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‘Drive’ Star Albert Brooks Reflects On His Career & Working With Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, James L. Brooks & More

'Drive' Star Albert Brooks Reflects On His Career & Working With Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, James L. Brooks & More

Over the weekend, the Film Society of Lincoln Center put on a special event, hosted by Scott Foundas, centered around “Drive” star Albert Brooks, who is earning strong Oscar buzz for his role as menacing mob boss Bernie Rose. The night took a unique (and, it should be noted, unexpected) approach by focusing on the roles that Brooks acted in, instead of the ones where he appeared in something that he had both written and directed. The night kicked off memorably with the beginning of “The Twilight Zone: The Movie,” a clip that still plays well today (you could tell that much of the audience either hadn’t seen the movie or had forgotten about it completely), and from there it was a wonderful look back through the years, from his breakthrough performances to his role in “Drive.” 

Foundas started the night by asking Brooks how he got into comedy. “I always say if people want your kid to get into comedy, name him Albert Einstein,” Brooks joked. “That was the name I was born with and early on I learned to be defensive. You sort of know early on that there are a couple of kids in the school who are getting laughs. There’s kids who are the great quarterbacks and there are kids who are getting laid the most but the kids who are getting the laughs fell to me early.”

“There was no comedy clubs so I would try out things in my house and if it made me laugh I’d go do it on the ‘Dean Martin Show,’ ” Brooks said about the different landscape for comedy back then. “The late 60s and early 70s were the heyday of variety television – so there were all of these places… So I did them in front of an audience and I found myself deep in the comedy profession. I didn’t do any live performing until I did five years of television. Then I got a job opening for Neil Diamond.”

Brooks had studied to become a professional, serious actor, but he fell into the job of stand-up comedian. “I studied to be an actor. And then I came back to Los Angeles when I was 20 and I couldn’t get any acting parts. The only acting parts for 20-year-olds, Richard Dreyfuss was getting all of them,” he said. But after his agent got him a string of high profile television appearances, which led to his stand-up routine (and a pair of highly influential albums), he said, “…five years later I was doing three shows a night in Philadelphia and I wasn’t doing any acting. I was further into that profession that I didn’t want to do.”

After a disastrous opening for Sly and the Family Stone, he stopped and worked his way into movies, his first role being a small but extraordinary part in Martin Scorsese‘s era-defining “Taxi Driver.”

“Scorsese saw me on television, I guess my agent was right,” Brooks said. “They didn’t really have that character developed. The part wasn’t written so we rehearsed for a couple of weeks and at the end, Paul Schrader said, ‘Thank you, that was the only part I didn’t know.’ And I said, ‘That’s the only character who doesn’t kill 16 people. How screwed up are you?’ But it was a huge, great first experience on a film.” He then joked that, “Robert De Niro was at the height of his method at that time – he didn’t like my character and he wouldn’t speak to me and then at the wrap party he wouldn’t speak to me.”

Making the movie, though, they had no clue of its historical or cultural significance. “Look, ‘Taxi Driver,’ in retrospect, has become this weird piece of film history,” Brooks said. “But when it came out it was received well but it wasn’t the second coming until Reagan was shot.”

After showing a brief but hilarious scene from “Private Benjamin” (apparently the filmmakers asked him, “Do you want to fuck Goldie Hawn and die?”), he talked about being in the prime of his career, acting-wise, but having to choose to do more personal writer/director pursuits.

“I wish you could take every offer you got in Hollywood and go to a window and just get 10% to turn it down. Because I was getting all of these – from ‘Dead Poet’s Society‘ to ‘Big‘ to the Richard Gere part in ‘Pretty Woman.‘ But once you start making our own films and you start the cycle of raising the money, it’s three years. And if you stop at any part you lose the momentum – you can’t keep a crew,” Brooks explained. “There were lots of great calls that I could not have taken because it was most important to me to make my own movies. So these movies came in-between.”

At one point he stopped to talk about his process, and about what he liked about other actors, and it certainly falls in line with what he’s produced on screen. “The actors I liked the most growing up were the ones that leaves room to color in,” Brooks said. “Some actors come on so strong that there’s no room to breathe and some people think that’s acting. Like people who can cry at will in acting school always got the As but I’m not sure that’s the best acting.”

Foundas also brought up the fact that, as a writer/director, Brooks might have been tempted to suggest things to either the filmmakers or other actors, but he said that’s never the case, and enjoys the differences. “Being a director means that being the director being means responsible for the budget. All you do is worry,” Brooks said. “If you’re an actor in someone else’s movie and it rains, you can just go in your trailer and read. Any director you work with, if you think of something they want to hear it. Basically: it’s not your gig.” Although, he said, his chumminess with James L. Brooks, whom he has worked for multiple times in movies and on television in “The Simpsons,” got the better of him. “The thing that was challenging with Jim was that sometimes he would take my ideas less seriously,” Brooks said, citing a scene from “Broadcast News.” “It’s this uncomfortable moment and I thought the scene was going very well and Bill Hurt stopped the scene. And Bill said, ‘I have to stop. I was feeling Albert’s uncomfortableness.’ And Jim said, ‘Buddy!’ I think being his friend was a disadvantage.”

One collaboration with James L. Brooks that was famously unweildy was “I’ll Do Anything,” which was originally shot as a big budget, old fashioned Hollywood musical, with songs written by Prince. Of course, after a disastrous string of test screenings, the songs were edited out, and the movie, while having some nice moments, does feel like a kind of half-finished beast. “Brooks was a guy who always had amazing things happen to him and he always played things down,” Brooks explained. “Anytime Jim was negative it was the best thing that happened to anybody else. They previewed it with the music and he called me at midnight. He said, ‘They walked out.’ At the end? ‘No, about half the audience walked out in the middle.’ So he took out the music, which is ironic because the movie is about a guy who adjusts his whole life because of what people think.” Brooks’ character in the movie is a high-energy, take-no-prisoners film producer modeled after a certain “The Matrix” producer whom Brooks joked, “he couldn’t mention by name, legally.” When Foundas asked if this producer, who may or may not be the ultra-powerful Joel Silver, was still mad at him, Brooks said yes. “I think he hated me for like thirteen years,” Brooks said. “I saw him a couple of years ago at a Fourth of July party and I said, ‘What are you? Still angry?’ And he said, ‘By the way, Jim’s films are doing very poorly.'”

While the retrospective did shed some light on some of Brooks’ more well-known work it was also a chance to spotlight some of his lesser known roles, like in the underrated sports comedy “The Scout,” which Brooks co-wrote and lost a lengthy creative battle over what he considered a superior ending (“The bad ending won by eight points,” he grumbled), and a medical satire by Sidney Lumet called “Critical Care.” “This was a movie that Sidney Lumet did, I think six people saw it — I don’t know if Sidney watched the final cut,” Brooks said, laughing. “But I played an alcoholic 80-year-old doctor and Rick Baker, the greatest make-up guy in the world, came up with this character. If you’re going to do a character this extreme you’ve got to go out into the world and see if anyone knows and when someone opens the door for you, you know you’ve got it.”

When asked for his take on Steven Soderbergh, who cast him in “Out of Sight,” in a villainous role that many have cited as a precursor to his work in “Drive,” Brooks only said, “My take was that I begged him for the Albert Finney role in ‘Erin Brokovich‘ and I didn’t get it.”

Throughout the night, clips of the star were sometimes muted at the beginning, which caused him to yell out things like “I have a VCR at home,” and “‘The Artist‘ will do great here,” and after showing a clip from a little-seen 2001 drama “My First Mister,” he said that it opened a couple weeks after September 11th in a theater that was once the target for an anthrax attack. “I wish September 11th didn’t happen for all the right reasons and,” Brooks said, pointing back at the screen, “for this too.”

On the subject of “Drive,” which is, after all, why we were here, Brooks mused that, “It was only a Danish director that can make that happen. I know I have that side of me. I know I wanted to play a villain. In between movies I think there was the second ‘Mission: Impossible‘ where Phillip Seymour Hoffman played the bad guy [note: it was actually ‘Mission: Impossible III‘] and I wanted that part but I couldn’t convince an American director. But Nicolas Winding Refn was Danish and I don’t think he knew who I was.” This got a laugh, and Brooks explained further: “He said when he was younger he saw ‘Lost in America‘ and said he got scared when I yelled. So I went to his house and we had a discussion and he played this game – ‘Why do you think you should do this?’ And I said, ‘Well you can cast one of the six people who always play this part but then you’ll have a cliché movie. And everybody will know what happens as soon as they come on screen.'” While Brooks said he wasn’t “method,” it did strike him to get into character before he left Refn’s home. “Before I left, he had this front door and I pinned him against the wall and I said to him, ‘Physically I’m a very strong man.’ Danes are white to begin with; he went clear.” Although, it turns out, Refn playing it cool was probably something of a ruse. “I found out that he and Ryan Gosling had always wanted me but played coy so I would do it for scale.”

Later this year, Brooks will be in Judd Apatow‘s new movie, “This Is Forty,” which Foundas quizzed the actor about. “I play Paul Rudd‘s father because I didn’t think of myself as having a forty-year-old child,” Brooks said. “I kept saying to Judd, ‘Should I age? Should I age?’ And he said, ‘You’re okay.’ He humored me and I did this complete grey wig and it looked like Jeff Bridges and they just said, ‘Please.'”

As to whether or not there is a new comedy renaissance happening, Brooks was less committal. “There’s always been American comedy,” Brooks said with a shrug. ” ‘Bridesmaids‘ was funny.” As to whether or not he’d be returning to something he wrote and directed, he seemed even less interested. “I wrote this book, ‘2030,’ which was a huge creative departure and great experience for me and I want to see if there are some interesting acting parts right now because if I wait for another ten years I don’t know if there are going to be any roles left,” Brooks said, very matter-of-fact. “I think about making a movie again and I’d like to make a movie that’s age appropriate; I like figuring out stories about the age we live in.”

Well, whatever Brooks does next, we’ll be watching.

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