This year is going to go down in movie history as the one in which Josh Brolin became a certified badass. With pivotal roles in four major 2007 releases (IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH; PLANET TERROR; AMERICAN GANGSTER; and the film that brought us together, the Coen Brothers NO COUNTRY FOR OLD ME), Brolin has redefined his career and opened up the door to pretty much write his ticket for what he does from this point on. This fact, of course, explains what he doesn't actually have anything lined up after NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN opens this weekend, but we talk about why that's the case, as well as covering just how much of a rollercoaster his career has been on since his high-profile film debut in the Steven Spielberg/Richard Donner/Chris Columbus production THE GOONIES and how he has slowly been building up a body of fine performances that he can be proud of even if the movies themselves weren't so great. He's one of the most honest and spirited people I've ever met, and he's quick to hop out of his chair and move around the room or do a quick impression to tell his stories. The first thing he did as we began the three-person roundtable was grab my notebook of questions and notice that I had the film title INTO THE BLUE scribbled among a list of far better films he's been in lately. That's where we begin. Enjoy… AND I WILL WARN YOU ONLY ONCE: THERE ARE MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUT NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN IN THIS, SO READ AT YOUR OWN PERIL
Question: So how did the screening go last night? [There had been a Q&A screening the night before this morning interview]
Josh Brolin: It went good. It's funny because I think people immediately following seeing this movie, it's so quiet and my character is so laconic, and then I come in and I'm this fucking motormouth. And they're like, “Wait a second, we've got to get our head around the movie already, and you need to stop talking as much.” I'm just here to make people laugh.
Capone: We can talk a lot about your acting process, I'm guessing, but…[Brolin grabs my notebook from in front of me]. Aw, come on [laughs]
JB: I've gotta see this…INTO THE BLUE? “When you did INTO THE BLUE, how was…?” “What did you do to research HOLLOW MAN?”
C: Did you have to do a swimsuit fitting session for INTO THE BLUE?
JB: [laughs] That's funny.
C: Almost every character you've played this year has sported some crazy facial hair. Is that a key thing for you? I know some actors talk about how changing their hairstyle gets them into character. Is it facial hair for you? [FYI--Brolin was clean shaved on this day.]
JB: You know, it's true. I saw Ridley Scott at the premiere of AMERICAN GANGSTER just a couple of days ago, and I haven't seen him since work--we've been communicating through e-mail--and he said, “How are you?” And I said, “I'm good.” And he looked at me and said, “Grow the 'stache back.” I don't know what that is. Facial hair is fun, and I can't grow a full beard, I can only grow really right here [indicates the area around his mouth]. Javier Bardem's a good example. I watched Javier do this movie with his good friend Fernando [León de Aranoa] directed him in a movie called MONDAYS IN THE SUN, and I just loved that look. Javier just got really big, he grew a beard, cut his hair, bulky sweaters. It's fun, it just makes it that much more fun. At least for me, facial hair gives me about 10 years. Long hair gives me age too, so I can really mess with the age that way. I'm lucky in that way, when I shave. It's starting to become less and less that, but when I shave I look a little younger now, not a lot.
Q: Do you consider this the best year of your life?
JB: Career wise? Personally, I've always been pretty happy, so I'm pretty much the same. But yeah, I do know that most actors, when something like this happens, they're like “God yes! Thanks you, finally!” I don't feel that way. I feel that way in that I'm so happy to have worked with amazing people; that's what I've always wanted to do. It wasn't always that I wanted the success because I was always pretty happy just working. I always got to do pretty great characters and fun characters and characters in theater that I happy with and diverse stuff. So to me, I don't know, the biggest thing is that I'm really happy because I'm working with people who are brilliant storytellers, and that just makes the work a lot easier, and there's a lot less fighting, there's a lot less arguing and misunderstandings. That's great. But you could work with the greatest people, and the movies can still turn out awful, and I've done that quite a bit actually. But the last movie that I did that I really, really loved that I watched and went “Wow I'm so happy I'm in this movie” was FLIRTING WITH DISASTER with David O. Russell. To me, that's a great filmmaker. And then I started working with people like Woody Allen, when I watched MELINDA AND MELINDA, that's a good movie, but I was happy with the character. And then I started saying, “Look, if I can't be in great movies, I want to at least want to be able to pull off a good character. INTO THE BLUE is another one where I was very happy with that character. I didn't think it was the greatest movie, but I was really happy with the work. As long as I can do good work. And they I really started to focus on that and pick my parts based on that, and then something came together. [laughs] I don't know how it happened; I don't know what it happened. So do I feel really fortunate? Am I smiling? Yes.
Q: So it's the material first, and the collaborator second?
JB: Not necessarily. It would be equal if I was in a position to make that choice. Had I been in a position to make that choice. But I was in a much better position to worry about material and character. My agents would go crazy because I was eight months out of work, and I'd go, “Give me a fucking job, give me a job.” And they'd say, “Okay, we got you DUKES OF HAZARD.” And I'd say, “I don't want to do DUKES OF HAZARD.” And they'd go, “You've been complaining for nine months; you're broke, and you're still saying no.” So I'm glad I set a precedent a long time before all this happened. I did a movie--and people actually like the movie--called THRASHIN' a long time ago. I did GOONIES and then I did THRASHIN'. And I went to the premiere of THRASHIN' and I cried because I watched myself. Even though people look back at that movie now and go “God, I loved that movie, dude”, I couldn't stand myself; I just thought it was awful. And I went, “Okay, go do theater. Go figure out how to do this. Go travel. Learn. Get experience, and then go see if you can do it. If you can't, go do something else because this is unacceptable. If you're going to do it, do it well. And if you can't, go find the thing that you do well.
Q: Is it possible you were spoiled by working with Spielberg on your first movie?
JB: Oh, totally. Oh my god, yes.
Q: Because most people get THRASHIN' out of the way before they go work with Spielberg.
JB: Yeah, which makes sense. Especially now. And you've got a lot of amazing foreign like Russell Crowe or whoever, who can go do movies in Australia and go through that whole process in Australia. A lot of people get those movies out of the way before they hit America. And by the time America sees them, you've got Ewan McGregor right out of the gate, amazing performances. So yes, I was completely spoiled. Six months working on a $35 million film in 1984, which would be probably $100 million today. Totally spoiled. I thought that's what it was, and it wasn't at all.
Capone: Is it frustrating that in IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH and in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN that you're in these two great movies with Tommy Lee Jones, but you're not in any scenes with him?
Q: Have you even met him? [everyone laughs]
JB: It was probably better for me at that point. Tommy's tough, in the beginning. He's very challenging in having a relationship with anyone. So I think in the beginning it scared me a bit, not scare me, but intimidating. The good thing for me and Tommy is that I grew up with people like Tommy, older gentlemen, older country folk like Tommy. I spent some time with people like that, so I understood what was happening. But still, it was tough. So now, doing a movie with Tommy would be great because I've hung out with Tommy. We actually like hanging out. Tommy actually likes hanging out with me. He gave me, after he saw NO COUNTRY, he gave me the best compliment I've gotten so far. He called and left me a full-blown long message of how original he thought it was, how real he thought it was. He kept going, “Good job, young man.” I don't know if he was drinking or what. “Extended moments of originality” is what he said, and he kept saying it.
Q: You and Javier have an amazing dialog in this movie. Can you think back to any favorite duels that you've seen on the big screen?
JB: Other duels in other movies that I like? HEAT, because they don't really cross paths until they actually do. AMERICAN GANGSTER is another one like that; that's a great meeting of opposites at the end. But Javier and I don't have a great scene together, which I think would have been really funny. He could have said something, and I could have said, “What?” It's kind of great because they are very similar characters; they're just on opposite ends of the spectrum. They have parallel principles, parallel integrity because of how they work and who they are. His integrity in his work is the same as my integrity about how much I care about my wife. Llewelyn has the resources to protect his wife even thought he's taken this money. I don't think he thinks there's going to be a Chigurh [Bardem's character] around the corner--I don't think anybody would ever think that. But there is, and he deals with it. But I think he feels he has the resources to prevail at the end. And even as an audience member, when you think “this is not going to happen,” by the time he ends up at the pool with the girl and you see him smile and they fade out, at least me, I go, Wow he's going to make it.
Q: Were you sad that you didn't get much of a send off?
JB: No, quite the opposite. I had read the book. Sam Shepherd told me to read the book, and I was really taken with it. And I love Cormac [McCarthy]'s writing, “Child of God,” but I didn't know that book had come out and Sam said “You have to go read this book right now.” And I loved how it happened. I don't know if it's because of my own personal experience. My mom, 12 years ago, was killed in a car accident. And I remember talking to her one second and [slaps his hands together] the next second, nobody's there. That's it. So I was so pleased to see death represented in a way that was true to life as opposed to, Okay Llewelyn's dying now, like silent movie or something [clutches his chest]. So the audience can sit there and grieve and let go of this character. Oliver Stone said the same thing to me, “I hated how sudden it was.” And I said, “I love how you hated how sudden it was, because that's how it's supposed to go.” I think it's so appropriate. And I know that when Cormac saw the movie, he was so happy that they were loyal to that moment, because it's a very hard moment to be loyal to. And I think you would find very few filmmaker, and only filmmakers like the Coens, who are not under the pressure of the studio to change things, and they won't. And they set that precedent right from the beginning with 1984. “No, we're making our movies; it's okay if you don't like them. This is what we're interested in.” And it's very personal, and I think that's why they have the fan base that they have because they stick to their guns and what interests them and not necessarily what interests anybody else.
Q: How involved was Cormac McCarthy? Was he on set at all?
JB: Nobody had spoken to Cormac, even the Coens. And it's not that he's reclusive; so are the Coens. Two reclusive people aren't going to spend a lot of time together. They had never spoken to him. A friend of mine is very good at getting phone numbers that are unobtainable got his number, and I called him and he didn't call me back. I called him a second time, and he didn't call me back. And then I called him…I don't know if I was angry or frustrated or tired or something like that, but I called him and said, “There's no reason why you shouldn't call me back. I don't need for you to sign my book, if that's what you're worried about.” And I guess he liked that, so he called me back and we actually started talking on a regular basis. And he came down to the set. He was going to come down at one point, and I said, “No don't come down then.” He was bringing his son down, and I said, “Wait until there's a fun, action-y moment.” And it was the part where Javier and I are shooting each other. And I said, “Come down for that when the car goes around the bend and slams into the other car.” And it's good for kids to see; otherwise it's like going to a lampshade factory, right? So they came down then, and they liked it so much, they came down again, which I hear is very rare for somebody like Cormac. He had a good time, and he's a big fan of MILLER'S CROSSING, so they got to talk about that a lot. But he's not interested in talking about the writing, which I appreciated. He's involved in this Santa Fe Institute, which is a think tank, and he's the only literary part of that. They're all physicists and scientists, and he's very proud to be a part of that. That's his pride. Writing is just something he does, at least in his mind.
Capone: I know you've told this story before, but tell me the story about the audition tape you made for NO COUNTRY while you were making PLANET TERROR that Tarantino and Rodriguez shot it for you.
JB: I was making GRINDHOUSE and I couldn't leave. I know it wasn't a situation where the Coens were like “We really want to see him read.” It wasn't on of those jobs. So I said, I know this is happening; I'd read the book. And then Skeet Ulrich actually called me, and said, “Do you know about this part? You'd be great in this.” So basically I came up to Robert and said, “Would you do me a favor and videotape…,” because Robert and I are always videotaping stuff. He always has a video camera. And I said, “Would you just tape me?” And he said, “Why don't we just use the camera that we have?”, which is a $950,000 Genesis camera. We did the nicest looking audition tape ever; it was amazing. And then Quentin was doing it. It was one of the scenes with Carla Jean, and Quentin was trying to direct me. She goes, “Llewelyn, were did you get the pistol?” And Llewelyn goes, “At the gettin' place.” And Quentin was saying, “I think you should say 'At the GETTIN' place.' Really emphasize gettin'. The-GETTIN'-Place!” I was like, “Bring it down, bro. I want this to be subtle.” And everybody was giving their two cents about how energized they wanted me to be, and I didn't see it like that. I saw him as much more subdued. So we did it, and we sent it to them, and they said No. They said, “Who lit it?” That was their response. So no, I didn't get the part from that. I wasn't until my agent was very persistent, and finally their last meeting with actors, they brought me in as a favor to my agent, who wouldn't leave the alone. So I found out about it at 9 o'clock the night before it happened, got the pages at 10, studied until 1, got up at 6, drove at 7, got there at 8:30, met with them at 9, and had the part by noon.
Q: You brought up GRINDHOUSE before. Why didn't more people fall in love with GRINDHOUSE? It kills me.
JB: You know what? It kills me too. I don't understand because I truly love that movie. Because Quentin, Robert, and I would all sit around watching movies at Quentin's house, and he would get up and give these 30-minute drunken introductions to zombie movies. And Robert has it all on video. [Brolin stands up to impersonate Tarantino's introduction to a film] “So here” and it would only be me and Robert. [laughs] He just loves to talk. So we would watch these movies and just crack up. And the great thing about that too was that Quentin would be serious about these introductions. But he'd want us to really look at the story, this guy went on to do this, this, and this, and his influence was so and so, Italian filmmakers and this filmmaker. He knew everything. And we'd watch these movies, and even though they were ridiculous sometimes, you started to see that it was actually a really well-structured story. They just only had $5.65 to do it, so that's why it looks the way it does. Or it went through so many awful theaters and that's why it's so scratched. So it was a very studied passionate homage to that time, and it guess it was just too geeky. I don't know. Maybe separate was the smart thing to do; it kind of defies the whole purpose to me. I wish I knew. That to me was going to be a huge film. The trailers, the whole thing, [deepens his voice] “Thanksgiving.”
Capone: With this year in your career, you've basically kicked open the door of possibilities on what you can do next. Where do you go from here? What are you looking at? Are there people you'd like to work with?
JB: Yeah. We've been very fortunate to be offered a lot of really nice stuff. I don't know anybody else, but I respect the moment. But the moment isn't essential to me. I know that these moments happen, and there's always a down with the up and an up with the down. I'm just happy that I'm working and that I have more choice. And that's honest: I'm just happy that I have more choice. So instead of someone like Scorsese to so, “I'd love for Josh to do my film,” and the studio going, “Nope, no value there.” So now it's different. Now they go, “There's hype on Josh.” And most of the hype is totally unfounded because most people haven't seen [NO COUTNRY FOR OLD MEN]. “Dude, what an amazing year for you! You're amazing, and I always knew you were amazing! This is fantastic.” “Have you seen the movie?” “No, but I can't wait! It's got buzz. And you've always been the man!” It's all bullshit. And having done it long enough, I know that's the case. And what I mean by “respect the moment” is I'm very humbled by the whole thing. I don't feel pressured to do a great movie; I feel pressure to do good work. Because you never know how the movie is going to turn out. But you have better odds and it's easier and it's more about the work. When I was working with Russell and Denzel [on AMERICAN GANGSTER], that was a great moment because I thought, “I'm working with THE guys, guys that scare the shit out of people when they work with them. And I love that, and I'm really happy to be in that position. I want to see if I'm going to buckle or if I'm going to show up. That was more interesting than anything else. Can I be involved enough and focused enough and committed enough to my character to not go…you know, I'm supposed to be a tough guy. “[With a trembling voice] Um, I'm going to kill you.” Can I pull it off? And that meant something to me. If I can pull that off, then I'm okay and I can look for the next scary thing.
Capone: So you're just looking for scary shit, is that it?