“Chris, it’s Albert Brooks. How are you?”
That’s how this 41-minute, 58-second conversation with Albert Brooks began. The actor-writer-director-novelist-comedian-tweeter-husband-father is one of Hollywood’s best conversationalists, something recent appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman” and in the pages of Vanity Fair are quick to remind anyone who has forgotten.
The last two years have been exciting for both Brooks and his fans. In 2011, he appeared in “Drive” as a violent gangster, an against-type turn that gave Brooks the chance to stab a guy in the eye with a fork. After Brooks took home a slew of critical awards, many assumed he would receive an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category for his troubles. (He was previously nominated in 1988 for “Broadcast News.”) That didn’t happen, however, making Brooks the latest in a long-line actors who experienced awards-season unfairness first hand.
“It was an honor to be snubbed,” Brooks jokes now about the experience.
The lack of Oscar recognition aside, “Drive” seems to have rejuvenated Brooks — who also published his first novel, “2030,” last year. He was cast as Paul Rudd’s onscreen dad in “This Is 40,” Judd Apatow’s “sort-of sequel” to “Knocked Up.” In that film, out in theaters Friday, Brooks co-stars as Los Angeles resident dealing with family, relationships and what happens when parents get old. Brooks touched on that topic, his problem with social media, the lack of surprises in today’s society and even “The Hobbit” (yes) in the chat below.
Do you like doing this stuff?
You know, I sort of like it because it gives me an excuse to go on these shows. [Ed. note: In the last few weeks, Brooks has appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show,” “The View” and “Good Morning America.”] I like to do the shows — otherwise, I would never do anything. Like Letterman says, “Why don’t you just come and do the show?” “Because I live 3,000 miles away!” “You can come to New York.” “Well, I know, but that involves going to LAX.” To get on a plane just to do a bit? It’s crazy. So, to do some of these, it forces me to sort of deal — I feel like I’m going to do these “Tonight Show” bits.
What’s the trick to doing so well on Letterman? He seems like an imposing type for less experienced talk-show guests.
You’ve got to remember, I started before Dave Letterman started. So I think maybe if I was 19 it would be imposing, but we’re of the same ilk. None of this was ever really imposing, even when I was very young and doing Steve Allen. Basically, if you make people laugh — and if they like what you do — then it’s sort of a tennis match. It’s even. I had so many years of doing variety shows before I ever went to the Johnny Carson show that I didn’t have the fear people who made their first appearance on television, when they did the old “Tonight Show” had. Which was if Johnny didn’t like you, you were done. I had an established presence before I even went there. I didn’t have that fear. But if you were just starting out, you’d want to make sure you’re liked.
How has that aspect of the business has changed in the last few decades?
There are so many shows on. When you did it in the heyday of “The Tonight Show,” which was the only game in town, that was 14 million people. It wasn’t just that; it was people you’d see the next day. It was a very show-business, comedy-centric audience. Anyone in Los Angeles you ran into would have seen the show. Now, because there are so many shows, you sort of have to let people know you’re on it and they can DVR it. There’s no immediate presence. I was thinking about this yesterday. I would imagine the only thing that is probably the same are major sporting events. Because if you’re in the playoffs or the Super Bowl, you get the same reaction the next day that you would have 20 years ago. That and horrific news events are really the remaining viewing that has to be done in real time.
I feel like we should talk about the movie as well.
Go ahead, I’m not in a hurry.
You haven’t made a lot of movies in the last 10 years. What was it about “This Is 40” that made you say yes.
Well. I guess the main thing is I’ve known Judd for a long time. Judd produces 14 movies and he only directs a few, and I was more interested in working with him as opposed to being offered something that was one of the 15 other productions. I think he wanted to do that too, but he also wanted to come with a part that he thought I could appreciate. I had written in my novel about what I believe will happen in the generations. In my story, there was great hostility from the younger people toward the older people. But part of what I was writing was what Judd was thinking here, which is the way that parents become the children. I liked that aspect. I liked the in vitro [subplot]; I liked the accidental family; I liked having to mooch off your kid. That to me sounded like something I could dig my teeth into a little bit.
Judd also shoots in Los Angeles, and I swear to God that’s a consideration. Because my kids are still at the age where I want to see them. You know, when I did that movie with Michael Douglas in Canada [“The In-Laws”], my kids were very little so we all could move there for the summer. One could go to a Canadian nursery school. Now they’re established in their school; they’re teenagers. You don’t want to pull them out and put them on location. And yet, you still want to see them. So shooting in Los Angeles is a dream. Had “This Is 40” shot in Yugoslavia, I don’t know if I would have taken it.
What about New York?
New York, I probably would have taken it. So many of these movies I do get offered, they go to these places where they get their tax money back and that’s getting further and further away. The Balkans and these Eastern European countries are desperate for business. They’re happy to recreate anything. “We can recreate Times Square, no problem!” So you go over to Soviet Georgia and it’s supposed to be Greenwich Village.
I think Woody Allen is shooting there next.
If he chooses Eastern Europe as his palette, he’s got another six movies. “Midnight in Siberia.”
How did you work with Judd? Did you give him input on what you wanted in the role?
I give input in the role, yes. Absolutely. I don’t do that on roles that aren’t mine, unless I’m asked for an opinion. But I was in [this] from the beginning. I wanted information that wasn’t in the script. I wanted more background information. We had a rehearsal period, which was hugely beneficial. That’s the time to screw around. Judd tapes everything. Every time you’re with him, someone is filming it. He has his entire life documented. There’s always a guy with a camera. So any idea you have [is saved]. Actually, it was good because you could make things better and that would appear in the next version of the script. You got to constantly improve it. On days before I worked, I would email seven lines that I thought of. I just wanted them down on paper somewhere, so I would think of it. I’m expected to, and I would want to, add input. Otherwise there’s no reason to show up and just do it. I’m sure that’s what they want, that’s why they hire you.
Especially for a Judd Apatow movie.
That’s right. But every movie I’ve acted in has been collaborative. That’s what movies are. I understand that there are authors who don’t want words changed, but I don’t know that something like that really exists in movies. Because movies are too unpredictable and no matter how well you write something, when you get to the actual place that you’re going to shoot it, if you’re not open enough to accept that, [you’re in trouble]. “Oh, gee, the kitchen was nothing like I thought it would be when I wrote, ‘He goes to the kitchen.’ I’m using a location and he’s got to go through the cat pantry. If I don’t say something about the cat pantry, what am I doing here?” You have to adapt. That’s what I think.
Do you get offered a lot of movies that you turn down?
Since “Drive” I’ve been offered five things that I didn’t do. Just for different reasons. Some were too far away. One was a little similar to “Drive” in a way that I didn’t think was as effective for me. I’m interested in playing a serious part; I’m interested in playing any kind of part. My roots are in acting. There are a lot of new directors now that are interesting, and people who haven’t directed before. That’s fun. That can be exciting, but you sort of have to look at the risk-reward. A lot of times, if the part doesn’t feel like, “Dammit, I’ll go anywhere to do this,” then you have to ask yourself, “Why am you doing it?” You can do an independent movie. Independent movies now, sometimes, come out in three theaters and that’s it. Movies are an expensive business. You have to be willing to do something that comes out in three theaters. I guess that’s what I’m saying. It’s like, “This thing is so interesting that I don’t care if I’ve got to force you to watch it on TV. I’m going to do it.”
“Drive” was so well-received and you’re great in “This Is 40.” Do you ever worry about keeping up the critical acclaim that you’ve earned as an actor over the last few years?
No, no, no. You can’t think like that. By the way, movies are like sporting events in that you’re as good as the movie you’re in. You can sit in a room for 20 years and go do a movie and you can just kill in it and you move to the head of the line again. By the same token, you can do five movies a year and if they’re dreck, it’s nothing. The idea isn’t just to be onscreen; the idea is to have something to do. At least have a couple of great scenes. I still get “Private Benjamin.” I screwed Goldie Hawn on our wedding night and died; I was in the first 10 minutes. Two days ago, someone said, “Oh my God! I remember that movie!” So, I think the goal is to try and get in a good movie and have something to do. By the same token, you could see a person you’ve never seen before and go, “Oh my God!” and be interested in that person. It’s like when you discover a new person. You can have a person who’s been around for 40 years and go, “Look at that.” I think it’s whether anybody will see the movie and if it works.
I guess what I’m saying is that there’s nothing about time in between. I don’t believe that has much to do with show business. I know there was a theory when I first started that if you don’t stay in front of people they’ll forget who you are. But you could never stay in front of people enough to keep them remembering or you have to be on every night.
I think you see that a lot with actors. They pile on a lot of movies, but a lot of the movies are bad.
By the way! The biggest example of this is Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s like, how many movies in 20 years?
I read an interview with Matthew McConaughey where he said always being in the tabloids and onscreen hurts him, whereas Daniel Day-Lewis makes films so infrequently that people get excited to see his latest.
I’ve been in front of people for so many years. It’s like you don’t forget someone you went to high school with. So, I don’t expect someone who’s been a fan for a long time to come up and say, “I knew you, but I don’t anymore. Why?” All I look for is to have something to do. If I’m going to act in someone’s movie, I want the movie to be interesting and be able to get a couple of solid doubles.
Like “This Is 40.”
Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s a subplot and it’s one that is decent.
Do you want write another screenplay or direct again?
I’ve been writing another book, which I liked. I don’t know. I sort of talked about this with Judd in Vanity Fair. The writing part is great and the filming part is great, but I have to figure out the releasing part a little better. Because, you know, that part of the business has changed so much. I’m not going to do well trying please a studio with an “Iron Man.” So, you know, I would want to make an Albert Brooks movie, and I sort of have to figure out who to make that for and how much money they could give for the budget.
And how to release it.
And how to release it. But, there’s also interesting ways. Look, soon, film is gone. Already there are enough theaters where if I shot a movie on video — and it was decently shot — it could be shown in enough movie theaters that you wouldn’t know the difference. That’s a big difference. To me, it’s interesting if the projection system around the country is really going to be something that could project an iPhone and make it pretty decent. It’s an interesting way to think about the whole budget aspect of film. I think about that a lot. Because I think as long as the subject matter fits that kind of filming, it’s great. It works. You don’t want to make Superman” like that, but you certainly can make a relationship movie in an interesting way, where you just bypass film completely.
I know in the Vanity Fair interview you talked about Twitter. You and Steve Martin are very active, but other people in your age group — Billy Crystal, for instance — aren’t as adept with social media. Why do you think you utilize it so well?
I didn’t know Billy Crystal was on Twitter.
He is. I started following him last year around the Oscars. A lot of times celebrity sign up for five minutes to promote something.
Twitter, to me, works if you’re funny. Twitter doesn’t work as a promotional tool unless you do it very, very, very occasionally. The reason it works is I take the time to do it. Twitter was really fun to do it during the debates, because it was a chance to comment on the debates in real time. But if during the debates I’m going, “Hey, I’ll be at a book store!” That’s not interesting. I wouldn’t follow me. I don’t really like that. I don’t like reading over and over where people are going to be. I’m not interested in that. But I was sort of shying away from Twitter in the last couple of weeks.
I think there’s a downside to it. The downside to it is that you can get fooled into thinking it’s creative and feel like you’ve had a good day after a good tweet. But it provides no income and no satisfaction. It’s much better to write a really great chapter of a book that’s going to come out. So it’s fun if you’re doing something else and for one minute you do a tweet. I guess that’s great. But you get lured into thinking, “Oh, that was a great tweet! I’m going to go have lunch now and take a nap.” That’s where it gets dangerous.
It’s a supreme time-waster.
It’s like writing someone a postcard and feeling like you’ve done a creative thing.
Putting a stamp on it.
“Ah, what a good day.”
What kind of comedies do you like now? What do you like watching?
Well, I’m in the Academy, so I get every movie. I eventually watch probably 90 percent of them. I don’t know — I’m trying to think of comedies. What comedies have been good …
It doesn’t even have to be a comedy. I’m just wondering what you like to watch.
What I’ve been watching the last two weeks haven’t been comedies. I’ll tell you what I love doing. I love watching a movie that I don’t know anything about. That’s difficult these days. But I’m telling you, it makes the enjoyment level soar because you haven’t read anything. It’s like not wanting to know what the score is. If I’ve gone this far and I get a movie, I don’t go on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t want to know how it was reviewed. I don’t want to know what it’s about. I see who directed it; sometimes I know the person, sometimes I have no idea who it is. I put it and I watch. And it’s an amazing experiment because you get to decide all on your own what you think.
In the film-festival environment you get that experience.
That’s exactly right. That experience in life is getting impossible.
Everyone knows everything about everything at this point.
Opinions hit you before the real thing hits you, all the time, about everything. I can only imagine going out to eat before the Zagat guide. You know? It would so interesting to go, “Is your meal good?” “Yes.” “This is the best pasta I’ve ever had!” Now people go, “Oh, it got one star. Did you read the New York Times? The guy hated the salad.” OK! So to watch a movie and not know anything — to me, it’s exciting. So I try to sort of do that. But I’m like everybody. I read what you guys write. I read everything. I know what most people have said about stuff because I go on the Internet. But I’ve got a bunch of movies here that I don’t know anything about.
What was the last one you watched like that?
“Rust and Bone.” So far, so good. I’m 30 minutes in; I started it earlier. But it’s good. I wanted to watch it with my kids, because I wanted us all to have that experience, but it was subtitled. I knew that was never going to work.
It was over.
I can’t get them to sit with the subtitles.
That took a while for me.
Me too. I don’t recall watching French movies at 14. And now, you know, even black and white is an effort. Wait until 20 years from now, you’ll never get anyone to sit through 2-D.
I don’t know if you’ve read about “The Hobbit.”
I’ve read about the 48-frames controversy. Did you see it?
I did see it.
Did you see it in that form?
I did see it in that form. It’s crazy. It looks so real that it looks fake.
But do you think if you got used to it that it’s all you’d want for the rest of your life?
Maybe? It looks as sharp as your HD TV. But it’s a different experience in the movie theater. The outdoor stuff looks great, but when Martin Freeman is running around his Hobbit house, it looks like you can push on the wall and knock the whole thing down.
You don’t think this is imminently going to catch on.
So what you’re saying is my 128-frame divorce comedy might not do so well.
[Laughs] Maybe table that one.
[Laughs] You know, how much can they go? “Hey, did you see the 800-frame Superman?”
The next thing will be walking around. It will be like a play.
I mean, that’s the goal. The hologram. If they could put the actors in front of you, they would. They just haven’t done it well. I never saw Tupac thing, but people said it was pretty amazing.
You mentioned that you’re a member of the Academy: I was shocked you didn’t get an Oscar nomination last year …
Wait a minute. Honey! [Laughs]
Did that burn you? Honestly, I was stunned. I thought they miscounted the votes.
The thing is, you’re entered into a race. You’re like a horse. You don’t have anything to do with it. You just do the movie and then slowly, somebody says, “Come on, you’re going to come to the Kentucky Derby and you’re going to run.” Then you get caught up in it because everybody is saying it. They’re putting the saddle on you! But the company that released “Drive” didn’t choose to play the game — even though the film critics groups were very generous to me. This company, Film District, had changed management and they didn’t do anything. So nothing in “Drive” got it. “Drive” was such an interesting, great movie. There were aspects of it that should have been nominated and it didn’t get anything like that. They didn’t choose to play the game. But, you know, listen: I’m just a human being. My phone rings, “Hey, you got the New York Film Critics! You’re going to get nominated!” “OK, great!” “The guy’s coming over with a tux!” “OK!” [Laughs] I don’t know, I’m just a guy; I just listen. I would say that for two or three days it feels weird because all of a sudden you become the Snubbed King.
You were the poster boy of snubs.
It was an honor to be snubbed.
So you knew that Film District wasn’t playing the game.
It was obvious! Because my agency asked them to, and there was great recognition from, like, 40 different film groups. But, you know, it’s an expensive game and they didn’t choose to play it. So I’m saying to you: Does that make a difference? I don’t know. I don’t know how it works. It’s such a business now. There are so many people that work towards these awards: advertising, publicity. It’s a very big business. I admire Harvey Weinstein because he goes after it and he knows how to do it. He’s got a film that people like and he makes sure that people know it’s good. I think maybe “Drive” was too violent.
It was definitely violent, and the Academy doesn’t always like violent.
But I heard — I’m not going to mention names — one of the big financial people in that company just hated the movie.
In Film District?
Not Film District. There were about four companies that put money into “Drive.” Some of the people who, if they loved it, probably might have said, “Goddammit this is the best thing I’ve ever done. Let’s go for this.” They had the opposite reaction.
And it just sunk.
But having said all that: To me, it’s like an election for a Senator. This seems to be a big business. The trade papers make all their money this time of year. They’re 900 pages thick. I went to the mailbox last year, I got a two-foot stand-up of Kenneth Branagh shaking my hand. [Laughs] This thing opened up it was life-size. I thought he was there.
That’s going to be 128-frames.
Yeah, exactly! I went to dinner with this cardboard cutout. Possibly, if they sent free forks to everybody in the Academy, I might have got nominated.
One last thing before we say goodbye: When you’re at home watching TV and you see one of your movies, do you stop to watch?
No, I don’t.
You don’t like watching yourself?
I really don’t. It’s sort of like, if I’m exercising and something is on, maybe I’ll watch a little. I don’t search it out. I don’t. It’s funny. I would tell you if I did! I just don’t. I guess I sort of like to remember it and I don’t go out of my way to see, “Oh, that wasn’t as funny as I remembered. Dammit.”
It could lead you down a bad path.
Although, although, although: “Lost in America” was on Turner Classic Movies and I watched 40 minutes of it because I wanted to see. I didn’t realize they don’t cut out language and they don’t break for commercials. I was thrilled. So I started to watch it to see. “I think I say ‘fuck’ here. Is it going to be? … It’s in!” So I wanted to see the presentation and it was making me laugh. I don’t think I’ve looked at that movie for eight years. So, that was sort of fun.
“This Is 40” opens on Dec. 21.