Up on the rooftop of a small building in Santa Monica – lots of sunshine around, only a few clouds, just another perfect California day, with a view clear to the Pacific where the surfers ride – Josh Brolin is smoking a cigarette and sweating. He’s sweating because he’s an athletic guy and just got back to his office after working out, before heading upstairs and into the heat, to sweat some more. He’s smoking because he just can’t seem to quit.
“Yeah,” he says, holding the damn thing out, considering it and taking another puff. “I’m an idiot.”
It’s not a point you can argue, of course. On the other hand, he’s pretty much full of those kinds of off-slant combinations. Just look at him. The thick, full head of hair at age 44. The strong, square jaw that you just know can take a punch. The panty-dropper lips and wide-open smile. The chin stubble, just right. The bulging muscles beneath a trim, black T-shirt, just right. Almost everything, just right, in a rough-and-tumble, rugged way, which makes it kind of great that he tends to get cast against type, in movies like Oliver Stone’s ‘W.‘ (2008, as George Bush) and ‘Milk‘ (2008, as murderer Dan White, which earned him an Oscar nomination), as well as expectedly dead-on, in films like ‘No Country for Old Men‘ (2007, as a doomed cowpoke), ‘American Gangster‘ (2007, as a corrupt narc), and, most recently, ‘Gangster Squad,’ as a police officer charged with ridding Los Angeles of the Mob, in which he kills everything and anybody that stands in his way, making him both hero and antihero.
But for such a cool-looking, no-nonsense-appearing, action-oriented-seeming guy – he surfs, skydives, motorcycles, races cars, bungee-jumps, all that kind of daredevil stuff – he is, in fact, a class-A nerdo-weirdo. To take just the most glaring example: In his spare time, Brolin likes to write poetry, prose, and plays. Can you imagine? Poetry, prose, and plays! And, truth be told, when it comes to poems, he’s written hundreds of them, if not thousands, starting when he was eight, continuing even through the period he was in a hardcore surf gang called the Cito Rats and dabbled in heroin. And if one subject is at the heart of them all, it’s his mother, the late Jane Agee, who divorced Brolin’s dad, the actor James Brolin, when Josh was 16, crashed into a tree on her son’s 27th birthday, and died the next day. He wrote about her before her death; he’s written about her since her death. She’s on his mind a lot.
“She was a different kind of lady,” he says, the gravel and twang in his voice slowly coming out. “She was very extreme, in every kind of way, and sometimes I’ll write about extreme situations we were in, like us drinking in a church together, or her pulling a gun on some dude. She was a real character. Her maternal force wasn’t typical at all.”
And then he doesn’t say more about her for a good long while.
He’s got other stuff on his mind. Just last night, some wacko kid in Colorado marched into a movie theater and began blasting away, killing 12, injuring 58 (and, in the aftermath, forcing Warner Bros. to push back ‘Gangster Squad’s’ release date so it could come up with an alternative to the existing ending, which featured its own movie-theater massacre). Right now, all Brolin can think about is the tragedy. “I’m just fucking stunned,” he says. “I’m beyond blown away. When I woke up to that, I immediately started crying, and the stresses of my life immediately became irrelevant, meaningless confetti. I mean, fucking Christ.” He pauses, squinting at the sun. “It’s weird, though. I feel a modicum of pain for the perpetrator. What happened to this kid to put him in that position? Is he truly mentally deranged? Was he born that way? Is he a John Wayne Gacy? A Ted Bundy? Is it about abuse? Neglect? An insatiable need for instant gratification? Is it about – you know what I mean? I go through this whole plethora of possibilities.”
That he does, and it seems entirely characteristic of him. He’s intense like that, and curious. He wants to know what’s going on inside, where the normal so often combines with the abnormal to produce the unexpected. He’s had to deal with this in his own life, many times. In 2006, for instance, two weeks before filming started on ‘No Country for Old Men’ – the movie that made him more than just a great character actor – Brolin was zipping around L.A. on his Ducati when he collided with a car, looped through the air, and broke his collarbone, putting himself in the position of having to lie to the Coen brothers about his health in order to keep the job. At the time, his wife, the actress Diane Lane, said to him, “Why do you always make it so difficult for yourself?” as if he brought on the accident himself, like maybe it was no accident at all.
Brolin thinks about this now, the unexpected possibility of that being true. He kind of grimaces. “It does seem that way,” is all he can think to say. And he’s right. For whatever reason, it really does seem that way.
More or less, Brolin bounced around Hollywood for a solid 20 years before becoming what he is today. During that time, he made approximately one good movie, 1996’s ‘Flirting With Disaster,’ in which he plays a bisexual ATF agent who happily engages the luscious interior curves of Patricia Arquette’s armpit with his tongue. He did some decent TV, too, mainly in a western series called ‘The Young Riders,’ from 1989 to 1992. And he had at least two reasonable chances at stardom. Early on, he was offered a part in ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ but didn’t think he could face himself in the mirror if he took the job. Then, in 1986, it was between him and his pal Johnny Depp as to who would get cast in ‘21 Jump Street.’ When Depp answered the call that turned him into a (miserable, depressed, show-hating) ‘Tiger Beat’ sensation, Brolin had to make do as a sidekick on an ill-fated TV series called ‘Private Eye,’ after which came a long string of never-seen movies.
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.
When Brolin isn’t working, what he likes to do most is go surfing. He grew up surfing and was once a pretty decent contest surfer. Sometimes he’ll take out a short board and slash and hack like the kids do, but usually he prefers the classier moves you can do on a longboard, hanging nonchalant on a long right like Miki Dora used to do. Not long ago, he bought a small piece of land in an extremely private and exclusive community up the California coast, just so he could gain access to its fabled point-break rights. “It was a childhood dream to own a place there,” he says, “and that’s where I’ll go by myself and just spend time.” In the L.A. area, he most often frequents Zuma Beach and Malibu, where he’ll hang out with the big dogs at Third Point, often in the company of Jordan Tappis, an ex-pro surfer whose presence in the lineup ensures that Brolin doesn’t get hassled. “Yeah, as long as I’m with him,” says Brolin, “I’m pretty taken care of.”
He also likes to hop in his big black Dodge Ram 4×4, get his “little rat dog Milo” situated on the center console, and spend the next three and a half hours driving north on the I-5, holding his own among all the 18-wheelers and Mack trucks. Along the way, if he’s got ideas for a poem or prose piece, he’ll dictate them into his cellphone. The time passes like nothing. He’s going home. Home is not L.A. He’s got a house there, a very small one on a 6,000-square-foot lot, bought 11 years ago when times weren’t so flush, where he raised his kids, Trevor, 24, and Eden, 19, from an early marriage to actress Alice Adair. It’s where Diane now cooks him her favorite dishes. (“She makes a mean steak and mean mashed potatoes and mean fried chicken.”) But that’s not home. Home is where he’s heading.Chimpanzees, gorillas, coyotes, mountain lions, pumas, cheetahs, wolves, tigers, and at least one bear – these were the kinds of animals that Brolin grew up with, on a 100-acre ranch in Paso Robles, not far from the I-5 on California’s central coast. His mom was a former aspiring actress and casting agent who worked for the state’s Department of Fish and Game and took in rescued, illegally owned wild animals. “She had this uncanny relationship with animals,” says Brolin. “She’d confront these 500-pound silverbacks that would just crumble. Very irresponsibly, she had us do chores around the animals as six-year-olds. But she was like, ‘We’re here for a short time, so let’s do it.’ She was a hard lady. We had five minutes to learn how to read. But I liked who she was and what she represented.”
Brolin’s father was often away making TV shows like ‘Marcus Welby‘ or movies like ‘The Amityville Horror,’ and he seems to have had little influence on the boy. His mom, meanwhile, was thin, short, and restless. She liked to drive. She drove 65,000 miles a year, just because. Sometimes, she’d rouse Josh and his younger brother, Jess, in the middle of the night and say, “Get up! Get in the car!” and they’d leave, for Texas, New Orleans, wherever, with her jawboning on the CB radio using the handle Cat Woman, out on the prowl.
“My mother was a 5-foot-2 Texan with the voice of a bullfrog,” Brolin says later on, laughing. “She was involved in a pyramid scheme, the big 1980 one, and was one of the top five winners. I was 11, maybe 12. At one point, she had 12 pyramids running, and I was the counter. I counted the money as it came in, in bags. The people who lost money in the scheme put her on a hit list. She kept a 9mm on her bedside table.”
Lots of famous people came to hang out at the ranch, mostly country-western singers like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker, and Johnny Cash. Jane didn’t care much for actors or for the acting profession. She thought it was less than manly, which Josh picked up on; for years, when people asked him what he did for a living, he would be embarrassed to say. Even now, after he has been on a roll since 2007, he says odd things like, “I spent many years not rolling. It’s important for me to keep in mind not to have any shame about rolling. Rolling’s OK, you know?”
His parents moved the family to Montecito, near Santa Barbara, when Josh was 11, and got divorced five years later. (He inherited the Paso Robles farm after his mother died, had to sell it during the lean years, and was able to buy it back two years ago.) His father left for L.A., where he eventually married Barbra Streisand, while his mom stayed put. Josh was deeply into the punk scene, had a frosted-tip miles-high Mohawk known as a peacock, played drums in a local garage band, went surfing every morning, and became part of that Cito Rats surf gang, which patrolled the waters at local surf breaks like Dorbo Dunes, Chicken Creek, and Butterfly Beach to keep outsiders away. He got into petty theft. “I stole a lot of radios from cars,” he says, with great lingering pride. “I could pop the deal with a coat hanger real easy. I got very good at it. I can still do it today. I could do it like that.” He snaps his fingers. “What’d I spend the money on? Drums and drugs. What else was there?” For a short while, heroin was the drug of choice. “My friend Mike OD’d many times. I was there once when my buddy had to stick a frozen fish up his ass in order to revive him. Gnarly. Anyway, I was the last guy to get into heroin – I smoked it – and the first to get out. I was around 16 or 17, so it was around the time of ‘The Goonies’. But I liked working and learning, so it was very difficult for me to lend myself to that drug completely.”
In certain ways, he was a strange kid, especially in his younger years. At the age of 12, for instance, he started working at a restaurant and saving what he earned so that he could pay his own way to see a therapist. “I always felt this knot in my stomach, and I wanted to find out what it was,” he says. “People look at me now and go, ‘Oh, you must have been the Tasmanian Devil when you were young.’ Actually, it was the opposite. I was really nice. I shook a lot. I mean, I spent so much time caring how
I was perceived that it made me shake. Oh, I had horrible shakes, horrible. When I would be nervous at all. I still get them sometimes, but I just don’t care anymore.
“I was shy and got scared easily,” he goes on. “It stopped the day these two kids, Danny and Kurt, put wood shavings in my hair during shop class. I remember thinking, ‘If I don’t do anything right now, that’s it, that’s gonna be the rest of my life.’ So I got up and, shakingly, I fought. And I did well. I learned at that point that I had an ability to see what was coming. If somebody threw a punch, things slowed down, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, he doesn’t know he’s doing this’ or ‘He’s a little lost right now. I can get six punches in. I’ve won. I’ve already won.'”
He stretches out and leans forward. “After that, a major switch happened: I started presenting myself as an intimidator. I was a goon.”
And he stayed a goon, getting multiple tattoos to prove it, until he was 20, when he got married, had his two kids, and found himself having to clean up his act to be a good father – and it was an act that
by then had already gotten him into serious trouble.
“When I was 19,” he says, “a fight broke out, and when the police came, I fought the police. I was pretty drunk. To this day, I have no idea what the fight was about.
I woke up in jail. The police were very angry with me. Very angry. They kicked my ass really well. I was looking at a long time in prison. So, basically, I put everything I had – everything I had earned from a TV series I did – into lawyers. I did a little bit of jail time. Not much, but a little bit.”
And how did his mom react?
He laughs and snorts. “My mom would rather have that guy than –”
Than the shivering you?
“Yeah,” he says, his head tilted. “That was kind of the way she grew up. My mom enjoyed my, you know –”
The sun is so brilliant and hot now it’ll put blisters on your skin even if you hide in the shadows. Brolin is wearing sunscreen, 60 or 70 SPF, to keep his skin as pasty as possible, as befits the character in the movie he’s about to shoot, ‘Oldboy,’ a remake of the classic Korean revenge thriller. By tomorrow, however, the right side of his face will look like it took a beating from Mike Tyson, and the pain will be intense, and he will deeply regret all these hours outside. But for now he’s OK. He lights yet another cigarette, and the way he smokes cigarettes, he smokes them all the way down to the filter. There will be no namby-pamby guilt-induced early extinguishing of a cigarette here.
Just then, Brolin’s assistant arrives with a few sandwiches. Brolin digs in, then looks up expectantly, typically curious about what will next come his way – high-brow, low-brow, smart, stupid, ridiculous, he doesn’t really seem to care, even if it’s while he’s eating.
So, how old was he when he lost his virginity? Does he remember the girl’s name?
“I was 11. Her name was Gretel. She was a great girl to lose my virginity to. Really great. And it was right next to Jason, by the way, my best friend, who was with – I can’t remember, I think he was with Teri.”
“Most people are smart, where they go, ‘I’m scared of heights so I don’t go high.’ I’ve always taken phobias and go, ‘I gotta go jump out of an airplane! I have to go bungee jumping!’ It’s just dumb.”
What’s a TV show he and his wife like to watch together?
“‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’. We laugh our asses off. Love it!”
If he were a breakfast cereal, what cereal would he be?
“Oh, my God, how lame a question is that?”
Incredibly lame. What is the central problem of existence?
He takes a long breath. “Getting out of your own way.”
Has he ever been asked to get his teeth whitened?
“Well, it wasn’t necessarily about white teeth. It was the fact that I had this tooth that’d died and turned black. My agent wasn’t happy about it and thought it was one reason why I wasn’t getting roles. He asked me to get it fixed. I refused. And then one day I looked at my fucking tooth in the mirror and decided to get it pulled.”
He frowns, nods. “They had to do with numbers, always had to do with half the number it started out with. One was of a ship, and the ship cracked in half right in the middle, and I woke up freaking out, and I was, you know, a different person for, like, 20 minutes or something.”
And then for a moment there’s nothing left to ask and nothing left to say. There’s only all this stuff out there to think about in the heat: the cracked ship, the different person, the fiendish smoking, all those poems, the 20 years happily spent while not becoming a star, the ‘Thrashin” performance that caused him to skip town, the ‘Fly’ audition with him frothing on the floor, the black tooth that he refused to fix, the shame in being on a roll, the surfing, bungee jumping, and car racing, the Tasmanian Devil reputation, the inability to stay out of his own way, the calling of his current movie “cheese,” the shy, shivering boy of his youth, the teenage goon who smoked heroin, the man who gets down on his knees and has questions about God. That’s a lot to piece together. It hurts the brain. Maybe it’s best not to try to make sense of it and just let it go.
How does he process the fact that his mother’s car crash happened on his birthday?
“Um [long pause], you know [long pause], it, uh [long pause], you know, it’s too [long pause]….” He rocks back, looking stricken, and combs his fingers through his hair. “I mean, the odds, man. What are the fucking odds? It just doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t happen.”
No, it doesn’t. But, sadly, it did.
“My father thinks she was avoiding a deer. But she was a drinker, and she’d pulled a .22 rifle on her boyfriend that night and went after him, and I think she was reaching for her cellphone and overcompensated.”
Did he speak to her that day?
“Yeah, man!” But then he remembers. “I did not speak to her that day. I did not. On my birthday, I always called her and sent her flowers, saying, ‘Thanks for this life.’ I’d sent her flowers that day, but I hadn’t called yet – I was in New York, the day wasn’t over – so she called me and got my answering machine with a trick message on it that was like, ‘Oh, hey, what’s up? I can’t hear you very well. Who is this?’ And she started laughing hysterically. That’s the last I heard from my mom. Four hours later, she was dead.” He shifts around. “Yes, I still have the message. It’s in storage. I put it away after a while, because I was listening to it too much. I adored her. I miss her terribly.”
He grabs his pack of cigarettes and stands.
“For two years after that, I was lost and just spinning,” he says. Clutching that cigarette pack, with his back to the sun, he says, “You know what it is? It all comes down to a look she once gave me. I was in jail, and she came to see me. I was walking down a hallway, and when I got to her, I saw a little smile. That was it. Her love for me was hugely, hugely conditional, so it all comes down to that moment and me spending all my days trying to re-create that moment, putting myself in positions of self-destruction. I succumbed to that. And the truth is, although my mom being around was fantastic, after her death, I didn’t have to live up to that anymore. I was liberated. I matured.”
There it is. He’s said it, and he looks relieved to have said it. So much is made sense of, so much explained, although his liberated-and-matured declaration seems perhaps more hopeful than accurate, given that 18 years after his mom’s death, while he’s no longer stealing radios and getting arrested for brawling with cops for no good reason, he’s still doing stuff like riding his motorcycle into a collision two weeks before starting the most important job of his life and having his wife say to him, “Why do you always make it so hard for yourself?” It’s the word “always” in that question that brings it all home, as if Cat Woman lives and somewhere she is still on the prowl.