Although he’s made more than two dozen features since his debut in The Goonies (1985), Josh Brolin has distinguished himself mostly by appearing in the worst movies of great directors: Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic. True, he did make a brief splash as a bisexual federal agent obsessed with licking women’s armpits in David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster. But that didn’t turn out to be the breakthrough you might imagine.
All this could change now that Brolin is appearing in a slew of high-profile movies. Probably the hottest is the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller No Country for Old Men, in which he plays a leathery Texan who comes across a suitcase full of drug money but must then contend with a sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) and a hitman (Javier Bardem). When he arrives in Boston to promote the film, our conversation begins somewhat inauspiciously. He asks, “Didn’t I just see you a minute ago downstairs looking wide-eyed?” I’ve just bumped into him in the hotel lobby, and apparently I gawked like a star-struck rube. So my first question is more of an answer . . .
Yes. I was confused. But you must be used to people staring.
Not really. Not unless someone is picking a fight.
Not me! But surely people must recognize you with, what, four movies out . . .
Five. Grindhouse, The Dead Girl, [In the Valley of] Elah, American Gangster, and this.
So is this the breakout year people keep saying it is?
Does that annoy you?
It doesn’t annoy me. But I would never want to negate the amount of work that I’ve done before, you know? But these movies are being seen. That may be the difference. And they’re by established, iconoclastic filmmakers, you know? You have Ridley Scott and the Coens.
Enigmatic, aren’t they, the Coens? Putting people on?
They don’t really put people on, no.
What about the article in Esquire in which they claimed they thought they had hired your father James and were shocked when you showed up?
Well that’s me and Ethan, you know. That’s just us having a good time together. A lot of people believed that article, which is kind of phenomenal. But that’s okay — it got a lot of press.
So your last thoughts as you were flying through the air after you crashed your motorcycle were: “I missed my chance to be in that Coen brothers movie”?
Exactly. It was right after I got the role, and I was going from one wardrobe fitting to the other, and the car was just there. I’ve never been in a street accident ever — a lot of dirt-bike accidents, but never a street accident. And I fancy myself as someone who can get out of that stuff pretty quick. I could do nothing. The skid mark was like that long. I was just very pleased to hit the top of the car. I probably would have broken both my legs. [He broke his collarbone.]
What was your hang time?
I would imagine a good four seconds. One, two, three, four. I was in the air for about four seconds. I was in the air for a long time, man. I hit — I heard the snap. I was starting to go into shock at that point. They wanted me to apologize to the woman, which I didn’t really understand. I just wanted to fight. The whole thing was fucking weird. The driver said it was my fault! You’ve got to be insane! How could it be my fault? I was going in a straight line and you turned in front of me.
Actually, this might have been good preparation for your role, because the film is kind of like trying to cheat death.
You know, with the Javier Bardem character as death. What? You’ve got this, like, glum look on your face.
No, no, I agree with you. I haven’t heard that one, actually. Cheat death. Yeah, I think that’s good.
So you drew on that experience for your character?
Not in the least.
The Coen brothers show most of the violence off screen in this movie. Meanwhile, you just came from [Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s] Grindhouse, where the violence is in your face.
Yeah, but it’s so gratuitous and ridiculous in Grindhouse. And that was the point — it’s an homage to that kind of ridiculous Bozo the Clown violence. This is much more Hitchcockian. You look back and you think you’ve seen something with so much more violence than you actually have. The violence is unnerving and painful and awful; it’s not empowering in any way.
Some of the key moments are off screen.
Well, that’s the way it happens. I think that’s why this is unique, because it happens like it really happens. My mother hit a tree; she was just dead. One moment I was talking to her and the next minute I could never talk to her again. I have never seen that in film before, where it just happens. That’s it — everything changes.