When most people hear that actor Albert Brooks, well known for his comedy work over a 35-year career, is playing a villainous mob figure in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” the response tends to be one of surprise.
Here’s a guy who may have gotten his feet wet in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” but has since come to be known for work in films like “Private Benjamin,” “Broadcast News,” “Finding Nemo” and a fair share of his own films, all of them hooked by that quintessential “Albert Brooks” leading man.
Well, Brooks himself fielded plenty of that skepticism, too. “Most people would say to me, ‘Oh, no one’s gonna buy that,'” he says candidly. “People would just laugh. They wouldn’t buy that. And I never believed that stuff. But it took a Danish guy to say, ‘I think this is a good idea.'”
Even on the breaks from his own films as director, when he would see what was in the ether as a possible role that would go against his usual grain (like, say, the villain in “Mission: Impossible III,” which ultimately went to Philip Seymour Hoffman), that skepticism is partly what kept him from stretching himself into the areas he trained in so long ago.
“Before comedy, before anything, I went to school just for acting,” he says. “I went to Carnegie. I did years of Summer stock. I sort of only wanted to be an actor. And then at 19, I was funny and I had some of these bits that I did for friends and I immediately could get on television.”
In particular he had a ventriloquist bit that would get him spots on The Tonight Show and the like. “The agent said, ‘Just do this and you’ll get every acting part you want,'” he says. “Six years later, I’m on the road, it’s St. Louis doing three shows a night and I’m knee deep in comedy and there’s no acting.”
A 1973 bit about running out of material, which is hilarious on the surface, probably speaks well to what was eating at him deep down inside. But Brooks had to make his own way out, he says. “I had to quit. I just stopped. I said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ This was going a hundred miles an hour in the wrong direction.”
Nevertheless, Hollywood being what it is, he fell into the inevitable hole of type casting. Particularly with his own films, that are so often built on his usual disposition — kind of like Woody Allen does for himself — Brooks found himself somewhat locked in. “The more you play that, the more that’s what people think you can play,” he says. “And nobody really wants to take a chance.”
Enter serendipity. One Thursday in 2010, Brooks was preparing for a trip to San Francisco the next day. He got a phone call from his long-time producing partner Herb Nanas, who said there was a script that had made its way to him called “Drive” and the director waned him to read it and meet with him before he left on his trip. So he did just that, and knowing it was a part against his usual “type,” the kind of thing he’d been wanting to play for years, it was an easy decision. Then came the meeting.
“I went to [Refn’s] house and, you know, we played this sort of weird game, where he’s asking me, ‘Why do you think you should play this?,'” Brooks says. “It’s like a test, you know? So I said, ‘Well, you know, cast one of the six people that always play it and then you’ll have an ordinary movie. As soon as the guy comes on screen everybody will know what’ll happen.’ And so he liked that answer.”
And just to make his point firmer, Brooks decided he’d put a little more English on his personal pitch. On the way out, he and Refn were standing at the door and Brooks suddenly pinned the director up against the wall and very quietly said, “I don’t know how much physical strength you think I have but I could beat the crap out of you in a fight.”
He thinks back on it now and laughs. “You know, I don’t think Nicolas has ever been touched,” he says. “These Danes don’t get in a lot of fights!”
So with the role — and the chance to prove something — finally his, Brooks went to work. He dived deep into the backstory of Bernie Rose, the mob figure he plays in the film. Indeed, he says he subscribes heavily to backstory and often suggests it to the actors in his own films.
“It’s like a costume,” he says. “It just helps you when you’re sitting there and not saying anything. You just sit down and you have some idea of who you are.”
Not only inwardly, but outwardly, Brooks had a heavy hand in Bernie. He had a hair piece made up for the character, and he didn’t care whether it looked like a piece or not. “In real life, people go out on the street and they don’t want you to know but you know,” he says with a laugh. He wanted the character to talk a little bit differently, not with a strong New York accent, but a bit of that flavor. He developed a tick where the character blinks frequently and he even went so far as to remove his eyebrows because it was a scarier look.
“To me it’s just important,” he says. “It helps. All of that stuff I worked on, ran by Nicolas. I said, ‘I’m assuming Bernie is divorced. He’s got grown children. I would imagine he never sees them.’ It was great. I think once he gets on board with you, he’s very, very cooperative and very encouraging for you to do your end of it.”
During production, Brooks says Refn had this habit of walking up behind him and massaging his shoulders before uttering in a slow, deep voice, “Orson Welles.” That was literally the extent of the direction, and for Brooks, it seemed to mean the director wanted him to claim the part even more. “I think he meant, you know, ‘Own this more. Own it,'” he says.
In the film, Brooks shares a lot of screen time with Ron Perlman, who plays his partner in crime. He had known Perlman as an actor for years, of course, and when they met at Refn’s house, Brooks shared with him his perception of the relationship.
“We went to our cars together and I said to him, ‘You know what this is, don’t you? This is ‘Of Mice and Men,'” he says. “‘This is George and Lenny.’ And he looked at me, [pitch-perfect Perlman impression] ‘I’m Lenny?’ Yeah, you’re Lenny. Of course you’re Lenny.’ That’s the way I looked at it. You’ve got to pat him on the head. ‘Stop it. Stop it. You’re going to ruin it for everybody. Sit down. Stop acting like that.'”
But to Brooks, the characters knew each other for a very long time and there was affection there. In fact, Brooks says there is a beat that was unfortunately left out of the final cut when (SPOILERS) Perlman’s character frantically tries to dial on his phone just before he meets his end, to call Bernie, as if he wanted to express how sorry he was and his affection for his friend in that final moment. (END SPOILERS)
It’s interesting to note that one of the films often mentioned as a comparison piece for “Drive” is “Taxi Driver,” Brooks’s big screen debut. That film, though, cast an intriguing judgmental gaze on the scum and filth of New York City, while Refn’s film depicts Los Angeles in mostly loving strokes. Indeed, the director has said he thinks the city is one of the most beautiful burgs in the country, for a variety of reasons. But Brooks has his own take on things.
“Well, I’m born here,” he says. “I know this city. I know every place they shot. I know the Valley, unfortunately, too well. I’ve gone to that repair shop. I know those locations. One of the things that he did was he sort of found the Los Angeles that really has not changed for 20, 30 years. He didn’t go shoot the Disney Hall. He picked the part of Los Angeles that just seems to be stuck in the 1980s, in the 1970s. And I think that was done on purpose.
“One thing about Los Angeles is it feels like it’s not new. It feels like it’s already been built and it’s deteriorating, except for the places they’re trying to make nicer. But in general, you drive all through the city, and the city feels like it was new a long time ago. I liked that aspect of it. The malls, nothing was made of them. It was the pizza place and the auto repair place. It was just sort of, I guess, the non-glamorous Los Angeles. Unless you get that beautiful helicopter shot. So from the sky you get one thing, but on the ground you get another.”
Brooks is hopeful his work in the film will open a few more doors that have been closed to him throughout his career. He’ll show up in Judd Apatow’s next film, “This is Forty” (a comedy, naturally). But any attention he can get for shining a light onto other talents in “Drive” — and, of course, any awards recognition that may come of it — is added fuel for that fire.
“It makes it more interesting,” he says, “because the truth is, the villains in American movies are played by the same half a dozen people you know and I know. And they’re good actors. John Malkovich is a damn good actor. But when you see him enter a scene, you know something is going to happen, instinctively. And I think a lot of people who get in the villain area would love to get out of it, too. But that’s the most exciting thing when you’re watching a movie, that the actor, by their mere presence, won’t tell you the whole plot.
“Sometimes you can do both. Gene Hackman was a great example of someone who could do both. He could walk that line so brilliantly. Throughout the years he’s had such a range. He could play a dopey guy and he could play a marine captain. He’s just so ultra-natural and very real. And I think that happens without trying. You have to have that. It’s hard to act real.
“I know what I’m capable of. So it’s really just to show that you have the ability to look a little different, to act different, to convince people. So any recognition for pure acting, if it would help someone like Nicolas, who said, ‘Hey, this guy could do that,’ if it would help somebody go, ‘Hey, put him as the marine guy. Why not?’ Then it would be great. That’s what I think it can do.”