Albert Brooks slays his way into becoming a best supporting actor contender for playing killer Bernie Rose in the gritty indie "Drive," directed by Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn. Over the phone, we had a serious talk about the comedy of anger.
Thelma Adams: So, Albert, when did you put it in "Drive"?
Albert Brooks: I got a call that this Nicolas was in town for three days. They sent me the script, saying "Albert's looking for an interesting bad guy and he should read this." I knew Ryan Gosling was onboard, and I had seen "Bronson" and I really liked it, and we did this weird little dance. "Why do you think you should do it?" he asked. I said, "You can use the same six people everyone uses. Then, everybody knows what's going to happen. It's always nice in the first 10 minutes when you don't know what the character is going to do."
TA: How did Refn know you could go to the dark side?
AB: He said that he saw me yell at my wife in "Lost in America."
TA: And how did you seal the deal?
AB: I stood at the doorway of his rented house, and as I was leaving, I grabbed his collar and I pinned him against the wall. I can't say he turned white. He was Danish, so he was already white. He turned paler. And I said, "I just want you to know I was a guard on a football team and I have physical strength even if I don't often show it." I thanked him and went on my way, thinking if it doesn't work, if I hurt him, he's probably calling a doctor.
TA: So did he sue you?
AB: No. He and Ryan had already come to the conclusion that I would be the right person. The whole point of the meeting was to see if I could talk them out of it.
TA: Would you agree that the craft of comedy is underrated?
AB: When you look at actors who've been around forever, like Jack Nicholson, he's more of a comedy actor than a serious actor, but he hovers on the fence. People forget that. Actors that have stayed around -- Jimmy Stewart -- have always been able to do both.
TA: Why is that?
AB: It's grounded in playing a realistic character. It works if your characters are real enough that you believe they're real. If you didn't buy me as an ad guy who dropped out of society, you wouldn't have bought "Lost in America." To become physical or intolerant, go look at "Modern Romance." That character was one drug away from prison. When he was driving around her house all night, one extra benny and he's in that house.
TA: How much did you rehearse Bernie Rose?
AB: When I got the part, we spent a lot of time with the other actors rehearsing with Nicolas at his house. It was the whole thing of Bernie the Knife, Bernie Rose; we knew early on that using knives and utensils had to bring you up close. That was the kind of man that he was. Maybe he had killed as a young man, but his personality was not wait behind a wall and shoot you with a gun. He needed to confront his victim.
TA: How did you go from that realization to planting a utensil in a guy's eye?
AB: The fork came about three and a half weeks into the rehearsal, but it wasn't written in the script. The fork in the eye was developed when we got on set at the restaurant. There were initial rehearsals with the kitchen knife, but it was so far away it wasn't working because of the blocking. The good thing about Nicolas is that he is intentionally looking for something you haven't seen. He liked the knife aspect of Bernie Rose because it forced Bernie to come close to his victim.
TA: How long did it take to get it right?
AB: Another good thing about the director is that he does 30 takes of everything. When you're doing these kind of things and you're covered in this blood, you reach that kind of anger that you don't want to reach and it makes your heart beat fast for two or three hours. It's fun to say "I'm gonna kill a guy in a movie," but after you've done it over and over and over -- and you want to be careful you don't take his eye out also. It was exhilarating once, and bewildering about 29 times.
TA: How did you sustain the emotional pitch?
AB: It's like running a mile. Emotionally you work yourself up to it, and then you do it again. It's more fun to watch it than to do it. It takes its toll. You have to work yourself up to that lather. Those places are really where you have to get -- and you're doing that all day long mentally, and you feel like you've been in a fistfight. You feel exhausted and weird and nervous. You go to that place. I hate that place.
TA: So, would you say the leap from comedy to aggression wasn't that far?
AB: If you put a knife in a capable actor's hands, then they should be able to convince you to stay away from him. I'm not saying Emo Philips I would give the part to, or Gallagher. All my comedy was so rooted in reality that insane violence is not very different. As a matter of fact, the kind of comedy I did, thank God I got laughs because the characters were so wound up they went that way, not the other. It was the comedy of anger. If I didn't have a sense of humor, I'd grab a gun.
See Albert Brooks in 'Drive':