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Albert Finney goes toe to toe with Julia Roberts in ‘Erin Brockovich’

Albert Finney goes toe to toe with Julia Roberts in ‘Erin Brockovich’
Albert Finney and Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich." (Bob Marshak / Universal Studios)

In 2000, veteran actor Albert Finney was enjoying one of the busiest years of his career with four film roles, one of them in "Erin Brockovich." The role would earn him an Oscar nomination, one of five for Finney, who died Friday at age 82. At the time of the film's opening, Finney spoke with The Times to discuss his role as California lawyer Ed Masry, playing opposite Julia Roberts, and reflect on his earlier work. This story was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on March 12, 2000.

It’s been exactly 40 years since Albert Finney, one of Britain's greatest actors, made his debut as a leading man on film. In Karel Reisz's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," he played a young factory worker from the North of England desperately trying to throw off the shackles of his lowly upbringing, whatever the cost to those around him. The role made the broodingly handsome Finney a star and a working-class hero here. And though the film is now in the distant past, it's been on his mind lately.

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"In 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' there was this one line," he recalled. "It went: 'All I want is a good time. The rest is propaganda.' At the time I just thought it was a good line. But now," and his face creased into a sly grin, "I find it profoundly true."

That's certainly the impression he gives. Finney may be a world-class actor with four Oscar nominations (for "Tom Jones," "Murder on the Orient Express," "The Dresser" and "Under the Volcano"), but he is almost as famous for appreciating the good things in life — gourmet food, fine wine, exotic travel destinations and (in his younger days) the company of attractive women. He has bred and raced horses; he values leisure as much as his acting career.

Yet he's far from work-shy. In the last 18 months, he has made four consecutive films in America, with the most high-profile of the quartet, "Erin Brockovich," opening Friday. Julia Roberts stars in the title role as a legal assistant who discovers a giant utility company has contaminated the water supply for a small community in California's high desert, where there are several instances of unexplained serious illness.

Finney plays Ed Masry, a veteran Los Angeles lawyer who employed the real-life Brockovich and reluctantly let her continue investigating the scandal. Masry eventually realizes she is onto something, and their work together helps the residents win a major lawsuit and hefty settlements.

As the world's most bankable film actress, Roberts tends to dominate most movies in which she appears. But the Masry role is substantial; Finney and Roberts play two stubborn characters who argue fiercely about the pros and cons of Masry's small legal firm taking on such a massive case.

"I think it's a damned good film," said Finney, in a jovial mood in his agent's central London office; he slouched on a sofa, casual as ever in a rumpled corduroy suit and a gray open-necked shirt. "At first I thought, 'A California lawyer? That shouldn't be too hard.' But it's always more complicated than you think.

"Ed was actually on the verge of retirement. He had boxes packed in his office. He was about to go off to Palm Springs, to do whatever it is people do there.

"But through this woman discovering a talent for relentless questioning and forcing him to take [the case] on, Ed's still not retired. He and Erin have another two cases they are working on. I suppose it's five or six years since that first case was settled. So Erin's rekindled his belief in the law. As I say in the film, Ed had $1 million in the bank and a minor heart condition. He could justifiably have retired, but there he is, still working."

Finney met Masry before shooting began but immediately decided not to attempt to imitate him: "Ed isn't a world figure, so it wasn't a matter of getting his walk down. I'm resistant to that, anyway. You end up not playing a role but doing an impersonation. Ed and I are of an age, a height and a fighting weight. But looking like Ed didn't come into the equation."

Still, it didn't hurt that Finney's rugged looks and florid complexion, together with his rumpled appearance, made him a perfect fit for an L.A. lawyer with his own practice — more Van Nuys or Burbank storefront than Century City glass tower.

Finney's involvement in "Erin Brockovich" began late in 1998 after he read the script, then met director Steven Soderbergh, who was in town for the London Film Festival. Finney said, "We had a brief lunch, 50 minutes at a hotel in Covent Garden. But I liked him. He said nice things about my past film work." Another sly smile. "That always makes you warm to someone."

When he looked at performers who might play Masry, Soderbergh said, he decided on the British actor because "I needed someone who could go toe to toe with Julia, and I knew he could do it.'

Finney already admired the script, by Susannah Grant ("Ever After"). "It's very well-written," he said. "It's not just about this important issue — a huge company poisoning a water table and hoping to get away with it. Interwoven is this story of this woman discovering her talents and finding out she cares about an issue. She came upon medical reports in a real estate file in Ed Masry's office, drove out to the desert, started knocking on doors and asked questions. Without her [the settlements] wouldn't have happened."

Yet Finney, who does not throw gratuitous compliments around, reserves his highest praise for Roberts. Having worked with her, he finds it no surprise that she's the world's leading movie actress.

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“The reason why is apparent in 'Erin Brockovich,' " he said. "As far as her public is concerned, she could do only romantic comedies if she wished to. But for this film, I think she just went out on a limb and said, 'I'm going to show I can come at you from a different angle.' She's so watchable. The film's over two hours long, and she's on screen for the [vast majority] of that time." His eyes twinkled. "And you do like to watch her. She's also pleasant to look at.

"The quality she has, apart from genuine star quality, is wit. She has a very quick mind. What impressed me about her was that every day I worked she didn't have a day off. But she never came on set in any other state than being prepared and ready to work. She was always up. I was impressed and proud of her as a fellow professional. That's how a trouper should be."

He was asked recently whether Roberts was of legendary status. "Well, I think she's on the verge of it. She's very captivating and interesting on screen. And when you're doing scenes with her, it's as if you're playing tennis and you're at the net volleying. It's really enjoyable because it's sort of volatile."

*****

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That also sounds like an accurate summary of Finney's career. He has long been chided in Britain for not fulfilling his extraordinary talents; long ago he was touted as the next Laurence Olivier, and when he showed talent as a film producer as well as an actor in the 1960s, it was widely assumed he would become actor-manager of one of Britain's great theater institutions — the National or the Royal Shakespeare Company.

"There's been so many 'next Oliviers' in my time," he said. "They come and go. But times change, and I think the actor-manager is a thing of the past. Those companies now, they're either run by a committee or a junta. You spend half your time in board meetings."

His distaste for desk-bound life began with his production company Memorial, which made some outstanding British films: "If . . ." (1968), "O Lucky Man" (1973) and two starring vehicles for him: "Charlie Bubbles" (1968), which he also directed, and "Gumshoe" (1972), directed by Stephen Frears. "It was OK at first,” Finney said, “but in the end it was sitting in an office, pitching ideas to Hollywood and waiting for the phone to ring."

Since then his life has combined furious periods of work with long stretches of pleasurable inactivity. After becoming an international movie star in 1963 with "Tom Jones," he disappeared from sight for a year, traveling around the world. Between 1974 and 1979 he made no films, concentrating instead on stage work in London.

"The work comes in bursts," he said. "I sort of feel it has to, doesn't it? And when I don't work, I always feel something will come up."

His latest burst of work included being in the original London cast of the international stage hit "Art," along with Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott; costarring with Bruce Willis and Nick Nolte in Alan Rudolph's barely released adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Breakfast of Champions"; an appropriate role as an ex-racing commissioner in "Simpatico," directed by Matthew Warchus (who had also directed him in "Art"); and "Delivering Milo," costarring Bridget Fonda, a fable about a young boy in heaven who is reluctant to come down to Earth and be born.

"You really can't plan a career," he said and frowned. "I don't know who's writing 'The End' at this particular time and thinking I'm just the person to send [the script] to. So I have no commitments at the moment. I'm talking to you this morning, then it's lunch, I believe. No plans beyond that."

But generally, what's he doing with his time? "Just wasting it. Letting it sift through my fingers aimlessly. When I took that year off and went 'round the world, I found I was very good at it."

He owns two brood mares in Ireland and is considering racing horses again. "The great thing about racehorses, you don't need to take them for walks," he said dryly. "I pay people to do that for me." His partner of 10 years, Pene Delmage, loves traveling, which suits Finney perfectly.

"I've come to realize that it suits me going hither and yon," he said. "I think the most important thing for a strolling player like myself is to enjoy what you're working on. Which I mostly do."

And the rest? Propaganda, presumably.

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