Interview: Josh Brolin becomes one of the ‘Men in Black'
For men of a certain age, life got interesting in 1983, when they watched Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Outsiders" and immediately fell in love with teenage actress Diane Lane.
For those same men, life pretty much ended on Aug. 14, 2004, when Lane married actor Josh Brolin as if any of us ever had a chance with Diane Lane.
When Brolin, 44, is told that he eventually was forgiven by the interviewer for marrying the actress, he nods his head and laughs.
"I hear that a lot," he said in his Los Angeles hotel suite. "It seems that every interviewer and photographer I meet says that they have forgiven me for marrying Diane."
Of course, Brolin has his own fans, and no doubt will add many more after they see his brilliant comic performance in "Men in Black 3," which opens Friday.
In the film, which is both a prequel and sequel in a successful franchise that has been absent from the big screen for 10 years, Brolin plays Agent J as a young man. Agent J, as you might remember, was played by Tommy Lee Jones in the first two films and a good portion of the new movie. His screen partner, played by Will Smith, has to travel back in time to save both his partner and the planet from invading aliens.
Brolin, the son-in-law of Barbra Streisand (she is married to his dad, actor James Brolin), resisted following his parents into the family business, but eventually relented, and starred as the older brother in the 1985 film "The Goonies."
He worked steadily in the ensuing years, but his career really took off in 2007, when he began an unbroken string of celebrated performances, including a corrupt cop in "American Gangster," an honest cop in "In the Valley of Elah," a man who finds a fortune and is chased by a stone-cold killer with bad hair in "No Country for Old Men," Supervisor Dan White in the film "Milk" and former President George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's "W."
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER: Do you remember seeing the first "Men in Black?"
JOSH BROLIN: Let's see, where was I in 1997? Oh, I remember. I saw it with my kids. I thought it was such a novelty, so cutting edge. I was totally blown away. I've seen it once a year since then because I feel it never gets old. I feel that way about another Barry Sonnenfeld movie – "Get Shorty." I think it's one of the great films ever. I never get bored watching it. I feel the same way about "Men in Black."
Q. Why do you think it holds up so well?
A. I don't know. Is it the chemistry between Will and Tommy, or is it the story? It just works.
Q. Did you think the second one worked?
A. Not as much as the first. This one, if I can be objective at all, is as much fun as the first. There's a weight to it. I have been offered a number of event films, which I turned down, but then Barry called me and offered the role of a young Tommy, and I couldn't say no.
Q. Honestly, I was surprised to hear that you were in this movie. Your last five or six years have been amazing, and to see you in a summer blockbuster is ...
A. A complete sell-out?
Q. Well, that's a little harsh. But it was a bit of a surprise.
A. A lot of people assume I got into this business because of my dad, but that wasn't it. I took an improv class, and I fell in love with the business from a comedic standpoint. Then you get pigeonholed into certain kinds of roles, and you can't get cast in a comedy. This was a rare opportunity to get involved in a first-rate comedy. For once, I wasn't the serious guy who walks the land with a dog (laughs).
Q. So, you're a closet comedian?
A. Those serious roles are a lot of fun, but it gets heavy after a while. They're so heavy and profound. I wanted to try a different genre for a change.
Q. How did you walk that fine line between caricature and impersonation?
A. I had to find the humanity in the character.
Q. Did working with Tommy Lee twice before ("In the Valley of Elah" and "No Country for Old Men") help finding the character?
A. Not at all, and I had hoped it would. I talked to him a little bit, but that didn't help, either. That wasn't Tommy in that role; that was a character. So, if you want to get the character, you study the character, not Tommy.
Q. What were the keys to the character?
A. It was in his speech; in the enunciation of the words. But it was a younger Tommy so there was a different lilt to the voice. I started watching all his early films to try to get the answer there. Luckily, I enjoy watching him work so it wasn't a hard assignment. In answering your earlier question about walking that line, I didn't know how to do that. It was crazy, but fun. It was like doing scientific research.
Q. OK, you finally nail the character. You go through the rehearsal process. And now it's time to put on the costume. What was it like to put on the black suit?
A. It wasn't necessarily the suit, although that was great. It was putting on the sunglasses. That was an iconic moment that I'll never forget. I'll never forget where I parked that day of the fitting. I'll never forget how I walked in slowly because I didn't want that moment to end. I was so nervous, but I was so excited.
Q. Describe the actual moment with the sunglasses?
A. They brought out a tray of 1960s-era sunglasses, and they asked which one I liked. It was so freaky. When I put on the glasses, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe I was going to be a part of this incredible film franchise.
Q. Was it awkward being the outsider in the franchise?
A. I was totally the outsider. Not only the outsider to everyone involved in making the movie, but an outsider to all the fans of the first two movies.
Q. How did that impact you?
A. I felt that I better go for broke because this could end up biting me in the butt. But that fear propelled me to do a better job. If I can make a musical analogy, it's like somebody put this guitar in a closet, and then I came along and someone says to go in the closet, pick up the guitar and make a record that everybody is going to hear. And we're not going to teach you how to play that guitar. And your first thought is that you've made a terrible mistake, and that you can't do it.
Q. When did you have this moment of doubt?
A. About two months before we started. Then you start to practice, not on the guitar in this case but on the language. You get one of Tommy's words – the way his character says a word – and then you get another word. It builds from there. Even though you know the guy personally, and you're familiar with the character from two other movies, you're starting from scratch. Finally, one day, you play three notes well, and you're on your way.
Q. Once you were comfortable, what was it like on the set?
A. First of all, I was never comfortable. I was one of those actors who had an iPod in his ear all the time, listening to Tommy. But Will was welcoming, and there seemed to be a good chemistry between us.
Q. Obviously, you never worked with Tommy on this movie because you're playing the same character, but was there any interaction between you?
A. No. I called him early on, but we never discussed the role at all. It would have been strange to discuss it. I'm doing an impression of him for a billion people. I still don't know how he feels about it.
Q. He hasn't said anything to you?
A. No, but I heard he thinks it works, and that is high praise from Tommy Lee Jones.
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