Josh Brolin knows he’s lucky. For whatever reason in 2007, his career went from playing hunky guys and small parts to starring in films like No Country for Old Men. Since then he’s become one of the most dependably great actors out there, and enlivens whatever he’s involved in. for Spike Lee’s Oldboy, his character Joe Doucett must go from a flabby alcoholic into a vengeance-driven badass, and it’s to Brolin’s credit he’s convincing at both. We talked to the actor about the movie, and about his upcoming role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
Was this a challenging role for you?
Josh Brolin: Yes, but happily so, only because I have this morbid curiosity about how people react to extreme situations, that kind of thing, because I’m a not serious guy in my real life, so I like going to these places, it makes it more fun for me. I’m constantly trying to fight boredom. So when I meet filmmakers who are trying to do something wacky and interesting and magical it’s fun for me. I just worked on Inherent Vice with Paul Thomas Anderson and that was the most brilliant experience of my life. I don’t know if I’m going to be any good in the movie but it sure is fun working with people like that.
Well when you’re working with people like Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Lee who are, you know, pretty good (laughs). Seriously, you’re working with someone who made some of the greatest masterpieces of our lifetime
Josh Brolin: I love that you say that, man.
But what is that relationship like, how do you stand up to the guy who made Do the Right Thing?
Josh Brolin: It’s weird and a curious dilemma for me, whether I’m working with the Coens or this whole slew of people I’m happy to name off because I can stand back and objectively say “holy sh—how was I involved that?” It’s the opposite of Joe Doucett, I must have done something amazing in my life and I’m gifted with all this great work. My dad said this recently, he said there’s a lot of great directors, but very few great storytellers, and working with these extreme geeks, like myself, who are the film fanatics, these story fanatics, is so nice, so you’re in this iconic awe. And then you get to the set, and you think “we have to work, I want this to be as good as it can be,” so the awe goes over here, even though it’s always there. And with Paul he was taking stuff out of it, and he was whittling away, and I said it would be great if we could bring stuff back in from the book because you’ve wittled away so much. And he says “well, how do you mean?” and then we start collaborating and then we get in there, and realize this isn’t working or that I was wrong, and when you take it out and you realize you miss it, so you colorize it with something more and then you’re actually creating something. And when you get to set you realize all the work you had done beforehand is meaningless. So you’re looking for that elusive thing that would make the scene more interesting.
Josh Brolin: Yeah, I knew it really well, but to me, I’ve never said this but the original Oldboy is very story driven, where I feel that this Oldboy is more performance driven. It gets more into the guy who’s in the prison, it’s gets more into the psychology of how f—ed up he is or how selfish he is, or the experience of him getting drunk, whereas you get very little of that in the original. I don’t think it was the intention to do something different, it was written different by Mark Protosevich, and when I called director (Chan-wook) Park and asked him what he thought I said “Spike Lee and I have always wanted to work together and this has been presented to us, how do you feel about us doing another rendition to this Manga song?” And he said “F— it.” (laughs) no, he said “I love this, I love different perspectives on the same story.” And he went off on this riff about how he would love to see one day five different directors doing the same film.
Is it different adapting a book than doing a remake?
Josh Brolin: Yeah because when you read a book no one else has your perspective. You personalize these characters. We’re just getting ready to do Everest, which is sort of based on Into Thin Air, so we’re wondering “are we going to try to be true to the experience” or you know, all that stuff. So you wait until the end and ask “well how close were we?” or you do the Gus Van Sant experiment and go shot for shot. I don’t see anything wrong, and it doesn’t get any geekier than me when it comes to film, it’s like Tom Waits’ song “Jersey Girl,” it’s not Bruce Springsteen’s song, but it is. Tom Waits is the one who wrote it but you’re convinced that Springsteen wrote it because he makes it his. But thank god Tom Waits was around.
What was the process of finding pure, unhinged insanity in getting out of the hotel room, how many version of that did you try?
Josh Brolin: There’s a lot of stuff out there on some drive that no one should ever see. A lot of embarrassing moments, a lot of me exposing my emotions. And a lot of failure, which I was happy about because it’s great to fail in the biggest way I possibly can, and hopefully out of that there will be one nugget and if I’m doing theater, you rehearse for five or six weeks to final get the product on the stage. Here you’re just going for it and at the end of the day it’s up to Spike to cut it and make a solid narrative out of it.
Josh Brolin: Horrible. It’s horrible. Though ultimately it’s very satisfying. I cried after we finished the right take, which I think was the seventh take, and I took off after that walked about five minutes away and started bawling because I didn’t think I could pull it off. I panicked, so I was working out every day, twice every day, so I was working out for four hours a day, along with a twelve hour working day, so I was very tired. It’s not like I’m twenty years old, I’m not a rubber band any more, I’m more like a board, and I was really happy with the majority of that. I think it’s like three times longer than the original, so it’s ambitious for me as an actor — as an actor, not an athlete. But I was happy how it turned out.
One of the things I like about this is that Spike allows emotions to get big. Can you talk about modulating that, because it gets almost Greek and operatic.
Josh Brolin: There’s enough reality, there’s enough organic emotion that it’s identifiable in some way. I’m glad that you said that because we talked about that on the set, about the ending being mythical and operatic. Getting into this bigger tone, and I think that’s the point of the movie. You want it to be entertaining, but also you want to bring up that question of given consequence, at what point does that consequence make you look at yourself and when does that end up changing your behaviors. That’s what it came down to, when I decided to do this. But I’m not big on exaggeration, and more so now than I’ve ever been, same with Paul’s movie, but it was fun to do that, not that it was easier, it was just a different tone that was sustainable and interesting to me.
The movie is a little rough to watch, were you worried about how people would receive it?
Josh Brolin: I don’t think about that stuff, it’s not my job. I’m a guy in a wagon going town to town trying to do my thing.
Do you see any parallels with this character to your other work, like George W.?
Josh Brolin: There’s no parallel, other than the why. The why factor is a big part of my life, not because of “oh Brolin’s taking it to the edge” it just holds my interest. When Oliver came to me that’s what I said “What, for what? You can just watch CNN, why do we need a movie?” He had written a version that was very bashing, and though I don’t like the guy, or I don’t like his politics, I am interested in why people keep voting for him, was is it about society that wants to have a beer with this guy. That’s what interested me, psychologically, sociologically.
Josh Brolin: It’s interesting, I was told seventy percent of the audience who saw it last night had seen the original, but the person who told me that was flanked by two people who hadn’t seen the original, and their reaction was visceral. I would never comment on whether the movie is good, but if people are reacting, then they’re reacting and that’s the point. That’s great. Then you compare to the original, and you get in your head a little bit and it’s kind of a bummer, actually. But the people who get to watch it free of that, and have that reaction, and – not only that – but hopefully by their reaction they’ll go back to watch the original, which I don’t think it’s a flawless film, but I think it’s unbelievable
You say you’re a film geek, what have you been geeking out on lately? I’ve been watching a lot of Ernst Lubitsch, Trouble in Paradise…
Josh Brolin: That’s such a weird movie, it’s so weird. What have I been geeking out on? I don’t know, I’ll come back to that.
Oldboy opens November 27.