The Skinny from Finney: Albert Finney Discusses Erin Brockovich | 9th March 2000

This year marks Albert Finney’s 40th anniversary in cinema. His film career began in 1960 with a small role in Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer and a career-making part as the angry young man in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Finney shot to international stardom and garnered his first Academy Award nomination for best actor for the title role in 1963’s Tom Jones. Since then, he’s created an impressive body of work and racked up three more Oscar nominations: for appearing, nearly unrecognizably, under layers of makeup as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express; for his performance as the doddering and blustery aged actor in 1983’s The Dresser; and for self-destructing as the drunken diplomat in 1984’s Under the Volcano.

Finney puts his roguish charm on display once more in Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, playing real-life lawyer Ed Masry whose clerical assistant, the eponymous Erin (Julia Roberts), sets his practice on fire when she uncovers a public utility’s role in creating a small-town health crisis. Finney flew in from London recently to take part in Erin Brockovich’s New York press junket, where he charmed a group of reporters as he talked about the film and his magnificent career.

Q: I always thought you were British. What a great American accent.

Albert Finney: Oh, thank you.

Q: Was that a piece of cake for you?

AF: No, you always have to work at it. I have this wonderful voice lady called Carla Mayer who lives in L.A. and I have worked with her on a couple of movies. She’s really good. She goes on the set with headphones and gives you notes. She’s terrific and I always run to her now, because she is just great to work with, as well as very good at different accents. You kind of think, “Oh, well, I will just do kind of an American accent.” But you have to try and be more specific than that, because there are differences which a lot of people might not notice but you, as a pro, your pride gets affected. Working with Carla is such a pleasure. We meet before the movie and she gives you charts with sounds on them and makes a tape of examples. While they are setting up the scene, I go with her to the trailer and we go through the scene and correct the speech. It’s tough to keep on top of it. I’ve never not liked doing that. That is part of the whole thing, part of the pleasure of being a character actor, these little nuances.

Q: You’ve worked with so many great performers.

AF: Yes, I have.

Q: Is Julia Roberts one more day at the office?

AF: No, she is right up there with the best I’ve worked with. I was very impressed with her, I really was. She was absolutely in top form everyday. Came on, knew it, was on top of it — was an absolute professional and a joy. I haven’t seen the film yet because I just got in from London. In the scenes where the two characters [Erin and Ed] are bantering with each other, it is like bobbing at the net in tennis. It was great to do and it’s exciting to do those things. That’s another thing, that one enjoys the game. That is one of the reasons one enjoys acting. Now and again, you get scenes where you work with somebody really good and you have a good time trying to make it really work and really work well.

When I read the script, I liked the script very much and I thought it was a marvelous part for her, because I think it is a change of pace. I mean, we know how wonderful she is in romantic comedy. I hadn’t been aware that she played a role like Erin before — maybe I’m wrong, but I wasn’t aware of it. Within two weeks of working with her, I realized how good she was for the role because she was absolutely with it and she has got terrific instincts, I think, as an artist, too. Suddenly little things would happen and I would have to respond to that. It was a real pleasure. She is up there with the best of them. I can only talk about my experience, but it was genuinely special.

Q: Has the joy of acting ebbed and flowed for you during your career?

AF: Not really. It may have looked like that from where you were. No, I always enjoy it and still do. You are with a new set of people, you are in a new location, there is always something new about it. I still enjoy that. It’s still good fun.

Q: One of the producers of Erin Brockovich, Michael Shamberg, was saying earlier that they were looking for a person of a certain age for this part, who was nearing retirement, but wasn’t there yet. He said that there were not many people out there and that you quickly occurred to them.

AF: You mean actors? There are quite a few. There is an old saying: “Old actors don’t retire; their parts just get smaller.” You come on as a guest. You don’t get the girl anymore. But that is our lives. You start off as the boyfriend, then you are the lover, then you are the husband, then you are the father, and then you are the grandfather. With a bit of luck, you get to be the great grandfather.

Q: How did Steven Soderbergh pitch Erin Brockovich to you?

AF: First of all, there was the script. Then there was a long distance telephone call about it. I did like the script. Apart from being rather important in many respects, I thought it told the story well. It seemed to move along quite quickly and quite dramatically; the characters were interesting. I was quite easily convinced. But, obviously, one has to think about it a bit. I am thinking, “I am playing an American that lives in the Valley.” All those things. One of the great things about Steven — he is very quietly, very simply, honest and direct. There is no ego involved, no bulls**t involved. So it helps to make decisions with a director like that. I mean, he is great on the set. He has worked with some of the crew before. Very quickly, there was a nice family feeling on the set. You felt pleasant and you felt at home. And he operates the camera. His early films — his short film and his first feature — he lit. He was the director of photography, as well as director. He wants to be in there. I think he is only happy when he is out filming or editing or scoring. The rest of the time, I think he’s wondering what to do. He just likes to be busy. When you are shooting a scene, he is looking at you through the lens so he is right there with you.

Q: Did you meet the real Ed Masry?

AF: Yes, I did. I didn’t live with him for a month to find out how to play him or how he was. I’m not playing an internationally known figure here; there was no point to imitating him. I met him about three or four times. The first time, my first impression of him was not in meeting him, it was the wardrobe that had been selected for the trial by the costume designer. There were all these suits. I was thinking California, more relaxed, more informal, casual. But it was all these suits and all these shirts with stripes and with white collars. French cuffs with his initials on it. Then I discovered after meeting him that, as soon as he gets to the office, or even on the way, he didn’t wear the tie. He didn’t wear the jacket. Shoes come off. It’s only for meetings he does that. And he gets the shirts from Hong Kong! I think they are $15 apiece. So he is quite natty if you meet him in conference, but if you walk into his office, he is sort of shambling around in disarray which I thought was quite interesting.

Q: You mentioned that in many of your scenes with Julia, there was a quick give-and-take back-and-forth. How closely were you sticking to the script in those scenes?

AF: Oh, pretty much, pretty much. If we changed things, we’d discuss it during the time we choreographed the scene, prior to lighting and shooting. There was not a lot of improvisation. There were some scenes where Steven might not cut, so we would have to go on doing something. The scene where I am talking to the good citizens up in the desert and I’m telling them why they ought to go to arbitration, he didn’t cut, so I had to go on and on. After a couple of takes when I was going on and on, I suddenly realized all I had to do to get him to say cut was say, “Well, thanks for coming,” and sort of end it from the stage.

Q: Did you have any preconceptions about Julia Roberts? Had you ever met her before?

AF: No, no, I didn’t have any — I mean, I have not heard any gossip that she was this, she was that. I didn’t know. I just thought, “Well, great, I will see you.” I have worked with some terrific people in the past so I am used to stepping up onto a set with some big hitters. So, no, I didn’t have any apprehension. Curiosity, sure, and interest.

Q: How did you get into this crazy game anyway? Why did you become an actor?

AF: It was suggested by the headmaster at school because I never passed any exams. So I was in class one day, having failed. One year I had five exams, which is the minimum. At the age of 16, I had failed four of them. So I was kept down and the next year, I failed all five. Although the results weren’t in, the writing was very clearly on the wall for everybody. So one day toward the end of the exam term, the head boy came in and said, “The headmaster wants to see you.” We were walking down the corridor and I said, “What is it? What have I done now?” He said, “He thinks you ought to go to RADA.” I said, “What’s RADA?” He said, “It’s the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.” We did a lot of plays in school and I don’t know why I did it. It was a school activity and I just did it. It could have been stamp collecting or chess, but I happened to be in the plays. He had written a letter to my parents and they didn’t mind and off I went. It was when I was at RADA, two terms of RADA, and I thought, “Hey, this isn’t bad. I quite like this. This is quite a good thing to be doing.” So I stuck with it.

Q: Do you remember the first time you stepped in front of a movie camera?

AF: Yes, it was one night’s work on The Entertainer. A living screen test, although I didn’t realize it at the time. It was just one night’s work at a station in London. I was at Stratford working at the time. I had a day off. I did a scene with Joan Plowright and the late Daniel Massey, Raymond’s son. I am going off to join my regiment, because it’s the time of the Suez crisis. I go off and that’s the end of me in the movie. Peter Yates was the first assistant on that film.

I had never been on a movie set. What are they all doing? What does everybody do? Why do they have so many people? What are they all doing? So, okay, “We’ve got it now, great.” I said, “I’m going to change.” Tony [Richardson] said, “No, no, we are going around the other way.” I thought I was finished. I didn’t understand the process. Although I had seen a million movies in my time, it never dawned on me that they put a scene together by shooting one way and then shooting the other way and cutting it together. I had probably seen a million movies. I just remembered being absolutely stupid, because I thought I was finished. “No, you have to stay.”

Q: Has there been an inspirational person that you have looked up to during your career?

AF: There are so many. There are different times of your life and different people you work with that you get things from. There was no one figure. Quite a few people have very special talents and suggest particular things. It would be nice to have this quality or that quality. When I became a drama student, of course, the first one was Stanislavky, because that is what you ought to be doing. You go and see plays. You go to see somebody legendary like Ralph Richardson and you think, “Oh yeah, come on, come on, they say you are good.” Every generation says, “Why do people think he’s good? Prove it, prove to me you are good.” I am watching him and he’s being rather mannered. Suddenly — it was as if he was sort of distracted by the mannerisms and the gestures — he did something so simple, so deeply felt and the hair went up on the back of my neck. I realized he was good. In some way when you are young, they have to prove it to you. So you go through that stage. Me and my friends can do it and nobody else can. Then you start to realize that there are a lot of people with talent. I did a play with Charlie Laughton in 1958, in Manchester. Charlie was a man of talent. The next year I was working with Olivier. I was working with Laughton again. Sam Wanamaker, Paul Robeson playing Othello. Edith Evans was there. Vanessa Redgrave.

Q: Do you feel there’s a real divide between the British actors and the American actors?

AF: I don’t think there is a divide. There used to be. We came from a much more theatrical background, because it was the old repertory system, throughout the provinces. Our country is so small, you know you can go and work in Glasgow which is only 400 miles away and do a play, or two plays in the classics in the theater. You can still go home on the night train and spend Sunday with your family in London if you wish. Whereas here, the big divide was a country which is massive. My generation started the basic experience in the regional repertory companies. I was in Birmingham. Peter O’Toole was in Bristol. But that’s all gone. That’s not the same now. Now, instead of the repertory companies having a cast company for a year, they tend to cast each play as it comes up. So the younger generation of actors doesn’t stay — I was at Birmingham Rep for two years and I played about 16 different parts, probably 50% I was totally wrong for — but that helps. That’s training, too.

Q: Do you think the disadvantages of today’s actors is they don’t get the —

AF: Well, they go straight into sort of movie technique, immediately. You know, it’s TV, it’s a camera technique that you go into. It’s just sort of different. I think good acting is good acting, whatever the language it’s in. We all have different cultures, sure, and I think it’s important to retain those, but I think we should accept the fact that we more or less speak the same language and enjoy that.

Q: Which one of your movies do you want to be remembered for?

AF: I don’t know. It’s like saying which of your children is your favorite? They all are. I don’t want to say I love one better than the other. I think the others will feel bad.