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From Goon Docks to the White House

Josh Brolin's star is undeniably rising

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It’s been a career-altering year for Josh Brolin, a Los Angeles resident who clings tenaciously to his Paso Robles roots. On Feb. 24 Brolin’s film No Country for Old Men, a production written and directed by the Coen brothers, received the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year. Then, on Oct. 14, W.—a biopic about the life of the United States’ 43rd president, starring Brolin in the title role—premiered at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York. And on Nov. 26, Milk, in which Brolin plays former San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, goes into limited theatrical release. On Nov. 5 (the day after the election) Brolin discussed his two most recent roles, politics, and potential future roles with New Times.

NEW TIMES You’re notoriously picky about your roles. Why did you accept the title role in W.?

BROLIN I reacted very strongly to the idea of doing it. I had fears of what I thought Oliver [Stone] wanted to do, which was only Bush in office. I said no a couple of times and Oliver just kept showing up. He wasn’t insulted by my no. I read the script and I was really blown away by the sheer volume of the challenge to follow a guy from 21 to 58 years old. I liked that it wasn’t totally condemning. It ultimately leans a little bit. But I found out that Bush has seen it and he actually liked the movie. I think that’s what’s most interesting about the story is instead of hammering somebody, it brings up a lot of questions. Why did he follow through on wanting to be president when it didn’t seem like he was interested in the least? Why did we vote for him twice when obviously you don’t feel particularly good about that vote in the end? With this administration we’ve gone past the idea of party leaning. If Clinton were in office the last seven years, the Republicans would just be lambasting him because of the economy. People are not willing to talk bad about anybody in their party. That’s why I loved Obama’s speech last night, and a lot of McCain’s speech also. They were like ‘look, I understand we’ve been fighting in order to win, that’s kind of the nature of what it is, the competition, but now that we’re in office we have to work together.’ I think that there was a feeling last night, regardless of who I like or dislike, there was a feeling that something was different. Already. And it was a nice feeling.

MISCOMMUNICATION :  Josh Brolin depicts the nation’s 43rd president, George Bush in Oliver Stone’s W. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MOVIEWEB.COM
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF MOVIEWEB.COM
  • MISCOMMUNICATION : Josh Brolin depicts the nation’s 43rd president, George Bush in Oliver Stone’s W.

NEW TIMES You come from a family that has strong Democratic roots how did your family react when you accepted the role?

BROLIN My family didn’t know about it for a long time. I heard this whole thing about Barbra [Streisand, Brolin’s stepmother] completely over-reacting. That’s all not true. She was very interested in the whole thing. In the beginning, my core people and peers, they all thought I was crazy. They all said, ‘Why would you want to do that now, you’re having a really good run.’ But I like the fact that there was risk involved. It was a little disconcerting and nerve-wracking, whether I was going to pull it off. I seem to have trouble deciding what I want to do though. Because I’m just a farmer.

NEW TIMES How did you prepare to play Bush?

BROLIN I decided to get into it, just out of pure fear of not being able to pull it off because it wasn’t just playing a guy at a certain time in his life. It was playing many, many different milestones in his life. I had speeches on loop at home. I woke up in the morning to his speeches, I walked around the set with my iPod, I read a ton of books from the religious right evangelical movement to Bush himself, I talked to a lot of people who knew him way back when, who knew him recently, friends. When you’re playing a real person there’s a different level of research and preparation.

NEW TIMES What was the process of physically transforming into Bush?

BROLIN I lost a lot of weight for the young Bush. I lost about 38 pounds just to look as young as I could, gave myself a young haircut. Then we went through a lot of prosthetics, straightening his nose and stuff like that but the prosthetics were way too much we started really big and then we just worked our way down from there. Then Oliver started getting really nervous because down South during the summer it’s very humid and the prosthetics can melt. That’s no fun, sitting there with prosthetics melting off your face and it takes two hours to put them on. It didn’t have to be exact. I always find it somewhat strange when it’s too exact, you know? So, I just said, bring it down 20 percent, take it down another 10 percent until finally something clicked. We did a couple of screen tests of the makeup and we all knew when we hit it. And we took the makeup off and said we can either use this stuff, the teeth, the eyes, the ears, the nose or we can not use it and just go for it. I’m glad that we used a little something. I think it was necessary. I’m really glad, physically, the way it turned out.

NEW TIMES You’ve said that you found yourself identifying with Bush during the course of filming did that surprise you at all?

BROLIN Yeah, it surprised me because I had this outlook on him, more political than anything. With some things there is no parallel whatsoever between him and me but there are some things—we both have strong mothers, the fact that we follow in the same professions that our fathers did. But I think we went about it very differently. I’m very happy whereas he seems to be not so happy. I do see similarities but I think that’s the case with anybody you play. You almost force yourself to find similarities in order to play them. I did Dan White also, which is the Harvey Milk story. Dan White is Harvey Milk’s assassin and that’s a very, very tough character to play and at the same time you look for similarities. Where can I understand this guy’s desperation? You try and pull situations out of your own life that match that in some way.

GOT MILK? :  Josh Brolin and Sean Penn play Harvey Milk and Dan White in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MOVIEWEB.COM
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF MOVIEWEB.COM
  • GOT MILK? : Josh Brolin and Sean Penn play Harvey Milk and Dan White in Gus Van Sant’s Milk.

NEW TIMES Why did you accept the role of Dan White?

BROLIN That was one of those roles that Gus [Van Sant] sent me. I knew Sean [Penn] from before. I knew Gus a little bit and Matt Damon was supposed to do that role. He couldn’t because he had this Paul Greengrass movie that he was doing and then Sean said to Gus, ‘What about Josh.’ They sent it to me and I read it straight away, loved it, cried at the end, was very moved by the story. And there was no question. I didn’t get paid anything for it. It wasn’t a money gig, for sure. It’s not fun playing guys that are that disliked. But I just felt like I wanted to be part of the story. I thought that the story was very important and I loved being a part of it.

NEW TIMES This seemed like a very brave kind of statement, given that gay rights are by no means an issue of the past.

BROLIN Well obviously, because it looks like Proposition 8 is gonna be a yes, which I don’t understand. I’m completely befuddled. My feeling is who gives a shit. The fundamentals of marriage are still intact. Who cares what somebody else does? It’s not hurting anybody. Somebody told me something this morning that really resonated for me how is it that Massachusetts can have it be OK and California no? Last night was a huge historical event, to be able to witness that was incredible, a black man becoming president. So maybe we have to pay in some way, maybe that’s just the law of averages. I think it will come back around.

NEW TIMES You’ve always been particular about your roles but your star is undeniably rising. Will this change the roles you choose?

BROLIN To me, there’s no shortage of roles that you can really play with and get inside of. There’s a lot of great stories out there. It’s about keeping myself interested. I’m obsessive about behavior, about what makes people tick. It fascinates me. I also want to change it up. I can’t wait to do a comedy. I can’t wait to do a thriller. I can’t wait to do an action movie. ‘Cause it’s fun. This whole thing about ‘Josh only does arty character roles,’ that’s not true. I’m willing to do anything. These just seem to be the most interesting roles right now.

NEW TIMES On IMDB you’re rumored to be playing western comic book hero Jonah Hex. Is that going to happen?

BROLIN I don’t know whether or not I’m doing it. I know that’s the rumor but there’re always rumors. I’m talking to them about it but I don’t think it’s going to happen, personally. But you never know.

PACKING THE HEAT :  On Feb. 24, 2008, No Country for Old Men—in which Brolin starred—won an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MOVIEWEB.COM
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF MOVIEWEB.COM
  • PACKING THE HEAT : On Feb. 24, 2008, No Country for Old Men—in which Brolin starred—won an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year.

NEW TIMES It sounds like there’s a lot of uncertainties and maybes in this industry.

BROLIN There always is. If I told you what happened in the last 24 hours it would blow your mind. That’s what’s kind of wonderful is it’s all possible. And whatever alchemy, you put this and this together and that and that together, maybe it’ll create that. Is this right? Who knows? And there’s a leap of faith that you have to take. It’s very humbling but at the same moment it’s very empowering because I don’t want to sit there and pander to somebody else’s idea of what I should do. I want to make sure that I look back on it and I know that’s my decision, and even if it didn’t work out I feel good about that decision.

NEW TIMES Is there anything you’d like to add?

BROLIN That I miss Paso. I’ve been out there a few times recently. I almost bought a place up there recently and we’ll get back up there.


Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach participates in good ‘ole fashioned W bashin.’ Join the fun at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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