On a recent balmy day in Santa Monica, Albert Brooks chuckled about the lengths to which he's gone to reboot his acting career, moving away from the belligerent neurotic of "Broadcast News" fame into playing a believable psychopath in "Drive" and more serious fare in "A Most Violent Year."
So in your 20s, you trained as a dramatic actor and tried to pursue those roles but got detoured.
I was funny, naturally, and when I left college around 19-20, it was very difficult to get any acting parts at that age, but I was able to get on national television shows just making up comedy in my bathroom. I had an agent who said, "Just do that and you'll get all the acting roles you want." … It really didn't happen that way. I just got further and further into comedy.
Then you started writing your own stuff and for a long time your real focus was making your own films.
When I was making my own movies regularly … that's sort of all you could do. Because once you started writing and once you raised the money you couldn't tell the people, "I'm going to stop for two years and go act in this movie." I still have another idea for a movie I might make, but I have to say, I've been enjoying playing different kinds of characters than I've played in the past.
And they're different kinds of roles than you write for yourself.
Absolutely. I wouldn't write a character in "Drive" for myself. Nor even "A Most Violent Year." I just finished a movie that'll be out this year with Will Smith.
The NFL concussion drama.
Yeah. It's a very interesting part. It's a guy that's still living. … I would only do this if I was an actor in it. I wouldn't write it. I certainly wouldn't put myself in it, if I did write it.
And yet you're so effective in these darker roles.
I think people get surprised that someone who's known for comedy can be serious. But my comedy's always been serious. I've never been a zany kind of person. And, you know, I played football in high school. People didn't fool around with me. It looked like I could punch you back. … And when you look at the real people in the world that are the scariest, they're not the overt kind of scary. Those people would get caught. You look at these people that give you the chills and they're smooth and they're quiet. It's just when pushed comes to shove, they can —
Put a fork in an eye.
That's right. The character [lawyer Andrew Walsh] in "A Most Violent Year," he wasn't killing people but he was certainly a guy who was almost suggesting it, who was almost saying, "If you don't play the game, this is how the game is played." That's a kind of seriousness in my gut that I've always had. Even as a kid.
There's always been, in your comedy, and most good comedy, this aggressive bite to it.
Yes, I was most aggressive to my own characters. I beat up my own characters in my comedy, as opposed to beating up society. I put my own characters through the mill. Making them fools.
What is it about comedy that is so hard for the performer, that makes drama less of a challenge?
I think there's some kind of trust that the audience needs if they're going to laugh, that they don't need in a drama. They don't need to trust you as an actor if you're going to scare them. But they need to trust you in some way, if you're going to make them laugh, because that's when people are most vulnerable. …I think my comedy's always been closer to the bone and closer to drama than the average movie comic. I look at a movie like "Modern Romance." It's almost a tragedy, that movie. It's a guy who can't connect and starts acting like an insane, jealous man. That movie, minus a few scenes, could be a very scary stalker movie. That kind of behavior, minus the laughs, is prison behavior!
I heard about your audition for "Drive." Did you really get physically aggressive?
We sat in [director Nicolas Winding Refn's] living room and talked. … I could see there was a doubt because I hadn't done [this kind of role] before. I knew it was going to be one meeting and that was it. He's funny, Nicolas Refn. He makes these extremely violent movies. But he's extremely pale. He looks like he's never been in a fight. Never. So before I left his house, we were standing in the doorway and I pinned him up against the wall. Like this. [Raises his right hand in a pincer-like, grip-to-the-throat gesture.] And I said very quietly, "You should have no doubt in your mind that if I wanted to, I could kill you right now. I'm strong enough to kill you right now." He said, "No, no, no! I have no doubt!"
It was totally spontaneous?
I thought of that as I stood up to leave. I thought, "What can I do?"
It would have been stupid if, in his mind, he had given me the part and then [laughs] that would have changed his mind — "I don't want him anywhere near me!"