01/10/2012 10:38 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

Albert Brooks Tribute at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

As the guy who doesn't get the pretty girl, Albert Brooks does get the laughs. Which, as he indicated at a special tribute focused on his acting on Sunday night at the Walter Reade Theater, has made some directors hesitate to cast him in dramatic roles. In such American classics as Taxi Driver and Broadcast News, romance with Cybill Shepherd and Holly Hunter eludes him, while in Private Benjamin, sex with Goldie Hawn on their wedding night does him in. Filmmakers may be wary of his "funny," but not Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of Drive, a Ryan Gosling vehicle (ha!) in which Albert Brooks plays an articulate thug, a performance touted for major awards, such as Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Before the Film Society's tribute and a special screening of Drive, I had the opportunity to ask Albert Brooks about this role.

In September, Nicolas Winding Refn told me he always wanted you for this part. How did this casting come about?

Obviously he played coy because they did not want to pay me anything. It happened very fast. I got a script on a Thursday, and was told that he was in town for the weekend. If I liked it I could meet with him. He told me when he was younger and lived in NY, he saw me in Lost in America. A scene where I yelled at my wife made him think, this guy's scary. It took a Dane to be scared by Lost in America. I knew I could play "that." I wanted to play that role in the past in movies. Philip Seymour Hoffman got the part. Directors thought, if I get Brooks, oh, people will just laugh. But Nicolas didn't think that. I was glad he took the shot.

Did Nicolas direct you in any special way?

We spent a long time rehearsing so you can understand what you are doing. He does about 40 takes, a lot when you are stabbing someone in the eye. Nicolas had a funny code with me. When he wanted me to become stronger, he'd rub my shoulders and say the same thing over and over again. [Voice deepens and slows]: O-r-s-o-n W-e-l-l-e-s. I knew what he meant. Lucky for him I did not go out and gain 30 pounds.

Does your dramatic work in Drive change your career?

If I'm alive in 20 years, you'll ask me. Who knows what anything does? I have spent most of my career making my own films. I have not had that much time to spend acting in other people's movies; this work shows that I am capable of something else. That's important to me because even in my own comedy, it's not all about laughs. I try to mix the emotions. It makes the canvas bigger. If it changes anything, I'll call you.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.