Josh Brolin Is Scared at the Top

On Sunday, April 29, two days after the commencement of the Summer of Josh Brolin, Josh Brolin’s agents called him. “Oh, my God, dude, biggest opening of all time!” they shouted into the phone. Brolin had never been the star of a No. 1 movie before. He hung up, and it occurred to him that maybe he could let it all in. “Just enjoy it for a second,” he told himself.

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Josh Brolin Is Scared at the Top
Taffy Brodesser-Akner
, New York Times

On Sunday, April 29, two days after the commencement of the Summer of Josh Brolin, Josh Brolin’s agents called him. “Oh, my God, dude, biggest opening of all time!” they shouted into the phone. Brolin had never been the star of a No. 1 movie before. He hung up, and it occurred to him that maybe he could let it all in. “Just enjoy it for a second,” he told himself.

He doesn’t usually allow for victory laps. It’s important to him that every role he takes allows him enough success to feed his family and continue to work. But he doesn’t want to become that guy who starts looking at his work self-consciously, groom-licking his persona until he becomes someone who makes small choices and stays safe. He doesn’t want to see himself as an entity. He doesn’t want to see the work he does as a career, which would place each role on a trajectory that either goes up or down or is flat. You have to keep that stuff out of your head.

But then the Summer of Josh Brolin came along. Who ever predicted that he would be the common denominator of two of the biggest blockbusters of a summer? Who ever predicted that they — meaning a bunch of headlines and a publicist here and there — would name the entire summer after him?

And yet here we are. The Summer of Josh Brolin has seen Josh Brolin, who is 50, star in both the No. 1 and No. 2 movies at the box office at the same time: as Thanos, a veiny purple attractive-to-some population control activist in Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” (so-named for its running time), the featured villain of that movie, which stars every other living male actor; he’s Cable, the vengeance-seeking dadbot from the future in “Deadpool 2.” And on June 29, here comes “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” where he resumes the role he played in the first “Sicario,” a grizzled, seen-it-all military operative on an extraction mission. In its opening weekend, “Infinity War” took in a reported $258.2 million domestically, almost $383 million internationally. “Deadpool 2” made an estimated $125 million domestically and $176.3 million internationally during its opening weekend, and it hadn’t even opened in China yet.

Now, nobody is more surprised about the Summer of Josh Brolin than Josh Brolin. But it also leaves him with a problem, which is to figure out how to handle success that he never expected — or at least learned to stop expecting and even to stop hoping for.

“How do you treat this moment?” he asked, sitting on the couch of the suite at the Greenwich Hotel where he always stays when he’s in town. “This guy’s” — he’s this guy — “got two movies out, and he’s got one more. They’ve already made over $2 billion. That means that something’s shifting for him. OK. So then you go, what is that for me? Do I work less hard?

“If I start saturating my consciousness with my own power, my own moment, my own this….” He couldn’t finish the sentence he was so disgusted with it. He is very concerned about becoming a self-obsessed monster and accepting only certain kinds of roles to perpetuate the momentum. How did that happen to his cool, down-to-earth friends who will now never take a risk and never deviate from what he calls the movie star “manual”?

He hadn’t fully unpacked yet. In the bedroom of the suite, there were gold, star-shaped mylar balloons that he’d given his wife, Kathryn, whom he hadn’t seen for 10 days because he was in Europe on his bromantic “Deadpool 2” press tour with Ryan Reynolds. There was no point in unpacking. They were going to Tahiti the next day for two weeks, his reward for surviving the European leg of the press tour.

Maybe a second of enjoyment wouldn’t hurt, he reasoned. Especially if it’s just a second. He stood up to recreate his moment of enjoyment. He stared at a point in the middle distance, right beyond my shoulder, his hand karate-chopping the air slowly down his meridian to indicate a second, his Marlboro Man machine gun face ossified and unmoving. This is what it looked like for Brolin to enjoy something.

But afterward, he hated himself for even allowing that. Why enjoy this at all? “It’s like, does it make me a better person? Does it make me invincible?” He talks in a way that’s searching, leaning forward, fidgeting, moving his head a few degrees to the right and looking only slightly out of the sides of his eyes but never breaking eye contact. “Or did it just garner me another gift that I can utilize? No. I’m still me.”

All this can sound like too much thinking until you understand. He’s just gotten his life in order. He’s five years sober, two years married. He’d found a career that worked for him, which was doing not-quite-blockbuster movies (“No Country for Old Men,” “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”), interesting roles with directors and co-stars who excited him and not-quite-leading-roles in movies he thought could really work. He found a woman — the former Kathryn Boyd, 32 — who doesn’t activate in him all the codependence of his prior relationships. He had a home and another home and was even expecting a child — his third. He had just excised so many of his demons, and he wasn’t sure how the Summer of Josh Brolin might interact with his newfound peace.

He was happy before the Summer of Josh Brolin. Really. The money wasn’t great, relative-movie-star-wealth-wise, but Brolin grew up on a ranch. He’s self-sufficient. He can make a union scale payment last a full year if he has to. Meaning, if things had kept up as they were he would have been fine. Meaning, who knew how the Summer of Josh Brolin would change Josh Brolin?

That Sunday, after the call with his agents, he banished the enjoyment after its allotted second, and something else crept into the space it had occupied: Fear.

Brolin is a Minecraft character of a man, with a brick face and biceps the size of my waist, with a skull that transitions proportionately into the slope of his trapezii. There is a certain immovable Mount Rushmoreness about him. (His self-portrait: “A primitive, gorilla kind of looking dude.” Then, pointing at his face, “The deep-set eyes.”). He knows that there’s a power in this immovability and he uses it to underplay his characters, to show how OK he is with a long, expressionless silence, how he doesn’t plead with an audience to love him because his is not a face that would beg for love. “He’s extremely honest,” said Benicio Del Toro, his friend and co-star in the “Sicario” movies, among others. This is the Josh Brolin of “Sicario” and “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men” and “Milk,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination.

But then there’s another version of Josh Brolin that turns his face on its head. It’s the one he used in “Inherent Vice” and “Flirting With Disaster” and is certainly the one on display in “Deadpool 2,” where he takes the assumptions inherent to his monument of a face and winks at them — a postmodern Josh Brolin. In those movies, it’s as if Mount Rushmore just turned to you and smiled. He was still stuck on his agents’ questions. How do you behave in your eponymous summer, or, more to the point, how do you use the new clout that comes with it? Should he do a small, prestigious movie after all this blockbuster dynamite? No way, man. That’s what everyone would do. Should he do something bigger? No way, man. What’s bigger than Cable and the three — yes, three — more times he’s set to play Cable? What’s bigger than Thanos, whom he’s playing at least one more time? What a surprise Thanos was. He wants to do motion capture forever — standing in a warehouse with electrodes hooked up to him. “Like, I’m fully in my imagination,” he said. “I am on acting acid right now. There’s a lot more colors and a lot more dimensions than there should be.”

Whatever it is, he can’t let the manual decide because he knows too well what the manual says. “Like, no, I’m 50. So what’s the thing, to start playing guys that are the next-door neighbor who’s the grumpy old dude who’s married in the rom-com, and then Jennifer Aniston goes and [expletive] the other guy who’s cooler and he’s an [expletive]? Like, no. I’ve been offered a lot of those parts, and I’m like, no, man. Don’t want to do that. It’s not interesting to me.”

What if he went sideways? Back when he had a production deal at Warner Bros., he was trying to develop a “Hunchback of Notre Dame” film. Maybe he could revive that. He wants to do something unexpected. “I’d like to play RuPaul,” he told me on at least two occasions. But who knows? It is overwhelming to suddenly be asked what you would do if you could do anything.

Can you believe the choices he’s suddenly presented with? He is 33 years past his film debut as the shorts-over-sweatpants brother in “The Goonies.” Even as the son of actor James Brolin, he spent so long with his nose pressed against the glass. After “Goonies,” he did the skater flick “Thrashin'” and after that, a million auditions. It all felt so out of reach: He did an episode of “Highway to Heaven.” He lost the lead on “21 Jump Street” to Johnny Depp.

He did a few series. He turned down the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello resurgence vehicle, “Back to the Beach.” His agents said, “It’s a surfer guy. You’re a surfer guy.” They told him he was an idiot if he didn’t take it. He wanted to work, of course he wanted to work. But he also wanted to not hate himself in the morning.

He had a self-consciousness that precluded him from taking jobs that he thought he couldn’t do well. The money would have been good, but the process — the auditions, the compromising — was so humiliating and awful that he felt like he should make his money some other way. And so in 2002, Josh Brolin, the movie star, began working as a day trader.

By then he had two kids — born in his early 20s, on purpose, with his first wife, Alice Adair, an actress. He had a stepdaughter he was close with, courtesy of his second wife, Diane Lane. He didn’t believe in nannies — he hadn’t been raised with one, and the idea didn’t make much sense to him. He took them to school. He’d wake up at 5 a.m. and work around the New York trading schedule until the kids were screaming that they had to get out the door to get a gas station blueberry muffin on the way. In the morning he’d sit there in his underwear, watching three screens, five tabs open on each one.

Which is a surprise, to say the least. You think of Brolin as a movie star, simply because you saw “The Goonies” when you were 10 and he’s been somewhere in your consciousness ever since. Simply because of that jaw. But there he was, day trading. There he was, selling the Paso Robles, California, ranch he grew up on in 2004, because he knew how to avoid too much debt and he knew that he can stretch out a scale movie payment, but he also knew that those things depended on not having a ranch to keep up.

In fact, he says he made so little money in Hollywood (relative to other people we know as movie stars), that the Time’s Up pay equity discussion was a surprise to him. He’s not an idiot. He just couldn’t imagine that all those amazing women were making so much less than the men. He’s been surrounded all his life by alpha women — his late mother was a screaming, hard-drinking firecracker of a woman. His stepmother is Barbra freaking Streisand. Josh went “head-to-head” with both women, he said, both of whom he loved and loves dearly. With Streisand in particular, it was hard for him to imagine a woman being taken advantage of. “She didn’t need to attach herself to a movement. She just is the movement.” She was forging a way for herself. “People would say, ‘You can’t do that.’ And she’d say, ‘Well, why not?’ And that’s Barbra.”

And that’s women. “The women are the ones that shape everything” Brolin said. “I’m not saying in general. I’m saying for me. So I would look at those women, and there was just a lifted respect for those women. Anyway, the whole point is that I’ve never been privy to women that haven’t gotten theirs, or women who weren’t listened to, or women who weren’t respected. I’ve only known the opposite. Do you know what I mean?”

He shook his head. “I’ve always been the one that’s been paid the least,” he said. “I’ve always been the one that didn’t get what my co-stars got.” He says he received union scale for most of his work. He was paid $100,000 flat, no back end, for “No Country.” After agent fees and taxes, that’s maybe $36,000. He laughed. Look at his checking account for the last 10 years. He remembered he lost a role on a movie whose name he couldn’t remember at first — Meg Ryan, something about the military? Right, right. It was “Courage Under Fire.”

“You lost the Denzel Washington role?” I asked him.

He laughed hard. This was a peak Summer of Josh Brolin question if he’d ever heard one. No, it was the Lou Diamond Phillips role.

“See that?” he said. “You think of me as now, and I was never now.”

Brolin took out a tiny Nicorette dispenser. He stopped smoking five years ago. “I was just done. I just reached an age. There was something about 45.” He started stealing cigarettes when he was 9. He was smoking regularly by 13. It was time.

He loves not smoking. A long time ago, he’d try to smoke in this hotel, but security would come talk to him. “I was like, what do you want me to do? I smoke a cigarette every four minutes. There’s no reason even to get a room. Put a mattress out on the courtyard. I’ll just sleep out there.”

That was a harder time. The thing about staying in the same hotel suite for all these years is that it remains a museum of the things you’ve left behind. He drank a lot. He suffered a lot. His history here, he said, “was really severe.” He remembers waking up in the bathtub. He remembers waking up in a bowl of macaroni and cheese. He remembers trying to have pot delivered. “I just created a lot of havoc. I didn’t give a [expletive], man.”

His mother, a Texan named Jane Cameron Agee, was “really severe,” too, he said. She was a casting director and an animal activist who, 12 days into knowing James Brolin, drinking Scorpions, said something Texan like, “So, are we going to get married or what?” She didn’t have a lot of patience. When he was little, Josh wrote a poem about death in the shape of a circle. He showed it to her, and she said, “What is this?” His father used to say that if his mother was trying to teach one of her kids how to read, and they didn’t get it immediately, well, you had five minutes and then she was done with you. She once told Josh there was something in her that needed to create obstacles and misery where there didn’t need to be. “Which was very me,” he said. “If there was no obstacle, I would create it. I had to have an obstacle to feel like I existed.”

He said she had “a very Sam Shepard kind of existence.” Once, she was dating a guy Josh’s age; apparently, the boyfriend threatened to leave, and she pointed a .22 rifle at him, which was a regular event, according to Brolin. He left anyway, and his mom chased him down the road in her car; afterward, she called her son to say she’d hit an embankment at 90 miles an hour and had broken her back.

But that’s not what killed her. She died years later, driving fast again. This time it was a tree she hit. But this time, she didn’t call Brolin. Instead, a friend of the family, a radiologist, called to tell him that she was in the hospital and that there was no brain activity. From his apartment he told them to pull the plug. He didn’t wait to see her one more time. He knew she was gone for good. “That’s all romantic [expletive].”

Brolin said he confined his drinking to binges, away from home where his kids couldn’t see. He was settling down after a childhood that included drugs, drinking, participation in a punk band, an intentional frost-tipped mohawk, theft, arrests, at least one stint in juvie and emancipation from his parents at 16.

Despite all this, he said, he was known in his family as the responsible one. “I loved it. I loved being a dad, and I loved being responsible, and I was the guy that everybody in the family came to and it was like, well, if you need to put something together, if you need somebody responsible, it was always me. Until it wasn’t.”

He needed breaks from the pressure, so sometimes he’d leave for Los Angeles for a few days or come to this suite in New York, when it was being paid for by a movie or by his production deal with Warner Bros., which ended in 2012. Then he would binge drink. It was a sanctuary in time, he said, in which he wasn’t responsible for anything. It was during these binges that he could say what he wanted and live completely untethered to any sense of propriety. “There’s something that happens to me when I drink that all moral code disappears,” he said. “So it’s like if I were to take that drink” — he indicated the mini bar — “after about halfway through, I would start thinking about jumping out that window” — he indicated the window that looked out onto North Moore Street — “not to kill myself, but just because there must be somebody down there to catch me, and I wonder if I can pull it off or if I could land on that van. It just seemed like fun.”

Now, in sobriety, he said, “I want to live more drunk. I want to live drunkenly. I just don’t want to take the drink.”

His approach to relationships with women had always been to try to ascertain what they’re looking for and then try to be that thing. “I’m going to find out all your needs and all your insecurities, and all that, and then I’m going to play on that. Like, you need a daddy? I’ll be your daddy. I’ll be your hero.” He wanted to be perceived as someone who cares more than everybody — someone who listens better, someone who acts better. He’d get four dozen roses and remove the thorns in the car and then lay them all out intricately. He’d make sure they knew he loved them the most.

It was the same with Lane, he said. “I loved Diane,” he said. “I loved being a father figure to her daughter. It just wasn’t attainable, and in that hero mentality, you get exhausted, and then when you get exhausted, you get resentful, and then all that stuff comes out. So I feel bad that I didn’t have the presence of mind or the maturity or whatever to understand that early on.” Call this the Winter of Josh Brolin.

He and Lane had something like an Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton existence, he said, until they split in 2013. They found spotlight together, they avoided spotlight together, they fought, they made up. In 2004, Lane called the police, saying that Brolin had hit her, and he was arrested. A publicist for the couple said, at the time: “There was a misunderstanding at their home. Diane called the police. Josh ended up being arrested for the lowest-end misdemeanor charge of domestic battery. Diane did not want to press charges and asked them not to arrest him, but in cases involving the possibility of any physical contact, the police have to arrest first, ask questions later. They are home together and are embarrassed the matter went this far.” The case was dropped. He breathed deeply through his nose. “God, I’ve never been so careful with my words. Ever. Maybe in all 50 years. And there’s no reason for me to be other than there’s no explaining it. Do you know what I mean? The only person who can explain that would be Diane, and she’s chosen not to, so I’m OK with that.”

He used to try to explain what happened that night, but he doesn’t want to do that anymore. But he understands that the Summer of Josh Brolin has intersected with the #MeToo moment, and that he needs to talk about it. “I was more reactive, I was more, ‘People need to know the truth.’ Whatever I say is going to sound like compensation for a perpetrator. I’ve gotten to a place where all that matters is that I have control over my behavior, and at that time, it was a little more chaotic.”

(Brolin has spoken about the incident in other interviews, including when the couple were still together. Lane declined to comment for this article or to participate in fact-checking it. In the reckoning of men’s behavior, it’s important to consider the feelings of the women who could just pick up a newspaper and see a painful, old incident rehashed. With that in mind, the truth of what happened that night stays with them.)

Five years ago, when Brolin decided to stop smoking, he decided to stop drinking, too. One morning, after Halloween, he’d woken up on the sidewalk in front of his house, and he was called to see his grandmother, who was on her deathbed. She was 99 years old, and he stood over her, reeking of booze. His grandmother just smiled. She smiled! Right then he knew he was done drinking.

He finalized his divorce with Lane. He went through the steps. He wrote poems, like he always had. He wrote in his journal, like he always had. One day, four months after his divorce, he looked up and he saw Kathryn, his assistant, just there, fully formed, no emotional need for him to graft onto and try to fill. “She doesn’t need me. She never needed me.”

They married in 2016. He watched her figure out how to adjust to her strange new life, a southern girl who married into Hollywood royalty — James Brolin, Streisand, Streisand’s cloned dogs.

Earlier this morning, as they sat at the breakfast table and read the paper, he looked over at her and his eyes filled up. She came over to sit on his lap. He thought of all the ways he had been careless with his life. He thought about the time he was stabbed in the belly button on the street in Costa Rica when a man asked him for a cigarette and money and he said no. How the doctor said that just a little to the left or the right and it would have been over. The drinking, the arrests, the horrible days spent in this suite. He doesn’t forget about that. He doesn’t forget that the old chaos was awful.

Don’t you see? That’s the problem with the Summer of Josh Brolin. The Summer of Josh Brolin is a great many good things, but it is also a threat to the life he had just realized was good enough. Two weeks later, Brolin sat on another couch, eating seeds and mulberries out of a bowl, at what he calls his office in Venice, which is also a 1,400-square-foot rental home with a nautical theme. At the very last minute, he and his wife had canceled their trip to Tahiti. Kathryn Brolin’s grandfather died, so they went to Atlanta for the funeral, and afterward they thought, “Do we really want to go to Tahiti?” Tahiti is nice, but do they want it? Or do they think they’re supposed to want it? They looked at how much money the trip cost and remembered that they had an entire ranch in Paso Robles — yes, the same one he grew up on and sold in 2004, bought back in 2010 after the real estate market crashed and he’d gotten some of his “Men in Black 3” money.

They sat on their pond, fishing largemouth bass, naked. Filled with peace and optimism, Brolin would reveal on Instagram that they were expecting their first child together, a girl. Tahiti might be the place you’re supposed to want to go after a press tour, but that’s just the manual telling you what to do again.

Since I’d last seen him, he sold a show to Hulu called “The Untitled Josh Brolin Project” — that’s its name, not its place holder — about a soulless movie star named Josh Brolin who leaves Hollywood, has an ayahuasca trip and becomes a self-help guru. Josh Brolin will play a version of Josh Brolin that doesn’t exist but that looks just like him. That’s not in the manual, right?

In the light of the room, beneath the Venice sun now deep into the Summer of Josh Brolin, it was easier to see his face. As he gets older, there are ridgelines in his forehead and his eyebrows are turning into something new, something sharp like a deep crest of a wave, or, more simply, Jack Nicholson’s Joker-era eyebrows. The other day, Kathryn observed him watching himself in the mirror and noted that he was looking himself in the eyes — not at his hair, not at his skin, not at his clothing. He didn’t look away. He could enjoy this, too, just for a second. So he kept staring and said to her, “I’m just noticing the differences.”

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