Josh Brolin may still be best known for his roles in “The Young Riders” and “The Goonies,” but that’s likely to change with his extraordinary double play this fall, first as the corrupt cop in “American Gangster” and now as Llewelyn Moss, the lanky, laconic Texan who’s the antihero in Joel and Ethan Coen’s remarkable adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.” Either part would have taken the actor to a new level; together they put him in the stratosphere.
In a recent Dallas interview, Brolin—the son of James, known for both “Marcus Welby M.D.” and his long relationship with Barbra Streisand—proved a jokester, as he demonstrated when asked how he gotten the plum role in “Country.”
“The Coens had been big fans since ‘The Goonies,’” he said, “and they had offered me ‘The Big Lebowski,’ they’d offered me ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ And I was never really a large fan. I mean, I liked their movies, but I never really understood them. No, I’m just bullshitting you!
“Let’s see, it started off when Sam Shepard told me about the book when I was in Austin. I read the book, I loved the book, I thought it was amazing. But I didn’t even think about a movie, or how I’d love to play that part. And it kind of read like a screenplay—it’s very visual and very cinematically written.
“And then Skeet Ulrich told me about it a couple of weeks later. And I called my agent and I said, what about it? And he said yeah, we’ve got a couple of scenes. But you can’t leave Austin because you’re doing this movie [‘Grindhouse’]. I’ve known Robert [Rodriguez] for a long time and I said, would you put me on tape? Just take your little video camera and put me on tape? And he said, why don’t we just use the camera we have—which was a $950,000 Genesis? So we used one of our set-ups, and Marley Shelton, who played my wife in ‘Grindhouse,’ played Carla Jean, and Quentin [Tarantino] directed me, and Robert shot it. It was probably the greatest-looking audition tape in the history of audition tapes. And they [the Coens] saw it, and their response was, ‘Who lit it?’ They thought it was beautifully lit. And they weren’t interested. They thought I did a great job, but they didn’t know what they wanted. From what I found out later, it was a very tough, very anxious process for them, because they thought it was going to be very easy to cast this character, and it turned out to be very difficult.
“I have a great agent, and he just kept pestering them. And the last meeting that they had, they called me in. I got the call at nine o’clock, got the scenes at ten o’clock, studied until one, got in the car at six or seven the next morning, was very focused, didn’t want to talk to anybody except for them. Met them, they gave me zero response, and a left, saying I was so glad I got to meet the Coens and probably won’t ever again. Then they called me.”
But still things nearly didn’t work out. “Two days later,” Brolin recalled, “I hit a car on my motorcycle and snapped my collarbone in half, and then that became the new drama. There was a possibility that I wasn’t going to be able to do it because of that, and really the only reason I was going to be able to do it is because Llewelyn gets shot in the right shoulder—it was my right collarbone that snapped—and we worked it out. That was unconscious method acting.”
The actual shoot introduced Brolin to the brothers’ working methods. “I never saw them disagree—which is a little weird, a little alien,” he said. “”I’m friends with them now—especially Ethan I’m fairly close with. They’re a lot different than they are on the set. But they’re still very shy, still very quiet. I think that Joel talks a little more personally than Ethan, and Ethan talks a little more on the set than Joel does. But they’re, I don’t want to say crazy, but Ethan’s rubbing his head and humming ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ or something, and Joel’s looking off into the distance—I don’t know what he’s thinking. But there was very little talk and very little direction. I mean, there was where there needed to be, but a lot of directors get in your face. The Coens don’t really do that at all. You have a job to do, and do it.”
But Brolin brightened when he remembered one moment on the set. “The most direction I ever got,” he said, “was the phone scene with Javier [Bardem]. We were talking about it, and I said, ‘What if I face away?’ I liked the idea that you don’t see my face completely as I’m having this emotional conversation. Javier had left to do ‘Love in the Time of Cholera,’ and they kept wanting me to use this earpiece that Brando got famous for—you know, where someone would read you the lines from the back room. And I said, I don’t want to do that—I’ll do Javier’s lines and have it recorded. And they said, ‘Wear the earpiece.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to wear the earpiece, it’s bothersome and I think it’s weird—it feels like he’s in my brain, which I don’t want. Just have Tom, the script supervisor, read the lines.’
“So we did it a few times, and Ethan was great—he acted brilliantly, ‘It’s not really…’ And I go, ‘What do you want? Maybe I should face the camera—maybe that’s what you’re looking for.’ And he goes, ‘No, I think you should wear the earpiece.’ So finally, after like six takes, I was, like, ‘Okay, give me the earpiece.’ I put the earpiece in, and Javier says, ‘Do you know who this is?’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ And he says, ‘I know where you are.’ And I say, ‘Where?’ And he says, ‘In a hospital across the river.’ And he says, ‘Do you know where I am?’ And I said, ‘No, where are you?’ And he says, ‘I’m in the south of Spain with two really pretty women on the beach.’ And I got all confused, because I was so angry at that point, so frustrated. And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘They don’t have tops on, and they’re a lot of fun, and we’re having a great time, and I’m sorry you’re still there with the Coens…’
“It was kind of a fun moment. All the pranks that I played finally came back at me at that moment. Anyway, you start to get an understanding of what we were like on the set. It obviously wasn’t a very tense set. Tense movie, but I think you compensate for how tense the movie is with some kind of reality.”