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The Real Brockovich: Her Causes Roll On After the Movie Ends

Celebrity: Westlake Village investigator helps raise funds at Thousand Oaks screening of film that shares her name and story.

March 16, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THOUSAND OAKS — Erin Brockovich is now a Hollywood icon, but the morning after her glitzy premiere she wasn't sleeping in or drinking celebratory champagne out of crystal flutes.

She spent Wednesday morning in the emergency room with her feverish daughter, as might any typical person--not one glorified on movie posters and bus placards.

And at a special Thousand Oaks fund-raiser Wednesday evening--an early screening of "Erin Brockovich," the film that shares her story and opens Friday--she had virtually no entourage and trod no red carpet, just the regular, speckled one at the United Artists Theater in The Oaks mall.

She's still the same Erin Brockovich she was months ago, before Julia Roberts wiggled into the tight skirts and cleavage-revealing tops that Brockovich is known for. Smart. Outspoken. Tenacious. Driven to justice.

You'd guess she'd be impossible to fluster. Well, almost.

At the Tuesday night premiere in Hollywood, "I was literally shaking," said Brockovich, an investigator at the law offices of Masry & Vititoe in Westlake Village.

"I've never, ever seen anything like it: the people, the attention, the cameras," she said. "One of the photographers said, 'Come up closer.' And I said, 'No, you scare me.' "

She wasn't scared enough not to wear a body-hugging dress with two cutouts in the midriff--a dress Brockovich said she pulled out of her closet just before the premiere. The stress of celebrity had made her lose weight, and the previously planned dress had to be ditched.

It's a long way from the dusty streets of the California desert community of Hinkley, where Brockovich did the unglamorous work of legal investigation, door-to-door and through mud and muck years before the case and the movie made her rich.

The movie tells the behind-the-scenes story of how the twice-divorced mother of three with a daring fashion sense and dogged persistence helped win a $333-million lawsuit against PG&E, accused of poisoning the town's water.

Even as the movie is unveiled, litigation on the PG&E case continues in Hinkley.

But thanks to her new celebrity (including a cameo as a waitress in the film), she's no longer able to go door-to-door investigating. And for the moment, she has to play movie star: a role she seemed perfectly suited to Wednesday, thanks to a minuscule blue skirt and a tight, bright green tank top.

"Everything's very different right now," she said. "For a few weeks, this movie is the priority. I've been zapped."

She's been on "Oprah." She's told there have been 300 requests for interviews. On Wednesday, she was late for her Access Hollywood interview because her 13-year-old had strep throat.

"I don't want to get sick of it," Brockovich said. "It's a great opportunity to send our message. Everything in the movie is true."

What's it like now, knowing that millions of people all over the country will stand in line for tickets to a movie that shares her name?

"I always thought [the name] would change. It's a good thing [the movie] turned out to be good," she said. "And it just reminded me to be conscientious of Ed [Masry's] feelings."

Masry, swept into Thousand Oaks three years ago and a major figure in environmental issues, can take it. He and Brockovich bat at each other like siblings, in cheerful games of get-your-goat.

He's had his movie fame--a childhood role in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" in 1945 and "Northern Star" in 1942. So, by now, he's blase, though he admits, this Hollywood premiere was something.

Reporters "were talking to anybody who would stop to talk. At first, I think they thought I was Tom Cruise," quipped the white-haired, 67-year-old lawyer.

For both Brockovich and Masry, the movie is mostly a vehicle for their work. Wednesday night's benefit, sponsored by Save the Conejo 2000, was for cancer and environmental groups. These are things they've been preaching--and investigating--for years.

"I'm the same guy I was last week," Masry said. "But now a lot more people are listening."

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