Josh Brolin Interview, MILKPosted by: Sheila Roberts
MoviesOnline sat down with Josh Brolin recently to talk about his new film, “Milk,” directed by Gus Van Sant. Shot on location in San Francisco, the film charts the last eight years of gay activist and politician Harvey Milk’s life.
In 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to be voted into public office in America. His victory was not just a victory for gay rights; he forged coalitions across the political spectrum. From senior citizens to union workers, Harvey Milk changed the very nature of what it means to be a fighter for human rights and became, before his untimely death in 1978, a hero for all Americans.
While living in New York City, he turns 40. Looking for more purpose, Milk (Sean Penn) and his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) relocate to San Francisco, where they found a small business, Castro Camera, in the heart of a working-class neighborhood. With his beloved Castro neighborhood and beautiful city empowering him, Milk surprises Scott and himself by becoming an outspoken agent for change. With vitalizing support from Scott and from new friends like young activist Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), Milk plunges headfirst into the choppy waters of politics. Bolstering his public profile with humor, Milk’s actions speak even louder than his gift-of-gab words.
When Milk is elected supervisor for the newly zoned District 5, he tries to coordinate his efforts with those of another newly elected supervisor, Dan White (Josh Brolin). But as White and Milk’s political agendas increasingly diverge, their personal destinies tragically converge. Milk’s platform was and is one of hope – a hero’s legacy that resonates in the here and now.
Josh Brolin recently starred in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” which won four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. He also recently starred as George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s biopic “W.” Here’s what Josh Brolin had to tell us about his new movie, “Milk”:
MoviesOnline: How familiar were you with the story and how did you get involved with the production?
JOSH BROLIN: I was somewhat familiar with the story, not intimately familiar with the story. I had known who Harvey was. I knew about the Twinkie defense. I knew basically what most people know in California. I remember when Harvey died. I was young, I was just 10. I think Matt Damon was supposed to do this role and he had some scheduling problems with Paul Greengrass. Matt and Gus had known each other for a long time obviously. Sean mentioned me to Gus and I knew Gus loosely and they sent me the script. I read the script immediately. I cried at the end of the script. I was very moved by it. Then I got the 1984 documentary and watched that with my daughter. Both of us were crying at the end of that. I called Gus and I said, “Whatever you want to do, I’m in.” Then I found out how much I was being paid and I was a little pissed that it was going to cost me money. [laughs]
MoviesOnline: You really humanized your character, Dan White, and didn’t portray him as a simple villain or a homophobe. Did you have any thoughts on that when you were researching him?
JOSH BROLIN: On whether he was a homophobe or not? Personally I think who cares because I don’t think that was his motive. I think if you look at the relationship, especially in the beginning, between him and Dan White, they come fromâ€¦I mean they’re polar opposites. Dan White was put in there, put in that situation by the Fire Department and by the Police Department to really bring back San Francisco to what it was founded on, this kind of white, super-white, Catholic mentality. It’s an impossibility. You just can’t do it. I don’t care what kind of politician you are. You can’t do it. And the gay and lesbian movement had taken its own life, and the hippie movement and all that. So, you know, he was given an impossible task. Also, he didn’t have the foresight, he didn’t have the wherewithal and the political skills to realize, hey, this is happening right now, it’s going to hit a peak, it will start to bleed into the mainstream, and then I’ll have my time, and to look for those opportunities. He just got more frustrated and more frustrated. He was the big fish in the small pond in his district, then he was suddenly the very small fish in a huge sea of City Hall and he got more frustrated, but I think he tried to do the right thing. That’s when I started seeing the human. He tried to. He was frustrated because he wanted more money and $9,600 a year, that’s nothing. He had the kids and the wife and all that and then at Pier 39, he started a little chip stand where he was trying to make more money, and then he tried to resign and then they wouldn’t let him resign. They were saying, “Get back in there. You have to do this for us. You are the great white hope.” And then Mayor Moscone wouldn’t take him back in. So, I understand on a very human, basic level when all your power is taken away, and you’re sitting there and your legacy is just nothing, it’s dirt, with your family, with your friends, with your community, everything, and you think, the only tangible thing I can do, the only garnering of power that I have left is to grab a gun, load the gun, point the gun, shoot the gun, kill the person, cause and effect. That’s the only tangible thing I can imagine at that moment. I don’t excuse it obviously but I understand that desperation.
MoviesOnline: He seemed like he felt he was an outsider which is especially evident in the scene where he’s drunk and he’s talking to Harvey Milk outside the party that’s filled with people who have been outsiders their entire life and suddenly Dan White is the outsider.
JOSH BROLIN: That scene was very simple in the way it was written. It was a scene where I’m supposed to meet with Harvey and I give him a bottle of alcohol for his birthday and I’m a little resentful because of his not voting on my bill. And then I was bored by the scene and I thought what if I drink the alcohol that I’m supposed to give to Harvey. We started adlibbing on the scene. It was an interesting scene the way he cut it together. The whole homophobe thing also, like the only time that I think that I reveal that even in the least is – he didn’t use it but there was a moment. I love Sean’s face because his eyes went whoa! Where we were doing the scene and finally I grabbed him and I gave him a hug and he goes, “Thank you, Danny. Okay, okay, Dan, okay.” And I wouldn’t let go of him. I think I’m a little stronger than Sean so he was trying to push me away and I was grabbing onto him like that. [takes deep breath] and it was really fucking weird, man.
MoviesOnline: That would have been great though.
JOSH BROLIN: I think so too. I think it would have been great too. You know, Gus is such a visionary.
MoviesOnline: He suggests that he sees something in him that he might be struggling with himself in terms of his own sexuality.
JOSH BROLIN: Maybe, maybe, and it is a possibility.
MoviesOnline: Were you jealous you didn’t get a chance to kiss Sean?
JOSH BROLIN: [sexy voice] Yeah. We did so afterwards.
MoviesOnline: Did you feel you had a little more freedom playing Dan versus playing George Bush in “W” where everybody kind of knows the voice and the idiosyncrasies?
JOSH BROLIN: Oh, for sure. There’s hindsight so you have a little liberty in being able to interpret even though I think I focused more with Dan White in getting down the voice and doing these things that I wanted to do because it was a very particular time. It’s only 10 months. With “W,” it’s 37 years. It’s just daunting. Even when I think about it now, I get all verclemped. You go, how am I going to do this because it’s not just one character? With “W,” you’re playing 7 or 8 or 9 different characters. You’re playing milestones, you’re playing generations. Not an easy task. I would not do it again. It’s much easier to play Dan White, but much tougher emotionally than Bush. Bush is going through all his things but there were always filters, filters, filters. Bush has that great ability to have his conviction and not reassess it, not test it. Dan White was the opposite, constantly questioning his position so that’s why in watching it, it’s very satisfying to say okay, there’s a lot of colors going on there, there’s a lot, but it’s no fun to play.
MoviesOnline: But on the other side, in the communities that knew Dan White, are they scrutinizing your performance as the nation might have for “W”?
JOSH BROLIN: No, no, not at all. It’s funny because I was staying at -- let’s see if I get this right -- my ex-wife’s brother’s apartment that was overlooking the Castro. I did all my shopping and grocery shopping in the Castro. I’d walk down the hill and I’d do my shopping and I was afraid. I knew that San Francisco had really embraced the fact that this movie was being done and Gus and Sean and all that but when I went down thereâ€¦I felt the same way about “W.” I talked to Oliver about maybe needing security and all that because I didn’t want to be some guy like Rush Limbaugh. I was a little scared and I went down there and everybody who I talked to said “You’re playing Dan White.” And I was like, “Yeah.” And they were like, “That’s so great. We’re so happy you’re involved and so happy you’re doing this movie.” My initial reaction in doing the movie wasn’t like “God, I’ve got to play this character.” With this movie, it was more “I have to be involved in this movie. It’s an important film.” And San Francisco felt the same way so I got no negativity whatsoever, no “Why would you play a guy like that who’s sympathetic? How dare you? He was a monster.” Because he is a monster, you already go into that with that baggage. It’s like Bush. You already go in there with that baggage. Why didn’t Oliver slam him more? He’s already slammed, man. He’s gone from 90% to 25%. A more interesting question is how did this guy become the fucking president? That’s pretty interesting to me. That’s a compelling story.
MoviesOnline: What’s interesting was the walk that he took when he first shot the Mayor and then he had to walk all the way around.
JOSH BROLIN: That was my idea. That was my idea because Gus had this great shot in Elephant following that kid forever. To me, it’s one of the most brilliant shots I’ve ever seen and I just wanted to be involved in a shot. But I said whyâ€¦it’s really curious to me, it’s really interesting to me because he shot Mayor Moscone and then he walked the entirety of City Hall. That’s a 3-1/2 minute walk, man. And we did the walk together and I said, “You’ve gotta have that shot. You’ve gotta have that shot, please.” He used part of it and that’s cool.
MoviesOnline: The emotion of your character is interesting. It’s like a wave going up and then it explodes at the end and never comes down. How do you contain yourself emotionally to get to the next level each time because the tension just kept building through this movie?
JOSH BROLIN: I create graphs because I’m a day trader so that’s what works for me, and I go, that’s the support right now, that’s resistance, that’s testing the support in the story, that’s going and testing resistance, it breaks resistance, then there’s a major fall because of news or whatever, and that’s how I do the character. For me, I use very specific things that I’ve always used that I’ve come up with that allow me to get into a state that hopefully parallels what he’s going through in the story. And then, sometimes, it just takes a life of its own and sometimes you get it wrong. Sometimes you allow a moment to take on a life of its own and be its own entity and then you see it in the movie and go “Whoa! That’s so the wrong direction. Whoops!” In this movie, you know, you just get lucky, like what happened in the drunk scene. That could’ve not turned out good.
MoviesOnline: Was the final sequence one consecutive shot where you go through the window from outside to come into City Hall all the way up through the shootings?
JOSH BROLIN: Yeah. We wanted to do that whole sequence together because it was an emotional sequence. And that’s what he did, he came in through the window. It was that window he came in through.
MoviesOnline: I always thought he was the most complicated character in the tragedy. Were you conscious of that from the beginning and did you find that an extra challenge?
JOSH BROLIN: Emotionally complicated. Simple, you know, as a cosmetic. You see him and he’s pretty simpleminded, but emotionally, you know, that’s why when people say “Why is the guy sympathetic?” And I go, “No, he’s just human.” Again, not to excuse it, but it’s more interesting to me to see him go through all these emotions. There was the one shot toward the end before the dawn where he shoots Harvey and Mayor Moscone and I know he intended to shoot two other people and we did this thing on the couch where I was in my underwear. I was naked at one point and crying on the couch. I loved the way Gus did it because you see this guy writhing. It’s so emotional for him but he can’t get it out. He can’t get it out. He wants to get it out so it just turns into this kind of freaky bubble that finally manifests in the murder. But yeah, I think he’s a complex character but not mindfully, just emotionally, behaviorally.
MoviesOnline: What has this year been like for you from “No Country for Old Men” coming out to “W” to this?
JOSH BROLIN: [joking] Awful. I would never want to do it again. [laughs] No, it’s been good. It’s been really good. What’s great about it is the filmmakers. The filmmakers can really make a difference and I love who these people are because what’s the throughline between Oliver and Gus and the Coens and Woody Allen and all these people is because they’re all nerds, man. They love filmmaking, they love storytelling, and I do too. They’re not about the ego, they’re not about the status of it, they just want final cut on their movies because they want to be totally – which I have so much respect for – they want to be totally responsible for the stories that they tell.
MoviesOnline: Have you noticed Josh Brolin becoming more of a household name?
JOSH BROLIN: No. No. If I was doing Heroes, maybe.
MoviesOnline: You will be playing a comic book character soon. You’re doing Jonah Hex, right?
JOSH BROLIN: Nope.
MoviesOnline: You’re not doing Jonah Hex?
JOSH BROLIN: Don’t know yet.
MoviesOnline: Have you had meetings with Mark (Neveldine) and Brian (Taylor)?
JOSH BROLIN: No.
MoviesOnline: Do you want to?
JOSH BROLIN: Don’t know. I have a very tough time deciding, except for “Milk.” I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know. It’s a very good time. It’s a very good time and I don’t want to slight anybody and I don’t want to insult anybody, but the fact of the matter is with more decisions comes a little more pressure. For me, I just try and find that thing that really resonates. There’s one thing that Tony Scott’s doing that I love and that I really want to do, and trying to find the timing and all thatâ€¦
MoviesOnline: Which is?
JOSH BROLIN: I can’t tell you.
MoviesOnline: The studios seem to be gearing up for major productions come February and March. There seems to be a lot coming. Is that the reason why you’re so hesitant about Jonah Hex because there’s so much about to launch?
JOSH BROLIN: Not entirely. No, no. A little, little bit, a little bit because of more possibilities and all that, but no. I think Jonah Hex is a really, really interesting story. I think it would be risky also which I like and I don’t know if it’s the thing to do. Got me all fucked up now. [laughs]
MoviesOnline: Why do you have such a hard time deciding?
JOSH BROLIN: Because it’s my process, man. It’s just like when I play a character. I carry around a memo pad and I write a thousand questions. I like to ask myself those questions before I start a movie so I’m not in the middle of the movie going, what did I do? I want to give myself entirely to the film and to the filmmaker when I decide to do the movie. So, I would rather go through all the crap before that and if it doesn’t turn out, that’s okay. That’s when I don’t worry about it because I know I went into it with the right intentions. I always have to weigh out, why am I going into this? Is it the characters? Is it the story? Is it the filmmakers? Is it the other actors that I can round up? Is it greed? Is it money? Is it the fact that they’re offering me a lot of money? Yeah, that’s nice. I don’t get paid, man. I do the art films or whatever. Character actor, fuck that. It’s a nice trajectory and I love working with great filmmakers, like I said. I would also work with a first time filmmaker. If I see his reel and I go, “Oh my god, this guy’s amazing.” There’s a great commercial director in London, Johnny Green. I think he’s a phenomenal talent, phenomenal, so I’m trying to get together with him and create something together because I think he’s an amazing talent. I could be wrong but I think he is. So, I don’t know. You just got that much of my process that goes on in my head just now. This happens for months. It’s exhausting. I’m starting to get embarrassed.
MoviesOnline: Does it also have to do with the fact that some comic book movies can be totally great like the Dark Knight and then you could have Fantastic Four which is total crap?
JOSH BROLIN: I think it’s all good. There’s no genre that’s off limits to me. I would love to be able to go through all genres. To me, it’s not the genre. It’s like, oh “Transformers” is a piece of shit because it’s this, that and that. It’s not necessarily. It is what it is. It might not be right for me. I love action movies. I love all kinds of movies. I don’t just want to doâ€¦oh this has to be, it’s so precious. But I don’t want to do a movieâ€¦I’ll give you an example and I’ll say it, “Hollow Man.” To me, “Hollow Man” is an interesting concept. You know, given no consequence, do we veer toward the good or the evil? What would he naturally lean toward? That’s an interesting question to me. How it manifested? I could care less. I watched the movie and I’m like [yawns]. I don’t care. I just don’t care. Paul Verhoeven, to me, that’s going into it with good intentions because he’s done some amazing films, you know, “Soldier of Orange,” “The 4th Man,” “Spetters,” and he just did an amazing film recently. So, that’s what I mean in going into it with good intentions. Sometimes it plays out and sometimes it doesn’t.
MoviesOnline: Is there any theater on your agenda?
JOSH BROLIN: Yeah. We have a theater company here in Los Angeles. Tramp Art Theatre Club. We’re talking about going back to New York possibly in the next year maybe.
MoviesOnline: Speaking of New York, you recently hosted Saturday Night Live, what was that experience like?
JOSH BROLIN: [joking] It was hard, man. It was hard.
MoviesOnline: You talk about your process and getting ready for things and SNL is kaotic.
JOSH BROLIN: [laughs] I didn’t have much of a process. I don’t know. I think part of it wasâ€¦I mean it was a lot of fun and they’re amazing. I mean they’re a lot of fun. I hadn’t watched the show a lot so I didn’t know a lot of what was going on. Honestly, I think they didn’t know what to do with me because I’ve done all these heavy movies recently. If I went back, I think it would be twice as fun.
MoviesOnline: Do you have a favorite skit that you did?
JOSH BROLIN: The Dirk, Dickin’, Dunkin’ Dirk, whatever. The Suzy Orman Show, that was pretty fun. And I liked the Country thing, I’m No Angel, with Amy Poehler. She was funny. I had fun doing it. It’s ridiculous.
MoviesOnline: Your dad is a 70’s actor and you’ve been compared to a lot of 70’s actors.
JOSH BROLIN: No, I’ve just done a lot of movies that take place in the 70s.
MoviesOnline: But even the way you look, the way you act.
JOSH BROLIN: [joking] It’s the moustache.
MoviesOnline: Do you think the 70’s are part of the last golden age of cinema?
JOSH BROLIN: No.
JOSH BROLIN: No.
MoviesOnline: I know a lot of actors and directors that talk about the 70s would agree with you.
JOSH BROLIN: People like to say that. There were great actors. There were great filmmakers and great movies and a lot of my favorite films. But there are other films too. “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The French Connection,” “French Connection II” actually. Amazing. But there are a lot of great movies coming out now. Independent films now remind people of the 70’s because films cost less in the 70’s so therefore it has a similar look. This whole thing about going back to the 70’s and just living in hindsight I think is wrong because there are so many stories to be able to twist and mix up. “Milk” is a perfect example. You take Gus and he can do “Goodwill Hunting” and then he can do “Paranoid Park.” That’s what I love about Gus. He keeps mixing it up. How can I tell the story differently? What does this story call for? This is a great mix. I watched this movie and I loved this film. I loved the film. So it’s one of those things. “Flirting with Disaster” was one of those things that I watched the film and I went “Thank god I’m in this film.” I love this film, I love what it represents, I love what it’s about, I love how absurd it is, I love how off it is. And, to me, Gus was so sensitive to this story and yet you see a mainstream, very solid, skillful filmmaker who’s throwing in his experimental whatevers, you know.
Hey, let me ask you a question, what’d you think of “Crank”?
MoviesOnline: Neveldine and Taylor are fucking awesome. They are just great and I want to see you in that universe because they’re off their lines.
JOSH BROLIN: Why do you think they’re awesome?
MoviesOnline: Because they just do shoots that nobody else does. They shoot on rollerblades. It’s like the shots that they get are crazy. The shots that they do are just phenomenal. They’re just exciting filmmakers and they’re good people.
JOSH BROLIN: They are good people. They’re very good people. Okay, I gotta go. I’m very interested in this.
MoviesOnline: It’s their ability to think outside the box. I really want to see you doing Jonah Hex for real, as a fan.
JOSH BROLIN: It’s a great character, man.
MoviesOnline: It’s going to be a great movie.
JOSH BROLIN: To me, it takes a Spaghetti Western and then like it goes back.
MoviesOnline: Have they shown you “Game” or “Crank 2” yet?
JOSH BROLIN: A little bit.
MoviesOnline: What’d you think of those?
JOSH BROLIN: [joking] They’re alright. [laughter]
“Milk” opens in theaters on November 26th.