role call

Erin Brockovich Answers Every Question We Have About Erin Brockovich

“People were surprised by how I dressed or that I didn’t have a PhD. But all of it is who I am.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Universal Pictures

The first thing you notice is the pleather miniskirt, or maybe the McDonald’s kids meal watch. Erin Brockovich is a woman surrounded by lawyers, but she doesn’t have any legal or medical training, only a sense of right from wrong and a willingness to talk to you until you agree her. In the ’90s, she stumbled upon one family whose water was being poisoned by the local utility plant, and that single family’s deposition ballooned into 600+ plaintiffs, suing Pacific Gas and Electric for decades of medical maladies caused by living on knowingly toxic ground. In the movie they draw a memorable parallel between a small law firm and the big, bad corporate behemoth: “Kind of like David and what’s-his-name?” Erin (Julia Roberts) says to her boss Ed (Albert Finney). He frowns, looking up to correct her, his eyes obscured through coke-bottle glasses. “Kind of like David and what’s-his-name’s whole fucking family.”

Erin Brockovich is more fun than other movies about selfless do-gooders; it’s sexier, too. (I heard once that Steven Soderbergh directed Roberts and her onscreen boyfriend Aaron Eckhart to flirt their way into their scene’s dialogue, just really letting it rip.) It’s as good a movie about the cause — saving people from poisoned water — as it is about being a woman without a lot of options, or a single mother who needs to figure out pickup and drop-off and also the number of signatures she needs to file a demurrer. I don’t know that this kind of movie would necessarily be made today, a mid-budget drama about someone inspiring but not determined to win you over, and certainly not with the cleverness of this movie’s winks. The things you love at 14 don’t necessarily age well, but I still love Erin Brockovich because it turns you into a co-conspirator. It makes doing the right thing feel a little thrilling, a little naughty, a lot of fun. Erin won’t be told no in the brashest, biggest way — she blurts out what I would only say after a few nights of overthinking, and a tequila soda.

“I heard a lot of comments about, you know, the boobs, the cleavage, the way I dress, the language, whatever,” Brockovich tells me over the phone one recent afternoon. She’s got a new book coming out — Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It, out this summer — and graciously answers every single question I have about the movie that made her a household name. “I didn’t have time for that. People were poisoned, and they did it and they know it. So yeah, fuck off. That was really my stance.”

What was going on in your life when Erin Brockovich, the movie, happened?
I was working with the law firm Masry & Vititoe. I had been there since 1992. When the movie happened, I had been resolving Hinkley with the attorneys and constantly on the road. I was also putting together the other case against PG&E identical to Hinkley — chrome six — just in another town. So when the movie came out, I was working.

How was it pitched to you?
Way back in the early ’90s, a friend of mine, Pam DuMond, would do a lot of cranial and chiropractic work on me because I had ongoing issues from the car accident. She would always ask me why my heels had mud on them, or what the ice chest in my car was for. I’d tell her. What I didn’t know is that she was sharing that story with a friend of hers named Carla Shamberg, whose husband was partners with Danny DeVito. Carla was like, “You’re telling me some loud-mouth chick is running around, collecting dead frogs because there’s a toxic [water] case?” So one day Pam asked me if I wanted to meet with Carla, and I said, “Okay, I didn’t know you were sharing my stories with anyone, but sure.” I met Carla, and she told her husband, and we took a meeting with Danny DeVito and it took off from there.

How did that meeting go? What do you remember about it?
I had a real hoarse voice and I could barely talk, and Danny DeVito was kidding around. He goes, “I hope you don’t talk like that all the time!” I was nervous. I wasn’t really sure what was gonna happen. After the meeting they just thought this would be a great thing for a movie. I said okay, honestly, never thinking it would happen. I got a contract and had an attorney look at it. Carla Shamberg would always tell me, “We buy movie rights all the time, most times nothing ever happens.” I didn’t get invested in it. I was invested in my work.

Next thing I knew, they’ve got a director. Then the next thing I knew, they’re gonna really make a movie. And next thing I knew they’re going to pick who’s playing in it. And next thing I knew was Julia Roberts.

I don’t pay attention to stuff like that. I can be pretty focused on what I’m doing, and that’s precisely what I was doing. In the back of my mind, I kept remembering what Carla said, that generally they buy rights and more often than not the movie will never get made.

I want to go back for a moment. When did it feel real for you? When did you realize, okay, there’s actually going to be a Hollywood movie made about my life?
When we saw it once it was in the can! It got real for me at two points: first, at the wrap party. Everyone was talking about what they’re going to name the film, since the working title was “Erin Brockovich.” I said I didn’t know. They said, “Go ask Steven Soderbergh.” So I did, and he said: “Erin Brockovich.” I was like, Shit! At that point, I was like, Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no because everyone was like, “What a dumb name for a movie.” That put me in a position that made me nervous.

And then it really became real when, before the film came out, Ed Masry and his wife and me and my husband at that time — there is no husband right now, I’m divorced — we watched it in a movie theater.

What was that screening like? How did you react, and how did Ed?
Ed was focused on Julia’s role, I was focused on Ed’s role, but both of us were focused on Hinkley. Ed and I were high-fiving each other a lot. I couldn’t believe Albert Finney — I kept saying to Ed, like, Oh my God, you would do that. Oh my God, you did that. He never envisioned Julia Roberts, but he would be watching and say, Oh my God, that’s so you! That they were actually saying this was Pacific Gas and Electric, we were just blown away.

Did that feel like a victory for you at the time? That the company was actually named?
Yeah. They tried so hard to hide from it. That was just really egregious behavior. They tried to stop the movie, but it still happened. I think it’s really important that we know the truth of what’s happening. I know people always say “You’re picking on companies!” or this or that. But we can’t just keep concealing that there is poisoned water, or think that when people and children drink that water, that nothing’s going to happen and that’s going to be okay. So we were surprised by that, but also glad to see it. Oftentimes they don’t do that in movies, it’s a fictitious name.

On your website, you call the movie 98 percent accurate. What’s the other 2 percent?
I think they had me as Miss Wichita, but it was actually Miss Pacific Coast. [Laughs] It’s little details like that.

I want to talk about that Miss Wichita scene for a moment. I was talking about this movie a few weeks ago, and a friend told me that his professor taught that monologue in a screenwriting course at NYU. It’s such a moving scene, showing a woman who is giving up a lot of her personal life, and in some ways her own identity, to do this job.
I’m an empathetic person. I always have been since I was a young girl. My parents would always say that if I’d see an older person having lunch alone, I’d usually cry. I don’t want people to feel alone. I don’t like it when someone’s scared. Early on in my life, I was kind of boxed in with my own little learning disabilities and stuff. I just think that, by nature, I’m a people person and I’m very empathetic.

I was in a position as a single mom that I needed to work. I was doing what I needed to do for my children to have food on the table. And then I got very invested in this family out there, and my instincts told me that something wasn’t right, that somebody was not telling the truth. We needed to find out in order to protect what we cherish the most: our family, our health, our land, and our water. I grew up being taught that those are the greatest gifts we have.

Right, and in the movie, the Erin character doesn’t let other people’s ideas about her obscure — sorry, is it weird that I’m calling her “the Erin character”? Should I be saying you instead?
Isn’t it so funny? [Laughs] You know, people say that all the time. But yeah, that’s fine. It’s just who I am. I had no business uncovering a mass tort, but at same time I’m a human, I have feelings. I have observations. I’ve put them into play. People were surprised by how I dressed or that I didn’t have a PhD. But all of it is who I am.

I never gave a thought to how I was dressing. I don’t know. I am a woman at the end of the day. I’m sure I had my own self-esteem issues. I know I did. And, first of all, it was pretty hot out there. But that’s just the way I dress — even now. I look and I’m like, God, I’m 60. Should I be wearing this? [Laughs] I guess I think style is how you feel.

What do you remember about filming your cameo in the movie, where you play a diner waitress named “Julia R.”?
Oh, I did not want to do that.

Tell me why.
I’m nervous. I’ve always been uncomfortable with cameras, ever since I can remember. My mom was a journalist and a sociology major and loves photography. I would oftentimes move away from the camera. You’re from Tulsa, right? My mom’s from Ponca City. We would spend a lot of time there, down with the Cherokees and the Ponca nation. Somebody there had said my spirit doesn’t like [being photographed].

The whole movie thing made me uncomfortable enough. I can still be very uncomfortable with it today. I just didn’t want to do that scene because my spirit is what it is. Steven called and he said, “I do think that you’ll wish that you had done this to memorialize you in the film in a different way.” So I did it. I was nervous! I flubbed up my one line.

I told you, I didn’t want to do it! It was weird because it almost felt like an out-of-body experience: I’m Erin and I’m looking at Julia Roberts, who’s playing Erin, and the kids. How I flubbed up my line is because she was ordering chicken noodle soup for the baby. I’m like, “Elizabeth’ll gag on the noodle!” It was all just weird. I know it’s a film, but I’d never been involved in anything like that in my life.

In retrospect, do you think Steven was right? Would you have regretted it? 
It’s funny, I don’t know that I would’ve even thought about it.

Interesting. Okay.
There were a lot of other things going on in my mind, thinking about the film, like, was it going to be accurate? Universal was great about that, and so was Jersey Films, and so was Steven Soderbergh. Truth is stranger than fiction, and everybody has their perceptions, but I did know that how the people of Hinkley were going to feel [about the movie] was important to us. There were a lot of other people that were involved in this case, other firms, and everybody played a role. I wish they all could have just been seen in the movie. I did worry about how they would feel.

What else were you worried about?
What if it was a flop? You know, all those kinds of things come into your mind. I certainly never, ever, ever thought it [would be so relevant] into 2020. Not only is the story still there in terms of where we are today with the environment — it’s not any better, it’s only worse — but I think Steven was a visionary.

He does seem like the most curious person. How did you trust him with, literally, your life story?
I had a good relationship with Jersey Films. I trusted them. They understood the importance of telling the true story, but they knew that it would be Steven Soderbergh who would probably get that story told the right way. I remember meeting him for the first time here at my house. I enjoyed the conversation with him. He’s easy to talk to. I loved his Doc Martens and his little dark rimmed glasses. He was easy going.

I could see that he was visualizing something himself in his own mind, but he’s very confident. He was intriguing. I was comfortable around him. I didn’t know what an amazing director he was, but obviously Jersey Films and other people in the industry knew about him. And, you know, during the whole process, there was always that voice in the back of my mind that [the movie would] probably never get made.

Tell me about getting the call that Julia Roberts was going to play you?
I couldn’t believe it. I was always asking if they’d cast the roles yet. Ed would always ask me who I thought should play me. And I’m like, Well, I really have no idea. Goldie Hawn? Somebody fun, because I’ve got that kind of zany, crazy Goldie Hawn [quality]. Ed said he didn’t care who played me as long as it wasn’t Julia Roberts. I mean, first of all, Julia Roberts is never going to do it. She’s Julia Roberts! He goes, “Nahhhh…” Her boobs weren’t big enough, her mouth’s not foul enough, it’s never going to happen! Ed and I joked with each other constantly.

So when Steven called and said we’ve cast the part, my heart did start to race. I said, “Who is it?” He goes, “Julia Roberts.” I said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you for a whole host of reasons!” Mostly because I was getting ready to call Ed and go neener, neener, neener, guess who it is. I mean, how does this stuff happen? I was stunned.

What happened when you met her?
I was very nervous. When she came in, I was sitting and doing hair and makeup. I saw her in the mirror and she went into another room and I could hear her. I’m kind of thinking to myself, Oh my gosh, you don’t want to talk to me or what? Because I was sitting in front of the mirror, I could see that she kind of passed me and she turned around and she brought her hand down and I’m kind of looking up over my left shoulder, bringing my right hand up. She goes, “Hi, I’m Julia, and I’m so embarrassed, I don’t even have my boobs in yet.” So that kind of broke the ice.

A) She’s so pretty. B) She has a beautiful energy. Her presence is very warm. It was, again, weird. Wow. I just met Julia Roberts.

Earlier you described that first screening when you were watching Albert and Ed was watching Julia. What did you make of Albert’s performance?
Well, when I did tell Ed that Albert Finney was playing him, he was disappointed because he thought it was going to be Tom Cruise. I’m like, Oh, okay. He thought Julia was amazing. And I will tell you, Albert Finney couldn’t have been 100 percent more spot on.

I was just reading an obituary of Ed where someone said he was tougher than Albert Finney played him. Would you say that’s true?
Tougher? Hmm. Ed was something else. I miss him every day. He was really smart. Ed could take you on, especially if he was backed up on principle. Ed and I shared that common denominator: once you’ve backed either of us up and we knew what we were right, it was game on. He had great tenacity. And he was also a prankster and a jokester. Ed was a thinker. You wouldn’t always know what he was going to do. Ed was a giving man with a huge heart, and loved his family and loved his work. But yeah — if he was going to go after you, he was gonna stay after you.

I’d like to ask about another character in the film — how do you think Aaron Eckhart was as George, the relationship in the movie between him and Julia?
George has passed away. George and I, right at the time the film came out, weren’t together. George had a brain tumor and there were a lot of things going on that I don’t think a lot of us understood. George was a very unique man, and he was so great with my children. I wouldn’t have really been able to, in my opinion, have given as much time as I did Hinkley — and I had become obsessed with these people in the situation of what was going on — had I not known that George was there for my kids.

I have a joke, and I say it because George even knew about it. He’d go, “That’s so classic and that’s so you!” It’s never meant to be an insult, but I always say that had the real George looked like Aaron Eckhart, I would never have kicked him out. I mean, because it’s like, hot! Goddamn, like woo! But George and I had that kind of fun, unique relationship. I did forget about George at times, and so to see that dynamic play out was nice. It was great. Julia and Aaron Eckhart did a great job.

That’s so funny. The ponytail doesn’t even work for me, but they have such easy chemistry in the movie, it’s so great.
George had that ponytail, and George was that biker dude and George wore his bracelets. That was George. I loved it. We used to get chased by girls on the bike. I’m like, “I’m not going to get on the bike with you anymore. We’re going to get killed!” George was a good looking guy.

So the movie is made and then it comes out, and it’s this monster hit. How did that feel, especially after you’d been so worried about it flopping?
The older I get, it’s pretty hard to wrap my mind around. I started my work when I 30 and I’m 60 with four grandchildren now. It’s like, Whoa. I think it’s just the meaning of the story. I think that, you know, we can all rise, no matter what level or judgment or idea or perception that somebody wants to label us with. The environmental issues in the movie are real. In some ways I think it might’ve been ahead of its time.

I was reading some of the reviews of the movie from when it came out, and it’s sort of astonishing how much of a fuss there was over Erin’s language. 
[Laughs] I mean, hello, have we met?

A lot of the reviewers — mostly men — were really upset by it! And men swear in movies all the time and it’s never a problem. I guess I’m curious how it felt to experience that.
I was stunned to see it. I was stunned. But I’ve been used to being labeled and judged and perceived. That’s who I am. And my mother reminds me enough to watch my language, thank you very much. But you’re right, there were a lot of sexist things going on there. They wanted to talk about how you dressed. But the idea that because you’re a woman and you dress that way, and, I guess, can’t be a human? You can’t recognize that 200 dead frogs in green water is fucked up and that people are being harmed? And so I’m going to go sit in a corner? No.

What’s your favorite scene in the movie?
“They’re called boobs, Ed.” [Laughs] I thought that was hilarious. I thought that was a good one. That was clever. And “I’m exhausted, actually. I just gave 634 blow jobs.” I’m sorry, but that was funny.

What do you remember about going to the premiere?
There was one point when somebody from Universal said to me, “If you don’t stop shaking, we’re going to take you home.” It was way, way, way, way overwhelming. When you’re out in the spotlight like that, people see you. It was different from even my beauty pageant days. They stood me next to Catherine Zeta Jones — no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. She’s statuesque-beautiful. And I didn’t see myself that way. It was like: am I too skinny, am I too fabulous, is this the wrong dress, is the right dress? I mean, they had to teach me how to pronounce Swarovski!

I didn’t have a glam squad, are you kidding me? I had panicked because I had just lost a lot of weight from work and anxiety. The dress I wanted to wear didn’t fit — literally, it fell off my body. I picked something last minute, not even realizing that the back of it almost went into my butt crack. I was scared. I was scared of the lights and the paparazzi.

I didn’t aspire for that. Some people do and that’s fine, and they like it. I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten used to it because you’re out there, right? You’re out there for people to take their pot shots at you. And they did it: sexist comments, or your boobs are too big, or when’s the last time you’ve had your roots done, or you shouldn’t be blonde, your hair is too bulky, you look like a slut. Your skirt is too short, go change. Your heels are too high. You have no business doing this. Why should we listen to you? You’re a joke. All that was very overwhelming for me.

How do you think all that notoriety affected the opportunities available to you in your work as an activist?
In some ways it enhanced it because the media was around. The story would get in the newspaper or we’d get on a radio show, we’d be on the nightly news and it helped expand the issues. That was a good thing.

Did it hinder that work at all, or make it more difficult?
I don’t think it hindered my work. But it might’ve personally hindered me. Especially when it comes to the science stuff, they’d always say, “You don’t have all the data, you don’t know.” And I’m like, “You’re right. But you’re the scientist, and you don’t have all the data either.” I find that suppressive, it’s a way to make you question yourself. I had to consciously, personally, not let all those comments — that you’re not smart, that you’re not a scientist, that you don’t know medicine — shut my common sense voice off. It was an internal conflict. I had to fight it because I didn’t want to go away.

What were you doing on Oscar night?
I had a sick kid, so I stayed home. She had a real bad sinus infection. I had a dress and everything, but I watched it from TV. I thought Julia looked stunning and I thought she did fabulous. I was so excited. The only thing I was like, Fuck! You know, Steven, you put out Traffic at the same time, and they got Best Director!

What a lovely problem to have — one director with two Best Director nominations and two Best Picture nominees.
Right, I know. A lot of people were like, “I can’t believe she didn’t mention you in her speech!” I thought nothing of it. This wasn’t about me. It was Julia’s moment, it didn’t even phase me. And then the next day, I had four grown men at my front door holding a bouquet of flowers. It had these real, pretty seashell kind of things, and caviar. It was really beautiful. There was a lovely note [from Julia] attached: “You know, I wouldn’t have been up there, had it not been for you.” It was just, just a very heartfelt, lovely, thank you.

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The California town involved in the massive direct-action arbitration case at the center of Erin Brockovich. Carla’s husband is Michael Shamberg, currently suing the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for, among other things, failing to run an engaging Twitter and Instagram account. The line goes: “I don’t know what happened to me … I mean I was Miss Wichita, for Christ sakes. Did I tell you that? Did ya know you were living next door to a real live beauty queen. I still got the tiara. I thought it meant I was gonna do something important with my life, that I was gonna be someone.”
Erin Brockovich Answers Every Question About Erin Brockovich