t come back (to my project) again. Having recently finished a book, it’s easy to write one while you’re waiting around in a trailer, but you can’t direct a movie while waiting in a trailer on someone else’s film. I heard Coppola tried.
Q: I read that your theory on Bernie is that he’s not too far from some of your romcom protagonists.
AB: I think what I was trying to say was that the behavior of any of my comedy characters, taken to extremes, would be violent. What my character Robert Cole did in 1981’s Modern Romance – sitting in front of a woman's house for 15 hours – would get you a restraining order nowadays. Nicolas joked that when he first saw Lost in America, the most frightening thing was how I yelled at Julie Hagerty. I never thought any of my characters would kill, but in discussing comedy – it is a form of anger. To want to talk about something to make someone laugh, means you think about it all the time and that you’re pissed. So if you’re able to, you make fun of it. Comedy lives in another universe of anger. Think about the expressions alone that comedians use after a set – ‘I killed them’ or ‘I destroyed them.’
Q: Martin Scorsese cast you, a comedian, to play a straight man in Taxi Driver, and now you’re playing a Travis Bickle-type.
AB: Marty didn’t have a part written for me and casted me since he was a big fan of my work. It was a non-existent part and even Paul Schrader said to me years later that I was the only character he did not know, which I found amazing because I was the only character who didn’t kill 60 people. Overall, Taxi Driver was a graduate school course in filmmaking for me. On the days, I didn’t shoot, I just lived on the set. I was making those Saturday Night Live shorts around the same time, but this was a chance for me to see how a group of people set up shots. I knew I could go to sleep or to a museum, but I soaked it all up.
Q: As a vet of radio and film, did your father Harry Einstein impart any advice on show business that still rings true today?
AB: Unfortunately, he passed away when I was 11 ½ and the only advice I remember him giving me was (laughs) ‘Never volunteer!’ I believe he was referring to those people on the WW II ads.
Q: You've been friends with Rob Reiner since childhood; did his dad Carl Reiner ever dispense any advice?
AB: Carl was a huge influence and as best friends with Rob, I lived at his house during half my life, getting the chance to talk with Mel Brooks. Rob and I use to hang around at The Dick Van Dyke Show and cue the actors and soak it in. Carl wasn’t a big advice giver, but he was an appreciator, especially if you made him laugh. One of the many thrills of my life was when I was still in high school and Johnny Carson asked Carl who the funniest people are and he responded ‘Mel Brooks and this 16-year-old kid named Albert Einstein.’
Q: When developing comedies, Hollywood goes through phases – gross-outs were big in the ‘90s, R-rated female fare is popular now. When the studios backed your projects in the ‘70s and ‘80s (Real Life, Modern Romance), were they responding to a trend?
AB: In the beginning when they greenlit my films, I was a cheap enough chip on the roulette table and I was part of a trend they couldn’t figure out. Woody Allen was making movies and when they worked, like Annie Hall, they couldn’t put a pin in it. This helped a person like myself. Whenever Woody’s films worked, I told them (in a pitch meeting) ‘It’s just like Woody!’ And when they didn’t work, I would say ‘It’s the opposite of Woody!’ I was never going to succeed at the mold and I wasn’t created to enhance a mold. I was there as someone to make stuff around the edges.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Defending Your Life made $200 million – it’s an accessible movie. A film that generates low grosses has largely to do with a studio's decisions. Stanley Kubrick found me and phoned me after I did Modern Romance -- it was like the President calling. Kubrick said ‘You’re going to blame yourself and it has nothing to do with you. Releasing a movie has nothing to do with you, it has to do with a corporation.’ Essentially if a movie doesn’t open well because no one has heard of it, I’m not suppose to sit at home believing I was on a level playing field. Nowadays it takes $50 million in marketing to ensure that an audience shows up at the theater and if the film doesn’t appear on the awareness charts, it doesn’t matter what you have. My movies because they were inexpensive; nobody was going to go out there and make them work. If they worked, great. I know Defending Your Life surprised the hell out of Warner Bros. We opened bigger than expected and we didn’t drop off in our second (wide) weekend, but by the third weekend, when you try to play catch-up during that period, you’re pretty much dead.
Q: Your embrace of Twitter has reminded us of your flair for pungent one-liners. Can we expect you to return to stand-up?
AB: I’m a little bit more comfortable now with the notion of getting up at the mike. One of the advantages of getting older is that you have less to lose. You can worry about your career when you’re young, because nobody else will. The phone call that I would most like to get is another surprise role like Bernie from an interesting director; something that’s a challenge and unexpected. Twitter reminds me of those short Larry King columns in USA Today like ‘Why do supermarkets smell like trees?’ (laughs). I began doing it to publicize my book, and if I had it in my hand before I brought my book to my publisher, it would have been better. It gives the actual person direct access which is the coolest part. I have never put more thought into a non-paying job in my life.
Q: The sport shop scene with your brother in Modern Romance (seen below) is a riot. Was it improvised? Please deconstruct.
AB: It definitely wasn’t improvised. Improv is strange. The danger of it is if you do too much, it always winds up in anger. Performers are afraid of quiet moments in improv and what’s the opposite of quiet? Yelling at someone and saying ‘You asshole!’ I asked my brother to do that scene because he has that subtle tone. I remember my brother (Bob Einstein aka Super Dave Osborne) taking me aside and saying ‘I don’t know what’s funny in that scene.’ I responded ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take the responsibility.’ The scene works because it fits the tone of the other scenes in the movie, not to mention, I have that quiet tone. My character likes to be dumped on in a quiet way, something that harks back to Jack Benny. I loved him so much. Aside from being the only person who could get the laugh from a simple look to the side, Benny surrounded himself with people who would get the laughs. All Benny did was react off them. He was the wall you threw them against…Benny was one of the greatest reactors. My brother gets the laughs in this scene and my character is the Benny type.