You can forgive Josh Brolin for coming off like some adjunct professor from the school of hard knocks when he's discussing the life lessons that have shaped his outlook - essential truths that accompany watching his stock rise and fall and rise again. After all, the journeyman actor has faced both feast and famine in Hollywood.
Over a two-decade-plus career, he has been pigeonholed variously as a jock (in his debut kid flick, 1985's The Goonies), a cocky young leading man (in his Old West TV series The Young Riders) and anointed as "one to watch" after his turn as a bisexual cop in his breakout film, Flirting With Disaster. From there, Brolin, 39, has gone on to be typecast as the mustachioed baddie in assorted action movies and vanish into plain sight in forgettable character parts that comprise much of his recent filmography.
"I learned a lot. I made a lot of mistakes," Brolin said, squinting out over Santa Monica Bay on a cloudless California morning.
More to the point, there were years he hardly worked at all, preferring underemployment to high-profile schlock. But over the past seven months, Brolin has quietly built up a head of career steam, appearing as yet another menacing man with a mustache in Robert Rodriguez's segment of the cartoonishly violent Grindhouse and a cameo (again with mustache) in Paul Haggis' mystery-drama In the Valley of Elah. He's picky, Haggis said. "It isn't that things weren't being offered to him. He was turning down terrific roles! I guess he's an actor first, a movie star second."
He has roles in two of fall's most eagerly anticipated films - a small part as an evil narc in Ridley Scott's drug dealer epic American Gangster, which reaches theaters today, and a breakout performance in the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men, out Nov. 16.
In the action-packed morality tale, Brolin portrays a West Texas cowboy of few words who goes on the run after stumbling across $2 million in drug smuggler cash, pursued by a quasi-mystical professional killer (Javier Bardem) and a do-right small-town sheriff struggling with his own mortality (Tommy Lee Jones). So far, reviewers have been reaching for the superlatives in describing Brolin's performance - "touchingly human" and "career-defining" capture the general consensus.
A freak accident, however, nearly took him out of the film. After failing at first to land the role the Coen brothers term "the action center of the film" - and with the help of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, who shot Brolin's audition tape while working on Grindhouse - Brolin made it to the final round of auditions and iced the part of Llewelyn Moss. Two days later, he was happily riding his motorcycle in Hollywood when he slammed into a car and snapped his collarbone.
"I didn't say anything to anybody for a week until my lawyer said I had to, that I was liable," Brolin recalled. "I was under the impression that you grit through it and if nobody knows, that's better. So I told Ethan [Coen] I had a hairline fracture. But it was a clean, absolute break. I'm asking the doctors if I should have an operation. But there was the risk of an infection and no movie. It's the Coen brothers! I'm trying to decide all this on 4 grams of morphine."
Less than three weeks later, he was on set in Marfa, Texas, and soldiering through his scenes, the physical pain lending his character - who gets shot, attacked by pit bulls and falls off a cliff - a world-weary gravitas. "It worked for me," he said, "in a funny, bizarre way that can only happen on a Coen brothers film."
Brolin's family members' Q ratings have often obscured his own fame - his father is actor James Brolin, his stepmother is Barbra Streisand and his wife is actress Diane Lane. But the younger Brolin does world-weary well; he's raced cars and competitively surfed and spent years livin' la vida loca.
Still, he doesn't mind the Hollywood shorthand for him that often crops up: "A young Nolte." "I love Nick Nolte, so that is not an insult," Brolin said.
"Whatever you need to do to validate my existence, whatever you need to parallel it with, go and do it," he added. "It's going to change, and I'm going to be somebody else next year."
Chris Lee writes for the Los Angeles Times.