Opening this weekend is director Ruben Fleischer’s (Zombieland) Gangster Squad. The movie is set in 1940s Los Angeles and stars Sean Penn as real-life gangster Mickey Cohen, who became the target of special task force known as the “Gangster Squad” made up of Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Peña, and Robert Patrick. The film also stars Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, and Mireille Enos. For more on the film, be sure to check out our set visit coverage here, and watch six clips.
During the recent Los Angeles press day, I landed an exclusive interview with Josh Brolin. During our wide ranging conversation we talked about what the last few years have been like as he’s been in some high profile movies, how he got involved in Gangster Squad, what changed on set, future projects like Spike Lee’s Oldboy, Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sean Penn’s Crazy for the Storm, Pitz and Joe, Under and Alone, a possible project with Jessica Chastain, and a lot more. Hit the jump to read.
Josh Brolin: I did, already started gaining weight.
I was going to say, does it feel good to be done with that?
Brolin: It does, it does. I had one of, and I’m not kidding, one of the best time’s I’ve ever had on a movie set, ever. Labor Day was an amazing shoot for me for very different reasons. Not only did I- I’m not going say hate, I did not have a good experience during Jonah Hex in New Orleans. I was staying down in the Quarter, which was a massive mistake that I made. And now I’m staying on Magazine Street. I was in the Garden District; I fucking fell in love with New Orleans. I absolutely feel deeply in love with Spike [Lee], I feel in love with Sean Bobbitt, the DP, who did Shame and Hunger, fell in love with him. Fell in love with Lizzie Olson, thought ultimately that if it’s edited together, which I’ll be a part of later, if it’s edited together even close to what the experience was, it will be really good. It should be really good.
I have so many more questions on that, but I’m going to jump into other things first.
Brolin: Yeah, totally.
I went to New Orleans before seeing Treme and I thought one thing of the city, and after watching Treme I now have a whole different appreciation -
Brolin: Whole different perspective right?
-and I love it down there.
Brolin: Yeah, I love it down there.
Brolin: Totally; whole different mentality.
You’ve been acting since basically The Goonies.
So a long time ago.
Brolin: Long time.
But it seems to me within the last few years you’ve really landed some juicy parts, especially the last four or five years.
Brolin: On film.
Brolin: I landed juicy parts before that in theater, but never, not never, but seldom in film. Like Flirting with Disaster, I thought that was a really nice part to be able to fuck around with and stuff like that, but it was very random and it didn’t come often. Yes, I agree.
The last few years-
Brolin: Six years.
Have seen a spike in high-profile projects, if you will.
Brolin: And great directors.
That too. What’s it been like for you in terms of like working in theater, paying your dues, and all the sudden being able to work at this high level of Hollywood?
Brolin: I never saw it as paying my dues; I was just a blue-collar actor who was working for a mortgage and to put his kids through school. People imagine that because my dad was really successful early on that we were in a situation where, “Oh, your dad can give you money, your dad can do this, your dad can do that.” My dad was on a one-bedroom apartment down in Pacific Palisades with fucking magazine articles all over the place, all over the floor, 150 vitamin bottles in the kitchen, losing his mind basically. So we were all not down and out, but we were all struggling for the next job. “What job are you going to do? What job are you going to do?” “I don’t know. I haven’t worked for a year.” I think the longest I went without working was sixteen months. So when Grindhouse and No Country for Old Men happened just because of working with those people then Ridley Scott said “Oh, who’s Josh? I know he’s been around for a long time.” Or he doesn’t know who I am, never heard my name, said, “We have this part, would he be good in it?” O.K. I’ll audition for that. Then you get American Gangster and In The Valley of Elah because I’m friends with Paul [Haggis] and he said, “Can you do this little part for me? Great.” And then things start to change and the biggest thing for me is how do I elongate what can very easily be a flash? I think that was my biggest- it was like look, I don’t care how any one of these films do, there’s a perception right now, there’s an interest right now how do I elongate that as much as possible? And I remember my agent and I, thank god for him, man. He’s probably the only agent that any actor can say that about. He’s the greatest human being who has truly kept his sensibilities.
You should drop his name.
Brolin: Michael Cooper, CAA. We just had a talk the other day and he’s in the same mentality that he was before I did Grindhouse. It’s just like, “Good projects are going to be the only thing that matters, money will come, you don’t have to make the most money, we’re really fortunate right now making any money doing the projects we love that resonate the most.” So what do I do now? Do I try to find a money gig? Or, you know, there are a couple of filmmakers that have come out of the woodwork right now who are amazing filmmakers like “Do you want to this? It’s not going to pay a lot.” And I read the movies and these are just great movies, they’re just great movies. You know they’re going to be great movies, you know they’re going to be directed well, they may not be huge hits, or they may be. No Country shouldn’t have been a huge hit and it was. It’s the biggest movie I did to date. Or True Grit, that wasn’t going to be a huge hit, who wants to fucking see a western where you can’t understand anybody in the whole thing? And then suddenly it makes twice as much as No Country.
That’s just a damn good movie.
Brolin: It’s just a really good movie. When you’re with good filmmakers who don’t get it right every time, but the ratio and the possibility and the probability factor of them making a decent film that is not pandering, that still has a lot of integrity and yet is still a really fun, interesting or great story to be able to ride on is the best bet for us.
Jumping into Gangster Squad, the reason I get to talk to you today, what was it about that project that pulled you in? Was it the crazy cast that you guys assembled? Was it the script? What was the thing?
Brolin: The cast wasn’t assembled until later. [Jeff] Robinov came to me when I was making Men in Black 3 about playing Mickey Cohen, and I was like, “Really? Alright.” And then I got together with Christian Tinsley, my makeup guy that I use often, and who did Oldboy, he did W, he did a lot of these movies that I’ve done and will do Hunchback of Notre Dame and all this stuff. So we did a couple tests of me as Mickey Cohen and I ended up looking kind of like Oliver Stone. I don’t know how, but I was like, “Well, I look like Oliver.” And then I just said, “You know what? It’s a great part, it sounds like a lot of fun, I just don’t buy it. I just don’t buy it ultimately, and if I don’t buy it nobody else is going to buy it. So I think we should go to Sean and figure out what he needs and wants and let’s give it to him, because I think he’s going to kill this part.” So Sean doing it, finally getting him to do it I think was a huge factor. I like the fact that it honored LA, that it was an homage to LA. That was huge as a seventh generation Californian. I have massive pride around Los Angeles and especially California. And that was the biggest thing, and then Ryan was involved which was a factor. Then we started putting together the gang, and who is going to be? Is it going to be Anthony Mackie? Is it going to be Giovanni Ribisi? That’s my fourth movie I’ve done with him. Then you start to go, “This works, I like this.” And then you always know at least for the first time in my life, if I don’t love it I can pull out as were putting it together before real pre-production starts. It’s just like look, I know I want to work with the studio, I love this studio, Jeff Robinov and I have a great relationship, but is this really what we want to do? Let’s maybe find something else, let’s maybe develop something else. O.K. Let’s do that. This just seemed- every step of the way seemed like a right step. Ultimately, I think we had to much dialogue for me, expositional bullshit dialogue that we ended up cutting out and making him a little more laconic and a little more Eastwood-esque, which I think was absolutely appropriate and was a great balance with Sean. He’s kind of up here doing his thing and then Ryan who’s doing his kind of idiosyncratic thing and it’s a great triangle of characters.; none representing the other at all.
Brolin: No, no, no. Definitely not, no. Mostly mine, mostly my expositional dialogue that I just couldn’t stand. I couldn’t stand saying it, I couldn’t stand doing it, and I couldn’t stand it when I saw it. I think all of us were like, it’s un-needed. The movie’s showing you what happened. We’re not doing a TV series, we’re doing a film. People have intelligence; they can see what’s going on. I don’t think we have to say more than twice or three times “We’re going to go down the street, if we make a right turn and somebody shoots at you don’t forget to shoot back. You can protect yourself here. Come on let’s move, let’s go!” It’s just like, dude, shut up.
Sometimes less is more. That’s true in almost everything.
Brolin: I think almost everything. And then if you have a character within that less is more genre, or tone of the film, then you can have people like Sean who is like doing his thing, which I think is great, is needed in order to better motivate that story.
Jumping into Labor Day for a second, what was that experience like?
Can you talk a little bit about the film? Who do you play? All that stuff.
Brolin: I play a guy, right before he gets out, during an appendectomy actually jumps out of the second story window of a prison hospital and escapes and kidnaps a woman and her son and they end up having a relationship over the five days that he’s with them.
Brolin: No, no this is very, very different. I actually see the movie on Tuesday, I believe. I see the first cut of the movie on Tuesday, which I know several people have seen it, they’re very happy with it. I know he’s very happy with it. I know it’s tonally very different for him and I’m excited man. I’m nervous, but I’m excited. It’s hard to talk about Oldboy where he’s got twenty years in prison, then you’ve got this guy’s got eighteen years in prison and you’re like, “Oh, I’m that guy?” But they’re very, very, very different; very different.
I’ve actually liked all of Jason’s films.
Brolin: Yeah, me too.
I really have. I think he’s a very talented filmmaker.
I definitely want to address Oldboy real quick. Obviously I don’t want to have you give away too much; I don’t want to spoil anything for people, but I think a lot of people want to hear that this is not some watered down version of this great story.
Brolin: Definitely not. There’s this whole idea, which I don’t like and I don’t appreciate, I don’t even like talking to people about, “Hollywood is this. Hollywood does this. Hollywood waters down.” It really depends on who the filmmakers are, it depends who the actors are and how much control they have, or not even control, how much influence they have over the final cut of something and all that. And it was like, look, I’m not going to do a movie that is watered down. I’m just not. [Gangster Squad] is a watered down movie of sorts, this is more of a commercial, fun rollercoaster, not a lot of consequence or that kind of thing. It is what it is. It’s within the genre that it’s in and tonally what we’ve created.
With Oldboy, look, it’s Spike Lee, its myself, the DP Sean Bobbitt, who’s a fucking amazing man and me talking, like I said, to Chan-wook Park and saying, “Do you mind if we do this?” and his only request was just don’t do the same movie and it’s like no were not interested in that. Structurally, as a scaffolding, it’s the same movie, but what we do with is very different. It looks very different. Spike, about two and a half weeks into the movie cut together this four minute compilation just for me to look at. Not that I needed it, not that I felt like I’m lost, I don’t know what I’m doing. He just gave it to me and said, “Don’t look at this until you get home.” And I watched this four minute compilation and it looked fantastic. It was a massive, massive inspiration. We were out of the motel room at that point, so I didn’t have to do that anymore. But we spent more time in the motel room. We did eight minute to eleven minute long takes where he would just let me go and do whatever. I’d be sitting there naked in the room and he would say, “You’ve been in the room thirteen years; go.” And I would do eight minutes on that and whatever would come up. Some of it was really stupid and unusable. Some of it was really fun and interesting.
Brolin: I don’t either.
And I’m not-
Brolin: No, you’re not one of those where it’s- which I don’t understand also, “Why would you remake the film?” Just don’t see it if you don’t like it, if you don’t want to see a remake of the film. Why do another Star Wars? Why do three more? The first three are amazing. Why do the second one when the first one was great? Why do a remake? Who cares?
My attitude, and I’ve said this many times to many people, as long you make a good movie that’s all that fucking matter.
Brolin: That’s all that fucking matters.
Brolin: And you can choose to see it or not to see it.
And also a lot of people don’t realize that like 99.9% of the people that are going to see Spike Lee’s Oldboy, will have never seen the first one.
Brolin: Absolutely. So thank god it’s out there as a story as some kind of like mythological, or Shakespearean, or Greek story. Why not?
Brolin: An octopus is involved.
Brolin: I’ll say that. I’ll say that. In what way, I won’t say.
Sure and my other question for you is, there are some great action scenes in the original Oldboy that-
Brolin: Ours are amazing.
One of the things I love about the original Oldboy is the very long takes with action.
Brolin: I remember talking about this with you before.
Right exactly, but my question for you, without giving away too much do you guys match some of that?
Brolin: We don’t match anything. The only matching is that we do it in one take. That’s the only matching. That’s the only similarity. Well, no, there’s one more similarity, but it’s basically the only similarity within that sequence and I think I can be safe to say that it’s not anything like the original other than it is one take and I’ve never experienced or seen anything like it. And I think what J.J. Perry did as the fight coordinator is something phenomenal. I will say this, I thought there is no way I could possibly pull it off until about a week before we did it after rehearsing it for quite a while.
I’ve heard some fight scenes that are like 114 moves, or 180 moves, which is fucking bananas to me.
Brolin: Somewhere in between.
Yeah, so you’re on that level, that’s unbelievable.
Brolin: Somewhere in between, somewhere in between. I haven’t actually counted, it could be more than that, it could be less, I don’t know. But I do know that it was a lot and I do know that I’m still suffering consequences because of it.
I just interviewed Jason Clarke and he told me that he broke two ribs and hurt his ankle on White House Down fighting Channing [Tatum] My next question for you, you’ve been doing all this stuff up to this point; 2013 is just about to open, what are you thinking about for next year in terms of projects that want to do?
Brolin: There are a lot of projects, especially my relationship with warner brothers is pretty close, with Jeff Robinov and all that. We have Hunchback of Notre Dame with them that were closer and closer with. We have Crazy for the Storm that Sean’s going to direct with, which looks like it will probably go in the summer. We Pitz and Joe which is a play that I adapted and Maya Forbes helped me adapt, I’m going to direct and act in. We have that. We have a documentary on Dean Potter that I’m producing. We have Under and Alone as a possibility, which is about the Mongols motorcycle gang. We have Tammy Wynette and George Jones’s story possibly with Jessica Chastain and me. All those are stuff that I’m developing.
It’s just a question of which script-
Brolin: It’s just which one reaches its peak or is doable enough whenever it’s doable enough.
I definitely have to ask you, you obviously were a part of Jonah Hex, but the comic book movie right now is bigger than it’s ever been. Avengers doing a billion dollars, Dark Knight Rises, a billion. It’s preposterous how big these things are.
Brolin: Oh, yeah, yeah.
You have a great relationship with Warner Brothers, they’re going to do Justice League for 2015, have had any sort of conversation about being a part of that?
Brolin: No. We’ve got other conversations and if that conversation comes up I’ll have a conversation with anybody about anything. There’s nothing that I don’t like. Somebody said recently that I’m not a big-budget guy.
Gangster Squad has some money in it.
Brolin: Gangster Squad has money, I don’t care if it has money or not. All I want to do is keep switching it up, that’s all I care about. So whether I do a big movie or a smaller movie, there are bigger movies that I’ve turned down just because I didn’t feel like- I said, “Look, I’ll be the first person to see this movie I just don’t want to be in it. I don’t want to spend the next six, eight months doing something that I get to show up and have the biggest trailer and do green screen do that.” Whereas Men in Black I was totally willing to do that because it’s a great character, and it’s a very difficult character.
Well you also said something at the beginning of this conversation which is important and it’s true, and I’ve talked to a lot of different actors about this that the most important thing for the longevity of a career is doing good movies.
Brolin: That’s it.
You can get, as you’ve said, a big paycheck for doing some summer movie that in two years everybody’s forgotten about, but if you ended up doing a great project that’s seen by the right filmmakers-
Brolin: You said in the beginning, “You’ve been doing this a long time, since you were sixteen.” I’ve seen so many people come and go. I’ve seen so many people. They’re it, they’re like the next thing, and then I’ve seen them go away. Then I’ve seen some people have resurgence then they go away and you never see them again. I’ve seen moments where you have two movies and it’s like they’re going to be there for the next ten years and then you don’t see them again and you’re like, “What the fuck happened?” I have no interest in any of that.