Joining an illustrious list of honorees that includes Clint Eastwood, Amy Poehler and Geena Davis, Josh Brolin is set to receive the 2023 Sun Valley Film Festival’s Vision Award, which recognizes entertainment veterans for the impact on the industry. Brolin began his career more than 35 years ago as one of the stars of Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” and he’s since won acclaim for work in films as varied as Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” Oliver Stone’s “W.,” Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” Joe and Anthony Russo’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and its sequel, “Endgame,” and more.
That many of those high-profile roles came to him more than 20 years after becoming an actor isn’t something Brolin resents now — in fact quite the opposite. “That feels amazing as opposed to somebody who came out of the gate and was hugely famous and then had to uphold that for the rest of his career or her career, which never happens,” he tells Variety. Ahead of being feted at Sun Valley, Brolin reflected on the kind of career-overview recognition that comes with the Vision Award and the strange and unpredictable journey he’s taken as an actor, which includes auditions for “Almost Famous,” going from the whiff of “Jonah Hex” to the wow of “The Avengers,” and discovering “for what” as great and enriching motivation in one’s creative choices.
When you get an honor like you’re receiving at the Sun Valley Film Festival, what do these honors mean to you in the timeline of your career?
I think it’s a great opportunity to be able to support film in a lot of different ways. There’s a whole practical aspect to it because you want to grow your film festival and I appreciate that. And then there’s the idea of, wow, I’ve actually done enough work to be even considered as one of those people viable enough to bring attention and grow your film festival. I just found this box of little mini DVs and Super 8 films and I went back and looked at this trajectory that I haven’t seen in a long time. I came across an audition tape for “Almost Famous” and I didn’t even know what it was. I’ve been doing this a long time and I feel like I’ve touched every aspect of this business there is to touch. And that feels actually amazing.
When you start your career in teen or family friendly projects like “The Goonies” and “Thrashin’,” are you just grateful to be working? Or are you just biding your time hoping they lead to more challenging opportunities?
No, you’re so happy to get work. You’re young, you don’t even know what biding your time is at that moment. “The Goonies” was massive as a beginning. I remember I was reading tons of Stanislavski and I had studied with Stella Adler and I was really into the craft, but just incredibly naïve so I didn’t know how to utilize it. So I’m coming up to Spielberg and saying, “I imagine the tunnels are the inside of my mother’s womb,” and he was like, “no, all you’ve got to do is just walk down the tunnel. You don’t have to think about anything. Just act, just pretend.” And “Thrashin’,” I had a great time doing that movie, I just hated how I was in it. I can hear myself watching “On The Waterfront” and wanting [my performance] to be that. What is that accent that I was doing?
You worked with Guillermo Del Toro, Victor Nunez, Paul Verhoeven, and more. With any of those roles was there a sense of relief or celebration that you were getting the opportunities that you’d been seeking?
I hadn’t been seeking opportunities. The only opportunity that I saw was work. At some point along the line, you have to just accept the fact that you don’t have a choice. And where I did have a choice, like in [“Hard Rain”] with Minnie Driver and Christian Slater. I auditioned, and I remember the audition went really well — which was really rare. They offered me the part, but I said no because I said, you could cut this part out and it would still be the same movie. And I remember there was a shift at that moment where I was like, I don’t want to do this if it’s not essential to the story.
It was like when I made the decision not to do TV anymore, I said, I just don’t like the way this feels, so I’d rather not do it. And that’s when I started trading [stocks] full time — and then ironically, that’s when “No Country” came along. I had two kids and I had to make money, so the art of it was extra. If I could actually get a job that was good, that was a good story told by a good director I felt very fortunate. So when “No Country” came around, I think I was so resilient at that point that I didn’t look at it like, “oh finally.” And even when we were doing “No Country” there was no vibe that we were doing something great. We knew it was a good story, but “No Country” almost got lost because of Paramount Vantage. They were really focusing on Sean [Penn’s] movie “Into the Wild” and “There Will be Blood.” “No Country” almost got literally forgotten about. They didn’t like the movie, they weren’t going to put any marketing into it. And how ironic.
Was there an earlier role or a film where everything came together like with “No Country for Old Men?”
“Flirting with Disaster.” It was David O. Russell, Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, George Segel, Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni, Richard Jenkins played my boyfriend. That to me was showing up at “American Gangster” and having Denzel [Washington] and Russell [Crowe], it was all these legends. Or being on this last “Dune” and you had me and Javier [Bardem] and Rebecca [Ferguson], just once in a while that moment where you look around and you’re like, what the fuck am I doing here? And that was that moment with “Flirting with Disaster.” David and I wrote some stuff together and we improvised a little bit, and I thought we came up with a really interesting essential character. And Miramax begged him for me not to do it and he really fought for me. They were like, “that guy should have hit and he didn’t — why don’t we get Matt Dillon?” or whatever. And then I did it and then Miramax loved me all of a sudden and then I ended up turning down a movie and then they blacklisted me for 10 years.
Again, it’s not a sob story, I’m seeing the whole trajectory now. This has been crazy. I was just emailing with Ethan [Coen] last night. He was sending me car names that he had thought of. And I just thought, how the fuck do I have these relationships? They’re so absurd, they’re so much fun, and I found my people. So I just found these great, super smart misfits that love and are great at storytelling in a very off kilter way. But once the Coen thing happened, I was like, okay, I don’t want this to be a flash in the pan. I like this feeling. And then I’d work with Ridley, who was a different misfit, and then I worked with Oliver was a different kind of misfit. And I worked with Gus Van Sant, who was a different kind of misfit. But I really enjoyed and have enjoyed those kinds of people. Very personal, not a lot of ego, not a lot of pretense. Sometimes they can present like that, but in my experience of them, it was very humble and mostly about the work. Denis Villenueve is all about that, he’s just saturated by the opportunity to tell stories.
At the time, “Jonah Hex” must have looked like a great career opportunity. However much you think it was successful or not successful creatively, what lessons did that experience teach you?
It was not successful creatively or monetarily. I mean, everybody knows how I feel about “Jonah Hex.” But the biggest thing with “Jonah Hex” is rushing into hiring somebody. I remember Jeff Robinov, who I’m still close with, who was running Warner Brothers at the time and he was like, look, you’ve got to get a director in the next two weeks, otherwise we’ve got to can this thing. And then you meet somebody who has a lot of knowledge, Jimmy Hayward, and I remember it didn’t feel right. I loved that he was excited, but he just didn’t have the experience and he didn’t treat it like I would imagine somebody would want to treat it — to run back to their house at the end of their every day and watch tonal inspirations and Scorsese movies or this or that. He would be out partying instead. And not that I had a ton of pull then, but I brought in Megan [Fox,] who I thought was perfect for that role. Maybe not the best actress at that moment, but for that type of parody, forget it. Her, at that moment? You couldn’t do better than that. And [Michael] Fassbender? One of our best actors, who had done “Shame” and “Hunger,” are you kidding me? Malkovich, who had just been ripped off by Bernie Madoff, and we’re asking him to do it for a third of his price. He said yes. I mean, fuck, I still owe these people. Michael Shannon was in it, he was cut out. We just asked Michael to do “George and Tammy” because I pulled out of it, and he took my place and was amazing in it. So the intention was there, I just think we made a big mistake with the director — not to blame it all at him, because that was my choice, that was my bad choice.
And then the studio took it over and every time that’s happened, in my experience, it has only gotten worse. They did it with “Old Boy” with Spike Lee. I thought Spike’s cut was actually way better than the studio’s, but the studio took it away and I thought they’d cut it very poorly and I thought it ended up having the opposite effect. That’s what happens when you start cutting to this idea of pandering for an audience, and how testing can bite you in the ass. You don’t know what the audience is going to want. “Jonah Hex” was them taking the movie back and saying, how can we make this the most accessible movie? And they ended up making the least accessible movie.
Given that experience, did you have any trepidations when you came in to play Thanos for Marvel, especially for the duration of the role?
First of all, we had no idea it was going to be that big or that meaty of a part — it was more like a cameo type thing. I was doing “Everest” in London and they dropped off the huge bible of Thanos and what he meant in the Marvel Universe and his trajectory and his relationship with Lady Death and all this stuff. And I thought it was really interesting, but I had turned down a few really big films of those types of films, not Marvel, but other people. And I just didn’t have a real interest in doing it. I just felt like that was going down a road that I just wasn’t particularly interested in. So this came and I was like, this is interesting and it was the bible that did it. I was reading through volumes and volumes of information and I thought, this is really cool and I love how in depth this has gone. And then I got together with the Russos and we started doing these tests and I just got more and more relaxed. It was a real testament to their directing. They were like, stop performing. You can just be this the guy. And we started likening him to Brando in “Apocalypse Now” and it was so fun. It reminded me of doing theater back in the day in New York, going back to this really imaginative, exciting place. So I had a blast and I loved that it lasted two movies. I like that movie, and I don’t really like those movies.
Did your experience with “Avengers” embolden you to feel like whatever you happened with this first “Dune” would be worth it, even if a second one doesn’t come to fruition?
Or a third. Yeah, I’ve learned that when you have great directors, that’s everything. It’s really fun to experiment. I look at Chloe Zhao doing “The Rider” and I say, that’s a great director. Spielberg did “Duel” and he spent an hour and a half on Dennis Weaver’s face with a black truck behind him and make it even remotely interesting. That takes a special type of guy and there’s not a lot of them. And my career, a career that I can really be proud of, has been built on that visionaries — really socially inept visionaries. And I’ve worked with several of them more than once because I’m an old school guy, and I come prepared, I do my work, and then we get to do what we really enjoy doing and that’s telling stories about the human condition, but in an absurd way. And “W.” feels absurd to me. “No Country” feels absurd to me. I mean, who’s playing Chigurh? I mean, he’s got a Spanish accent, a bizarre haircut — who can pull that off? There’s no studio that would ever make that decision. But what about the idea of super talented people rolling the dice? Which I very much appreciate.
You’ve worked with so many of these outliers and iconoclasts. Do you keep a list, formally or not, of people that you want to work with? Or do you just try to let them come to you organically?
I don’t know if it’s just letting it come to me organically, but the list is organic in me. Because I got very uninspired recently, and then I started saying, send me a bunch of poets, send me a bunch of new writers, send me a bunch of directors that have done one movie or two movies in Europe, in Germany, in Denmark. Who’s out there? Because these people that I got to work with aren’t necessarily doing a lot of films now. All these people that you’re talking about, Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s tough for him to do a film. Paul’s become a really close friend, and I loved working with him on “Inherent Vice.” I can’t wait to see what he does next. But I think he knows that these types of movies are not necessarily getting made so much anymore, $20 to 45 million dollar movies. Would “No Country” get made today? Would “True Grit” get made today? Would “Sicario” get made today? “Sicario 3,” we’ve been trying to get that right and get that going, but why hasn’t it happened? How long can you wait? A tough movie to get made even though the two made money, and people are asking about it all the time.
As you’re working on “Outer Range” and “Dune Part Two” now, do you have any path in mind for where you want to go from here?
I know very clearly that this is the end of a chapter right now. The chapter was probably five years long and I really have enjoyed it and I think we’re onto a new one. And I don’t know exactly what that is, from writing to directing to finding different types of filmmakers to saying no to more and yes to less. I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old running around that I absolutely adore being with and I have two older kids that I have to get on planes to go and see because they live all over the place. So I really enjoy my time right now and I’m very lucky to be in a position to enjoy it.
“Outer Range” was a big question to go into and we worked really hard. I think we came up with a really viable show with a couple of, no pun intended, holes. But the focus is on finding really wonderful directors and people who scare me. I love being around those people because they’re truly, deeply nerds and it’s really fun to be around because finally after years of trying to be cool to fit into some Hollywood paradigm that I thought would allow me to work more, I went, I was missing the whole point. Be yourself. Say no to what might be a massive success because that’s not necessarily the goal, to be in the most successful thing. You get your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for what? I like the “for what?” idea. Not because you had a really successful show that a lot of people watched and you have no other work to show for it. I like the idea of people going, “fuck, you did that and then you did that and then you did that and then you totally failed doing that and then you did that and that was mind blowing? Oh great.” I like the idea of that more.