Interview: Albert Brooks (Drive)

Interview: Albert Brooks (Drive). By Simon Miraudo.

Albert Brooks’ chilling performance in Drive is one of the breakout turns of the year; not bad for an Oscar-nominated actor-writer-director with a career that spans four decades. Although we know him best from his witty supporting performances in Broadcast NewsTaxi Driver and Out of Sight, his directorial efforts Defending Your Life and Mother, and as the voice of Marlin in Finding Nemo (as well as Hank Scorpio and several other characters in The Simpsons), he redefines himself in Nicolas Winding Refn’s acclaimed existential crime thriller. Brooks stars as Bernie Rose, a surprisingly reasonable gangster who decides to fund the purchase of a car for a driver/stuntman (Ryan Gosling) and his mechanic (Bryan Cranston). When the driver gets involved in a robbery-gone-wrong, the lives of everyone close to him and Bernie wind up at stake, and they are forced to take violent action against one another to ensure their survival.

Check out our review of Drive here!

We spoke to Brooks about his surprise ability to pin people against walls (including director Refn and a co-star), the difficulty in convincing Hollywood that one can play against type, his expensive imagination and being “trained like a monkey to write cheap”.

SM: Your casting in Drive seems like a stroke of genius now, but it was definitely surprising at first to learn you’d landed the role of the main antagonist. I understand you even had to pin Nicolas Winding Refn to the wall, to convince him that you’d be right for it.

AB: I don’t think I needed to do that; I just did it. I think he felt pretty good about it. We met for two hours at his house, and I think he felt pretty good, but as I was walking to my car I stopped at his front door and I just pinned him up against the wall. Like, I choked him. I said to him very quietly, ‘In case you were wondering, I also have a large amount of physical strength’. Being Danish, he’s very white to begin with, and he almost turned clear. He went paler than pale. So, I just thought, ‘Why not?’ I think he was convinced. It actually could have undone it if it went the wrong way, but I just wanted to show him physically I had no issues.

SM: I also read that you pinned someone during filming for a scene, and after a while they passed out. Is this something you do often in life? Pinning people to walls? You seem very good at it.

AB: No, you know, in life you’re not allowed to do that without going to jail [laughs]. It’s only in the movies that you can do it. Actually, that happened on my first night of work, and that scene never made it into the movie; I hope it makes it onto the DVD because it was a really great scene. A neighbour was abusing his wife, and he was acting very badly towards me and towards his wife, and I choked him. And Nicolas, who likes to do many, many, many takes, kept going on and he kept saying ‘I can see you’re not doing it hard enough’, and the actor kept telling me, ‘You need to do it harder; don’t worry, you can’t hurt me’. And on take 14 he lost consciousness. He fell to the floor. I thought I had killed him. It was very, very frightening.

SM: Let’s take it back to the beginning. What was it that originally compelled you to star in Drive?

AB: As an actor, I know what I’m capable of. It’s just hard to … You know, what happens in Hollywood is six or seven people get typecast to play the same roles. So if you get somebody who’s supposed to be the antagonist in a movie, you know who it’s going to be. You and I can name them. They’re the same people. So it gets hard to break into something people aren’t used to seeing. For example, I remember in that third Mission: Impossible movie, I think the villain that Phillip Seymour Hoffman played, I thought that was a really interesting part that I could play, but nobody was interested in that at the time. So it takes a director to agree with you. And once a director sees it, and you know you can do it, now you’ve got something new. If you can do something new it’s always better, because people don’t know what’s coming. When they see the same person doing the same role in and out, they instinctively know how it’s going to turn out.

SM: Was that a conscious effort on your part to find this kind of role? I know you’ve played villains before – and went up for the role in One Hour Photo – but none as violent as Bernie Rose. Were you actively seeking a villainous role?

AB: No, I wasn’t actively seeking anything. It wasn’t like I was telling my agent, ‘Find me a violent role’. You know, I write my own movies and I had just written a novel this year, and I love to act. Normally, if I start my own movies it takes three years, so I don’t have time to do someone else’s. But I had down time, and all I asked was, ‘If there’s something interesting’. I didn’t want to play the same part I’d write for myself in someone else’s movie. So this script just landed. It came on a Thursday and I actually had to go to San Francisco on Friday afternoon, and they said, ‘This is all gonna happen quickly. Nicolas Refn is in town; can you meet him on Friday morning?’ And I did. So, you know, it was great. It just landed.

SM: Since the film debuted at Cannes, have you found the attitudes of filmmakers and producers shift? Are you getting offered more extreme kinds of roles?

AB: I think it’s too early. I would be interested in that to happen, but it takes a while. Movies are generally sort-of pre-planned, you know? What I would have to look for are movies starting up in March or April. I acted in a movie this summer that comes out next year, but that was a more traditional comedy part. Judd Apatow is making a sequel to Knocked Up, so I played Paul Rudd’s father. But in terms of this kind of role, I’m interested in doing it, and I’ve got the signals up from my agency. I don’t know; we’ll see what happens. I’d love to. It doesn’t have to be a violent character, but it certainly could be something you don’t expect.

SM: Bernie, as threatening as he is, there is a very reasonable side to him. He’s very reasonable in the way he handles his business.

AB: This character of Bernie Rose doesn’t want any of this violence. He’s done with it. He hasn’t been violent for 20 years, 25 years. He makes his money, he’s got his routine, he has his meals, he probably sees a hooker twice a month. He’s got a routine, that’s why he’s so upset. This has fallen into his lap, and when it comes down to him or them, he’s gonna survive. That’s why he becomes violent. He becomes violent because he states very clearly he and his partner are going to be dead.

SM: I understand there was a collaborative process in developing these characters with Nicolas. I’m wondering how much of that was on the page, and what kind of things you brought to the character.

AB: You always bring things. I don’t know what was on the page. The page changes. The writer [Hossein Amini] came to Los Angeles for a three week period. Every day, we would meet at Nicolas’ house, and we would talk and go over these scenes and do improvs and the writer would take this stuff and incorporate it. I don’t know. It’s all collaborative. In this piece it was collaborative. I couldn’t tell you what line or that, but when the writer is willing to sit down and spend two or three weeks in a rehearsal process, then the script is collaborative, and Nicolas works that way. Nicolas changes things on the set. His whole style is adaptive. That’s the way he likes it. I don’t think he does very well if it’s set too firmly.

SM: It’s been a few years since your last effort as a writer/director. Is that something you’re still interested in? Are you working on anything at the moment?

AB: You know Simon, I wrote this novel: 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America. It came out this year and was a very, very successful book here, and that took about two and a half years. That was a new path for me, because I had thought of a story that was way too expensive for me to make into a movie. I can get a certain budget which would be on the small end to make the kind of movies that I make. I had these ideas lately that are way bigger than what I can raise. So, I would love to make another movie. I’ve actually started writing another book, because I like the idea of not being restricted to a small budget. But, I would love to make another movie. I would have to figure out one I could make for a small, reasonable cost, and right now, this year anyway, my imagination has been way too expensive.

SM: It’s funny you mention that, because I was going to ask if you had originally planned to make 2030 as a film. Can you elaborate on what you get out of a book as opposed to a movie, and which medium you are in love with more?

AB: Let me tell you something: I never had an experience like I had writing the book. Since I began to write screenplays, and I began to understand from the first screenplay I ever wrote, I would write, ‘And the bus crashes into the wall’, and then someone at the studio would say, ‘Who’s going to pay for that? How’s that gonna happen?’ By the third screenplay, you’re staying in a room. You’re not writing anything, because you know it’s expensive. You close the blinds; you don’t even want the sun to set. That’s what happens. You get trained like a monkey to write cheap. So when I started writing this novel, – and China is a big character in the novel – and I had a pilotless private jet land in the middle of the night in China, I thought the writing police were going to break in and say ‘You’re not allowed to do that. How much do you think that’s gonna cost?’ So I have to say, it freed my imagination in a way as a writer I had never experienced.

Drive opens in Australian cinemas October 27, 2011.

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