Albert Brooks backs into the spotlight – actor and film director – Interview
He’s been called one of America’s natural comedic resources. His humorous takes on human behavior have resulted in such celluloid classics as Lost in America and Defending Your Life. And his performance in Broadcast News earned him an Academy Award nomination. So why is Albert Brooks still one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets? And what will he do if his clever new comedy, Mother; catches on?
PT: How would you describe what you do to someone who’s never seen your work?
AB: Well, it would depend on who that person was. I mean, if it was a Lithuanian steelworker, I wouldn’t even bother.
PT: Lets go for a regular old American.
AB: Well, I do a lot of different things…
PT: What does it say on your passport?
AB: I think maybe writer. I attempt to create a form of seriocomic entertainment to either delight, enlighten, or disgust, whichever you’d like. In terms of making motion pictures, I write and direct and act. I guess you’d say I’m a filmmaker.
PT: Maybe this is just as tough a question: Who’s your audience? Who are the people who respond to yolk films?
AB: Well, it’s always different than I think. We live in a time where a film doesn’t simply go into a movie theater; it goes to television, it goes onto tape. So people discover these movies. The guy who does my gardening had a whole long discussion with me about Defending Your Life and he barely speaks English; I almost couldn’t understand him. But it seemed to move him in some way. I’m not doing anything so complicated that the average person couldn’t like it. You know, I get letters from Norway–I don’t know what that means.
PT: How do you have the confidence to play people who display such human foibles?
AB: I’ll tell you; ’cause I don’t know anything else. I guess if I knew enough that I could make a choice, I’d probably be scared to do it. But I’m sort of like the Roadrunner; I just run. And if the mountain disappears, tough luck. That was the nature of my stand-up act. I never started in clubs. I used to think up things in my bathroom and go down and do them on national television. So I sort of got initiated into just going with my gut. And it’s really all I can do.
PT: Do you have a sense as to whether more women than men respond to your kind of humor? A,re some men afraid of it because it’s too close to the bone?
AB: This is generalization, but I think women’s brains are more accessible to ideas and differences. And they can accept stuff that’s weirder. I think there are enough intelligent men out there who get it, but women will watch behavior that’s different and process it better. In general, women are less threatened by their emotions.
PT: When women are asked what they want in a man, one of the first things they always say is a sense of humor.
AB: Yeah, I know. I’ve always read that.
PT: Do you think it’s true?
AB: Well, somehow I think Fabio gets laid more than Gilbert Gottfried. So I’d like to give those women lie detector tests. (Laughs.) Listen, I think a sense of humor is important, providing it comes with a good body.
PT: The thing about your movies that seems to have an impact on people is that you live out, via your characters, some of people’s worst nightmares.
AB: Right. And the goal is to do it entertainingly, so you make people laugh.
PT: And the audience has no fear. People are just watching with amusement, knowing that somehow…
AB: Right. Believe me, that wasn’t the case with Modern Romance [about a neurotic Hollywood film editor who breaks up with his girlfriend and decides he wants her back–a second time]. There was a character so full of human foibles that half the audience got scared to death. Even if they saw themselves in him, that behavior was frightening. Other people were grateful they weren’t the only ones on the planet that acted like that. It’s a funny thing when you show behavior in a real way. Just like people don’t like to talk about or address their problems, there are as many people who don’t like to see any form of themselves. It’s scary. It’s like homophobic behavior–you know, it’s realaphobic.
PT: Where did the idea for Mother about a man who goes home to live with his mother after his second divorce, come from? You haven’t been divorced.
AB: No, no. I haven’t been. But it’s easy to imagine, ha. And I don’t have to be divorced to know that in my life, I’ve either gone out with women who were like my mother or not like my mother. The main thing is I had not seen this relationship presented in any way that I could identify with. There’ve been a few mother-daughter movies that are somewhat realistic. But the mother-son movies are more comical than realistic: Throw Momma from the Train, Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot. You don’t sit in the dark and go, “Oh my God, that’s my mother.” You know, unless you’re Jesse James. It’s such an important relationship, probably the most important one that a man’s gonna have. I’m surprised there aren’t a thousand movies about it.
I like to do things that I want to see myself. With Defending Your Life, wanted to see some aspect of death other than angels and the thing that Ghost was about, because that didn’t make any sense to me. So that’s the reason, it fills a hole.
PT: Only in someone’s wildest dreams would they put their room the way it was when they were a kid, though.
AB: Right. Well, that’s the best thing about a movie…
PT: The vicarious thrill?
AB: You know, you wouldn’t drop out for two weeks like the couple in Lost in America, either. But it’s sure fun to think about. The best ideas are always the very elegant, simple ones that make you go, “Gee, that’s possible. Yes, I could do that.” And, by the way, a lot of people do move back home for financial reasons. That’s been happening in the last five, ten years.
PT: You said you wanted someone who was an `event’ to play the mother.
AB: Yes, meaning someone who you haven’t seen for 25 years. Someone that makes you go, “Debbie Reynolds?” To have someone who was in a movie in July, and one in January, and played a mother last year–I couldn’t do that.
PT: What’s the truth about the other women you went to see?
AB: I only went to see a few. I went to see if Dons Day would come out of retirement. And she claimed that she wanted to. But when push came to shove, she realized she’s never gonna act again.
PT: Wow! And you helped her come to that realization. That’s pretty heavy.
AB: I was sitting up there when it all happened. She said, “I guess I’m not gonna…” And I said, “Great, well, I gotta catch a flight. I’ll send you a bill.”
PT: You were also quoted as saying that when you went to see Esther Williams she wouldn’t get out of the pool.
AB: I saw her on a talk show, and she had a very motherly quality. The thing about Nancy Reagan was not quite as it was printed. They said I offered her the role, which I didn’t. My agent’s sister is close friends with her and, sort of on a whim, they sent her a script. And she loved it, and we met a number of times, and I think under the right circumstances, she would love to do a movie again. But we never got that far.
PT: How was it working with Debbie Reynolds?
AB: The most amazing thing about Debbie was the way she approached this role, like a method actress. And she did something that I requested; she stopped all of her live performing about two months before the movie. I just wanted to clean out that Vegas person. Her own daughter [Carrie Fisher] was like, where did this come from?-Because nothing in her career suggests this performance. She was never asked to do the real moments, you know? The musicals were always at a certain level.
PT: Wanting someone who is an `event’ takes the spotlight away from you.
AB: Listen, all I would like is the movie to do well. Whenever I act in my own movies, people don’t look at it like acting anyway, so I’m not gonna get any acting awards. I have a very unique situation in that I’m able to make a living, and yet I can still go to the market and I can have a life. And it’s a cool thing.
PT: But all that may change.
AB: Well, if it changes, there’s nobody I know who’s better prepared for it. (Laughs.) That’s all I’ve been doing. And it wouldn’t even affect me that much. I’m never gonna be Elvis, no matter what I do. Well, maybe weightwise.
PT: So what does your mother think of the film?
AB: She thought it was my most accessible movie. And she thought one or two lines reminded her of us, which I thought was very cute, one or two lines. I said, “Gee, that’s good. The whole picture didn’t, huh?” I think my mother, in a very dear way, sometimes doesn’t believe what I do. When I got the go-ahead for this, I called her-very excitedly and said, “I got a green light. I’m gonna make the movie.” And she said, “Oh, honey, that’s wonderful. But the acting jobs just aren’t coming?” It’s sorta like there’s this club, and I don’t know that my mother completely thinks I belong yet. But it’s endearing, and over the years…
PT: You mean it’s gotten to the point where it’s endearing.
AB: Yeah, it’s gotten to the point. I think it profoundly changed when I was nominated for an Academy Award. I took her to the Oscars, and that was the one moment where…! mean, she just kept looking around and something seemed to happen. It was like, “Okay, all right–this must be real.”
PT: There’s been this dichotomy in your life, where you’ve had great respect from the best comedic minds, and your movies have been somewhat successful.
AB: When you say “successful”–to me they’re successful. Because I judge the success on what I’m trying to do. I’ve not made a movie yet that I haven’t made the way I wanted. Two years ago, Movieline magazine went back and asked 10 American critics what their biggest regrets were. And I’m at the newsstand, and there’s David Ansen of Newsweek saying, “My biggest regret is I didn’t give Modern Romance and Lost in America better reviews. As I look back, I think they’re the seminal comedies of the eighties.” And I had the weirdest mixed feeling. I’m going, “Hey! Screw you.”
Success is getting what you want–not having an idea and letting 30 people guide you, and winding up someplace you didn’t want to be. So far, I can shove in a videotape, and I’m not embarrassed about anything that I’ve done. Its important to have as few regrets as possible. l didn’t direct The Scout [about a down-and-out major-league baseball scout]–I rewrote it. The way it ended was not the way I wrote it to end. Monica Johnson, his writing partner] and I, we did something very specific. That ballplayer was just supposed to make one pitch, which was a strike, and that was the end of the movie. And the studio made [director] Michael Ritchie put that whole big game in at the end. Okay If that’s the worst thing about my whole career, I did pretty good. And so far it is! Some reviewers said, “What a phony ending.” And other people liked the movie. But I didn’t direct it, and I couldn’t win that battle. I’ve won all the other battles, and 1 wouldn’t do this unless I could, because I’m the one who has to live with it.
PT: What will it mean to you if Mother is a big hit, besides the obvious financial rewards?
AB: All it will mean is that things will be a teeny bit easier. I already have a deal to make another movie, so that’s not going to change. But you know what happens. I mean, Jesus–if a movies a huge hit, then everything is easier. You get a better parking space, people say yes faster.
PT: And so you’re ready to embrace all that? The good tables and the…
AB: Well, I’d still get the good tables. That wouldn’t change, because to the waiter I’m a big hit. The waiter is impressed if you’ve even made a movie. I don’t think the waiter cares how much it grosses.
PT: Doesn’t everybody read the grosses in this town?
AB: Almost. Listen, at this stage of my life–I’ve been doing this almost 30 years–I don’t think anything’s gonna…I mean, I’m who I am. If I have a movie that makes $100 million, I give you permission to call me, and I’ll do an interview with you and tell you, a year from now, what the difference is. But I can’t even think like that. I don’t even want to think like that. I just don’t want to hang my hat on something that’s that undefinable.
PT: Have you had to get to a point where you can say, “Okay, I want it all”?
AB: I think I got to the point where I could say, “I will accept what 1 have.” I’m not longing for that, believe me. First of all, I think if you long for it, you never get it. I don’t believe you get anything in this world that you want.
PT: What a pessimistic view!
AB: No, it’s not a pessimistic view. It’s the way things work. Hasn’t your favorite job come when you didn’t need it? Haven’t you gotten your best offer or met somebody when…
PT: That’s because you’re not being intense about it.
AB: Well, that’s what I’m saying. If you go for a job and you’re desperate, you don’t get it. If you go on a date and you’re desperate, you never hear from that person again. This world suggests that when you don’t need something, it comes to you. If I were gonna rewrite the Bible, I would say the main prayer to God should be: Dear God, I’m fine. I don’t need anything. Amen. And (laughs) then he might start answering your prayers. But nothing comes to you when you’re desperate; it just doesn’t work that way So if you’re going, “I need a hit, I need a hit,” goddamn, you’re never gonna get it.
PT: What about personal happiness? You’ve had relationships, but you’ve never been married. You’ve said…
AB: My quote was: “I never got married because I never met anybody I was willing to be divorced from.”
PT: What does that mean?
AB: You know what that means. That means saying, “I love you so much, I don’t care what happens.” But I’ve met someone that I’m serious with, and I would love to…you know, I’d love to have an Act III. I’d love to have a child. It’s scary and all because I haven’t had that experience. Then, of course, I’ll probably have fans that say: “Well, you shoulda stayed single, you schmuck.”
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