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Finney finding it easy to look on light side

Who needs yet another relic for the trophy case? Oh, sure, the awards season is a rush, but Albert Finney is looking past the Screen Actors Guild awards and Oscars.

The real payday, says Finney — nominated for every conceivable supporting actor award for his work in last year's "Erin Brockovich" — arrives on May 9, his birthday.

"I end up being 65 and therefore entitled to a pension and a bus pass," says Finney, speaking by phone from London, where he makes his home. "So I'll be able to get on the bus for free."

Right. Either the man has a thing for public transportation (he played an Oscar Wilde-loving bus conductor in the 1994 film "A Man of No Importance") or after a highly successful career in film, stage and TV that spans five decades, Finney is finding it easy to be jocular.

He certainly has cause.

"Erin Brockovich," which has racked up more than $256 million worldwide, has earned Finney a Golden Globe nomination (he lost to "Traffic" co-star Benicio Del Toro) and a SAG nomination and an Oscar bid for best supporting actor. Closer to home, he was just made a Fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the equivalent of that organization's lifetime achievement award. (At the same ceremony, Finney, also nominated for the BAFTA best supporting actor, lost to Del Toro.)

And while he appreciates the plaudits, the actor says the awards season routine is one he could easily do without.

"All the hoops you have to jump through on those occasions. It kind of is not my favorite occupation," he said. "I'm basically relieved that we're able to do our job and go back into the woodwork. Walking around in the spotlight having to be me is not something I'm particularly comfortable with or desire. I'd sooner pretend to be someone else."

Back into the woodwork he went. He followed up "Erin Brockovich" with a cameo as Michael Douglas' superior in "Traffic," an opportunity to work with director Steven Soderbergh again and to play a joke on Douglas (more on that presently). He also wrapped up a recurring role in the British TV series "My Uncle Silas," based on the stories of H.E. Bates about a young man spending summer vacation with his great uncle.

Uncle Silas may be a far cry from the buttoned-down Ed Masry, whom he played in "Erin Brockovich," but Finney figures he was up to the challenge.

"It was a bit of a stretch for me," deadpanned the Manchester-born actor, a five-time Oscar nominee. "Silas is an old country rogue, a bit of a poacher who drinks homemade wines and tries to grab every passing female he can. He's Tom Jones with a bus pass, basically."

That last reference was to one of Finney's most famous film roles, the title character in "Tom Jones," the 1963 best picture winner directed by Tony Richardson that catapulted Finney to stardom. The actor turned down the title role in "Lawrence of Arabia" to play it and ended up with his first Oscar nomination.

And he hasn't looked back. The dashing young man who played Laurence Olivier's son in "The Entertainer" has slipped chameleonlike into roles as diverse as Ebenezer Scrooge (in "Scrooge"), Daddy Warbucks ("Annie"), an Irish mob boss (in the Coen brothers' "Miller's Crossing") and Agatha Christie's Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot ("Murder on the Orient Express").

A breeder of thoroughbreds, he took a juicy role in the 1999 star-studded horse-racing drama "Simpatico," the film debut of the hot British director Matthew Warchus, who had directed Finney in the play "Art" in London. But, as Finney pointed out, the little-seen "Simpatico" came out the same year the film debut of another British stage director — Sam Mendes' "American Beauty" — took all the film accolades.

Having experienced Poirot's extravagant mustachios and Warbucks' shaven head, Finney found strapping on Masry's aviator glasses and much-maligned ties relatively easy.

"I thought the script was terrific, and I enjoyed the task of playing an American lawyer," said Finney. "He was a guy who was thinking about retirement. He was a bit jaded about his practice, and he'd had a bypass, all those things. Then this damned woman kind of comes into his life and gradually rekindles his enthusiasm for life. He still hasn't gotten to Palm Springs."

Indeed he hasn't. Masry and Brockovich (played in the film by Julia Roberts) have been a team since her legal research helped the attorney win a $333 million settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric for contaminating the drinking water in Hinkley, Calif.

"All in all, the movie was quite on, and I have no problem with Mr. Finney's portrayal," says Masry, now a city councilman in Thousand Oaks as well as an attorney. "I thought he did a good job portraying what was going on, although there was a tremendous amount going on that couldn't be portrayed."

And while the two men didn't spend a lot of time together in preparation for the film, Masry has nothing but praise for the actor.

"He's just a super guy. I can't say enough about him," added Masry. "Albert Finney is the type of a guy you'd want to have a bottle of beer or a glass of wine with. He's laid back, very intelligent and a great conversationalist."

The opportunity to work with Roberts was certainly another enticement to do the film, says Finney. And no, despite her superstar credentials and $20 million price tag, Roberts was no diva, says Finney.

"Anything that happened she could use, unless we happened to crack up. She was so quick-witted," Finney said of his Oscar-nominated co-star. "She's on her way to being a screen legend, and I've worked with one or two of those."

Finney more than holds his own. That snappy interplay between the tart-tongued Brockovich and her more conventional boss came from Susannah Grant's script, but also, Finney figures, from the real-life relationship between Masry and Brockovich.

"What was fun to play, a lot of times, she keeps making Ed speechless," said Finney. "Then finally in the last scene, he has the last laugh, and he's delighted to get it."

Finney is equally effusive in his praise of Soderbergh ("He is absolutely obsessed with filmmaking. He can be persuaded to take a lunch break, but he doesn't like to leave the set.") to the point that he was willing to come out to L.A. for a day of shooting to participate in "Traffic," Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich" follow-up. That the assignment would also include putting one over on co-star Michael Douglas was a bonus.

According to Finney, the daily call sheet for the scenes between drug czar Robert Wakefield (played by Douglas) and his chief of staff (Finney's role) listed Douglas' name and Giles Archer, a wink-wink nod to Sam Spade's slain partner, Miles Archer, in "The Maltese Falcon.

The intent was for Douglas not to know who would be in the scene until the last possible moment. The ploy worked, Finney said.

"My hair was severely cut and they had me in full costume and makeup," Finney recalled. "They brought me to the house where they were shooting, and I knew most of the crew from 'Erin.' Then, from across the room I heard, 'Michael, I don't believe you've met Giles.' "

Douglas started to introduce himself to Archer ...

"Then he stopped. He couldn't quite figure it out. Then the penny dropped, he swore at us, and laughed hugely. We then proceeded to try to work."