Some movie buffs and film historians will tell you that no actor—at any point at any time in the history of cinema—ever had a better one-year run than Thomas Mitchell in 1939, when he appeared more or less back-to-back in Stagecoach (for which he earned an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor), Only Angels Have Wings,
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the Charles Laughton version) and a little flick called Gone with the Wind. Josh Brolin can’t match that—not yet, anyway—but not for any lack of trying.
Consider: In 2007, audiences got to see Brolin as a mad scientist in Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half of Grindhouse; an adulterous police chief in Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah; a crooked narcotics cop in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster; and Llewelyn Moss, the Vietnam War vet who learns the hard way that no good deed goes unpunished, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men.
But wait, there’s more. On the other side of the camera in 2007, Brolin directed his first movie, X—as in “‘X’ marks the spot”—a spare, Sam Shepardish short about an escaped convict (Vincent Riverside) bent on reconnecting with his estranged young daughter (Eden Brolin, Josh’s daughter) by arranging a proper funeral for the girl’s mother, who was buried somewhere in the desert after meeting an untimely (and violent) end years earlier. So far, X has been well-received at a handful of festivals—including Austin’s SXSW, where he chatted with MM—and there’s already talk of expanding it into a feature.
Before he can think about that, however, Brolin has to complete a couple of challenging acting assignments, playing two real-life figures in a pair of high-profile films: He’s been cast as Dan White, the San Francisco supervisor who helped introduce the “Twinkie Defense” to the U.S. jurisprudence, in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, and George W. Bush, the, well, lead character in Oliver Stone’s W. Truly, it never rains but it pours.
The son of James Brolin, the journeyman TV and movie actor, and Jane Cameron Agee, who raised him and his younger brother on a ranch in Paso Robles, California, Brolin made a memorable impression in his first movie role, as Sean Astin’s protective older brother in Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985). Ever since, he has remained active in movies, television and regional theater, starring in no fewer than three TV series (the most popular being “The Young Riders,” in which he played a cocky Wild Bill Hickok) and occasionally playing supporting parts for such notable auteurs as Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda) and David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster). Along the way, however, there have been acres of dry stretches, work for hire in dubious projects—did anyone just say The Mod Squad?—and even periods when a possible career change seemed like a viable option. (Between gigs, Brolin has successfully dabbled as a day trader and actually co-founded a trading company, MarketProbability.com.)
As his career renaissance continues apace, you might look at his current frenzy of activity and think Brolin is making up for lost time. But he doesn’t see it quite that way. For one thing, in his view, the years before 2007 were neither lost nor wasted. In the years ahead, he hopes to take a “less is more” approach to selecting scripts. Unless, of course, the scripts are too good to pass up. In that case, well, look out Thomas Mitchell…
Joe Leydon (MM): First off, congratulations on your very good year. But, you know, it’s a funny thing: You read some of the recent articles about “The Comeback of Josh Brolin,” and you get the feeling some of these folks don’t know that, hey, you actually were a steadily employed working actor between The Goonies and No Country for Old Men.
Josh Brolin (JB): And very happily a working actor—very happily. Look, people create what they need to create, and that’s fine. It’s their spin on it. And that’s okay, whether it was one guy in the media and then everybody else got on that bandwagon, I understand that. I’ve heard people say, “You were doing C-minus work, and now you’re doing A work,” but that’s not how I feel. To me, doing No Country for Old Men was the same thing as a really great experience doing black-box theater. Or being in Rochester, New York with Anthony Zerbe [as part of the Reflections Festival at the Geva Theatre]—which was one of my great experiences of all time, running two slots in a theater for five years. For me, it’s all pretty much the same. I do like that I have more choices now, that’s the biggest thing. When someone asks, “Would you like to do this?” if I turn it down that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll feel that I may not work again for two years. The choices happen more often than they used to. That’s nice.
MM: On the other hand, like your wife, Diane Lane, you’ve been around for a while, and established yourself with consistently good work—but it’s only relatively recently that things have really turned around. With her, you could say it was after Unfaithful. Can you think of the point where you started thinking, ‘Oh, I guess I’m at another level now’?
JB: When No Country for Old Men was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, that was a big turning point. But it wasn’t really until the Oscars, which was very surreal for all of us. It’s so great, because the last movie I did where I felt similar to this was Flirting With Disaster. It was a movie where I actually watched it and—forget public perception—I said to myself, ‘Thank god I’m in this movie. I love this movie. I love what it’s about, I love the characters, I love the writing, I love everything about it.’ That was kind of the same feeling I had when I first saw No Country for Old Men. I think the Coens felt this way, too.
But, you know, at first I thought, ‘No one’s going to see this movie. It’s too bleak, it’s too much, the way they’re doing it. There’s too much mystery in it, there are too many questions. People don’t want to philosophize about movies right now. They want Transformers; they want it right in your face. They want it like commercials, with the editing so fast. They want immediate gratification. And this is the opposite of that.’ But it turned out that people embraced the movie. They saw it over and over and they loved talking about it, whether they disliked it or they loved it. They talked about it for days, weeks, months. And they’re still asking questions about it. The Q&As I’ve been through for this movie are the most interesting things I’ve ever been through. And then the Oscars. Man, for this movie to win Best Picture, it’s crazy.
JB: Look, my own sensibilities are such that, personally, this is a movie I would see over and over again. Even I weren’t in it, this is a movie I would truly embrace. Because I love this kind of writing, I love this kind of storytelling. But it’s pretty amazing, man. It’s a unique film.
MM: It’s been around for a while, so I guess it’s safe to ask you a question about the ending. When you first read the script, and you saw what would happen to your character—and, more importantly, the rather offhanded way that character’s exit would be depicted—as an actor, wasn’t there just a part of you that thought, “Aw, geez, you mean I don’t even get a great death scene?”
JB: (Laughs) No. Actually, I felt the opposite. I felt like, this is not pandering; it’s different, the way they take away this protagonist from the audience. That’s what I was really curious about: How is the audience going to react? Are they going to get angry? I wasn’t bothered by it. But I know certain people—well, here in Austin, when I came here to do the Q&A, Harry Knowles told me that a friend of his saw No Country and told him, “Up until about three-quarters of the way through the movie, I thought this was the most brilliant movie I had ever seen.” But then I died and he was so angry that, at the end of the film, he was outside kicking trashcans and screaming, “Fuck the Coens! I hate the Coens!” And I thought, ‘Hey, what a great reaction!’
MM: I have to admit, after the way the Coens suckered me in Miller’s Crossing, I was sure for a long time after your final scene that, somehow, Tommy Lee Jones’ character had faked your character’s death. When it became obvious that that wasn’t what happened, I was amazed and impressed—but also a little disappointed.
JB: But that’s a great compliment. You got so into the character—whether you fell in love with the character or appreciated the character or wanted the character to continue—and then he’s just taken away, and you get upset. But that’s how we experience things like that in real life. My mom died the same way. One day, I talked to her—just hours before she died, I talked to her—and everything was normal, she was talking and laughing. And then, before I knew it, I got a call telling me she hit a tree with her car, and that was it. So for me, it was a very personal parallel when I read the script.
MM: You’ve received a very favorable response, here in Austin and elsewhere, for your short film X. Who would you say are your biggest influences as a film director?
JB: Wim Wenders—definitely, hugely, especially with Paris, Texas. And a lot of his photographs. I think had I done it on 35mm instead of video, I would have shot it a little differently. If I’d chosen to do it with more money, I would have shot it differently. But I was also influenced, at least inspirationally, by Robert Rodriguez, in doing it as cheaply as I could and seeing if I could just rely on story and acting as opposed to quick camera moves and all that.
I was influenced by Sam Shepard’s writing and the Coens, for sure, because I had lived that whole experience and saw how they shot No Country. I think I prepared a lot like they did. In fact, I’d say the majority of the work went into the preparation, because I did 96 set-ups in three days, which is almost impossible to do. Not only were we ahead of schedule filming it, but we were doing 14-hour days where we thought we were going to do 20-hour days.
MM: Any chance you’ll develop X into a feature?
JB: I actually showed it one night to some people in my backyard. I went to Best Buy and bought a huge sound system—which I returned the next day, and I told them, ‘It doesn’t really work for me.’ But I had this really amazing sound system basically for free, for one night. And one of the people I invited was Paul Haggis, who’s been my friend for a long time. The way Paul and I treat each other, there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek involved and a lot of jabbing. But I also know that he’s probably the most honest friend I have and that he’ll really tell me what he feels once he gets serious—which is probably one percent of the time. He came up to me afterwards and said that it was good. And I said, ‘Ah, thanks.’ And I didn’t really believe it. And he said, “No, really, it’s really good. You know, I’ve started this production company and I’d love for you to write it as a full-length feature.” So I don’t know where I’m at with it. I was just doing Milk in San Francisco and I’m getting ready to do W. with Oliver Stone, so I’m kind of consumed with that. But come this summer, if I choose not to work, which is so nice to say…
MM: Hey, enjoy it while you can.
JB: (Laughs) Then I’ll write all summer. I’ll focus on X and we’ll see how it goes. But I’m very happy with the way it turned out as a short. I’m very critical about myself, but I thought my daughter was fantastic. I didn’t expect that. I think as a story, it’s an interesting story. As Ethan Coen told me when he read it, “I don’t think you can fit more into a short. It’s impossible.”
MM: Where did you come up with the idea of an escaped convict father and his estranged young daughter on a road trip?
JB: I have no idea. I’d written a 14-character, very complicated kind of Armageddon script that had special effects in it. And I was going to do it at Robert Rodriguez’s studio—his little garage over there by the airport here in Austin. Robert loved it, he really wanted me to do it, but it just got too complicated. And then I said to myself, ‘You know what? This is my first film. I think I’m sabotaging myself.’ So I just pulled over my truck, and wrote X in about two hours. I thought of my daughter. I thought of my theater partner, Vincent Riverside, who’s also in it. I love that he has real tattoos—we didn’t have to get fake tattoos—and I just loved this idea of exploring nature/nurture. I don’t know where it came from, but I liked the fact that she basically turns into him, because she’s such a hardass. He’s a horrible father, but there’s something about him that’s very loving, and you get to see fluctuations in their personalities. You pigeonhole them when you first see them, and then they turn into something else. The daughter’s not as hard as she seems. But by the end, she’s much harder than how she seemed at the beginning. I like that.
The 400 Blows is one of my favorite movies. And so is Léolo, a French-Canadian film a lot of people haven’t heard of. So anything dealing with parents and kids, parental-child relationships, I love it. I don’t know why, but I love it.
MM: Okay, Josh, you’ve kind of left the barn door open for my next question.
JB: Go for it.
MM: Not to play pop psychologist, but okay: Famous father, whose profession you wound up in. Mom, who was the defining figure in your life at a certain age. Is all of this stuff you find yourself working out in your work?
JB: I don’t work it out, I explore it. I have no interest in working out anything. I don’t think that exists. But exploring it? I’m extremely interested in that. I love it. It’s emotional, it gets me going, and not in a negative sense. I may get into, ‘Oh my god, I hated that,’ but I want to get into that and find out why that was—even though I know there is no finding it out. It’s bringing up those questions, and then writing some drama based on those questions. Yes, that’s a big motivator for me.
MM: Speaking of being the son of a famous father: Why did you want to play the lead role in W., Oliver Stone’s upcoming movie about George W. Bush?
JB: First and foremost, I love the script. I was very against it at first and I told Oliver, ‘Absolutely not. It’s insane.’ I just figured Oliver had a major agenda. But then I read the script, and the script is basically following the fluctuations of this guy’s life. I felt for him and I hated him. I had empathy for him and sympathy for him… and I wanted to squash him. I felt everything you do for characters in any great drama. And I said, ‘This is interesting. People don’t know this.’
It’s not necessarily saying anything, but the fact that this is a guy who basically failed at everything, who was seen as the black sheep of his family and turned around, got his life together and beat—if you can do such a thing—alcoholism. He re-found Christianity on a much deeper level, which gave him a conviction like we haven’t seen in anybody except maybe for dictators in the Far East or the Middle East, and he became President of the United States. Wow. That is a story. The other stuff isn’t a story—the other stuff is redundant. If you did a thing about post-9/11, why he went to war, oil, money—if that were the confines of the story, it’s redundant. Or if you do it tongue in cheek, you can see that on “Saturday Night Live.” To me, it’s following him from 20 years old to 55 years old. Regardless of how you feel about him, it’s a fascinating story.