Josh Brolin Brings the Cinematic Return of the American Man

Paso Robles, a town of 22,000 on California’s Central Coast where the actor Josh Brolin has a horse ranch, lives, and spent his formative years, owes its existence to an accident of plate tectonics. In ancient times, Salinan Indians stopped there, where cracks in the Earth let sulfur-charged waters bubble through the crust to form thermal springs. They called the place simply “Springs.” In 1797, the Spanish—lured by the heathens and hot water—founded a mission. Soon, the Indians were either assimilated or destroyed, and a steady flow of pioneers, gold-seekers, almond growers, ranchers, and consumptive Californians in need of a soak replaced them.

When Brolin was growing up in Paso in the early seventies—before he awakened lust in the hearts of a generation of gum-popping tweens, before he got lost in the brambles of what he calls his “lean years,” before he finally came in from the cold—the hillocks, valleys, and ridges of Paso Robles were covered in prairie grass, horse tracks, and little else. Barbed wire, perhaps, and the wide open spaces of cowboy vowels. “I don’t know why,” Brolin tells me, “but in Paso everybody sounds like they’re from Texas.”

Brolin might be referring to what the comedian David Cross once called “redneck voice,” the twangy rural accent that spans the Mason-Dixon Line and stretches from coast to coast. But the line is also about as good a gloss of the actor as you can get: Brolin is a Hollywood star but he seems real country. Few actors can summon the ghosts of the unvarnished American West as well as he can, and yet few actors can claim a Hollywood lineage as illustrious as his. The dusty air of a threadbare life clings to him, and yet his father, James Brolin, is James Brolin, the famous actor. Tumbleweed seems to trail his footsteps, and yet his stepmother, Barbra Streisand, is a fairly well–known singer and actress. His gristle and growl seem ground–in from a life of long rides through mountain passes, yet Brolin has ridden that bronco called fame—sometimes getting bucked off but always getting back on—straight since the age of 17, when he debuted as Brand, Sean Astin’s heart-throbby older brother in The Goonies. Remixes of his famous kiss with Kerri Green in a cave litter YouTube like so many dead stock cans of New Coke, hissing for release.

But that Josh Brolin—face unbeaten by Santa Ana winds, limbs not yet thickened with age, voice pinched and overall just a little silly—is not the Josh Brolin of today. The Josh Brolin who walks into The Monkey Bar in New York City early one April morning seems to have wandered off the back lot of a mythic American past. He lopes with the slightly pigeon-toed, bow-legged gait of a cowboy. His arms, unusually long, pendulum slowly. Even his goatee, so often the facial hair of a clown, does little to besmirch the handsomeness of his face.

Much of this unshakeable cowboy aura is due to Brolin’s role as Llewelyn Moss in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country For Old Men, a role so perfectly fit it uncovered what felt like the real man. Much of this is due to Brolin’s not inconsiderable skill as an actor. Much of it is determined by our own need for an American hero who wears denim, not Spandex, and who hides his face not behind a mask but under the shadow cast by the brim of a Stetson. But how much of it is true?

Josh Brolin, a man of 44 who lives with his second wife, the actor Diane Lane, on a horse ranch in Paso Robles and plays the young Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black 3, owes much of his current fame to an accident of skeletal structure. “There’s no way, looking the way I look, not to try to find a niche for me,” Brolin says. “I have this Easter Island skull,” he says, tapping at it with his thick finger, “and I can see casting directors say, ‘Thank God we have a man. There’s not many left.’” That skull, with its broad brow so often furrowed, square jaw oft clenched, and deep–set eyes always squinting, seems to be custom built to convey the forebearing silence of the American man.

But physiognomy is the source of only half of Brolin’s weathered, wind–bitten looks. The man has lived hard enough to blister paint from the rails. He got his first tattoo, of his initials, on his back at 14. He got his second, his initials in Korean, covering up his first at age 16. But his troubles began when he left Paso. “When I moved down to L.A. after The Goonies, I had this country identity. But what was I supposed to do, walk around in cowboy boots?” One can almost hear the opening riff of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and see an 18–year–old Brolin strolling down the 405 in a pair of stingray ropers.

Instead, Brolin went punk. He covered up his initials with a tattoo of a tiger, got Jesus tattoed on one arm and an Indian on the other. He wore a Mohawk and fell in with a group of SoCal punks in a band called Rich Kids on LSD. “I was just trying to be something,” he explains, “to find some weight.” He partied hard, with all the chemical implications partying hard in Santa Barbara in the late ’80s brings, and acted in one terrible film called Thrashin’ about a skateboarder. “It was a very self-destructive group, and it was a self-destructive time,” he says. “Basically 80 percent of the guys that I grew up with died.”

Brolin’s fate diverged from his cohort when he had his first child, Trevor, at age 20 with his then– girlfriend Alice Adair. “I went from the Paso ranch to Santa Barbara punk to becoming a dad. And as soon as I had my first kid, I started shedding the weight,” says Brolin.“I didn’t need it anymore.” Though he was saved from imminent destruction, his career, for a very long time after that, was mired in the character–actor twilight.

From recent accounts of Josh Brolin’s career, one might imagine that he did nothing between The Goonies and No Country except putter about his ranch, mend fences, and practice staring into the sunset. He did in fact do all of those things, but he also was working as any other working man might: non-stop. The longest break between movies was only three years, and projects, though spotty, were constant. “I went through 20 odd years very frustrated,” he says, his voice gaining a slight edge. “I didn’t make a lot of money and there were some years that were really, really tough.”

As Brolin toiled in bit parts in genre films, time—relentless time—and the California sun lacquered his skin, kneaded deep furrows around his eyes, and eroded the weight he had clung to as a young man. He gradually built a niche for himself, playing the sorts of western men with whom he had spent his childhood, and with whom he spent his days, but of whom he knew he never was. When faced with the question, Brolin sharply replies, “I am an actor, that’s what I do. I don’t pretend to be something else.”

At age 31, he began to have his tattoos removed. First Jesus, then the Indian. “I needed to be weightless,” he explained. He began to lose himself in roles and conversely began edging toward the flame. His future grew brighter. In 2004, Woody Allen cast him in Melinda and Melinda. In 2007, Robert Rodriguez tapped him to play Dr. William Block in Planet Terror, one-half of the Grindhouse double feature he directed with Quentin Tarantino. Brolin played a police detective in Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful story of friendly fire. That same year, the Coens cast Brolin as Llewelyn Moss, and the accolades began to accumulate like dust on the broadside of a barn. Thus the second coming of Josh Brolin began. Or, at least, that’s how the story goes. Ask Josh Brolin and Josh Brolin narrows his eyes and squints at you, and a little bit of his natural goofiness turns hard. “I was basically written off as a blue–collar actor, a guy who just made a living who had a dad that made a living and had some fame early on,” he says, “to a guy who they wanted to praise and say, ‘Wow the Coen brothers found him! He came out of nowhere and his career was almost over and they saved him…’ I find it a little insulting.”

The shadow of Llewelyn Moss,which one is tempted to call the apotheosis of Brolin’s career, looms over Josh Brolin like any masterpiece does its creator. It’s an inheritance and a burden. Since No Country, Brolin has stretched himself to the limits of his craft. He won critical acclaim for the murderous Dan White in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. He lost himself deeply in the soul of the 43rd president in Oliver Stone’s biopic W. To transform himself into a younger Agent K for Men in Black 3, Brolin disappeared to a cheap motel in Sonora and practiced Tommy Lee Jones’ Texas-via-Harvard lilt for three weeks. “There’s actually nothing followable about his accent,” Brolin admits. “It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve heard.”

Yet, it seems all Brolinania tumbles back to the cowboy, the grunter, the American hero. His angle of repose shall evermore by Llewelyn Moss and, for an actor whose goal is weightlessness, that the character has become a millstone around his neck is frustrating. “There are movie stars that everybody raves about if they do something a little bit different. But if you present yourself as somebody who’s willing to go in any direction and all the way in that direction, a lot more is expected of you,” Brolin says, his voice growing louder. “It’s like the dad who never shows up, and then when he does show up, people are impressed. But for the dad who is always there, when he’s not there one time he gets shit for it.” The point is, Brolin is no deadbeat dad and always shows up.

The San Andreas faults run 25 miles east of Paso Robles. It cuts between a schoolhouse and a water tower on Highway 49, as it has for millennia before the schoolhouse, the highway, or the water tower were there. There have been many earthquakes in the area, but none in recent memory have been as bad as the 2003 San Simeon earthquake. It occurred at 11:15am on December 22 and registered 6.5 on the Richter Scale. Brolin says, “That was the worst I’ve ever experienced.” Paso Robles was severely damaged, and two women were killed when a building collapsed on them in the downtown area. “Paso is near a triple fault line, and it’s crazy that people live there,” says Brolin with the blur of fatalism and pride of someone who counts himself among the crazies.

But, of course, if there had been no fault line there’d be no thermal waters, and if it were just hills, stands of oaks, and alluvial planes with no springs, Paso Robles would be nothing at all. The creation of the thing holds within it seeds of its own destruction. Brolin is working to make himself scarce under the depth of his characters, to escape the legacy of his bones, to undo the straightjacket of his weather-beaten skin. Today Brolin’s Jesus is nearly gone, and the Indian has disappeared. The tiger is still on his back, but age has softened its roar. Brolin is more weightless now than he’s ever been, but he’s also never been more substantial