Albert Brooks on Playing a Gangster and Predicting the U.S.'s Bleak Future

Seriously Funny: Albert
WATCH Seriously Funny: Albert Brooks

Actor and comedian Albert Brooks plays a murderous Los Angeles gangster in "Drive," an action film noir that opens in theaters Friday and stars Ryan Gosling as a seedy stunt driver. But Brooks jokes that he thinks his acting role this year -- as actor Paul Rudd's father in Judd Apatow's upcoming comedy, "This Is Forty" -- is more of a stretch.

After Apatow called him and asked him to consider the role, Brooks says he told the director, "No one is going to believe me as that, Judd. Paul Rudd and I look like brothers. 'No, people will believe you,' OK, well, let's make an old gray wig and I'll limp. 'No, don't do that.'"

Brooks is 64, but he seems more active than ever, with new films and his first novel, "2030." Rolling Stone's Peter Travers writes that "Brooks' performance, veined with dark humor and chilling menace (watch him with a blade), deserves to have Oscar calling."

"Drive" is a real departure from the funny man's typical role, with scenes full of engines roaring down open highway stretches, sleazy apartments and blood-stained shirts. Brooks plays Bernie Rose, a Jewish gangster.

"I'm not a bad guy until I'm forced to be a bad guy, but I'm capable of doing dangerous things," he said of the role. "Things that I've never been asked to do in a film before."

It's an unusual choice for Brooks, known primarily for making people laugh, whether as a stand-up comedian or in various roles as everyman neurotics in "Lost in America" (1985), "Defending Your Life" (1991) and "Mother" (1996), all of which he wrote and directed.

He's played a fish -- Nemo's dad, Marlin -- in Pixar's "Finding Nemo" and, of course, most iconically, he played TV news reporter Aaron Altman on the losing end of the style vs. substance struggle in the acclaimed 1987 film, "Broadcast News," for which he was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award.

Born Albert Einstein in Beverly Hills, Calif., Brooks had comedy in his blood. Father Harry was well known for his Greek-babbling radio character Parkyakarkus, appearing on Eddie Cantor's radio show and in films. His brother Bob Einstein -- also known as "Super" Dave Osborne -- plays Marty Funkhouser on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Brooks' dad died when he wasn't yet 12, but he recalls learning the lesson that comedy can be a living. Most importantly, he remembers laughing.

"I remember dinner tables where my dad was doing silly things with his food to make my brothers and I laugh," Brooks said. "My mother was very upset. As opposed to both parents going, 'Stop it!', one parent was doing it. And so that sort of makes you somewhere in your mind go, 'Oh, you can do this and get away with it.'"

Brooks insists that the "Bernie Rose" character wasn't a stretch for him; he was trained as a serious actor, studying drama at Carnegie Mellon, but he found it tough to find work early on.

Albert Brooks's new book, "2030." Credit: Amazon

"I had an agent who said, 'Look, you get on the 'Steve Allen Show' doing comedy, you'll get all the acting you want,'" Brooks said. "Of course, five years later, I was in a club in St. Louis, it was snowing into my hotel room and I hadn't gotten any acting jobs. I'd just gotten more comedy. So he wasn't quite accurate."

Albert Brooks Says He Turned Down 'A Lot of Great Acting Parts' to Direct

His bits were new and interesting, playing the "World's Worst Ventriloquist," on the "The Flip Wilson Show," at a time when ventriloquist acts where a standard bit on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and other popular comedy hours. He was "meta" and "ironic" before those were even show-biz terms.

"I was sort of making fun of what I did, making fun of show business pretty early on," he said. "That was a new style of comedy."

Indeed, some called him ahead of his time. He skewered reality television with his first film, "Real Life," even before reality television was a phenomenon.

"I guess if you do something before somebody, I guess you're ahead of your time," Brooks says. "As I like to say, there's no line at the bank that says 'Ahead of your time.' It's not a profitable thing, but it's a nice thing, I guess. If you're going to do something 10 or 15 years before other people do it, I guess it's cool," he said. "But while you're doing it, it doesn't feel cool. It feels like you've got a lot of people around you going, 'What's this?'"

He asked one of his heroes, Carl Reiner, to direct "Real Life," but they disagreed on some issues so Brooks took over.

"Directing movies was really to service the script, because the writing is everything," Brooks says.

Pursuing his own movies, he says, he had to "turn down a lot of great acting parts, because I was making my own movies. Once you start a movie, you can't stop to act in someone else's."

Among the roles he turned down, he says, are the leads in "Big," "When Harry Met Sally," "Dead Poets' Society," "Pretty Woman" and the Burt Reynolds role in "Boogie Nights."

Known for making people laugh, whether it is on "The Tonight Show" or "The Simpsons," there has always been a seriousness in his body of work. This year, Brooks published his first book, "2030: the Real Story of What Happens in America," a novel that describes what the United States would look like in 19 years, and the outlook is bleak.

"The future ain't that funny," Brooks said.

Like much of Hollywood, Brooks is a fairly traditional liberal Democrat -- but his book sounds an alarm about the nation's huge debt. According to Brooks, in 2030, the U.S. is borrowing 100 percent of its budget and has become an impotent nation on its knees to China. The young target the old, resentful of all the money spent on entitlement programs.

It's a book the Tea Party could toast, but that was not Brooks' intention.

"I don't know what the whole Tea Party platform is," he said. "I think that they're right to worry about the national debt. I believe in evolution. I'm a science guy. I believe that. What the Tea Party has issues with, with this money, I agree with, and that's the inefficiency of the spending."

Speaking of cutting, Brooks now claims great skill with a knife because his film had an expert on the set of "Drive" to help him in his role.

"I know how to kill you," he joked. "I'm just not going to."

ABC News' Lauren Effron contributed to this report.