All along, he thought he knew what he was doing. He'd spend hours hunkered down over the tea leaves, trying to prognosticate the meaning of this director or that, this co-star or that, this location or that, searching for roles that he thought he could connect with and were meaningful. "I've always wanted to be able to look back on my life and smile," he says. No matter. The breaks just would not come his way. In 1989, he was hired for a part in 'Lonesome Dove' but was fired the next day because of contractual obligations the studio had with Ricky Schroder, who replaced him. "I was devastated. Just devastated, man." At other times, he seemed just a little too intense for the decision-makers to handle. When he auditioned for a part in 'The Fly II,' he fell to the ground and started frothing at the mouth, with spit and drool flopping all over the place. Later, his agent called him and asked, "What did you do?" Brolin replied, "What do you mean, what did I do? In the part, the guy's coming out of a cocoon. He's transmogrifying!" "Well, they were really afraid. I mean, they were scared." And so the role went to Eric Stoltz.
"I don't know, but I just didn't get it," Brolin says. "I mean, I didn't get it, whatever cool was, whatever all that stuff was."
Even so, it's a little strange just how long it took him to hit, especially since he started off with such a bang, when he was only 16, playing the jock older brother in 1985's 'The Goonies'. It was a smash, he was a smash, great things were predicted, he was on his way. For his stellar 'Goonies' follow-up, however, he chose something called 'Thrashin',' a mawkish tale of juvenile-delinquent skateboarders, which must have looked good on paper, but onscreen, well, when Brolin first saw it, he wept openly – that's how bad he thought it was. He was then offered a part in 'Back to the Beach,' a comeback vehicle for Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, but the former Cito Rat turned up his nose, much to the dismay of his agents at ICM, who went ballistic: "You're lucky you're even here! You just got lucky with 'The Goonies!' You're an idiot! It makes no sense! This'll put you on the map!" Instead, still smarting from the 'Thrashin'' debacle, he packed up and headed to Rochester, New York, where he joined forces with the great Anthony Zerbe and spent part of five years acting in and directing plays – plays! – while cutting quite the flamboyant Hollywood-transplant figure in orange corduroys and red cowboy boots, with his long, dark hair pulled up into groovy knots both top and bottom. He eventually returned to Los Angeles, hoping for bigger and better, but instead found himself putting on makeup to do battle with giant, mutant cockroaches and, worse yet, with invisible men played by Kevin Bacon, all of which eventually led him to halfway throw in the towel on acting – he wasn't unhappy, he was just frustrated – and turn to the stock market, where he became a whiz-kid day trader, working the mystical side of the business, looking at numbers and charts and successfully divining the future from the squiggles, in a way that he couldn't with the squiggles of a script. Then director Robert Rodriguez hauled him back in with 2007's 'Grindhouse,' playing a bad doctor turned bad zombie in the double feature's 'Planet Terror' segment, and by year's end, after the release of 'No Country,' he was in hot demand. "I think that once upon a time, you had somebody saying, 'Hire me, but don't fucking hire me because I'm handsome or the son of James Brolin,'" says Sean Penn, his 'Gangster Squad' co-star. "I think there's a lot of healthy rebellion in Josh. I also think a very healthy part of him just doesn't give a shit, so that when something comes along that makes sense, he hasn't used up his give-a-shit, and on the job, he's like a monster. His focus and commitment are extreme." In the past three years alone, Brolin has appeared in more than his fair share of movies, a few of them dogs ('Jonah Hex'), a few of them great ('True Grit,' 'Men in Black 3'). And now he's got 'Gangster Squad,' with a star-crammed cast that includes Penn and Ryan Gosling.
"Yeah, well," Brolin says, working up to his review of the movie and taking his time. Finally, he says, "'Gangster Squad' is very different from what I thought it was going to be. But now I feel like, wow, there's a reason why I love those old Clint Eastwood movies. It's a cheese that doesn't exist anymore. It's lost cheese. I'm a little too honest about this stuff, but I'll find what I like in a movie and promote the shit out of it. I mean, not every movie has to be an artistic revelation. And I definitely like the cheesiness of this movie in that Clint Eastwood, you know, realm."
A little too honest, perhaps, but it's beginning to seem like that's just how he is. There'll be no preemptive buttoning of the lips here. Ask him what the first thing on his mind was this morning, before he heard about the Colorado shooting, and he'll say, "You wanna hear honestly?" and then he'll say, "I was thinking about the concept of God. I've been getting on my knees a lot lately – as I have in the past – and thinking about the whole humbling factor of getting on your knees, and I go back and forth, thinking I'm full of shit about this, like I'm trying to trick my intellect into tapping into a source that I don't know exists for sure or not. And then I started having this conversation like I'd be having with you, and then I felt more connected to whatever that idea of God is than I've ever felt in my life. I was thinking, 'What is that for me, this concept of God or energy or whatever that is? And is that real or not?'"
He kind of grins here, letting you know that he knows how this sounds. But the great thing is, he's willing to go with it. He's willing to open himself up to possible ridicule, when he could have played it safe and led with what else happened when he first awoke. His wife of nine years started telling him about the dream she'd just had. He said, "OK, you had a dream. I know." She said, "What? You don't want to hear my dream?" He said, "No, it's not that I don't want to hear your dream, but it's just like every morning is about the dream. I know. We all dream. I get it. But if you tell me your dream, and I tell you my dream, half the day is gone." She looked at him and said, "You're my husband and you don't want to hear my dream?"
And right then, it could have all gone downhill, the way it did back in 2004, when he'd been dancing at a party and told his wife that he wasn't much of a dancer and she'd had the temerity to agree, which, in his somewhat inebriated state, really pissed him off, so he started bellowing, and she said, "Oh, yeah? Yeah? Wanna puff up? Watch this!" and she called the cops, mentioning domestic abuse, which was a mistake to mention, because once that comes up, somebody's got to be hauled off to jail, and Brolin was, and then the press got a hold of it, and it became this whole big horrible, embarrassing thing.
But they'd learned their lesson, and that's not how it was going to go this morning.
Brolin said to his wife, "Now you're scaring me. I don't want to go further. I apologize. Tell me your dream."
Which would have been a pretty sweet story to tell first. But that's not the Brolin way. Instead, he went more far out. He went with God.