Friends told him not to do it. He'd even turned it down once. The possible maelstrom of partisan controversy weighed on him. But in deciding to play the Decider for Oliver Stone's new satirical biopic, W., which opens in theaters tomorrow, Josh Brolin relied on a very non-President Bush-like standard: doubt.
Unlike the 43rd president of the United States, a man fatally confident of his actions, Brolin wasn't sure he could pull it off.
As he explained recently, being scared puts him in a good place. "That makes me focus more," Brolin says. "I don't do safe stuff anyway, so what am I fretting about? So what it came down to was, I said, 'Oliver, man, you have to be my rock. I'm willing to be totally humiliated in front of 100 people in order to not be humiliated in front of millions of people.' "
An avowed lefty who considers Bush "dopey" and "arrogant," Brolin knew what he didn't want the movie to be when he jumped on board. "I didn't want poisonous writing and poisonous reaction," he says. "I wanted compassion and understanding of him as a person. If we can get away from party leanings, it becomes a very interesting biopic."
Ultimately, Brolin responded to the oft-reworked melding of fact and fiction that was the W. script, which combined imagined scenes, biographical moments and well-reported quips and statements to tell the story of an establishment clan's wayward son who finds himself and, in the process, fails upward. "I was blown away following the guy through the labyrinth of his life, the personal conviction he found once he stopped drinking and deepened his relationship with Jesus," Brolin says.
Brolin acknowledges coming to like Bush the guy, if not Bush the leader. "He grabs you, slaps you on the back, says, 'Let's go have a beer.' I understand it. And I understood wanting to get away from this elitist, untouchable thing of presidents in the past."
But Brolin and Stone hardly sought to convey the dark-shadowed seriousness of conspiracy and corrupted potential that mark the director's previous presidential films, JFK and Nixon. Instead, they colored the drama of Bush's bristling under a disappointed father (James Cromwell) with a farcical take on the cowboy complex that spurred Bush to see the Iraq war as a way to do Daddy one better. Brolin recalls on-set once hearing Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn - who plays Barbara Bush - discussing Bush's life in terms of a Greek tragedy. "Yeah, I understand it," Brolin says, "but nobody said comedy. And I always saw this as a comedy."
He also terms Bush a "character lead," a role-type he wants to embrace after the cumulative profile-raising effect of last year's acclaimed turns in No Country for Old Men, American Gangster and In the Valley of Elah. After an up-and-down career dotted with quirky gems, lurches into television and countless indies, Brolin is ready to use his heat to work with filmmakers he respects rather than chase paycheck-fueled stardom.
Stone knew Brolin was at a perfect time in terms of history and achievement to grasp Bush.
"He's 40 years old, and he's been through what Bush went through in his life to some degree," says Stone. "There's failure, and he came late to success, which is crucial to understanding George Bush. Bush wants to be John Wayne, and Josh has that John Wayne quality of being cranky, rural, don't-back-down. He's a wonderful actor. He just has a raw, leading-man strength."
Brolin says his research for W. was the most he's ever done for a movie: "I wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything."
For starters, he worried about the president's familiar, much-imitated Texas accent. Brolin created a chart for the psychological motivations behind Bush's dialect, assessing how a clean Midland twang at 21 could become a careful inflective choice at 31 when he's wooing future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks). Explains Brolin, "He's been back East for a while, so is he going to have some Eastern influence? But when you research how his time in college went and how he was perceived, you go 'Screw the East, I want to make sure none of that's in there; those people didn't accept me.' So he exaggerates his Texas roots."
The W. shoot in Shreveport, La., would prove to be an intensive 46 days, and Brolin was in nearly every scene.
"The work ethic was so high, so massive, that there was no messing around," he says. "We did that for nine weeks; I had a blast."