Third time lucky
Despite his showbiz pedigree, for years, Men in Black 3 star Josh Brolin’s acting career floundered. ‘Acting never seemed all that glamorous to me,’ he tells TARA BRADY
IT’S A GOOD thing that Josh Brolin – actor, rancher and algorithm designer – knows a thing or two about maths. The latest movie in the Men In Black sequence is, to borrow some Sesame Street jargon, brought to you by the number three. The third picture from a franchise inspired by Lowell Cunningham’s larky comic books arrives in (surprisingly purposeful) 3D. Following on from No Country for Old Men and In the Valley of Elah, MIB3 is Brolin’s third film with Tommy Lee Jones and the third time the actors never actually share screen time.
What gives? How can two people make that many films together without doing a single scene together? “I don’t know,” says Brolin. “We get along pretty well. We’ve gone out a couple of times. I really like the guy. I really want to work with him. It’s a strange anomaly. I don’t understand how it’s happened. It’s weird.”
It’s just as well they get along. Preparing for his role as the younger, late-60s vintage Agent K, Brolin spent many hours watching the senior thespian.
“I studied him. Most of it was meaningless but I still did it,” says Brolin. “I looked at a lot of interviews and I looked at a lot of his early films – The Eyes of Laura Mars, Executioner’s Song, Rolling Thunder – I wanted to remind people that there had to be a younger, more agile, romantic K before he became Tommy.”
Brolin has known the franchise since he brought the kids to see the first MIB film some 15 years ago. He’s always loved sci-fi. As a kid, The Outer Limits and Lost in Space were on his TV; Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury were on the bookshelf.
“The Martial Chronicles and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 hit me like nothing else,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe someone had come up with this stuff.”
MIB, nonetheless, occupies a special place in his heart as the film (along with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) that scored the most repeat viewings among the younger Brolins. They ought to have been thrilled with dad’s latest movie. But, at 44, Josh Brolin is already a victim of Empty Nest Syndrome.
“It’s wild. They’re 24, 18 and 19 and they all left home within two weeks of each other. My son left to go teach in Bangkok. My two girls left California for New York. It’s completely weird. I don’t remember an adult life without kids. I was a kid then I had kids. My wife and I are looking at each other going ‘So . . . What now? How do we fill the time?”
Josh Brolin ought to be Mr Hollywood. His showbiz pedigree is impeccable: his dad is James Brolin, his stepmom is Barbara Streisand; his missus is Diane Lane. His career highlights extend back to 1985’s The Goonies, a movie he appeared in at the age of 17. He was once – a true celebrity badge of honour, this – engaged to Minnie Driver for six months. The credentials are in place and yet Brolin could hardly be less Hollywood.
“We grew up on a farm, far away from the whole epicentre of my dad’s career,” says Brolin. “His job never seemed all that glamorous to me. We struggled. My parents were all over the place in monetary terms. It never looked like a secure job. But when the bug bites . . .”
Born in 1968 to soap superstar James and the late animal activist Jane Cameron Agee, Josh Brolin knew all about mucking in and mucking out from an early age.
“My mom ran a wildlife station,” recalls the actor. “She’d find people who had taken animals illegally out of the wild, and have them prosecuted and jailed. In the meantime, we’d look after the animals.
“We had coyotes, wolves, chimpanzees, and a lot of mountain lions for some reason. My brother and I had to take care of all those guys. We were up at 5.30 every morning.”
He was, from the beginning, torn between his duties with exotic livestock and an enduring love of film.
“The first film that my dad brought me to that had a big influence was Apocalypse Now – that was probably totally irresponsible of him – taking a 10-year-old. And I saw The Blob when I was four and that was just plain wrong. I was completely obsessed with the French-Canadian film Léolo when I was younger. And like most of the people I know I loved the great 70s films — I loved Dog Day Afternoon, Woman Under the Influence. I love going to the cinema by myself.”
A habit formed from too many family outings to animated fare? “Oh hell, no. I love animation. The Iron Giant is in my top 10 films of all time. I have never cried so hard in all my life. I bawled. The film I most want to see right now is The Lorax. But I’m such a massive Dr Seuss fan I’m frightened to see it.”
Because you’ll cry or because they might have messed it up? “Both. It’s a lose-lose movie for me either way.”
Today he’s spruced up for promotional duties in a cream suit and sporting a beard he’s grown for Jason Reitman’s forthcoming thriller, Labor Day. Even in swanky threads he retains a cowhand tan and repeatedly slips into endearing “hey man” Lebowski rhythms. He lives on a ranch just a few miles from the one where he grew up. A whiz day trader, he earns money independently from stocks and algorithms. “Tell me something,” he says. “Who tells your gender that they can’t do math? Because the most brilliant math people out there are female.
“I’ve traded with a lot of amazing girls. And then I hear ‘Oh, I’m a girl: I’m not good with numbers’. And it’s awful. Who programmes this idea into women?”
He loves trading and his interest stems from a time when he was a jobbing actor. Folk songs and online blurbs tell us that Brolin went into semi-retirement after his debut in The Goonies: that he was so horrified by his performance in the 1986 skate movie Thrashin’ that he decided to look elsewhere. The truth, he laughs, is rather more pedestrian: “I didn’t go anywhere: you all did. And that’s okay. I was a blue-collar working actor for twenty-something years. I took a year off to do landscaping and no one noticed.
“I was making movies that – at best – you might call arthouse films. If they made two million dollars I’d be like ‘Yes! Alright!’”
In 2007, all those years of graft seemed to coalesce into something like an overnight sensation. A run of films that included the Coens’ No Country for Old Men and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster propelled Brolin into the limelight. Within the year, Gus van Sant’s Milk had earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
“I was Sean’s suggestion for Milk because Matt Damon had some scheduling problems and couldn’t do it,” shrugs Brolin modestly. “We just got along right away.”
It’s an intense movie about intense people. Did the shoot feel like heavy weather? “No. We get into it for sure, when it comes right down to it. But the only guy I know that doesn’t go home at the end of the day is Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s extraordinarily disciplined. And he’s just the nicest guy too.”
Brolin is commendably complimentary about most of his fellow professionals. Sean Penn is “sweet”. Michael Fassbender is “a great buddy”. MIB3 co-star Will Smith is a phenomenon: “When he rapped he won the first-ever Grammy for rapping. When he started on TV in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air it was the biggest show of the day. He starts in movies with great reviews for Six Degrees of Separation and then the biggest grossing movie of all time.”
The movie stars Brolin is usually lumped in with include John Wayne, Gary Cooper and, unsurprisingly, Tommy Lee Jones. Why do people see him as a continuation of the old, old school? “I have no idea,” he shrugs. “It’s way too subjective a thing for me to understand. Is it an alpha thing maybe? Or an Americana thing? They didn’t used to mention those names. They’ve only started saying them since I started appearing in movies that are actually seen.”
One wonders why Oliver Stone choose such a nice guy to play George W Bush in the criminally underrated W. One wonders too why Stone insisted there were similarities between Brolin and the former commander-in-chief. “Was it flattering? No. I don’t think he meant it literally. At least I hope not,” says Brolin.
“I guess I’m a ‘call a spade a spade’ kind of guy. And I think Oliver meant it that way. George Bush figured out the most brilliant thing: how to exploit the bucolic side of himself. The quote I heard over and over and over again was I could imagine having a beer with that guy.”
Was he disappointed by the film’s performance? “The timing was a problem. But for me, well I got to work with Oliver Stone and I got to play a guy from like aged 21 to 59. It was an incredible challenge.
“This was definitely the best version to do. If I wanted an Iron Fist version I could have watched CNN. And it’s the film people ask me about the most now.”
And both he and Bush are in ranching.
“Now see here. When you grow up with 65 horses to take care of you don’t say ‘in ranching’. That just makes you sound like an urbanite.” In equestrianism then . . .
“You just said that one on purpose. I ride horses. That what you mean?”