After a run of critically acclaimed roles including a lead on the Oscar winner "No Country For Old Men," a lynchpin part in the complex drama "Milk" and the ambitious task of playing a sitting president in "W.," actor Josh Brolin was on a comeback streak in 2009 that allowed him to pretty much pick whatever part he wanted to play next. And what he wanted to play was Jonah Hex.
Though Brolin was never a major reader of the comic, the actor connected with the script for Warner Brothers' adaptation of the DC Comics Western icon based on its absurdly strange take on the genre. And over the course of 2009, he took on more than just the role, making his part in the film that of creative consultant as well as on-screen hero and recruiting friends from the acting community including John Malkovich to take part in the picture. While on set awaiting a scene in which Hex sneaks up on his arch-nemesis Quentin Turnbull, Brolin spoke with CBR News and a gathering of reporters in full Jonah Hex regalia, including his Confederate grays and the uncomfortable prosthesis that made his face the scarred visage of the comic book character. Brolin opened up about what drew him to the movie, how he views his collaborators and what he thinks their chances are of turning the Western on its head.
Could you tell us a bit about how you came out to want to take on this project?
Josh Brolin: It’s like I’ve been offered these kind of superhero movies or “Terminator” or whatever those movies are and I just go "Ahh." If it really resonates – and “Terminator” when I read it, I thought was really dark and cool and interesting, but then I knew they could go this way with it or that way. With ["Jonah Hex"], I [knew] wherever they went it was still going to be absurd. It was still going to be anti-hero. It was still going to bring back sort of this hybrid of Spaghetti Western genre – you know, the balls of Westerns. And I’ve been watching – and I don’t want to insult anybody – but I’ve been watching these Westerns recently, and they don’t have any cojones anymore. And what I love about this is you don’t really get into the supernatural elements. You’ve got this guy who refuses to die for some reason whether it be a physical or metaphysical reason or spiritual reason so you can do anything. You can kill off anybody and you can still bring them back because he’s kind of half there and half in reality, you know? What it reminded me of – at least in a positive way that allowed me to go in this positive route – was Javier [Bardem] in “No Country.” You know, is he in the room? Did he leave the room? Does he exist? Does he not exist? Is he a figment of Tommy [Lee Jones'] imagination at that moment and all that? So I just started kind of going off on that. Did that make any sense at all?
You did. And can I just say the makeup looks amazing. It looks great on you. How is it to wear?
It sucks, man. It does because we didn’t want to do the CGI thing because of a certain movie that I thought it was extremely distracting for me personally. I said, "We have to go practical with this," but so you know I have a piece of tape here. [Shows off a connecting wire behind his neck] I have this thing that hooks in the back. I have this thing behind my ear so it pulls my face back, then we put a facial prosthetic on, then we put teeth in with wires going up here. We had these teeth, so this thing holds back my lip and then we do another prosthetic over here and then we paint the face, so it’s a lot of work.
But for you as a performer, does it put you in the right place by the time you hit set are you revved up and ready?
Yeah, I mean usually I’m telling jokes on the set and I haven’t really got time and I’m like walking around here just like growling at everybody. I don’t know why. I think it’s because of this, I don’t know. Yeah, it does. It helps for sure. For sure it helps. I don’t like it personally, but professionally it works, I guess.
Would you have hesitation about doing it again if this a success; they wanted you to return to the role, would the prosthetics…?
Yeah, but I know what happens. I do have hesitation, honestly. We’re half-way through it now and I’m like "Never again, never again!"
Never go through it again?
Yeah, but we’re talking about doing “John Brown” too, which would be absolute full prosthetics, you know? It starts at 56 years old, so we’re talking…I’m becoming that actor, you know? Like the Lon Chaney.
This is right after “W.”
We had prosthetics in “W” also. Not this massive. But you know what happens when you finish and if you’re really proud of the job and all that, and then you go “why not?” You forget. It’s like having a baby, I guess...from what I heard from my ex-wife. You know, she’s like “Oh I’m never doing it again” and then two months later she’s like “can't I have another one?” So it’s that kind of a thing, I think.
Had you heard about the character prior to hearing about the film?
A little bit. I wasn’t a big…I read comic books and stuff, but I didn’t know a lot about it. I wasn’t one of those graphic novel freaks, you know, who – and I don’t mean it negatively, I’m just…I didn’t do that. I read a lot of Ray Bradbury. I read a lot of that kind of stuff – you know, Isaac Asimov and things. But no, I didn’t know a lot about it, but I liked the idea of it and I liked the idea that it wasn’t a huge success. Do you know what I mean? There’s not a lot of expectation, and I love that. It makes it riskier for us. It allows us to do things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do and being loyal to Comic-Con people. Yeah, we’re going to be loyal, but the guys who write "Jonah Hex" now came on the set, and they were flipping out. They were like “This is unbelievable,” and they were truly feeling that, you know? And we wanted to make them happy but at the same time we have a luxury to kind of do what we feel like doing because it’s not a failed comic book necessarily, but it’s the comic book that just won’t go away. It has its loyal audience. People like it existing. It’s not “Watchmen,” but they love that it exists because they need it. They need the guttural visceral primitive thing always. So it’s kind of a law of balance right now—law of averages where we have all these superhero things and where’s the other guy who’s sort of a protagonist but he’s kind of an antagonist and he’s a drunk and he’s kind of curmudgeony and then so are the other characters? So who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? I like that, you know?
So many of the characters you’ve played recently have been guys who it seems you as an actor have to find a way to make them empathetic to an audience to a certain extent despite everything about them from George W. Bush to doing “Milk” and things like that. You’ve got to find a way to make the audience follow you along. With “Hex,” what is that to you? What do you present to the audience? Obviously he’s not a character who has his…he’s not Superman with his big heroic arc. It’s a different kind of thing.
No, but he has a past you know? The fact that his mother was a prostitute. I mean, that’s why I like the relationship between Lila and Jonah. I said this to somebody yesterday. I was like, "Well, you’ve got to have Megan Fox in your movie because everybody wants Megan Fox in your movie." No. We were looking at a bunch of different people. We were looking at people like Melissa Leo at a certain point. And we really went through the gamut and I woke up one morning, and I was like "It has to be Megan Fox. If I can get a performance out of her, it has to be Megan Fox," because to me this whole beauty and beast thing and then you also have Megan surrounded by these toothless whores and she’s the most beautiful and yet she’s the most broken, you know? And I like that.
That’s my understanding of life. What you perceive. You might be an interested guy, an interested reported then I get to know you and then I know you’re this also and you’re this also and you may hide it in a certain way. That’s what I love. It’s like the Dan White [from "Milk"] thing. Dan White was a good guy. It wasn’t that he was a bad guy. He was a good guy who just snapped. What creates the snap in somebody? So that’s why I like the contrast between what you’re perceiving cosmetically and what’s going on underneath. To me, Lila is the most broken character of all. Jonah’s probably next, you know? Turnbull is probably the craziest. He’s caught up into this romanticism and revenge factor of losing. He refuses to lose. Anyway it goes on and on and on.
You had a relationship with John Malkovich prior to this. How is it working with him where you guys are head-to-head in so much of the movie?
It’s great. It’s Malkovich. [Slips into Malkovich impersonation.] “Um….Josh I was like…” He does this whole thing. It’s fucking great. To me he’s a genius. I mean he really is. And when I saw him do "Burn This!" on Broadway, he was one of the reasons why I did “True West” on Broadway. I didn’t want to do it because Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and John [C. Reilly] had already done it, and I knew it was doomed...but you look at John and you go “How can I not do this great play? Look at what he did with it. I’m curious what I’ll do with it.”
So he’s been a huge inspiration for me, and he became a great friend, and I called him about this and it was like “Will you please do this?” [Malkovich voice] “Yes, Josh I‘d like to read it and see how I feel afterwards and then I’ll ring you afterwards” or whatever. I just think the guy is freaking fantastic. And then the studio, they have an idea of somebody, and I was like "No, man." We started going through a lot of really wonderful actors, and I said, "You know the thing about those actors – and I won’t say who they are – is because there’s a lot of rage in the part but usually with these certain actors they feel rage and it comes out straightforward." It comes out...straight, you know? John, he feels rage and he may pick up a poodle and start petting it and reciting a poem or something, which to me is far scarier than somebody who’s just screaming at you. So John always does something very interesting and eclectic and I don’t think forcefully. I think maybe when he was younger that was a force thing. I think John is truly eclectic now. I think he’s become what he was aspiring to become.
How much action and stunt work do you do personally in this?
A lot. My stunt guy – who’s my guy and comes from movie to movie, Mark Norby — when I broke my collar before “No Country” he was the happiest guy on earth because he knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything. There’s a lot of stuff for him to do on this. He was the coordinator on “W” [where there was] not a lot of stuff to do, but he’ll do a lot of stuff on this. I would prefer to do pretty much everything, but this movie’s freaking killing me. I mean it is. Everyday is like…if you saw me wake up in the morning and walk to the bathroom, it’s a joke. I mean I’m limping. I jammed my finger yesterday…this one I can’t bend very much. I have bruises everywhere.
You talk about some of the other filmmakers who you were sort of inspired by sort of when you came into this. What made Jimmy [Hayward] sort of the right collaborator for you on this?
He wrote me a brilliant email. A brilliant e-mail. It was one of the best. And I’m an emailer, and I do a lot of my enticing through email, and I’m a decent writer so I guess I’m sort of good at that and I read his email and I was blown away. It was extremely passionate, extremely intelligent, extremely knowledgeable – not of the character necessarily but technically. You can’t take away from the fact that the guy’s worked for a company that can’t fail. They just don’t fail and at Pixar you’ve got to be good, man. And Jimmy knew the comic book really well. He had a first edition of the comic – that I don’t think he went out and bought after he knew we were going to meet. I think he had that. And there was a great new adolescent energy to him, you know?
And again, there’s no expectation. There’s the opposite. And there’s no reason why he can’t make a phenomenal film even as a mistake. He has the vision. He has the fashion. You look at Quentin Tarantino...when Quentin was working in the video store, you would never say "Oh let’s get that guy to direct a great film." You know, a big film. And this is a big film, but it’s not a huge film. He’s incredible to me, and if he pulls this off, he’ll have an amazing career.
And it may be ridiculous at times but it doesn’t matter because that’s the genre. We can do that. That’s what I like about it. A mistake may be an asset to us in the future. So yeah, I’ve never done anything like this. You know me. I just like I get into all the complicated characters and shit. To me this is not what this is. It’s very simple. It’s very linear. It’s very straightforward. My big thing was to get somebody like him, if we weren’t going to get Danny Boyle we were going to get somebody like him and then at that same time was to get brilliant actors. That was my thing, and that’s where I came in and I called Malkovich. I called [Michael] Fassbender. I called Megan. I called Michael Shannon who I think is just – I mean and I don’t say it lightly when I say it – to me he can do no wrong. I mean he is such a brilliant presence, and I like that. I want to be surrounded by that.
You’ve had this incredible run of filmmakers you’ve worked with recently and an amazing set of films you’ve worked on. Sounds like you’re very involved in making this one happen as a big driving force in this. Is that something that you’re bringing these experiences to each film now and you really see yourself kind of driving the material that you’re going to be doing?
You either want to live up to that or you don’t, and I was very, very lucky in that the studio said to me "Do you want to helm this in finding the most appropriate director, at least for you...who you deem to be the most appropriate person" and I said "For me, I know that’s usually bullshit. You’re going to jerk off the actor to make him feel good but ultimately you’re going to make the decision yourself." And they were very honest with me and straightforward, and they said "We want to be in business with you, and we’re going to let you do it." They have the final say, which is just obvious, but they gave me a lot of range here. And it’s not…if it doesn’t work, again, I don’t feel like a total failure. You do what you do man and it turns out you can come out with a perfect movie, and it just doesn’t hit the pulse of society at that moment. Or you can come out with a movie that’s okay, and it just works at that time when you release it, everybody wants that. They want to embrace it. Yeah, I’ve been in much more of a producer mode and will continue with that. “John Brown” with Mark Gordon is a possibility right now. “Pits and Joe” is a thing I’ve written that I’m probably going to direct in the next couple years and we’ll see what happens, man.
From what John said it seemed as if you were crafting your performances with each other in mind. He seems to be the almost, from the scene we saw, a Shakespearean-type orator where it seems like and he mentioned you’re quite the laconic protagonist.
Thank God, man. Yeah...look at him. He’s so careful! [Laughter] I could watch that guy forever, man. Yeah, I think that happens unconsciously. I mean we got together beforehand, and we were talking about what we wanted to do with accents and the southern thing and how far we wanted to go with it or if we wanted to stay generic and just very typical talks and finding out the tone of the film. Not really actor talks but more how is this going to affect the big picture. And then you just do your thing, and when you have an actor like that – or I would never assume that I’m this type of actor but I know that I can look at somebody when I’m acting and even though we’re in the scene and we’re still figuring out and looking at each other. It’s almost like a boxing match. You’re hitting each other but you don’t hate each other, so it’s technique. It’s all this stuff and seeing what works, what doesn’t work and where you’re going to get your best punches in but you don’t want to kill the guy, you know what I mean? That’s kind of what I feel with John. It’s a great ballet. With Sean [Penn] it was a ballet, with John it’s more of a boxing match.
Is there a reason why Jonah Hex that you feel still wears a Confederate uniform?
Because those are the only clothes he has. I don’t know. [Laughs] No, because it’s a comic book, that’s why. Yeah. That’s what I feel. Is there an emotional reason? I think that’s what he represented. He doesn’t want to not represent what he grew up being and yet at the same time you can do that and like what he says in this movie he says look, it turned out that I think you should always strive for your country, but we were two countries but none better than the other. So I realized that at one moment so he went and turned himself into a Union post to sit out the rest of the war in a prison cell and it ended up backfiring on him and killing a lot of his compadres. But I do, I think there’s a pride that you have. My mom was like that – and not Confederate but a southern girl and she carried that wherever she went, even though I know she could have lost the accent. She could have done that. She carried that with herself. She had that pride, but then she also never wanted to go back to the South, do you know what I mean? It’s that kind of a feeling.
"Jonah Hex" opens in theaters on June 18. Check back with CBR later for more with film stars Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Will Arnett and John Gallagher, Jr. and be sure to take a look at our new Jonah Hex Hub!