September 16, 2011 5:40pm PT by Scott Feinberg
Toronto 2011: Albert Brooks Talks Oscar Buzz for His 'Drive' Performance (Audio)
Over the past decade, I've interviewed nearly 300 people representing every era and sector of the film industry, most of whom possess names and faces known the world over. People often ask if I get nervous before doing them, and the truthful answer is that I don't... at least the vast majority of the time. The situation was a little different, however, a few days ago as I made my way over to the Ritz Carlton in Toronto to interview the actor Albert Brooks, 64, who was in town to attend the North American premiere of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive -- a drama that stars Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, but has been generating the most Oscar buzz for Brooks' supporting performance -- at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Why? For several reasons, I think. First of all, I grew up watching Brooks' movies, so I feel more of a personal connection to him than, say, Mickey Rooney or Michael Caine, despite fully appreciating their significance. Secondly, I'd been told that Brooks doesn't do very many interviews, partly because he doesn't make very many movies anymore, but also because he's not crazy about the process of selling those that he does make. Which leads to the third reason: I'd heard that interviewing Brooks, to paraphrase The Social Network (2010), is like interviewing a stairmaster... in other words, he can be tough.
And then I met him myself, in a booth in the hotel's restaurant, and my experience couldn't have been more different from what I had feared. A recent convert to Twitter (@AlbertBrooks), he teased me about a Tweet that I had posted that morning in which I listed him as the third of three interviews that I was to conduct that morning -- which was accurate, chronologically, but not in terms of their significance to me. A follower of Oscar blogs, he congratulated me about joining The Hollywood Reporter. And, as you can hear for yourself below, he answered each and every one of my questions thoughtfully and, as one might expect, with an ample dose of humor.
What makes Brooks' performance in Drive particularly noteworthy is that it's so different from anything else that we have ever seen him do. For decades, ever since he started doing bits on late night talks shows at the age of 19, the public has known him as a likable -- if hapless -- funnyman, particularly in several now-classic comedies such as Real Life (1979), Lost in America (1985), and Broadcast News (1987). In a way, it seems he was destined for such a career -- after all, his father Harry Parke was a popular radio comedian who, Brooks recalls, used to make jokes at the dinner table "that would make us laugh and make my mother angry" (and who died of a heart attack just moments after finishing a roast at a Friar's Club gathering, when his son was just 11-and-a-half).
But you may be surprised to learn that Brooks never envisioned his career going in this direction. "I, sort of, got into comedy accidentally, and it got bigger than I wanted it to. My agent lied to me. He said, 'If you do this, you'll get all the acting parts!' And, four years later, I'm in a club in St. Louis, and it's snowing, and there's no acting parts, and he wouldn't answer the phone."
Refn, however, saw him in a different light -- a dramatic light in which he hasn't really been seen since making his big screen debut in a small part in Taxi Driver (1976) 35 years ago, but to which he always hoped to return. Refn wanted him for the part of Bernie Rose, a tightly-wound mobster whose hands, he openly acknowledges and soon enough demonstrates, are very dirty. Brooks met with him about the part, made his case, and literally pinned Refn up against the wall to show that he was the right guy for the job... and even then it took a while before he heard that he had been cast. He laughs, "I read in interviews later, 'Oh, this was the only guy I wanted!' Well, he didn't tell me that -- otherwise they would have had to pay me more!" More seriously, though, he adds, "This was a leap I have always wanted to take. I knew it would be believable, but if you're the director and you don't buy it, it doesn't matter what I think. Nicolas believed it."
When you think about it, casting a guy like Brooks in a part like Rose actually make a lot of sense. As he notes, "The truth is, there are six guys you cast all the time for these parts, and it's so nice to cast a new guy in one... you know, when they cast these German guys in the Die Hard movies... you know what's going to happen, you know who that guy is, so, instinctively, you know the whole plot! You don't know what Bernie Rose is going to do 'cause you haven't seen Bernie Rose before... I think it always enhances it when you don't know what's going to happen. It's always a plus." He goes on, "And, by the way, in real life, the nasty people are always the most likable. Look at Ted Bundy -- you know, girls weren't getting into his van 'cause he was an asshole; he was the world's most charming guy! And that's really the way life works... I mean, Bernie Madoff was a charmer who knew that he'd wipe you out. If you met a guy who you knew would wipe you out in the first 10 minutes, you wouldn't give him your money!"
As for the prospect of earning a return ticket to the Oscars 24 years after his last nomination -- best supporting actor nod for Broadcast News, a rare acknowledgement by the Academy of a comedic performance -- he thinks for only a moment before coming up with a great joke: "Well, if I was lucky enough to get an Oscar nomination, I would hope that Sean Connery wasn't up again!" 24 years ago, Connery, nominated for The Untouchables, took home the statuette in what was largely perceived as a tribute to his whole body of work. "You lose against James Bond!" This time, though, it could be Brooks' turn to be recognized, not only for his body of work in the past, but for having the guts to change things up in the present.
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Brooks shares a few thoughts about some of his most memorable films...
Taxi Driver (1976) -- "That was the first movie I was in, so that was a big deal for me. Even when I wasn't working, I would go to the set and I would just stare and try to suck in as much information as I could."
Real Life (1979) -- "The Loud family [which had been featured on An American Family, one of the first examples of reality television] had a big impact on me. You know, it hadn't been made fun of, really... They didn't really talk much about the filmmaker... Didn't he cause the divorce?"
Lost in America (1985) -- "Trying to get my money back from Garry Marshall still feels like it's a good idea!"
Broadcast News (1987) -- [Regarding the sweating scene] "CNN had only been a network for a few years, and I saw a guy at midnight just fill up cups of water, and I woke [writer/director James L. Brooks] up -- I called him -- and I said, 'Jim! Turn on the television! Look at this guy!' ... [Then] we had to figure out a way for me to sweat, and we tried a lot of different things... and what they came up with was-- The makeup guy came up with this little series of tubes operated almost like a pipe organ. He was crunched behind me."