Albert Brooks offers a certain kind of eloquence when asked how his role as a brutal gangster in the new dark thriller "Drive" differs from his past parts. "I've played a few nasty guys over the years," he said. "But never one with ... of steel."
Actually, the actor-filmmaker has mostly played likably ornery types, in dramatic comedies such as "Broadcast News" and "Lost in America." (His last slightly villainous role was as shady businessman Richard Ripley in 1998's "Out of Sight" -- but, as Brooks points out, he was still victimized by thugs. "Ripley was a nasty guy but also needed protection.")
All of that goes out the window in "Drive," Nicolas Winding Refn's tale of a stunt-car driver (Ryan Gosling) who becomes entangled in a mob plot involving Brooks' Bernie Rose. While Gosling gives a chillingly understated performance, it's Brooks' character who emerges as a standout in the film, which opens Sept. 16. Bernie's offbeat fashion sense and seemingly benevolent manner slowly curdle into something more sinister -- namely, a capacity for morbid violence (think fork to the eye), providing many of the film's most shocking moments and dark laughs.
"There's a very cliched bad guy in American movies, and you know who he is, the blond-haired guy who talks in an accent and from the moment he's on screen you know everything about him," Brooks said. "What's great about Bernie is you don't know who he is in the first 40 seconds. He can turn out to be 11 different things. You just know that you don't want to cross him."
Already, Brooks and the film -- which the buzzed-about Refn ("Valhalla Rising") directed from a script by Hossein Amini, who adapted it from James Sallis' novel -- have garnered acclaim at the Cannes and Los Angeles film festivals. Brooks has started to draw early supporting actor nomination talk on the Oscar circuit.
After a six-year absence from the big screen -- Brooks was last seen in the critically panned "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," which he also wrote and directed -- the actor is ripe for a creative comeback. "I feel like I'm getting to a point where I want to do a lot of different parts," he said. "I'm growing into parts I never even knew I wanted to play."
Even at 67, the Southern California native says he is hopeful for a career jolt and a second act a la John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction," another movie in which an actor who'd fallen off the radar redefines himself in a violent style piece from a hot young filmmaker. "If people see me differently because of this, that's OK," Brooks said, his tone suggesting it would be more than OK.
He has no regrets, he said; any drop-off was the result of his own choice as he focused on writing and directing.
Although he spent the summer shooting a supporting part in Judd Apatow's next comedy, Brooks said he and his manager are already starting to hear rumblings of other potential darker parts as studio executives and directors begin to see "Drive."
And even if no career renaissance comes of his Bernie Rose turn, Brooks said, that doesn't mean there wasn't a larger appeal. "You can't really pass up an opportunity to stick a fork in someone's eye."