Twenty years ago, the movie character Erin Brockovich strutted into the hearts of Americans in a high heel pump with even higher teased hair. Played by Julia Roberts, the doggedly determined legal assistant with a foul mouth and plunging neckline charmed audiences across the country. The eponymous Hollywood blockbuster was based on a real-life heroine, who today says she still feels “extremely overwhelmed” with the fame the film brought her.
“Let me be the first to tell you that life takes an interesting turn when your name becomes a verb,” Brockovich, 60, writes in the introduction of her new book, “Superman’s Not Coming.” “To ‘Erin Brockovich something’ has become synonymous with investigating and then advocating for a cause without giving up.”
And giving up she hasn’t. In “Erin Brockovich,” the character goes up against energy giant Pacific Gas and Electric Company over its culpability for groundwater contamination in the small town of Hinkley, California. Real-life Brockovich was around 30 at the time the case began in 1991 and 40 when the film came out in 2000. Now, two decades and four grandkids later, she reflects on the film’s legacy and how today her fight is waging stronger than ever.
“I haven't stopped”
“I’ve gotten to feel more comfortable in my own skin with the situation over time,” Brockovich told TODAY. “I'm not Superwoman. I've learned to accept my flaws. I'm not perfect. I don't have the greatest education, but it's such empowerment to just be human. I just tried not to let the movie get ahead of me and just stay rooted in my own realities and not be too hard on myself.”
Before the movie, Brockovich, a self-described “average divorced single mother trying to make a living,” was seriously injured in a traffic accident. That fender bender brought her to the firm of lawyer Ed Masry, who represented her in that case. After winning, she still needed a job, so she took a position at his firm, paving the way for her groundbreaking work on the largest direct-action lawsuit in United States history.
She has come a long way from those humble beginnings. Today, she is president of her own research and consulting firm, host of her own podcast, and founder of the Erin Brockovich Foundation that educates and empowers communities in their fight for clean water.
“I can tell you, since that film came out, I haven't stopped doing what I've been doing,” Brockovich said. “I think the past 20 years in many ways have been baffling to me because if we go back to the town of Hinkley, California, in the movie, that was just the tip of the iceberg. And I don't think I realized what was to come, and to have this conversation with you 20 years into the future to say that it's not just as bad, it's far worse. And so little has been done. I couldn't really see then that it would be everywhere.”
Brockovich is referring to just how much our tap water is infiltrated by chromium-6, the cancer-causing heavy metal featured in the film. Nearly 200 million Americans across all 50 states are exposed to unsafe levels of chromium-6, according to a 2016 report released by the nonprofit research and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group.
Brockovich says it’s still a massive issue, not only in this country but around the world. From Australia to Europe to Africa, she fields emails daily from concerned communities all over the globe who are trying to find solutions.
“It's an issue with contamination, lead, infrastructure," she said. "And again, in the book, we want people to see that communities rise and they’re rising because they are making this their jobs and seeking information.”
Having authored four books since the film's release, her latest “identifies and describes the most toxic chemicals in everyday products, from shampoos and baby lotions to cell phones and Tupperware, with only a few hundred under regulation, among them asbestos, lead, mercury, radon and formaldehyde."
But she paints a portrait of hope as well. The mom of three also tells the stories of people and communities that have made a difference in locations from Hannibal, Missouri, to Tonganoxie, Kansas, to Poughkeepsie, New York.
“It baffles my mind that there are still so many Hinkley, Californias out there.”
A scattering of obscenities
During her formative years, Brockovich worked as a management trainee for Kmart, studied electrical engineering and won a Miss Pacific Coast beauty pageant. When the film came about, Brockovich also had the opportunity to act a little as well, making a cameo as a waitress in a restaurant scene.
“I’m so embarrassed, I don’t even have my boobs in yet.”
On set preparing for that scene was the first time she ever met Roberts, and their meeting was notable. When Roberts introduced herself to Brockovich, the Hollywood star followed up with, “I’m so embarrassed, I don’t even have my boobs in yet.” It was the ultimate icebreaker.
The character Erin Brockovich presented a brashness to her that ended up making waves. Many critics commented on her use of colorful language in their reviews.
“It contains a scattering of obscenities and sexual references and displays of female cleavage in the service of a noble cause,” wrote New York Times critic A.O. Scott. Brockovich, who has claimed the film is “98% accurate,” has always copped up to having a potty mouth.
Despite the numerous f-bombs, the film ended up winning numerous awards. For her performance, Roberts won in the same year best actress honors at the Academy Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, BAFTA Awards, Critics' Choice Awards and the Golden Globes. (It's still the only Oscar that Roberts has ever received in her illustrious career.) And even though she was invited, Brockovich didn’t end up making it to the Academy Awards that year. Why? She had a sick kid at home.
“I wouldn’t have been there if it had not been for you.”
After Roberts won, many people criticized her for forgetting to thank the woman whose life and story got her to that podium.
“We always had these ideas and expectations that we put off on each other,” Brockovich said of the backlash. “I never thought a big deal about that until other people made it into a big deal. It was Julia’s moment and there was a whole lot of excitement happening for her. I was not offended.”
Roberts did, however, recognize the real-life Erin Brockovich backstage to reporters. “I didn't acknowledge (Erin) shamefully, shamefully and really she's the center of the universe which was our movie,” Roberts said. “I've said so many things about her and so many things to her that she knows the esteem in which I hold her which is quite, quite high. But I was remiss in not acknowledging her tonight so with with great humility, I acknowledge her profusely.”
Brockovich recalled being “floored” when a florist came to her home the next day to deliver a bouquet so big that four people had to help bring it inside.
“With a beautiful box and caviar and just a lovely note saying, ‘I wouldn’t have been there if it had not been for you,’” she remembered. “It was very thoughtful. I was very proud of her.”
Brockovich never thought the film would have the indelible impact that it has. Even though the last time she fully watched it was about a decade ago, she knows whenever it is on TV because she receives a barrage of texts from friends and family telling her so. She also is constantly reminded about the film’s influence during mundane visits to the bank or the dentist’s office, when people clock the name on her credit card and ask if she is the woman from that movie.
On what she hopes people take away from the film in 2020, Brockovich said that the story isn't just about her but more so about everyday people everywhere who are able to achieve the incredible.
“We’re living in a crazy world and a lot of negativity can get inside the ship, which is you,” she said. “If you let it, it will sink you.
“The most important thing you need to do — it does not matter your gender, the color of your skin, the money you have in the bank account, your politics — you have got to find your voice. And when you do find that strength, that belief, that love, that self-forgiveness right inside of you, you can do anything. It starts with you and believing that you are deserving, loving, forgiving yourself. So what if you aren't f---ing perfect? None of us are. Strip the f---ing label off of you that sometimes we put on ourselves. You don’t need a hero to find you because it burns inside of you already.”
Said like the real Erin Brockovich.