The Enduring Cool of Josh Brolin

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Josh Brolin holds his laptop askew off the balcony of his room above the plaza near La Fonda, an old adobe-walled hotel in Santa Fe. In the Zoom window on my computer screen, tourists amble around in the late Saturday afternoon light below the Gothic Revival spires of the Loretto Chapel. Brolin, in his scraggy-timbred voice, tells me he’s spent the last hour in one of its pews. He says he’s just been sitting. Not praying. Not meditating. Just sitting.

“I’m not particularly religious,” says Brolin. “I’m just tired. Man, things get weird when you get tired.” Brolin says he worked all night and is in the last week of a seven-month shoot where he’s playing a Wyoming rancher on Outer Range, a mystery series set to premier next spring on Amazon.

Down at the church, he says he’s gone unnoticed. This is not uncommon. Despite Brolin’s very recognizable look—a topographic map of lines between his temples, a head that he’s described as an “oversized vegetable” and a body detailed in one movie as having “Flintstone proportions”—he somehow manages, most of the time, to evade getting ID’d.

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This seems difficult to fathom. In 2018 and 2019, movies Brolin starred in made a combined $5.7 billion worldwide, including Avengers: Endgame, where the actor completed the character arc of Thanos, the would-be destroyer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“I can still kind of go everywhere I want. Part of the reason might be that in the biggest movie that ever was, I was the, y’know, 700-pound purple guy.”

What exactly has the actor been up to in the time since the entertainment press dubbed 2018 the “Summer of Brolin,” where three films he appeared in, including Sicario, Avengers, and Deadpool sequels, took top spots on box-office charts? “I took a long break,” he deadpans.

Brolin unplugged. He surfed. He ate. He relocated, for a while, to Atlanta, where Kathryn, his wife since 2016, was raised. Then Covid hit.

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“People dealt with it in one of two ways. You either went insane or you shifted into reprioritizing your life.” Brolin’s reprioritizing, in part, resulted in conceiving another kid. Chapel was born on Christmas Day 2020, joining Westlyn, now 2 and a half.

It’s not Brolin’s first go-round at fatherhood. Now 53, he’s been a dad since age 20—essentially, his whole adult life. With first wife Alice Adair, an actress, he had Trevor, now 33, and Eden, now 27. This iteration of family life, Brolin says, has been a long time coming and very welcome.

“I’ve been with a lot of people in my chosen industry. A while back, something shifted in me—like a psychic shift. And then I met this woman. She didn’t need me in any way.” Kathryn (she was once Brolin’s assistant) runs the boutique jeans brand Midheaven Denim and is a photographer. She took the shots here, in locations across New Mexico, from the Bisti Badlands to Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch.

Actor Josh Brolin on bucking horse
Kathryn Boyd Brolin

Ripped and Ready

During his long break, Brolin said no to most projects. But after some cajoling, he was roused from the house to join the cast of Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, slated to open in late October. It’s an epic, in every sense.

“I’m into sci-fi. I’ve been a big Isaac Asimov fan since I was a kid, and Ray Bradbury was a hero of mine. Of course I read Dune. It just had me,” says Brolin.

If you think Marvel has some fanboys, try listening to the feedback from acolytes of the best-selling sci-fi novel of all time. Roughly 80 trillion keystrokes have been expended opining about a new Dune adaptation since it was announced in October 2016. Brolin says he wasn’t concerned by the difficult conversion from page to screen, as he’d worked with Villeneuve on Sicario, and was familiar with his similarly ambitious Blade Runner 2049.

Dune is a stunner. A golden, gauzy space epic set to a throbbing Hans Zimmer score. It’s a visceral experience—you leave the theater with ringing ears and sandstung nostrils. Villeneuve’s treatment of the desert planet Arrakis is replete with monstrous sandworms in serious need of an oversize ear trimmer. They seem to be highly interested in offing the protagonist, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). Brolin plays a war master named Gurney Halleck, responsible for training Paul in desert combat.

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“The thing about Dune was that I had to get back in shape—and there wasn’t a cell in my body that had any interest in doing that,” he says. “Because of the baby, for one. I was in a different mode.” Brolin eventually returned to his old standby, Gold’s Gym, as a multimillionaire with plenty of options does.

The results of his efforts can be seen onscreen, where Halleck spars with Atreides. Despite his physical prowess, Halleck is trash-talked by Atreides’ version of the ultimate insult: “old man.” It’s kind of a shock to hear. Is that 17-year-old in the ripped sweatshirt and bandanna from The Goonies really being called old?

“It’s just inevitable, man,” says Brolin, laughing. “It’s like, I’ll put up a photo on Instagram, and every time, somebody says, ‘You look old.’ I’m like, yeah, no shit! That’s what happens, man. You get older! I could care frickin’ less.”

Portrait of actor Josh Brolin
Kathryn Boyd Brolin

 

Character Builder

The universe of Dune is ruled by “spice,” an “awareness spectrum narcotic” that can provide intuitions to its user. It allows Atreides to peer into his future. Has Brolin, a former teen in a surf gang who has talked of experimenting with drugs, ever experienced psychedelic premonitions about his life to come?

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“I did do psychedelics, yeah. But what I felt didn’t have anything to do with my future. For me it had to do with getting rid of the idea that you have to be a certain way in order to validate yourself. Not that I ever used psychedelics properly, but they did give me moments of revelation that all fear is self-created. None of it’s real. Those experiences kind of enabled me to get into ‘fuck it’ mode.”

Brolin’s post-Goonies career was slow going. He eventually landed a TV western called The Young Riders that ran on ABC from 1989 to 1992. “Afterward, I remember very clearly saying I’d rather not act than do that again. Some people like their life being consumed by acting and celebrity. But it felt like an infection to me.”

By the early 2000s, Brolin was spending more time studying stocks than reading scripts. He became a day trader, learning algorithms, mastering charts. “It was just another circus to learn,” he says. Then came a call from the Coen brothers, and a career-remaking performance as Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam vet on the run from a psychopathic hit man, in 2007’s neo-western-noir No Country for Old Men—which, Brolin says, “changed everything for me.”

No Country won four Oscars, including Best Picture, leading to Brolin’s Oscar-nominated role as a gay-hating murderer in Gus Van Sant’s Milk to the hilariously melancholic, banana-fellating cop in P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice to an unforgettable performance as a morally conflicted Hollywood studio fixer in the Coen’s Hail, Caesar!—played out in an impressively risky and rangy mix.

“I’m just a junkie at heart. You know what I mean? I don’t want to get too far into this, but the idea of safety sounds like death to me.”

Similarly, the fear of boredom is what led Brolin to go sober nearly eight years ago. “The philosophy that I came to is that it’s my responsibility to live bigger than my greatest romance of what drinking was to me before.”

Actor Josh Brolin kicking dust up
Kathryn Boyd Brolin

Heavy Mettle

Sobriety has helped Brolin reflect on an improbable spectrum of life experiences. Just a smattering of them: His mother, Jane Cameron Agee, crashed into a tree and died on Josh’s 27th birthday, in 1995. She was an actress and wildlife activist who kept exotic pets. He recalls helping birth mountain lions and being woken up by bobcats nipping his face. Later on, there would be more resilience tests. Days before shooting No Country, Brolin broke his collarbone in a motorcycle accident, and thought he’d blown it all. A few years later, he came down with Bell’s palsy—a partial paralysis of the face—another possible career killer.

“When you glance in the rearview, see your face hanging off your skull and don’t know if it’s coming back, that’s a shocking thing,” says Brolin.

Thumb through the Brolin’s Instagram feed and it’s clear he’s still processing stuff, amid photos from old sets paired with free-associated musings about his past, shots of his wife and kids—plus some classic Josh Brolin Kodak moments: e.g., sipping coffee naked on a desert patio while seated on his kid’s training potty. All in character.

The pastiche approach to recording his life makes sense to Brolin, who, at 23, took a writing class with Allen Ginsberg. He’s been keeping journals since he was a teenager, and just had about 90 of them digitized. Some of his writing will soon find its way to print. On the set of Dune, director of photography Greig Fraser shot behind-the-scenes images using “fucked-up old flea market cameras.” Brolin wrote accompanying text passages for the selects—or what he calls “esoteric shit, some of it made up, whatever comes to mind.” The limited-edition collaborative book is due out in December.

Brolin’s approach to writing might just match his approach to work, and life, too: “I’m trying to describe this fucking bizarre circus labyrinth that we’re traveling through. I’m not so much trying to figure it out as I am just trying to not take anything too seriously…. Because this is all pretty ridiculous, isn’t it?”



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