Erin Brockovich: the sequel
When Erin Brockovich, a single mum with no legal training, successfully sued a huge corporation for $335m and had a film made about her struggle, it seemed that, finally, everything was going her way. But, she tells Michael Park, the real-life drama had only just begun.
Sunday 20 August 2006
For Erin Brockovich, "The End" was just the beginning. When the credits rolled on the eponymously titled, Oscar-winning film based on the then-32-year-old, single mother of three's experiences, her life changed forever.
"I almost laugh it's so surreal," says Brockovich, sitting cross-legged in an elegant leather armchair in her grand Californian home. "I was just a single mother trying to raise three kids. Then I stumbled upon a situation and just tried to do right by people. Who would have thought it would settle for $333m [£175m], I'd get a bonus which would change the course of my life, and then somebody would make a movie about it? It's really thrown me into a tailspin. It's been six years and I'm only semi able to wrap my head around it."
Despite the cash and the fancy house north-west of Los Angeles, Brockovich has paid a hefty price for her new-found fame and fortune. Since the film's release, she has seen two of her children go through drug-related problems; had two ex-partners try to extort her; and, most recently, suffered the loss of one of the most influential men in her life. Yet, today, Brockovich remains the chipper, busty, ballsy, blonde brought so memorably to life by Julia Roberts on the big screen.
A few months ago, a second lawsuit she helped to initiate against Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E), the company featured in the original film, was settled for $335m (£176m), thrusting Brockovich once again into the spotlight and offering a valid excuse to catch up with the now-married millionaire.
When she greets me in her under-renovation home, she is thinner and taller than expected (her legs could make her a living all on their own). Gone is the big hair (swapped for a classy shoulder-length cut), and the brazen make-up (she's wearing hardly any but disappears to apply some for the photographs). Her skin is a light Californian brown and her perfect teeth Tippex white. She is wearing a thin, backless, silk top (it looks like a Hermès scarf with straps), and a pair of perfectly fitting jeans. But, while she has toned her wardrobe down ("I don't go rollerblading in my G-string bikini anymore"), it becomes clear her vocabulary remains as colourful as ever. Walking with a bounce and carrying one of her four dogs, Jack, a black and white Pomeranian, she leads me through to her large living room. Her buffed husband of seven years, Eric Ellis, pops in to say "hi", but then leaves us to it.
Brockovich works mostly from home these days, running her own consumer advocacy consulting firm and, although she still has no legal qualifications, she still helps put together toxic tort cases. In the past this work was done mainly at the offices of Masry and Vititoe and undertaken with the help and support of Ed Masry, the lawyer who ultimately gave Brockovich the job that led to the lawsuit that led to the settlement that led to the bonus that led to the movie. However, late last year, Masry (who was portrayed in the film by Albert Finney) died after a long illness stemming from complications of diabetes. He was 73 years old.
"It had a huge impact on me," says Brockovich, who was at his bedside when he died. "I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. It had been 15 years of frick and frack and right and left. Ed was so many things combined into one and at such a pivotal time in my life. I really miss him and his jokes and his sense of humour. There's just nobody like him. He was always around. Everything feels so different for me."
The pair first met when his firm agreed to represent Brockovich in a personal injury claim resulting from a car accident. After the financially disappointing outcome of the case, Brockovich asked Jim Vititoe, Masry's partner, for a job as a legal assistant - but it was Masry who objected most vociferously.
"He said, 'Apart from being able to sit up by herself what can she do?'" Brockovich recalls. "That really pissed me off. But Ed had that little rebel in him and he enjoyed getting a rise out of me. I miss that terribly."
However, after Brockovich proved herself in the office and Masry let her investigate the PG&E case in which she had become interested, the two began to hit it off. Yet he never stopped the friendly needling.
"He'd always ask me, 'If they really do make this movie who should play you?' I was always uncomfortable with the question. I'd say, 'I don't know. I hope it's someone funny like Goldie Hawn.' And Ed would say, 'I was thinking of someone more like Roseanne Barr.' And I was like, 'Fuck you, Ed,' and he would laugh. He said, 'All kidding aside kid, I don't care who it is as long as it's not Julia Roberts.' He said, 'She has no tits and no foul mouth, so it wouldn't work.' "
Masry, of course, was wrong and the film won more than 26 major awards, with Roberts picking up both a Bafta and an Oscar for her performance. "She did a great job," says Brockovich. However, the first time she saw the film, she wasn't concentrating on Roberts' performance at all. At a screening with only her husband, Masry, and his wife in attendance, Brockovich and her boss found themselves keeping tabs on how often Pacific Gas and Electricity was mentioned.
"It was either 64 or 65," she says. "Every time we heard it, Ed and I would high five each other. All I was thinking was, 'That's going to burn them.' That was really where Ed and I were coming from because the truth was really going to be exposed."
As the film climaxed, Brockovich started crying, moved mainly by the scene in which Masry presents her character with a $2m (£1.05m) bonus cheque.
"I was thinking what a great thing for someone to do at the end of the movie and then it hit me that that was me," she says. Tears start to roll down her cheeks as she talks. "I didn't realise the impact and the generosity of Ed and Jimmy [Vititoe, Masry's partner] to give me that bonus and I just started crying."
Brockovich hasn't told this story since Masry's death and it's clear she is still shaken by the events of the past year. We pause for a moment and then, trying to swing the conversation back to a lighter theme, I compliment Brockovich on her tastefully decorated home.
We are sitting in a large room painted in earth tones. A flat-screen television hangs over the fireplace and there is a wood-panelled bar and pool table behind the sofas. French doors lead to the expansive back garden with a swimming pool and hot tub.
It's all a long way from the three-room, cockroach-infested apartment Brockovich and her children lived in before she started work at Masry and Vititoe. Does she feel at ease with this new lifestyle?
"It's starting to feel comfortable. I think if I fuck it up bad enough then it might all go back to the way it was and then it will feel comfortable," she says laughing loudly enough to wake the dog dozing on her lap.
Brockovich, the youngest of four children, was born Erin Pattee, in Kansas in 1960. After leaving school, she moved to Texas and then California, taking odd jobs and entering beauty pageants (she was crowned Miss Pacific Coast in 1981). Shortly afterwards, she met Shaun Brown and, at the age of 21, decided to get married. Two children, Matthew and Katie, followed, as did a divorce. Brockovich then met stockbroker Steve Brockovich, at the company where she found work as a secretary and they married after a whirlwind romance. That relationship also had a short shelf life but just as the divorce became final, Brockovich discovered she was pregnant with her third child.
"I was divorced from Shaun, divorced from Steve, pregnant with Beth, living on my own with Katie and Matthew," she recalls. "That was the shits. And it was during that time I had my car wreck. My disc in my neck exploded. I was in horrible pain. I was dizzy. I couldn't walk down a flight of stairs. The pressure from the bulge in my disc was impinging on my spinal cord so I didn't even know when I had to urinate any more." She needed surgery and, when she tilts her head back, scars are still visible on her long, tanned neck.
Brockovich approached Masry and Vititoe to sue the driver of the other car and says, "it was alluded to me that I would be set for life." However, when that didn't happen, she pestered the partners for a job. But, with no legal experience, what did she expect to do?
"I didn't give a shit," she says bluntly. "It was a job and Ed was paying me $800 [£420] a month."
In the film, it's clear that few of the other staff bonded with Brockovich. In reality, it was much worse.
"Everybody hated me," she says. "They hated me and I don't know why. I don't know if it was the mini skirts up to my butt or the stiletto heels."
Why did she wear such attention-grabbing clothing?
"Because it made me feel sexy," she says matter-of-factly. "It made me feel cute. I didn't have the greatest self esteem. I never thought of myself as a gorgeous person. I grew up kind of geeky. I was tall, gangly, flat chested, big freckles on my nose, crooked teeth. I wanted to look and feel a way I liked so the mini skirts were fun. I thought I looked good." (She got breast implants to boost her confidence in her late twenties).
Brockovich did discover that the ordinary people of Hinkley, the ones whose cases she started investigating, had no issues with the way she dressed.
"They just accepted me for who I was. They inspired me and I really liked them. I understood them."
As the court case was coming to a conclusion in the mid-1990s, Brockovich told her chiropractor about her work, the plaintiffs, her children and her new baby-sitting biker boyfriend, Jorge Halaby. The chiropractor then told another client who - this being Los Angeles - just happened to be a movie producer.
But the crusade has been costly to Brockovich and her family. She may have received a $2m bonus ("After taxes and things, I banked a hair under $1m," she says), but the money and the movie have caused her as many problems as they have solved.
Her first husband, Brown, and former boyfriend, Halaby (they split up before the movie began filming), hired a lawyer to demand Brockovich pay up $310,000 (£162,800) or they would claim she was a bad mother and had had an affair with Masry. The claims were lies. Brockovich and Masry went to the police and the men were arrested. Then Brockovich's two older children both became involved with drugs and were admitted to expensive rehab clinics.
"I think it was a combination of things," says Brockovich of her children's problems. "Peer pressure, a bit of genetics, going from rags to riches overnight, and a little of 'Mom's so busy working and she's not here.'"
Today, all those problems are behind the family. Matthew has a steady job in the construction industry and Katie is working in real estate. Beth, now 15, is still in school. Brockovich is happily married to Ellis, who she met outside the offices of Masry and Vititoe in 1998 and now calls herself Erin Brockovich-Ellis (she only kept the Brockovich because at the time of her divorce she couldn't afford the fee to change it). "It's been a long haul. But it proves there's always hope for all of us no matter how desperate things looks."
Brockovich, who still maintains an office at Masry and Vititoe, will be returning to court in the autumn with another toxic tort case. Yet, even now, she remains slightly contemptuous of lawyers. "After everything I've been through," she says, "I still can't get one of those bastards to call me back."
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