Turns out Josh Brolin is the real deal after all
It’s a late summer Friday afternoon in Santa Monica, and Josh Brolin stands in his driveway dressed in a dirty T-shirt and ripped cotton shorts. His garage door is wide open, revealing what looks like a sporting goods pop-up shop; he’s got surfboards hanging on the wall next to a workout bench, some free weights, and a row of bicycles.
“Want the tour?” he asks.
Suddenly I’m in a highbrow reboot of Cribs, repackaged for AMC. We pass a den with an oversized TV and climb the stairs to a split-level living room/kitchen, where photographs by Mary Ellen Mark mingle with cowboy hats and assorted framed Americana. A William Eggleston portrait of a deserted roadside café hangs on the wall. Brolin says the print reminds him of his mother. “My mom didn’t fly,” he says. “We’d wake up in the middle of the night, and she’d be like, Come on, we’re driving to Texas. We’d eat in places like that constantly.” We ascend a spiral staircase to a roof deck and stare out at the Pacific Ocean in silence, taking in the salt air. Brolin, forty-seven, tells me the house used to be his production company’s office. “When my situation changed,” he says, “I moved in.”
Right, his “situation.” Let’s get that out of the way: 2013? It wasn’t his best year. Brolin was arrested for public intoxication on New Year’s Day. He split from his wife, the actress Diane Lane, in February, and the two formally divorced nine months later. Brolin maintained his sense of humor during public appearances, smiling as David Letterman told his audience: “We’ll double-check this, but I believe he was the first celebrity arrested of the New Year… Ladies and gentlemen, here he is, Josh Brolin!” But a deeper shift was at work. Says Brolin, now sober, of his issues with alcohol: “You live an image, then you get caught in the habit of that image.”
We’re here to talk about two new films he’s got this fall: Sicario (a thrilling guessing game about a Mexican drug cartel) and Everest, a 3-D look at the worst mountaineering disaster in the peak’s history, a 1996 expedition that saw eight climbers killed during a freak storm. Both movies are stellar, and it’s hard to imagine either succeeding without Brolin’s particular brand of alpha-dude machismo. It’s worth noting that he’s not actually the star of either film.
Two years after his personal life took a sharp left turn, Brolin is now engaged to his onetime assistant, Kathryn Boyd, a former model who turns twenty-nine this fall. These changes in his personal life — the new bride, the beach house, the firm grip on his sobriety — come at a time when his career appears to be evolving, too. No Country For Old Men may have reminded us Brolin was a movie star hiding in plain sight — thick black hair atop a head chiseled out of granite — but now comes a new phase, and one that’s perhaps even more interesting: Josh Brolin, the world’s most handsome character actor.
“I have these hiccups once in a while. I’m like, What trajectory are we on? Have we plateaued? Once I start living an image, then I’m screwed.”
He’s taken a dusty, winding back route to get to this point. Brolin’s father, of course, is James Brolin — Marcus Welby, M.D. While Josh went into the family business, he was determined from the jump to do it his way. At seventeen, he moved from Paso Robles to a squat in Venice and pretended he was broke. “It sounds silly,” he says now. “But I thought it’s what an actor was supposed to do. Hey, man, can I get some money for a cup of coffee? It was an affectation.” This was Venice in the ’70s — a spot for junkies, artists, and oddballs, not the playground it’s become for rich tech dicks. Brolin was skateboarding and reading Shakespeare two days a week with his mentor, character actor Anthony Zerbe.
“I had one foot in one place and one foot in another,” says Brolin, whose parents named him after Steve McQueen’s character, Josh Randall, in Wanted: Dead or Alive. “I had the loyalty of my friends — most of whom are now dead — and then I had this other side of me. I was just really curious.” He took his paycheck from Goonies and Thrashin’ and flew to Europe, where he took odd jobs and slept on trains when he wasn’t sleeping with women. A six-week adventure stretched to six months and threatened to become something more permanent if he hadn’t been mugged on a train to Encona, Italy. To make a long story short (one of Brolin’s favorite phrases), two men tried to take his wallet, a fight broke out, and Brolin’s hand connected with a broken bottle, slicing the middle finger on his right hand down to the bone.
“When they cut my finger,” Brolin says, “the two guys got really concerned. They wanted to help me. They told the conductor, who told them there was a hospital in Encona.” Brolin’s a gifted storyteller, and he’s on his feet, telling me about the Italian surgeon who was roused from his sleep and was shouting obscenities as he stitched up Brolin’s hand.
It’s only a single story, but it gives you an idea of the meandering spirit guide Brolin’s followed; his defining characteristic, it seems, is inquisitiveness. For an actor of his stature, it’s refreshing. Homeboy spent years wandering the desert, or the Hollywood equivalent of it anyway, taking thankless roles in forgettable projects. I mean, it’s a rough day on the set of 2005’s Into the Blue when Jessica Alba turns to him and says, You have chops. “And I had to take it!” Brolin says. He mostly made his living as a day trader in those years, waking up at five in the morning to study a website called Briefing.com before the market opened. There’s a reason he’s got an e-mail from the Coen brothers framed on his wall, telling über-producer Scott Rudin that they’d like to cast him in No Country For Old Men. (An excerpt: “Josh has the right thick dark beetlebrowed look to finish our weird triplet of Easter Island heads.”) Brolin knows how close he was to obscurity.
The scope of his comeback is almost unheard of. He went from a journeyman actor and onetime Goonie to an A-list star at a speed that would have given a lesser man whiplash. He had an Oscar nomination and a very famous wife at home. That story’s been told, but the next chapter is more intriguing. Because if he’s being honest with himself, he wasn’t exactly fulfilled. He calls these moments “hiccups,” admitting the folly in trying to take the temperature of one’s career. “I have these hiccups once in a while,” he says. “I’m like, What trajectory are we on? Are we on an upward trajectory? Have we plateaued? Once I start living an image, then I’m screwed.”
An image of what, I ask? A movie star? Ten years ago, he explains, he had “an image of somebody I was supposed to be. What does success mean to me? How am I supposed to act? What am I doing wrong? How am I being perceived?”
He still struggles with the question — as we all do — telling me he initially turned down this fall’s Sicario (slang for “hit man”), which stars Emily Blunt as an FBI field agent and Benicio Del Toro as a mysterious Mexican prosecutor. “I had been working a lot. It wasn’t” — and here he affects a whiny actor’s voice — “I’m tired, I just need a break.” It’s just that he looked at the script and thought, “Oh, it’s a filler role. You have the actors, but you need a guy to fill in the shit.” I know what he means. Blunt gets to scream and pout, and Del Toro — quiet and brooding for most of the film — gets the climactic finish. But there’s a reason both Blunt and Sicario director Denis Villeneuve lobbied Brolin to take the part: the movie doesn’t work without him. The audience needs to understand why a newbie female agent would go down this twisted rabbit hole. And Brolin — a perfect mix of charm and gravitas — piques her interest and ours. For two hours we’re all wondering the same thing: Whose side is this cowboy really on?
Says Villeneuve, in heavily accented French Canadian English: “We needed to bring meat around the bones. The movie is about the border of morality. I needed someone that is — for the audience — lovely. Someone that could bring the kind of humor I was looking for, but in the back we can feel strong shadows.” The friendship that developed between the two men turned out to be a bonus. During a grueling, three-month shoot in Albuquerque, Brolin frequently invited the cast and crew over to his rental house. Says Villeneuve: “The only moment where I had a break on that shoot was when Josh was cooking tacos on the side of his pool, welcoming me with a beer.”
What made Brolin change his mind? How did the hiccup pass? He says he took a page from the Buddha Matthew McConaughey’s teachings: “There’s no rhyme or reason about structuring your career. It doesn’t exist.” It’s not that he’s given up leading roles. He’s already prepping to star in a George Jones biopic next year, with Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette. And he’ll play the villain Thanos in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which is its own sweet revenge. (Brolin and the copresident of Marvel, Louis D’Esposito, apparently used to share stock tips. “Until he told me to buy a stock right when the bubble burst,” Brolin says. “Now I’m making the money back!”) But, at forty-seven, he’s realizing it’s more fun to go along for the ride with people you trust. “Real artists — and I hate that phrase — but they just worry about the thing that consumes them, not how they look in it. The ego factor lessens with success.”
He’s not afraid to have a little fun on-screen, even at his own expense. In the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (out next year) he plays an overweight filmmaker with a mustache and a perm, mucking around with George Clooney and Tilda Swinton. He says it was like being in “kindergarten again.” In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, Brolin played a police officer with a flattop (his idea), who fellated a frozen banana as he chauffeured Joaquin Phoenix around town. Of the deep-throated snack (also his idea), Brolin says with a smile: “It seemed appropriate. He seemed so hyper-masculine. How could anybody be that masculine?”
I have to admit: this isn’t the Josh Brolin I was expecting. I thought he’d be sitting on that roof deck with a blunt in one hand and a Scotch in the other, talking about the meaning of life. Dude’s built like a gorilla, with a sturdy frame and long, thick, meaty arms. He looks like he’s stepped out of a Natural History Museum exhibit on early man to be groomed for a Prada ad. But here he is sipping a green bubble tea from Urth Caffé, telling me: “I’m breaking the molds, man.”
The thing is, this guy? He’s way more interesting. I ask how it feels to be getting married again at forty-seven, and he revises my query. “The question is, How do I feel — nothing against anybody I’ve ever been with — but how does it feel to want to take care of yourself, because that’s how much you care for the other person? That’s the difference.”
That’s sweet, I say. Though it’s also corny as hell. He doesn’t disagree. “Yeah, it’s sweet. It sounds like masturbation. But it’s not. That was a revelation that I had.”
“I see young Hollywood punks on the set, and it’s funny to me. Because it’s absolutely me all over again. I’m the old guy who’s like, Oh cool, you got your leather jacket and it cost you $400 and you bought it all ripped up!”
He’s been married twice before, and I wonder what he’ll do differently this time, or what makes him believe in the institution. “I don’t know what the key is,” he says. “I’ve given up on finding the key to anything. I know my kids absolutely adore her. That’s important to me.” (Asked whether his stepmother, Barbra Streisand, got him an engagement gift, he says no, “but she loves Kathryn.” Okay, but will she sing at the wedding? He swats the question like a fly: “I would never ask her.”) Of marrying Kathryn, he says, “I just know we have a really good time together.” That good time included training for Everest, which costars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke. Brolin and his fiancée climbed Mount Whitney in the Sierras, and Shasta in the Cascades. On his laptop, he shows me a vertigo-inducing photo of the two of them climbing the via ferrata in the Swiss Alps. Parts of Everest were actually shot on location in Kathmandu and Namche Bazaar.
“I was in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” Brolin says. “I thought, If you’re going to do a movie about Everest, isn’t it appropriate that you prepare?” He’s standing again, excited. “I show up for work. Most of the guys have a glass of wine and a cigarette in their hands. I’m like, What the fuck is happening? Are we doing this thing?”
As we amble back downstairs, I ask him about the next generation of actors coming up. Are there any real men left? “I see young Hollywood punks on the set, and it’s funny to me. Because it’s absolutely me all over again,” he says. “I’m the old guy who’s like, Oh cool, you got your leather jacket and it cost you $400 and you bought it all ripped up! I remember a guy I worked with who was from Ontario, but he talked like De Niro. I was like, Holy shit, he’s actually doing De Niro. Does he know that I know? I’m not even listening to what he’s saying. It’s fascinating to me.”