If you’re looking for the classic outsider on the inside, a study in friction, then Josh Brolin’s your man. He is the child of privilege who trails a rough and tumble history; the self-critical nerd in the body of a jock; a 21st-century movie star who is out of joint with his time. When I walk in the room, he is slouched on the couch, leafing through a magazine spread of pictures from the sets of the original Star Wars films. Brolin marvels at antique black-and-white shots of members of the cast and crew; he can barely tear himself free. “Ah, there they are,” he says. “All drunk and coked up.”
Brolin turned 46 last month, although, the way he tells it, he’s still growing into his talents, still acting his way towards being a better person – and possibly a better actor as well. In this regard he’s a little like Frank, a violent fugitive who casts himself wildly against type in the role of a loving surrogate dad. Frank, it seems, has barely bust out of jail when he starts romancing Kate Winslet’s depressed single mother and playing baseball with her hothoused adolescent son (Gattlin Griffith). He’s the ultimate husband material; the home invader with a heart of gold. The whole thing is rather hokey. If ever there were a movie to make you want to invite an escaped killer to your house, then Labor Day is it.
Brolin explains that he took the role because it was a challenge. He liked the tension; the sense that the story could go one of two ways. Is Frank the real deal or is he talking metaphorical cobblers? It was important, the actor claims, to make Frank initially seem as menacing as possible. He fought with the producers until they let him grow a goatee.
“For some reason, my face, when I have a goatee, is pretty fucking scary,” he drawls. “Even just in my life, I can see how it affects people.” He rolls up his sleeves. “I mean, I don’t have tattoos any more. I used to have a lot of tattoos. And I remember being in business meetings with these dumb jailhouse tattoos and I would see how people reacted. They were always very freaked out.” In the end, he says, they began to freak him out too. It’s not just Frank who is in flight from his past.
He was raised in California, the son of actor James Brolin and wildlife activist Jane Cameron; a Hollywood brat with so many options that they dazzled him senseless. By his middle teens, he was juggling acting roles in family fare such as The Goonies with his membership of a surf gang called the Cito Rats, although he insists it was never really a gang, more a band of buddies who looked out for each other. “It was Santa Barbara,” he shrugs. “It was the 80s. It was punk rock. You either had the children of rich, neglectful parents or children of poor, neglectful parents, so it was a mix. But we basically grew up the same way. I’ve never seen a group like that before or since.”
The Rats were hardly the Crips, but they weren’t the Goonies either. Brolin robbed cars to buy drugs and ran in and out of trouble. “I tried heroin,” he says. “That sounds so horrible when you put it like that. But yeah, I tried heroin. I mean, I never got into it and I never died from it, which is a good thing. I’ve had 19 friends who died. Most of those guys I grew up with, they’re all dead now.”
Heroin, he concluded, was not for him. It was a meaningless experience; it brought nothing to the table. “I used to think you should try to deconstruct everything. Experience everything. Just get yourself out there. But I don’t believe that any more. Having adventures is all very well, but an imagination can make up for all that. That’s the more intelligent way to be. And it keeps you out of harm’s way.”
Labor Day, adapted by Jason Reitman from the Joyce Maynard novel, plays out over a holiday weekend in the late 1980s, in an era before iPhones and CCTV, when wanted criminals could lie low in the suburbs and the only surveillance was a nosy neighbour. It’s the first Monday in September, 1987. I wonder what, exactly, Brolin was doing at the time.
He casts his mind back. “I was acting in a TV series called Private Eye. And I was getting ready to have my first kid. And everyone told me I shouldn’t.” A shake of the head. “Well, I was an idiot. A 19-year-old guy riding on a Harley-Davidson, so embarrassingly dumb. But she got pregnant and that’s what happened.”
He’s making it sound like a kitchen-sink drama. “No, no, it was good,” Brolin says. “She [Alice Adair] was the mother of my children. I’m still best friends with her. I ended up having two amazing kids, so it turned out OK. No, that was a good year. That was my favourite year. It was the year my whole life changed. I had kids and I started doing theatre.”
He insists that the problem back then was that he was a C-minus actor. He had no nuance, no depth and no innate natural skill. He was blundering from gig to gig. He was sick of playing the jock; his career was in a rut. Most of the time he wasn’t getting work anyway.
“I’m an insecure guy,” he says. “Skittish and scared. There’s this woman, Meryl Poster, who worked at Miramax. She told me later: ‘You and Benicio Del Toro were the worst auditioners we ever experienced. In all the thousands we saw. By far.'” He chuckles at the memory. “Any actor I became was completely and totally learned from doing a lot of really, really bad acting. Which still happens, incidentally. Every time I shoot a film I have to feel my way into the part. I have to learn to do less. The more affectations I have, the more I can hide. The more free I feel because it’s not coming from me.”
In his 20s, he briefly considered calling it quits. He began trading on the markets and discovered a talent. He learned the charts and the algorithms and interpreted their peaks and troughs as signs of fear and greed. “So it wasn’t a chart I was looking at, it was people reacting. Fear and greed, that’s all that there is. And I traded very specifically. I found momentum stocks that had room to breathe and I just grab a little of the breath.” He traded full-time for a three year spell and apparently made a bundle.
Then, out of the blue, the screen work picked up. In 1996 Brolin was cast as the bixsexual ATF agent in David O Russell’s gorgeous, freewheeling Flirting With Disaster, improvising the scene where he licks Patricia Arquette’s armpit. Since then he has gone on to star in the likes of American Gangster and True Grit, Gangster Squad and Men in Black 3. He played a swaggering George Bush in Oliver Stone’s W and picked up an Oscar nomination for his turn as a stuffed-shirt killer in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. I think I still relish him the most as taciturn Llewelyn Moss, the imperilled cowpoke who is sent scuttling between the motels and Main Street in the Coen brothers’ electrifying No Country for Old Men. Somewhere along the way he learned to love acting. And acting, in turn, learned to love him right back.
All of which is well and good. But from time to time, he backslides; the old life reclaims him. Brolin reportedly spent the early hours of 2013 in a Santa Monica jail after being arrested on the street for public intoxication. Just one month later, his nine year marriage to actor Diane Lane irretrievably broke down. If 1987 was his heaven, then 2013 proved hell. The whole year served as a wake-up call.
“Well, it was another turning point,” he concedes. “It made me think of a lot of things. My mum dying when I was in my 20s. All the impact that had on me that I hadn’t moved past; I was always such a momma’s boy. But I realised that I was on a destructive path. I knew that I had to change and mature. It was like I stepped back and saw the hamster wheel.”
These days, it seems, he is clean and straight and enjoying his life. Brolin recently completed work on Inherent Vice, a black comedy from director Paul Thomas Anderson, who made Magnolia and The Master. It’s a film that reunites him with Del Toro, his onetime rival from the Hollywood dunce class. “Yeah, well,” he says, with a wolfish grin. “We did a lot of bad acting on this movie as well.”
Labor Day is at its most knotty and involving when it focuses on Frank, a man who dearly wants to be the thing he’s not and who gropes for a life that is just out of reach. Brolin, I think, can relate to that struggle. He is still insecure, he explains, but he has come to accept it. The bad acting is necessary; it’s simply part of the process. On top of that, his job is rewarding, so he can’t really complain.
“Take all this, for instance,” he says, waving his arm to incorporate me, the dictaphone, the entire press junket. “Some actors will say it’s the worst part of the job. But no, it’s not, it’s interesting. I mean, I’m sitting here talking about me-me-me, which gets a little tiresome. But after you leave I’ll sit here and think about all the stuff that I said. And then I’ll wonder how much of it is true.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010