February 19, 2009
Josh Brolin Mines Emotional Depths
It’s pouring rain outside, and the three sharp raps on my front door announce that Academy Award nominee Josh Brolin has arrived for an interview, his hands hunched deep in his pockets and his hood pulled up over his baseball cap on a chilly Thursday afternoon.
Brolin — as everyone knows by now — is up for best supporting actor for his nuanced performance in “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s biopic about slain gay activist and San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk. Brolin is surprisingly sympathetic as Dan White, the troubled political misfit from a white, Catholic district who shot and killed Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone on Nov. 27, 1978.
Milk himself was known to have carried a sign during rallies proclaiming, “I’m from Woodmere. I’m Jewish. I’m gay.” Brolin isn’t Jewish (OK, so he’s the stepson of Barbra Streisand), but at 41, he is widely considered to be one of the best American actors of his generation, and the chance to interview him for this newspaper was at hand.
I’d seen Brolin in person around my neighborhood, where he’s just the guy in the baseball cap who takes the time to wave or say “Hi,” before jumping into his black Dodge 4x4 pickup truck, sometimes smoking a Winston, sometimes with one of his two dogs in tow. That’s Brolin-the-neighbor.
As an actor, however, his range goes far beyond any Americana cliché. He stands out for his uncanny ability to mine unexpected emotional depths in characters who might appear uncomplicated in less-capable hands.
In the past two years alone, he earned rave reviews as a brutish, corrupt cop in “American Gangster,” a Vietnam veteran on the run with stolen drug money in the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” President George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s controversial “W,” out on DVD this month, and now White in “Milk.”
We met up at my house because it was convenient for us both, an unusual and generous gesture for an actor in the midst of awards season — but again, that’s Brolin.
“The reason I am an actor is because I’m fascinated by people and why they do what they do,” he said, settling into a chair in the living room. “Whether it’s George Bush or Dan White or the guy in the moon. And the thing about my profession is, you can go anywhere and do anything, and it pertains.
“You can go to the grocery store or on vacation, and it pertains. I can be around nobody, and it pertains, because then I’m suddenly challenged with my own aloneness, and I can use that later. So it’s constant, and it’s interesting, and it’s like photography. You cannot master it; it’s constantly changing; its possibilities are limitless.”
Brolin entered therapy of his own accord at 13, because he wanted to explore how he ticked and how others tick. “I’d heard people talk about psychoanalysis, and I wondered, ‘What is that, and what does that mean, and what do the people do?’ And so I got some cheap analyst that I found out of the Yellow Pages,” he said, with a laugh. “And I went for a couple of months. I didn’t really have anything to talk about, but I was fascinated by it, like with everything else.”
In those days, Brolin didn’t aspire to become an actor. As a child, he had considered the field to be “an anathema,” because he had watched his father, the actor James Brolin (“Marcus Welby, M.D.”) struggle with the ups and downs of show business.
Josh Brolin grew up on a 230-acre ranch in Paso Robles, Calif., where his mother, Jane Agee, a wildlife activist, ran a way station. From the age of 6, he helped to care for a menagerie that included “wolves, coyotes, lions, one bear, a lot of mountain lions, a real lion.” He sometimes flew with his father in a little Cessna into the Mohave wilderness to release animals into the wild.
Working so closely with animals wasn’t entirely without risk: One of the wolves bit his younger brother, Jess, on the leg, requiring 60 stitches to sew up the wound; the actor still has a couple of scars on his back from minor encounters with a wolf. “But it was a great upbringing,” he said. “It wasn’t until later that we realized what an anomaly it was.”
The young Brolin surfed competitively, played in a punk rock band and aimed to practice law before becoming hooked on acting during an 11th-grade theater-improvisation class. Thereafter, he went out on auditions with what he described as “a totally made-up resumé.” His first feature film, “The Goonies,” produced by Steven Spielberg, made him a teen heartthrob, but Brolin truly blossomed as an actor after founding a theater company in New York with Anthony Zerbe.
He took a class with Stella Adler, read and wrote poetry and took on a variety of roles in theater, film and television, playing Wild Bill Hickock in ABC’s “The Young Riders” and a bisexual Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent with an armpit fetish in 1996’s “Flirting With Disaster,” among other endeavors.
On Brolin’s 27th birthday, his mother, who at the time was divorced from his father and in remission from cancer, crashed her car into a tree not far from the family ranch. “They kept her alive until 1 a.m. the next morning, until I said to ‘pull the plug,’” he said, quietly.
“You go through many different emotions,” he said of the aftermath. “Sadness, anger, resentment that she’s not around, then you romanticize at a certain point: ‘My mom was the greatest mom on earth,’ when really she was a nut-ball,” he said with great affection.
“My mother was an extreme character, a lot of fun, a personality renowned in this town and many other towns,” he continued. “My mother was talked about constantly. She was talked about on TV, written about in books; she was a major, hilarious, 5-foot-2, 110-pound, Texas-born force and a ball, and we miss her terribly.”
In 1998, James Brolin married Streisand at her Malibu estate in a ceremony officiated by Rabbi Leonard Beerman. Josh attended with his son, Trevor, now 20, and his daughter, Eden, 15, from his first marriage to actress Alice Adair.
Because Streisand is such an iconic Jewish artist, I had to ask Brolin at least a few questions about her, starting with an Internet item I had read claiming that the liberal Streisand had chastised Brolin for taking on the role of Geoge W. Bush.
“That’s total bull and completely fabricated,” he replied, wearily.
It’s no secret that Brolin has had some bad experiences with reporters. “I read the majority of what is written about me and go, ‘That’s not really what happened,’” he said.
Perhaps to protect Streisand’s privacy, he speaks of her with affection but does not elaborate much: “She has been incredibly sweet and kind to me and my family,” he said.
When he is up at the beach, he sometimes drops by to see her and his father. He said the extended family has celebrated the winter holidays at her home, save for one recent occasion, when they gathered at a restaurant.
“But in general, we don’t get to see them a lot, just because she’s working, and I’m working,” he added, “and when I’m home, I tend to spend time with my kids.”
When Josh Brolin married actress Diane Lane in 2004, it was Lane who suggested that the couple incorporate the Jewish tradition of breaking a glass into the ceremony, and Brolin was game — after all, he had also hired a mohel to circumcise his son years earlier. He said he welcomes learning about different religions and traditions, because that helps to inform his work as an actor.
Much has been written about Brolin’s emergence as a leading man and movie star over the last two years, though he doesn’t see it as so abrupt. He pointed out that he has regularly worked as an actor over the past decade, including a turn in Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda,” although he supported himself throughout mostly by day-trading stocks, which turns out to be another one of his eclectic interests.
“I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done,” he insisted of his acting career. “The only difference is that I’ve been working with great filmmakers.”
Joel and Ethan Coen proved tough customers, however, when Brolin first expressed interest in “No Country for Old Men.” “They’d seen my audition video, and they’d said ‘no,’” the actor recalls.
But his agent, Michael Cooper, obtained one of the brothers’ cellphone number and asked them to just meet with the actor (in Coensian fashion, they called Cooper “the gnat” because he always seemed to be buzzing in their ear), and the actor landed the role of Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss on the last day of auditions. Then, just before rehearsals began, he crashed his motorcycle into a car and snapped his collarbone. (His last thought before hitting the ground: “Man, I really wanted to work with the Coens.”)
How did he keep the role?
“I lied,” he quipped when he appeared on “Inside the Actors Studio.” “The only reason I was really honestly able to do the part is because Ethan said, ‘Wait a second, Llewelyn gets shot in the right shoulder on Page 17; we’re going to be fine.’ So that’s just something that’s fate.”
Brolin said he was initially reluctant to take on the part of Bush when Stone approached him some time ago. In fact, he turned Stone down twice.
“Politics never matter to me when choosing a role,” he said. But the prospect of playing Bush from age 21 to 58 seemed “overwhelming.”
To prepare, Brolin read 18 books on the former president. “I didn’t watch the news; I didn’t read the paper; I just didn’t want any outside information,” he recalled. “It was almost like going into a blackout for five months, of suspending all judgment, of saying, ‘How can I play this guy in the most well-rounded way possible?’”
One breakthrough occurred when Brolin envisioned Bush’s story as a modern variation on Shakespeare’s “Henry” plays. “In ‘Henry IV, Part I,’ the character is young, flailing, partying, having the best time; then that’s not working so much for him anymore, and he realizes he must take responsibility — as in ‘Henry IV, Part II.’ And then ‘Henry V’ is Bush basically becoming king — president of the United States — and having such unbelievable and total conviction that he refuses to re-access or waiver in any way.”
Brolin’s process for tackling a character always involves voluminous research. In the case of “Milk,” he said, “I was flailing, reading a lot, looking for some kind of a hook and not finding one.”
He recalled that when he first met one of the late supervisor’s colleagues (Cleve Jones, played by Emile Hirsch in the film), “I could see in his eyes, ‘This is the wrong guy.’” Brolin was eventually allowed to listen to the confession White recorded with police 90 minutes after fatally shooting Milk and Moscone.
“I heard this duality going on,” the actor said. “I saw this man who perceived himself as a victim, and who thought, ‘Poor me,’ and also the good guy who had gone off the rails, who realized the horror of what he had done.”
Brolin had his “hook,” his way into the character.
Even as he’s preparing to star in an as-yet untitled Woody Allen film with Anthony Hopkins this summer — Allen is “so unassuming, without ego, and we’ve been talking to each other often,” Brolin said — he has received a New York Critics Circle Award and a National Board of Review Award for “Milk.”
And as he is gearing up for the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 22, he said, the nonstop interviews and appearances have become somewhat draining. On the day of our meeting, he drove his truck out to Point Dume in Malibu to surf.
“It was raining, and I ended up walking probably a mile and a half along the beach,” he said. “When I got back to my truck, I was completely soaked, but it was the most beautiful, serene, incredible morning.”
“I’m finding it’s essential for me to take the time out to ground myself, because it can get really crazy,” he said of Oscar season. “I understand that it is perceived as a race, but it’s not a race. I think we’re all very happy to get nominated and proud of it, but now it’s starting to wear on me a little bit. Not that I don’t feel very, very lucky. But I do miss the creative part of the work.”
The Academy Awards will air on Feb. 22 on ABC.