'Erin Brockovich,' 20 Years Later: "I See So Many of Us Finding That Courage to Stand Up"

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Conchata Ferrell, Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in 2000's 'Erin Brockovich.'

The activist who inspired Steven Soderbergh's 2000 drama reflects on its legacy amid current crises as citizens "no longer have the comfort to believe an agency has our back."

Amid a coronavirus pandemic, the harrowing outlook of climate change and the rollback of Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, Erin Brockovich may be just as resonant today if not more so than when it was released two decades ago on March 17, 2000. And the activist herself keeps fighting the good fight.

"We were somehow convinced that our voice wasn’t going to matter, or we felt silenced or not heard," Brockovich recalls to The Hollywood Reporter of her work to help spotlight a utility’s poisoning of residents in California’s Mojave Desert.

The twice-divorced mother of three, with no formal legal education, was instrumental in the class-action lawsuit against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1993. The lawsuit exposed that the company had been leading toxic chemicals into the groundwater in Hinkley, California. In 1996, the investor-owned utility paid $333 million to the residents of the tiny desert community — the largest settlement the company had paid out for an environmental lawsuit. 

Since then, Brockovich has sensed a shift in the culture concerning the environment. "That’s what the past 20 years has kind of been. From so many young girls saying, 'I loved the film. It inspired me to go to law school. It inspired me to get involved in environmental policy,'" Brockovich says. "About 99 percent of the time, it’s the mothers. They are actually getting things done in their own city council, in their own backyard. They no longer have the comfort to believe an agency has our back."

Because she spent so much time in Hinkley examining the water supply, Brockovich got sick during the time of the lawsuit. There are scenes in the film in which her character seems to have the flu, though a sequence shot in the hospital was ultimately cut. "My white [blood cell] count was dropping dramatically," she explains. "My immune system was failing." And she has yet to get her white count tested. "I still worry about it today."

Produced by Jersey Films (Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher), directed by Steven Soderbergh and penned by Susannah Grant, Erin Brockovich starred Julia Roberts as the environmental activist and consumer advocate.

But Erin Brockovich may not have made it to the big screen without a story-savvy chiropractor telling patient Carla Santos Shamberg — the wife of producer Michael Shamberg — about the activist who was also a patient.

"Honestly, without Carla it wouldn’t have happened," notes Sher, whose latest production is the upcoming FX on Hulu series Mrs. America. "Carla’s chiropractor literally said, 'I know this woman and her life would make an incredible movie,'" she recalls. "So, part of the miracle of this is Carla meeting Erin and instantly recognizing how extraordinary Erin was."

"We think of her as such a superhero," Sher says. "It’s easy to forget how vulnerable she was."

In fact, Sher notes, the trait was the key to portraying Brockovich. "I was really struck by the story she told me about how she discovered [the contamination on Hinkley]. She’s dyslexic and was worried she was going to file something wrong and was going through everything really carefully and then started finding these medical records and trying to figure out why there were medical records in real estate files. She started asking questions because she’s so bright and cares so much. I think she said to me once, 'I always felt destined to do something. I just didn’t know what it was.'"

Screenwriter Grant recalls that at this time in Brockovich’s life, "she has just as many weaknesses as she has strengths. What I kind of loved about her was the moment in her life in which so many calamities which had been a liability to her in other situations — her relentlessness, her inability to take no for an answer; suddenly, they were exactly what was needed.”

The screenwriter spent time with Brockovich while developing the film. "At that time in her life, she was doing a lot of driving around in that area because there were other claims that were going on. She was driving back and forth and visiting with people. I would just ride along and had a tape recorder going the whole time," Grant says. "She introduced me to a number of the people who had been plaintiffs in the case — all of whom had gag orders based on their settlements. What was wonderful was that Erin in her wisdom early on before the gag order been imposed had done videotape interviews with the plaintiffs."

Upon its initial March 2000 release, Erin Brockovich received favorable notices from critics. "More akin to Silkwood or Norma Rae, the film zeroes in on a woman's voyage of self-discovery brought about by a passionate conviction that a serious wrong must be righted," read THR's review at the time. The film went on to earn $256.3 million globally and five Oscar nominations, including best film, director, screenplay, supporting actor for Albert Finney (who played Erin’s boss, lawyer Ed Masry) and best actress for Roberts. In addition to claiming the Oscar, Roberts also won the SAG Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA for her performance as the most unlikely heroine who was outspoken, passionate, had a penchant for R-rated words and dressed in the shortest of skirts and the lowest cut of blouses.

Brockovich gets emotional when she talks about Masry, who died in 2005. "Ed was incredible," she notes. "He allowed me to do me and didn’t stifle that. He said 'No, I think she’s on to something and I’m going to support that.' We did everything together. Those were some of the best times in my life. He had a great sense of humor. He understood people. He was OK to learn something from me and we learned from each other."

She pauses. "He was always the best," Brockovich says softly. "I was holding his hand with his son and his wife when he passed. One of the best friends I ever had."

Besides lecturing about the environment, Brockovich is planing an upcoming podcast, a pilot at ABC called Rebel, which is inspired by her life, and a new book due in August titled Superman Is Not Coming. She also is a popular fixture on the lecture circuit.

"It starts as a child because I’m dyslexic," she says. "Dyslexics are smart but because I was different, I was put in a box. It was a judgment. It was the perception you can’t dare to be different. When I started my work in Hinkley, I was relieved because I realized I wasn’t alone. They, too, were being pushed on."

Brockovich remembers being told, "You’re not a doctor or lawyer or scientist. You’re a single mom." She responds, "'What? Where do you even think that I have to be any of that to be a human and tell you what I see is not right?' That’s where I came from and I continue to be the same today. I see so many of us finding that courage to stand up."

She describes Grant and Soderbergh as visionaries. "They just get the importance and value and the protection that we should have of the environment, how we need to find our voices and how we need to fight for it," Brockovich notes. 

Sher notes that Soderbergh took a chance on the directing style on Erin Brockovich. "He said at one point, 'I’m going to shoot this like a Ken Loach film, really naturalistic,'" she notes. "'So, you can forget that you’re watching that biggest movie star in the world.’ And we're like, 'That is brilliant. We’re all in on that, just don’t tell the studio.'"