On Movies: Albert Brooks' sociopath turn

Posted: September 25, 2011

TORONTO - Albert Brooks, scary?

Well, yes.

When it came time to cast the role of a quietly crazed mobster in the Ryan Gosling neo-noir Drive, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn had only one man in mind: the actor and filmmaker responsible for such late-20th-century comedic gems as Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, and The Muse.

"He told me that when he was 14 or 15," Brooks says, "he sat in a theater watching Lost in America, and when I yelled at my wife, it scared him." In Brooks' road-movie classic, he and Julie Hagerty are husband and wife traveling across country in their Winnebago. When they get to Las Vegas, she bets their "nest egg" and loses it all. Brooks yells at Hagerty - a lot.

And so, 25 years later, Refn sought out the source of his teenage trauma, casting the amiable showbiz veteran as Bernie Rose, a sociopath with a penchant for kitchen cutlery.

"I think the fact that Nicolas is from Denmark was a positive thing," Brooks says, comfortably ensconced in a hotel restaurant, up in Canada for the Drive's Toronto Film Festival debut earlier this month. (The film is now in its second weekend of release.)

"Nicolas hadn't done 11 American movies, casting the same people over and over. And I always say American movies - it's like a football team. It's the same guys all the time. The same guys and women, rotating. And it's so nice to have somebody come in who doesn't do that, doesn't think like that, because, for the viewer, you don't automatically know where it's going to go.

"When you see the blond-haired guy on the airplane in Die Hard, you can go take a pee; you know what's going to happen. But they don't know what's going to happen with Bernie, and that enhances the movie."

Brooks, 64, is eager for more such acting work. He found the experience on Drive liberating - playing opposite Gosling ("He's going to be a superstar in spite of himself - he'll try everything to keep away from it, but he's going to get there"), but also Ron Perlman, as his partner in crime.

"I'm doing a part this summer, playing Paul Rudd's father in Judd Apatow's [untitled] movie," Brooks reports. "That's more straightforward comedy, with a little bit of heart, but I'd like to see if I get something akin to Drive - you know, I don't know, a weird defense attorney, something odd.

"Over the years, when I was making my own movies, I turned down everything because my movies took precedent - and took the most time. You had to give up 2, 21/2 years minimum, to write, direct, edit, and release a movie.

"So, the fact that I have nothing in production right now, if I got an interesting call tomorrow, I would do it in a second."

Brooks says that during his peak filmmaking days - his last starred-in/wrote/directed piece was 2005's Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World - he had to say no on a swarm of big roles in big pictures.

"Pretty Woman, Big, Dead Poets Society, Harry Met Sally," he starts to recite, stopping to explain that he turned down the lead in Deconstructing Harry because he didn't think anyone should do a Woody Allen protagonist but Woody himself. "He writes it in his speech patterns - so it's almost impossible not to 'do' Woody."

Another job Brooks really wanted - and was offered - was the Burt Reynolds role in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights.

"But I was right in the middle of filming Mother. . . . So, you know, I've had to pass on some really good parts. But I wasn't making my living as an actor, I was trying to make my living as a filmmaker, and you can't stop that train. 'Hey everybody, I'm going to go off for two months!'

"I read that Charlie Chaplin would keep everybody on the clock for a year. I wasn't given that opportunity."

These days, too, Brooks is making his living as a writer. His first novel, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, a surprisingly compelling take on the future, came out to strong notices and strong sales this spring (paperback due in January). And Brooks says he has another novel in him, and other book ideas, too.

"I would like to experiment a bit," he explains. "My editor said, 'When you're thinking of the next thing, don't think novel-or-nothing. You of all people, I would love to get a book of essays from' - so she's just putting out other ideas. . . .

"And I do think I'd like to write a memoir, but just not quite yet. I have so many stories.

"I'm just waiting for one or two people to die, to really tell the whole thing."

Sean Penn glam-rocker/Nazi-hunter road movie coming. This Must Be the Place, a Cannes Festival favorite from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, has been acquired for Stateside release by the Weinstein Co. The English-language road pic stars Sean Penn as an aging rocker who wears makeup and granny glasses and goes off in pursuit of an Auschwitz camp guard, now living in America. Penn's character's estranged father, a Holocaust survivor, had been obsessed with hunting down the war criminal, and Penn takes up the cause after his father's death. The journey goes from Dublin, where the rocker lives in a mansion with his wife (Frances McDormand), to Michigan and New Mexico and places in between. The Weinsteins haven't announced when they'll release this one, but they're high on it.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read

his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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