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A 'Strolling Player' Indeed

How hard could it be to play a California lawyer? Albert Finney asked himself. Then he learned more about Ed Masry, Erin Brockovich--and Julia Roberts.

March 12, 2000|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a regular contributor to Calendar from England

LONDON — It's 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.

"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, 63, 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."

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