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Josh Brolin says 'panic' sets in when the Coen brothers offer him a role

Still of Josh Brolin in
Still of Josh Brolin in "Hail, Caesar!"
Universal Pictures

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Josh Brolin's first big film break was in one of the most iconic movies of the 20th century, "The Goonies."

But he stepped away from film shortly afterwards in favor of theater, during which time his friend Anthony Zerbe encouraged Brolin to embrace character acting. Brolin told The Frame that experience made acting "more fun for him."

Returning to the film world, Brolin was cast in "No Country For Old Men." It was the first time Brolin had worked with the Coen brothers, and it marked a turning point in his career. 

Auteurs Joel and Ethan Coen have a penchant for relying on a favorite roster of actors, and "No Country For Old Men" marked the first of Brolin's projects with them. Now, Brolin plays the lead of Eddie Mannix in the Coens' new movie, "Hail, Caesar!."

Mannix was a real studio executive and producer in the Golden Age of Hollywood who was known for keeping his movie stars' often problematic private lives out of the public eye.

Josh Brolin says that to help him prepare for the part, the Coens gave him just one direction: Make it interesting. When Brolin met with The Frame's John Horn, the actor discussed how he actually prepared for the role, his relationship with the Coens, and how Old Hollywood compares to today.


What attracts you to acting? Is it that you become a more interesting person?

I think what's interesting about acting is it's the extreme of the human condition. It sounds kind of trite, but it's the truth. People were asking about Sean Pean and El Chapo and all that. And look, I completely understand pursuing an extreme personality. That's our job. So if it were 10 years from now, I would totally get it. Doing it now is maybe a little too soon. But we're all looking for those personalities in extreme situations to be able to project on the screen — for your entertainment.

So the more extreme, the more interested you'll be in a part? Or the more extremely different it is from who you are as a person? 

I loved writing as a kid. So I think it's more about that for me. I've heard actors say, I love between "action" and "cut." And I hate between action and cut. I think that's the most tortuous moment. So I find that to be a massive pain in the ass. So it's the accumulation, it's the talking about it. What is this? And Eddie Mannix — what is he going to sound like? Let's go listen to Abbott and Costello. Let's read about Thalberg and Mayer. It's the creation, the sculpting, it's the construction.

George Miller directed "Mad Max: Fury Road." You happened to meet him in the lobby before you came in to talk with me. Your eyes were as big as a kid in a candy store. Do you still get excited by meeting directors and by watching the work of somebody like George Miller?

I get excited by meeting anybody who puts their ass on the line for whatever their chosen profession is. I was nervous talking to him. I looked down a lot. I said, "I aspire as an actor to do what you have done as a director" — which you realize, he's done "Mad Max," and he's also the same guy that did "Babe." There's something about Scorsese and doing the mafia and all that kind of stuff, and not to say Scorsese doesn't have diversity, because he does, but not that kind of diversity. I love that.

That brings me back to the Coen brothers. And really a landmark part in your life, which was "No Country For Old Men." At the time that movie came around, you'd been playing bad guys. And I think you saw yourself in that movie as a different character. Can you talk about what happened in that film, and where you saw yourself professionally was thrown upside down by what the Coen brothers offered you?

Things have changed, for me, based on other people seeing something inside of me that I don't see. Or that other people don't see in me. The Coens were about to see this guy [Lewellyn in "No Country For Old Men"] in me. They were very frustrated that they couldn't find the guy. I sent them a tape and their response to the audition tape was "who lit it?" It was like I wasn't even on the tape

But we should explain that Robert Rodriguez shot your audition tape...

And Quentin Tarantino...they didn't even I wasn't there. And my wonderful, amazing agent, Michael Cooper who they now call The Gnat, he somehow got me in that room, their last audition when I knew they were focused on another actor and when I walked in there, Joel didn't say anything he stared at me the whole time. Very creepily stared at me. When I left I go, I read for the Coens, how cool! I read for the Coens. I got a call the next day, we'd really appreciate it if you'd consider being in our movie.

When you look at the part of Eddie Mannix, what are the kinds of concerns you have? Eddie Mannix was a real person. He ran a studio in the '40s and the '50s. But what is your reaction to that part? Do you see the real person? Do you see yourself in the part? Do you see the movie broadly?

There's always panic. And I don't say it trying to make it sound funny. And then — being Joel and Ethan, and I'm used to this — I [ask], Well, what's the guy? And they go, Whatever you think he should be. And I go, Well, what is that? Like what were you thinking when you wrote it? [And they say] Well, we were thinking we wanted it to be interesting. What the f*** does that mean? I don't know if it's just fun for them to play with me or not, but I'm like the little mouse ball and they're the kitty cats. But I feel more like a writer/director than an actor when it comes to this. Being in their movies and creating actual characters. I always learn the entire script before I show up, I know the whole thing and I've read it probably 60 or 70 times. There's something about making it cellular that's really nice on the set. It being a tortuous process. 

We should talk about the historical context in which this story unfolds. I think a lot of people who are familiar with modern day Hollywood assume that it's nonstop debauchery and excess. But Eddie Mannix was presiding over a studio at a time when what happens today was kids' play!

Nothing! What was going on with [Clark] Gable, with Marilyn Monroe. We know those stories. But I mean, the orgies, the brothels. All the people we know and love and appreciate.

The murders! I mean, Eddie Mannix might have killed George Reeves.

Literally. We could probably do 25 movies on this. And yes, it's the easy thing to say there was no social media back then. At the beginning of the Vietnam War, everything changed. They televised the unthinkable, the anathema. Before that, you could hide,you could construct a movie star...This cultivation is not something that happens anymore.

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