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After Decades Acting, Josh Brolin Still Wonders If He's 'Good Enough'

Brolin co-stars in an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice. He says as an actor he's always wondering: "Can I live up to what this person has written? There's always a fear around that."


Other segments from the episode on December 4, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 4, 2014: Interview with Josh Brolin; Review of Ron Rash's short story collection "Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories."


December 4, 2014

Guest: Josh Brolin

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Josh Brolin, costars in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel, "Inherent Vice." It satirizes overcomplicated detective story plots by having an especially over-complicated plot of its own, so I won't even try to explain the details of the story. Suffice it to say that it's set in 1970, in a fictional, California beach town, where a burned-out hippie private eye squares off with an LAPD detective played by Brolin. Brolin started his film career when he was 17 in the "Goonies." He played a gay ATF agent in the comedy "Flirting With Disaster." In the film "Milk," he portrayed Dan White, the San Francisco supervisor who shot supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk. This portrayal earned him an Oscar nomination. In "No Country For Old Men," he was pursued by a demented hit man. In the comedy "W," he played George W. Bush. He recently starred in "Oldboy" and "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For."

Let's start with the scene from "Inherent Vice." Josh Brolin's character, Lieutenant Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, is investigating a murder and kidnapping case and has hauled the hippie private eye, Doc Sportello played by Joaquin Phoenix, into the police station for questioning. Doc's bedraggled lawyer arrives and challenges Bigfoot. The lawyer, played by Benicio Del Toro, speaks first.


DEL TORO: (As Sauncho Smilax) So what's the beef here exactly?

JOSH BROLIN: (As Bigfoot Bjornsen) It doesn't have much to do with your specialty, which I understand is marine law?

TORO: (As Sauncho Smilax) We got plenty of crime on the high seas, Lieutenant.

BROLIN: (As Bigfoot Bjornsen) OK, well, so far, we have murder and kidnapping. But we can work in pirates, if it would make you more comfortable. Now either way, it's high-profile.

TORO: (As Sauncho Smilax) Yeah, but - you mean, your history of harassment with my client, this will never make it to trial?

BROLIN: (As Bigfoot Bjornsen) No, I think we could probably take this all the way to trial, but with our luck, you know, the jury pool will be 99 percent, hippie.

TORO: (As Sauncho Smilax) Well, unless you change your venue to maybe like Orange County. Not as many hippies down there, you know?

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Doc Sportello) Whose side are you working for?

BROLIN: (As Bigfoot Bjornsen) Clients pay me for work, Doc. Clients pay me for work, Doc.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's a scene from "Inherent Vice." Josh Brolin, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BROLIN: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Why did the director, Paul Thomas Anderson, think of you for the part of the detective?

BROLIN: I don't know because...

GROSS: The police detective, not the hippie detective.

BROLIN: ...Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I never see myself in these kinds of parts, or I at least have some kind of delusion going on where I see myself, obviously, a little differently than people perceive me. I felt the same way about "Milk." I was like, why do they want me to play this? And you start to feel like you have a complex of some sort. But Paul I knew on the Awards Circuit for No Country. And I've always been a massive fan of his. I was working a lot - I think I just had finished Sin City. And I had the opportunity to do another job, and I'd been working so much, I just wanted to kind of take a vacation and take off, and I was leaving to Costa Rica. And I got a call from him the night before I left, and he said, quote, "I think I may have some work for you. Can we meet?" And I thought that was such a great line, I may have some work for you. And I was so tired. I said the stupidest thing I think I've ever said, and I said, can I meet you when we get back? Which my agent almost killed me about. He said, can I send you the script and reread it, and can I come over tomorrow morning? And I said, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, actually, yeah, I got my head about me again. And I read it, which was absolutely and totally useless and...

GROSS: (Laughter) Why was it useless?

BROLIN: Well, it's just - you know, you can't speed read Pynchon. It's just impossible. And his adaptation was so loyal that, you know, it was like reading the book. And it's so dense. It's so - I mean, Pynchon will go - he'll be following some, you know, linear structure, and then suddenly, he'll take a big bong hit and go off on some tangent. But still, you realize eventually, comes around and actually, you know, is connected in various ways. But, you know, when you're reading it, you're just - you have to lend yourself to it. And I was trying to read it for me in order to meet Paul before I left on vacation. And then once I went on vacation and was able to read the book and really kind of take it in slowly as it should be taken in, I saw the validity in me possibly playing it.

GROSS: So let me read how Thomas Pynchon describes your character the first time he's mentioned in the novel "Inherent Vice." And I'll preface this by saying Doc is like the hippie detective played by Joaquin Phoenix. And Doc's watching TV. (Reading) Doc flipped to one of the off-network channels dedicated to long-ago TV movies and unsold pilots, and sure enough, there was the old hippie-hating mad dog himself, moonlighting after a busy day of civil-rights violations, as pitchman for Channel View Estates. Like many LA cops, Bigfoot, named for his entry method of choice, harbored show-business yearnings and in fact had already appeared in enough character parts, from comical Mexicans on "The Flying Nun" to assistant psychopaths on "Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea," to be paying SAG dues and he received residual checks.

BROLIN: (Laughter).

GROSS: So how helpful was that in figuring out who your character was?

BROLIN: How could you even not play that part?

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROLIN: How could any actor not want to play that part after reading what you just read?

GROSS: So his nickname, Bigfoot, because of his entry method of choice as a cop?

BROLIN: Yes, yeah.

GROSS: So obviously, this is like - it's set in 1970. It's the hippie-versus-cops era. Did you look to any law enforcement authorities of the era who were anti-hippie and who were kind of, like, straight in the way that your character is, although your character is really batty? (Laughter).

BROLIN: I think my character's batty, but also, you know, any racist, you know - it was talking to any racist and something that I always like to do because I grew up, you know - being a Democrat or being, you know, perceived at least as a liberal when I'm really a conservative liberal, but I grew up around, you know, a very Republican area in Paso Robles in central coast California. You know, being surrounded by that and listening to that and not judging it necessarily right away where you're getting into any kind of debates. You know, you can really hear people's perspective and why they feel like they do, you know? With anti-Obama stickers and all that kind of stuff, so I grew up in that mentality. So that's easy to be able to inject into somebody like Bigfoot.

GROSS: So Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the great directors of our time, in my opinion. Is this approach to directing any different from other directors you've worked with?

BROLIN: Only in that it's so familial, you know? I mean, the irony I think of working with such great filmmakers is that the collaborative effort seems so much more familial than what I've experienced before, you know? Before No Country, I was, not that I'm not now, but just more of a blue-collar actor who was looking for his next job. Whereas now working with the Coens or working with Paul or Gus Van Sant or people like that. I find the experience so more familial than anything else I've ever experienced regarding film, you know? There's usually a lot of ego, a lot of pretense, a lot of screaming, a lot of yelling, a lot of putting people in their place where I don't see that with this. This just seems like creating an ambience of creative allowance and trusting the filmmaker that he's going to edit it in a way that will be the least embarrassing...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROLIN: ..In an embarrassing venue. I mean, that's how I've always seen it, you know? It's an embarrassing profession. It's not embarrassing to be in the profession, but the act of doing it is humiliating sometimes.

GROSS: Why is it humiliating?

BROLIN: Because you're revealing things, and you don't know, you know, given a scene if you're going to be able to do it, you know? That's always the question as an actor, can I live up to what this person has written? And there's always a fear around that. I mean, I would love to feel an arrogance in saying, I hope that the writing is as good as I'm going to be right now, (laughter) but I've never felt that - I don't think I'll ever feel it. There's a nervousness and an embarrassment. And it's not an embarrassment like, I'm going to look bad. It's just an embarrassment of, I don't know if I'm good enough to live up to this, you know? And then you see a movie once in a while that you feel like you did your job and that you did justice to the writing or to the, you know, filmmaker - filmmaker's vision and you're happy. And "Flirting With Disaster" was probably the first film I felt that about. When I saw the film, I said, I'm so happy I'm in this film, and I feel like I didn't ruin at least my side of it.

GROSS: That's a wonderful film. It's really funny. Let's play a scene from it OK?


GROSS: All right, so in "Flirting With Disaster," the premise of the movie is that Ben Stiller, who was adopted, wants to find out who his birth parents are. So he gets a woman from an adoption agency, played by Tea Leoni, to help him. And he goes on a trip to search for his birth parents. And with him on this trip are his wife, who's played by Patricia Arquette, their baby and Tea Leoni from the adoption agency. And along the way, they meet two ATF agents. One's played by you and the other by Richard Jenkins. And in one scene, you're all at a restaurant together, and you, the ATF agent, is holding the Ben Stiller-Patricia Arquette baby, and you're so excited about holding a baby in your lap and playing with the baby. And in this scene, we learned that they you would like to adopt a baby, too, and we learn in the scene that you're gay and Richard Jenkins is not only your partner on the ATF, he's your life partner, too. So here's the scene. Patricia Arquette speaks first.


PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Nancy Coplin) Look at him. He loves you. You're wonderful with children.

BROLIN: (As Tony Kent) I want one of these so badly, I'm telling you.

BEN STILLER: (As Mel Coplin) Hey, could you help me out with an adoption, Tina?

TEA LEONI: (As Tina Kalb) Well, that depends on the specifics of your situation.

BROLIN: (As Tony Kent) Well, like what?

LEONI: (As Tina Kalb) Number one, are you married?

BROLIN: (As Tony Kent) Yes.

LEONI: (As Tina Kalb) Number two, does your spouse work?

BROLIN: (As Tony Kent) Yep.

LEONI: (As Tina Kalb) And is she willing to adopt?

BROLIN: (As Tony Kent) Well, you see, that's where the snag is.

LEONI: (As Tina Kalb) Then you got a real problem.

BROLIN: (As Tony Kent) What would my chances be as a single parent?

RICHARD JENKINS: (As Paul Harmon) Excuse me please.

BROLIN: (As Tony Kent) Why can't you stay and discuss this?

JENKINS: (As Paul Harmon) I believe in privacy...

BROLIN: (As Tony Kent) Right...

JENKINS: (As Paul Harmon) ...That's why.

BROLIN: (As Tony Kent) ...We have nothing to be ashamed of though.

JENKINS: (As Paul Harmon) I don't want to share my personal life with everybody I meet, OK?

BROLIN: (As Tony Kent) It's not just anyone. She works at an adoption agency - I thought that she could be helpful. God, you know, I keep telling him that having a baby will reduce stress by taking his mind off work, but he just doesn't listen. So where did you folks come down on the big circumcision controversy? 'Cause, you know, there's a movement afoot these days to keep the foreskin, and personally, I think a boy's penis should look just like his father's, you know?

ARQUETTE: (As Nancy Coplin) Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROLIN: That's a fun scene. That's a fun scene - see that's a great example of once in a while, and I've only seen that - I mean, I saw that movie a few times, obviously, when it first came out when we were doing screenings of it and all that. But it's a great example of what I may go back to to remember how nervous I was during a scene and that it's all going to be OK.

GROSS: When you're nervous during that scene?

BROLIN: Oh, my god.


BROLIN: You got - well, first of all, you have, to me, one of the greatest actors, Richard Jenkins - one of the greatest actors ever. And you have Ben Stiller who was on a massive, upper trajectory. You have Patricia, who I've known for a while, who I thought was amazing. Tea Leoni was amazing - everybody was amazing. And then this guy, and I remembered when I did that movie, Miramax - I'm the only name that's not on the poster because they really didn't want me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROLIN: I had no value to them. So and they were really against it at the time, and I remembered David really fought for me. And that role I remember was written as an Asian - it was an Asian role. And I fought to get in there just because I wanted to do anything, and I didn't care what the race was; I'd play anything. And I was so thankful to get that role 'cause he fought for me - he really fought for me.

GROSS: And this is David O Russell, the director. So this is an interesting take on colorblind casting - casting the Asian character as a white man (laughter).

BROLIN: Exactly.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Josh Brolin, and he stars in the new film "Inherent Vice," which is adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Josh Brolin. And he's starring in the new Paul Thomas Anderson adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel "Inherent Vice." So you grew up with a father, who was an actor - James Brolin - who was probably most famous when you were growing up for his role as the assistant doctor on "Marcus Welby, M.D." TV series. Did you see him on TV when you were growing up? Did you think of your father as, like, the guy who's on television?

BROLIN: I didn't. I remember people's reactions to him and how it changed. So I don't remember exactly when he did that show, when he started the show. But I do remember my mom talking about it later too, about how we'd have no money or we'd be staying in a guest house. And I remember she was saying at some point my crib was a dresser drawer. And they really didn't have any money. They had no money. My dad was just kind of doing what he could do for, you know, jobs and money and small work, you know. And then he got that job. And it turned out to be the number-one show. So I remember people reacting to him. I don't think I ever saw it until much, much, much later. So I didn't understand what that meant - being an actor - other than we weren't moving as much. We finally got a house. And you know, and there were people over.

GROSS: You mentioned that when you were young, there were times when your crib would be a drawer because your parents had no money. But you eventually were raised on a ranch in California with 65 horses. So what point did you live on a big ranch?

BROLIN: I was born in Santa Monica. We moved to this Pas Robles, I think, when I was 5. And my mother, being from Texas, liked the country. She didn't want to be in the center of Hollywood. She didn't want to raise her kids in the center of Hollywood for whatever reasons. I don't know why. So we grew up on a ranch. We had a 230-acre ranch in Pas Robles. And with the money that my dad made - which I'm sure was much more my mother's decision than my father's - she ran a wildlife waystation with the wild animals and then also...

GROSS: On your land?

BROLIN: On our land. So I grow up with a few wolves. I helped birth a lot of mountain lions. We had a lot of bobcats - lot of scars. I have a lot of scars, physical, not emotional.

GROSS: Yeah. No, no. I figured. So do you love animals now?

BROLIN: I love animals. And I think, you know, gratefully, I got a similar thing to what my mom had. My mom - I would watch my mom go into cages of animals you should absolutely - you have no business in the cage with them. And she would be able to pacify them. And I don't know how. I remember we went to - my mom didn't fly, so we drove a lot - and we went down to Baton Rouge - big zoo down there - these people that people that she knew. And they couldn't get a 500-pound silverback gorilla out of its cage. And I called my mom, and we drove down there together. And I'll never forget my mom walking into the cage - 5-foot-3, blonde, Texas woman. And the silverback started to puff up. And she just - she talked it down. She said, don't you dare do that. You sit down. You sit down. And I think the gorilla was so confused that he finally went into whatever they were transporting him with and went into the transport vehicle and got driven away.

GROSS: Was she as good with you as she was with animals?

BROLIN: I think so. You know, my mother was a real animal person, not a great people person. But I got along with her well because I just - we were two peas in a pod, you know. She was a lot of fun. She was a really, really fun lady to be around. But she definitely beat to her own drum, you know. My mother was her version of Christopher Walken.

GROSS: (Laughter) What an odd comparison.

BROLIN: Well, no. But pretty, pretty paralleled, I would have to say.

GROSS: So it sounds like you had two really kind of opposite childhoods. You had one growing up on the ranch. But when your parents separated, my understanding is you moved with your mother and ended up in Santa Barbara. Do I have it right?

BROLIN: My parents hadn't separated yet when we went to Santa Barbara.


BROLIN: They separated while we were in Santa Barbara.


BROLIN: So I stayed with my mom for a while. And then I moved down with my dad...

GROSS: While you were in Santa Barbara...

BROLIN: ...To Los Angeles.

GROSS: While you were in Santa Barbara, in contrast to all the wild animals and the horses and everything, you got involved with a now pretty famous group of people that were known as the Cito Rats? Or Thito (ph) Rats? Is it Cito or Chito (ph)? Is it Mendecito (ph) or Mendocito (ph)?

BROLIN: Cito. Cito.

GROSS: Cito Rats.

BROLIN: Like Montecito.

GROSS: Montecito. OK.

BROLIN: Montecito.

GROSS: Thank you.

BROLIN: Cito Rats.

GROSS: So this was a skate, surf and punk culture. Yes?

BROLIN: Yeah, but it wasn't at that point. It was just a group of guys. It was an interesting time. And I have never seen a group of guys like that ever, except maybe East LA. You know, when I look at documentaries of East LA, I go that's that familial thing. And I don't know if there's any connection whatsoever, but we spent every day together, you know. And there was something wonderfully familial about it.

GROSS: What did you do when you spent every day together?

BROLIN: Well, we were at the beach. We were at the beach mostly. Or we were at gigs. We were at punk gigs, you know.

GROSS: Did you play?

>>BROLIN. I did. I played a little, you know. Things have gotten confused in interviews and all that. And I said that it was a part of R.K.L., which is Rich Kids on LSD, which was a big punk band back then. And it was - I was part of the garage band that first started playing. And then they went to be known with other drummers and other musicians as R.K.L. And they actually became a fairly well-known punk rock band. So funny talking about this. It's so weird.

GROSS: You know, in talking about your teenage years, you say you had 19 friends who died during that period overdosing?

BROLIN: Twenty-four now.

GROSS: Twenty - Oh wow. That number's gone up.

BROLIN: Twenty-four.

GROSS: So you've said in the past that you tried heroin but didn't get deep into it. And you said there's always a part of you when you did drugs that was standing outside of it knowing...

BROLIN: I just didn't.

GROSS: ...You didn't want it.

BROLIN: I had a horrible reaction to chemicals. I just didn't do well with chemicals. I can't take Sudafed. I just - it's just something. I don't know what it is. I look like a meth addict when I'm on Sudafed. So if I have a cold, I just endure the cold. I can't really do that stuff, you know, and especially back then when you wanted to be a part of the gang. And it just was not, you know - I felt like an outsider even in my gang because - not my gang but my group of friends and - because my system didn't deal with it well, you know? So I just could never lend myself to that mentality so well. I tried. But it didn't work.

GROSS: If you don't mind my bringing this up, I know there's been instances where you were stopped by the cops for drinking. Do you not handle drinking well either, or is that a different issue?

BROLIN: Apparently.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROLIN: Apparently. I don't.

GROSS: I maybe shouldn't be laughing.

BROLIN: I don't know. It depends on, you know, your perception of it. I've handled it fine compared to the guys I grew up with. I was doing much better than them in that way. From a different perspective, no, I wasn't handling it at all. But you have to keep in mind where I grew up and who I grew up around. That mentality - that ambience - was in the air every day. So I feel very lucky that I have some perspective on it. And it's not even a right perspective. I don't look at it in any judgmental way whatsoever. It's just a perspective. I have perspective on how I wish to live my life. So that's what's happening right now.

GROSS: Josh Brolin will be back in the second half of the show. He co-stars in the new film "Inherent Vice." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Josh Brolin. He costars in "Inherent Vice," the Paul Thomas Anderson adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's satirical private eye novel. Brolin's other films include "Old Boy," "No Country For Old Men," "Milk" and "Flirting With Disaster." He got his first film role at the age of 17 in "The Goonies." When we left off we were talking about how he used to run with a group in Southern California known as the Cito Rats that was into punk rock and drugs.

So having been exposed to extremes as a teenager and hung out with a lot of people who were into extremes in terms of music and sports and drugs, has that served you as an actor because you've played some extreme personalities?

BROLIN: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I thought so for a long time. But...

GROSS: What changed your mind?

BROLIN: Because I don't think acting is experience, you know? I could be wrong. I could be completely wrong, but I think acting is a very active imagination and the ability to find conviction - total conviction - in your imagination, you know. And that's what it is for me now, at least. I think you can get into it physically and all that, you know? And when you talk about, you know, well, what you do with those - with those propensities for extremes now? It would be like doing Everest. You know, I did a movie called "Everest," a story which I really had incredible respect for and for the characters involved. And that was something that was incredibly motivating while you're going out and researching something like that or climbing Mt. Whitney or climbing Mt. Shasta or going and doing via ferratas in Switzerland. That's all - it's incredibly emotionally motivating.

GROSS: But that's the kind of thing I was thinking of that you have to be into extremes to want to climb Mt. Everest or any high mountain like that. And so I thought maybe your experiences or the people who you knew would give you insights into that kind of character. I, for instance, you'd never find me climbing...

BROLIN: I'd never find you up on a mountain?

GROSS: Yeah, you're not going to find me there.

BROLIN: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I heard Joel Coen say the same thing the other day when we were talking about it. Yeah, there's - I mean, I understand that because his thing may just be, you know, getting together with Ethan during the day and writing a great story and that's his - that's his trek up a mountain, you know? I mean, there are different versions of it that I totally respect each and every version. Me, I have a great fear of heights, so it was a great opportunity to - for me to be able to confront those fears. You know, when I crossed via ferrata in Switzerland in Murren, I crossed a thousand foot gorge on a suspended bridge that was only about a foot wide that was only held together by like six or seven wires. And I just thought I was the biggest idiot as I was going across - I couldn't go across it. I couldn't get past six steps. And yet there was no way out because then I'd have to go back and do exactly for two and a half miles what I had just done. So that was a great dilemma that I didn't feel so great about, especially because there was somebody witnessing it. But I don't know why those things - you know, I was skydiving a lot in my early 20s. Obviously, there's a connection. And then I remember I was doing it so much, I said I have to stop it. I don't want to do this anymore because I know I've gone overboard. I've got...

GROSS: But wait, you were afraid of heights and you were skydiving?

BROLIN: Yeah, that's the thing. I mean, that's...

GROSS: That doesn't even make sense to me...

BROLIN: That's the thing that I always struggle with today. It's the very thing that scares me is the thing that I'll confront, which I've gotten, you know, I think with age and all that, you start to - you start to mellow out a little bit and say OK, that's not really important, you know, I think I'll read a book.

GROSS: So we were talking about how when you were a teenager you hung out with this crowd that was really into extremes, like, you know, drugs, surfing, punk rock and so on. And during that same period when you were 17, you made the film "Goonies," which went on to become a really famous film. It's basically like a kid action-adventure film where the kids are trying to prevent the neighborhood from being turned into a golf course. An experience that sounds really different from the experience you were actually having. And I'm wondering what your friends thought of that movie at the time.

BROLIN: I think they were confused. I think they loved it, but then there was also that thing of when you're stuck in a bubble and there's somebody who's outside that bubble; suddenly you go, why them? Why not me? - or you start to - and suddenly there's a question, what does this bumble mean to me right now and why didn't it mean enough to him to stay in the bubble? You know, it also came out of something that was out of my hands, which is my mother - she thought it was best that I move in with my father down in Los Angeles and then it was kind of a new leaf time. And I...

GROSS: Is that because you were too much to handle?

BROLIN: I think I had a big mouth, you know, which I seem to still have - not as much - but I didn't have a filter. I grew up with a mother with no filter and then I was a person with no filter. And then you have two people together with no filters and you have drama.

GROSS: Right.

BROLIN: That was it. And I think she was, you know, I think she reacted - she asked me to come back, I remember. But she - and I saw that as a great opportunity, even though I didn't want to leave my friends and all that. Once I got it in a different environment, I thought OK, now what, you know? And let's do that.

GROSS: Why was acting the thing that happened next?

BROLIN: I don't - you know, I had an experience in high school. And it was an elective experience, and I was ever interested in acting because I saw my father make money and then not have money. My parents they spent as they earned, so I saw a lot of things come and a lot of things go and I didn't - it was something just very insecure about it to me. And there wasn't a lot of attraction around it. And then I did an improv class in high school and I loved it.

GROSS: Once you decided you were interested in acting, was your father helpful to you at all or were you on such different paths it didn't...?

BROLIN: We were just on different paths. I mean, I know - he said to me I think what his father said to me and have a backup. I was very interested in law, ironically - criminal law - and that was something that my dad was like, you know, if I were you, I'd get a law degree. But then things happened, you know, and my life took a different direction...

GROSS: Well, how did that happen? I mean, did you say I want to audition for a film, or...?

BROLIN: I think maybe I asked, like, how would you do that? What do you do? Do you get an agent? And then I went from agency to agency with a made up resume. There was nothing on the resume that was true. And...

GROSS: What were the lies that you put on it?

BROLIN: Well, it was dumb lies, too, like, really, really, like, "Streetcar Named Desire." Like movies that I'd seen that I knew were plays. And they were like who did you play? You know, I played Stanley. I was that - oh, wonderful.

GROSS: Like in some local production?

BROLIN: It was the theater. It was the International Theater of Santa Barbara. It doesn't exist, you know? I don't know. And there was one lady, Hilary Shor, said OK, I'll take you on after meeting with many, many agents. And she took me on. And I remember had to get the money to get out of the parking lot because it was Beverly Hills and she gave me the money to get out. And I went on auditions and I was told I was green, I was told I was not very good, I was told I should find a different profession. I was told some positive things too and - but the rejection never - it bothered me but it never stopped me. And then I got really, really, really lucky and I got hired to do this film that, you know, these people felt like I was the right person at that moment. And I did this incredible film.

GROSS: It was produced by Steven Spielberg. Did you feel like now you can get a real buzz from doing actually, like, legit work and getting paid for it?

BROLIN: Yes, it was legitimate. But it was something - it opened me up to the nerd that I am. And really all I wanted to - all that extreme behavior I think was very, you know, was, like I say, ambient. You know, it never felt entirely comfortable. So when I got to research something and read, and I remember being on set of "The Goonies" and like reading Stanislavski books and all that and coming to Stephen and asking him like is the tunnel, you know, does it represent, like, my mother's womb and what if I started clawing at it? You know, it was ridiculous. But I don't even say it with embarrassment because it makes - I like that kid. I like the kid that's excited about something. And I was incredibly impassioned and I wanted to learn so badly. I wanted to really learn how to be the best at this thing that I had never been a part of. So it wasn't really the venue to do that in, but later it was. And then I decided to do theater and all that other stuff.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Josh Brolin. And he stars in the new movie "Inherent Vice," which is Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Josh Brolin and he's starring in the new adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel "Inherent Vice."

There was also a period early in your acting career when you became a trader in the stock world. I don't really understand exactly what it is a trader does. What were you doing?

BROLIN: I was trading from home. I was not working a lot. I was, you know, I think the longest I went without working was 16 months and I had a ranch to, you know, a mortgage to pay and upkeep and all that stuff. So I met a guy - and I started to get into trading and I didn't know a lot about it - and I met a guy, Brett Markinson, on a flight on a plane and he and I hit it off and he's a brilliant, brilliant guy who didn't mind me asking the same question a 150 times and giving me the same answer until it clicked. And I just - he and I became friends and I inundated him with questions and it was again, something else to learn so I was incredibly impassioned by it.

GROSS: So when you say trader, you're basically making investments, but was it - where they...

BROLIN: I was trading the stock market from my little room downstairs.

GROSS: And was it like, stocks and bonds? Or was it also like those...

BROLIN: No, it was just stocks.

GROSS: So it wasn't also like those new instruments that like, created the bubble and the meltdown, you know, like the...

BROLIN: Yeah, all that stuff.

GROSS: All that stuff, too?

BROLIN: All that stuff. I was involved in everything, but really I found...

GROSS: Credit default swaps and all of that?

BROLIN: Yeah, but I didn't complicate it. You know, I really tried to learn a niche. I tried to find my niche in trading and my niche turned out to be momentum stocks that I would find a breath in.

GROSS: I have no idea what that means.

BROLIN: Well, it's stocks that have a company that has a great foundation - and I won't bore you with this, but - a company that has a great foundation has to take a breath, it can't just go up in one straight line, so I would see where - or, I would weigh it or determine when those breaths were taking place and how much of a breath it would be and I would try to profit from those breaths. I wasn't shorting, I wasn't doing a lot of the stuff that, I don't know, is perceived as being, I don't know, anti-trading almost. You know, I was using momentum stocks and I was making money, you know? It was a great discipline for me which a lot of people have a problem with - especially with trading - but just in life in general, of always looking for the big win, always looking for the Lotto number, you know? And I learned just to get a little here, a little there, a little there, a little there and at the end of the day if I won more than lost, it was a good day. And then after a year, I had those little tiny wins turned into one big win for me so I ended up doing very well. I was good because I was disciplined. I learned what I needed to learn, but I was very disciplined and that taught me an incredible amount of discipline.

GROSS: So how long did you do that before getting back into acting?

BROLIN: No, I was still acting but I was trading for probably three years, you know? Up at five in the morning every morning and at of the day, it was probably like, 2:30 and then I'd take a break and I'd have my day, and then up at five again.

GROSS: So if you don't mind my asking, you know, your father remarried and he married Barbra Streisand, who, you know, is an ultra-famous celebrity and I'm wondering if you cared about her movies or music before she became a part of your family?

BROLIN: It's not a question of caring or not, I just wasn't privy to it. I didn't - you know, I grew up, you know, with a country mother and so you know, if Willie Nelson had walked in the room, or Waylon Jennings, that would've been a different deal. You know, Jessi Colter or, you know, anybody in country music that was always held in very high esteem, where Barbra wasn't necessarily played in our house. That was a wonderful way of her and I coming together because I was one of the few people that didn't know her music very well and got to learn it once I met her, and you know, it's a God-given talent and a God-given gift that she has, truly. It's just undeniable. And - but I got to know her, you know, which was really nice for me. I got to know her...

GROSS: Did you feel - when your father started being close with her, did you feel like OK, now I better like, get all of her movies and listen to recordings?

BROLIN: Not so much. Not so much, but I did. I mean, I didn't do it in a rush but, you know, going and seeing "The Way We Were," going and seeing "A Star Is Born" and really appreciating it, but like I said, I don't know why it happened that way, but to be able to get to know her as somebody - I mean I did this with Audra McDonald, too. I did a series with Audra McDonald and I came up to her on the set and said I heard you sing.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROLIN: (Laughter) You know?

GROSS: You didn't know she sang?


GROSS: Oh, that's so funny.

BROLIN: I didn't know and I find myself fairly cultured - and I was like, I heard you sing? And she goes, yeah, yeah I sing. I was like, oh really, what kind of music? You know and she humored me, I'm sure and then I saw her sing on stage, and I was just absolutely blown away.

I'm a little slow sometimes.

GROSS: (Laughter). That's hysterical. So in "Men In Black 3" you play the young version of a Tommy Lee Jones character and you do a Tommy Lee Jones impression basically that's very convincing. So Will Smith is sent back in time and doesn't know what's going on, I mean, to the young version of you. Do you mind if I just play a clip of how that sounds?


GROSS: OK so this is you and Will Smith.


BROLIN: (As Young Agent K) How do you know my name?

WILL SMITH: (As Agent J) Because I called you K? No, I call everybody K. It's kind of my thing. What up, K? Right, just sort of - K. Yeah, it's kind of my thing. I just - some people like it, most people.

BROLIN: (As Young Agent K) Well, now that I know what you look like when you're lying, why don't you show me what you look like when you're telling the truth?

GROSS: OK so that's my guest Josh Brolin doing the young Agent K, the young Tommy Lee Jones character in the "Men In Black 3" prequel to the "Men In Black" series. So are you especially talented at mimicry? I mean, like you played George W. Bush in "W" and I think I heard you sounding like somebody else before our interview.

BROLIN: Schizophrenia.

GROSS: So is that something you've always enjoyed to do?

BROLIN: I have. I mean, I would have never seen myself as somebody who was going to be hired because he does good mimicry, but I know when I was in school, you know, that was probably what I used as some, you know, a humor buff. You know, a buffer, I mean and something that I could get away with because I could do voices or something, but I like the idea of doing a bunch of different things. I like the idea of being an actor and not just relying on one type of character, you know? I want to stretch myself, in a way so doing "Men In Black," you know, as funny of a movie as it can be, was absolute torture for me getting ready for it because I just - who can do Tommy? I don't know anybody that does Tommy. Tommy's not - he has such a distinctive voice but you don't see comedians out on stage doing Tommy because it's almost the impossible. There's a cadence that's constantly changing. You can't figure it out. I don't think Tommy can figure it out, you know? He's just doing his thing and I don't know what that thing is but - so it was torture. I was down in Mexico and just listening to, you know, interviews of his over, and over, and over and maybe I'd get a word and I just thought, I'm never going to be able to do this. You know, I've made a horrible mistake by saying yes to this movie because I'm just not good enough - and then when we did that scene that you just played, I remember Barry Sonnenfeld came from behind the camera crying, with tears streaming down his face, which obviously to me meant that everybody was worried and suddenly maybe there wasn't as much to worry about.

GROSS: Oh - tears of relief?

BROLIN: Relief, total relief. I wasn't sure at first because Will was laughing and Barry was crying and I didn't know what was going on, but I heard later that that's what it was.

GROSS: Josh Brolin it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

BROLIN: What a pleasure and an honor. Thank you so very much.

GROSS: Josh Brolin co-stars in the new film "Inherent Vice."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of short stories set in Appalachia by Ron Rash, whose writing Maureen describes as powerful. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Ron Rash is a poet, novelist and short story writer whose 2009 novel "Serena" was a New York Times best seller. Rash's signature subject is life in Appalachia, past and present. A large collection of the short stories about that region has just come out, and book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Expect to be good for nothing for a long time after you read Ron Rash. His writing is powerful, stripped-down and very still. It takes you to a land apart, psychologically and geographically, since his fiction is set in Appalachia. Thirty-four of Rash's best short stories from the past 20 years have just been published in a collection called "Something Rich And Strange." They are that indeed. Some of these stories are cold to the bone. Others are empathetic and even funny. A few are set during the Great Depression and Civil War. Most, though, take place in the present, an era when illegal ginseng plots and meth labs have supplanted the moonshine stills of an earlier generation, and family farms have given way to vacation home developments. Rash, however, is no nostalgic, mountain minstrel bemoaning the loss of the good old days. If it's wood smoke and sylvan sentimentality you're yearning for, you'd be better off watching reruns of "The Waltons."

The kickoff story of this collection called "Hard Times" is one of the Depression-era tales. It's set on a farm owned by a couple named Jacob and Edna. Somebody's been stealing a few eggs every night from their henhouse. Their closest neighbors are a family of three called the Hartleys - a husband, a wife and a little girl. As bad off as Jacob and Edna are, the Hartleys are worse. As Jacob says, you couldn't grow a toenail on Hartley's land. One morning, Jacob and Edna spot the Hartleys and their hound dog walking down a nearby trail for their twice-weekly trip to town. Edna yells, that hound of yours, is it an egg sucker? In answer, Hartley calls his dog, grabs it by the scruff of its neck and settles his pocket knife against its throat. We're told that Hartley's wife and daughter stood perfectly still, their faces blank as dough. Jacob tries to stop things, protesting that nobody knows for sure that the dog is the culprit. But Hartley kills the dog anyway saying, you'll know for sure now. The story ends on a surprise turn - a moment of generosity that fleetingly counterbalances the mercilessness of this hard life.

Mercilessness also characterizes the atmosphere of many of the modern-day stories in Rash's collection, specifically those that chronicle the rural meth epidemic. In waiting for the end of the world, a roadhouse musician looks at his stoned band mate, a guy named Sammy, and jokes, one of the great sins of the '60s was introducing drugs to the good-old-boy element of Southern society. If you were some Harvard psychology professor like Timothy Leary, drugs might well expand your consciousness. But they work just the opposite way for people like Sammy, shriveling the brain to a reptilian level of aggression and paranoia.

That droll observation aside, the meth stories are mostly so hopeless that to read them is to feel like you're wandering alone, lost in a winter wood. "Back Of Beyond" focuses on a pawnbroker who buys the false teeth, butter churns and bicycle tires addicts trade for cash. One of those addicts is the pawnbroker's own nephew.

Another meth story called "Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven" may be the standout of this collection. It's about two teenagers who are smart and in love and determined to get scholarships to college instead of winding up cutting carcasses at the local poultry plant. Although this is a story packed with sharp insights about class and the practical limits to dreaming big, it's also infused with the supernatural aura of a Poe tale. There's an abandoned house in this story, and meth is the demon that haunts it. The pull of that house, especially to teenagers who are working so hard to better themselves against such tough odds, is seductive and deadly. You may think as a reader that you, too, would be better off staying away from that haunted house or that pawnbroker's shop or those stark farm houses. But think again. Rash's spectacular stories may originate in the peculiar soil of Appalachia, but their reach and their rewards are vast.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Something Rich And Strange: Selected Stories" by Ron Rash.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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