Josh Brolin Interview, Inherent Vice
Josh Brolin plays a badass LAPD officer with a knife-edged crewcut and a SAG card who dreams of Hollywood stardom but never gets past the bit parts in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, “Inherent Vice.” Bigfoot Bjornsen (Brolin) hates hippies and pot-smoking private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is at the top of his list, even though the two seem to share an odd buddy dynamic despite their differences. Brolin explores both the comedic and human aspects of Bigfoot and breathes life into a character that otherwise might have ended up little more than a caricature on screen.
At the film’s recent press day, Brolin talked about portraying a character that takes everything to the extreme, the decision to give Bigfoot a flattop, his lack of familiarity with the novel, how the dense writing of authors like E.E. Cummings and Cormac McCarthy helped him appreciate the work of Pynchon, why he loved trying to find the voice in this, the comedy inherent in having a very good actor play a really bad actor, the acting dynamic between Phoenix and him, their crazy first scene together, Anderson’s directing style, and why he enjoys stories about California.
Here’s what he had to say:
QUESTION: That was quite a flattop you had.
JOSH BROLIN: Thank you. It was supposed to be that wavy thing that was more actor-y, but we decided at the last moment. I’d seen this picture of a guy in the 50’s with a flattop that I really loved. It wasn’t like that flattop. The guy just had a thinner head of hair than I do. But I liked that idea a lot. We just weren’t sure if it was right. And I didn’t have long enough hair to do that because I was just coming out of “Sin City.” So, we decided to do the flattop. I think it was appropriate. I was happy when I saw it, because a lot of times you don’t know. As funny as it is, it’s like Javier Bardem’s hair in “No Country for Old Men.” It’s not necessarily a gratifying decision when you make the decision. It’s not until later that you go, “Oh alright, that worked.”
Q: It had a “Dragnet” feel to it.
BROLIN: Yeah, but I didn’t think about “Dragnet” at all. The Joe Friday stuff, all that came out of Pynchon a little bit, but it was more a guy who desperately wanted to have an impact and wanted to look as intimidating as possible. He was intimidating, but he was more of a child in my mind. He’s more in the midst of a tantrum than he is at the pinnacle of his abilities. (Laughs) It’s a guy who’s really focused on wanting to have an impact as opposed to having an impact and I liked that. I like characters like that in this absurd world. It’s fun to try to find the music in that. It’s something that when you read Pynchon slowly, there’s a grey kind of dense poetry to it that can seem really unnatural. That’s what it was for me, through Paul, through Joaquin obviously and all that, but selfishly I go, “If I can humanize this, then that’s a great challenge.” I like that challenge. That challenge scares me and I don’t know if that’s possible. So, let’s go for that, and if it fails, then you’ve done your best.
Q: Were you familiar with the novel?
BROLIN: No, I was not. I wasn’t familiar with Pynchon. I mean, I knew who Pynchon was. But no, I was not familiar with his writing pretty much at all. But I was very fortunate because I spent a lot of time with Roscoe Lee Browne and Anthony Zerbe, so I got to hear a lot of really wonderful, dense writers being read in a way that was not accessible, but like I said, was very musical. I got it. People look at E.E. Cummings and they go, “I get it. It’s the semi-colons and colons, and you’ve got a comma in the middle of a sentence. What’s that for? It’s such an affectation.” And then, you hear somebody who actually understands it and starts to read it in a way that is so beautiful and not, not accessible. Then you go, “Wow.” Then you can get into people like Cormac (McCarthy). You can go so far as just unreadable books like “Finnegan’s Wake.” But you listen to somebody like Roscoe Lee Browne read it, you’re like, “He actually was a genius when he wrote it. It actually does have a voice.” So I loved trying to find that voice in this, because the first time I read the script overnight when Paul first called me, I was like, “I don’t understand anything.” And then, you release yourself from trying to figure it out and it becomes more of a cellular shift, an intuitive thing.
Q: You were talking about your character having a tantrum throughout the entire film. Your last scene felt like the pinnacle of that, a scene of intuition where you simply devour an entire stash of weed. How did that scene come about?
BROLIN: It’s just these moments that you’re in the middle of it. You’re working with Paul and Joaquin. These boundaries that you normally create for yourself or that’s created by the storyline or by the writer suddenly dissolve. It’s through this THC haze and you’re like, “Okay.” It’s great. It’s liberating in a way. It can also be really bad, because letting actors go off on their own tangent too much can turn into a lot of really bad acting. But you have Paul who’s guiding it in a way, pressing you or pushing you, even unspokenly, to go to these places that might seem caricatured, or even are sometimes, but with some hint of humanity in there somewhere. So yeah, the pot thing just came out. All I was supposed to do is grab a joint, eat the joint, but then I saw the pot, (laughs) or Bigfoot saw the pot, because he’d just thrown in the towel at that point. He had lost it because he suddenly realized he wasn’t getting the Fruit Loops. And then suddenly, in the tantrum that he was having in that grocery store when he realizes he’s not getting the Fruit Loops, that’s a learning moment of, “Oh okay, well how else can I get it?” Or, like him, who takes everything to the extreme, then life’s not worth living.
Q: There’s a line in “On the Road” where a character says, “L.A. has the best looking cops because they all came here to be actors.”
BROLIN: Yeah. Makes sense. It makes sense within this.
Q: This is like the perfect embodiment of that and Bigfoot actually has a SAG card.
BROLIN: And the fact is that was a lot of cops back then and now. When they’re not working, they’re usually working on sets. They’re not necessarily actors, but they’re definitely working on sets because there’s money there, too. And the fact that he wasn’t a prime investigator during the Manson murders and all that, he just is not getting his. And look at him. He’s got the wig on and he hates hippies, but he’s actually playing a hippy. It reminds me of doing theater in New York. They were all talking about how awful Hollywood is. And then, you’d see him in a chicken commercial two weeks later. Where’s all that integrity, all that judgment, and all that? And I see him the same way. He’s the same way. He’ll do anything for fame, for notice, for some kind of notice and validity. And yet, he’s going about it so in the wrong way. That’s why I laugh. I know what I intended and I know what Paul intended. Like the “Adam-12” extra work, if you really look at it, he just buzzes the camera a couple of times. He looks right into the lens, and he doesn’t know where to put his hands, which I loved. He’s like the worst actor. It’s fun, man. It’s like once you finally give him the opportunity, he fucks it all up.
Q: What was the process like of filming those commercials and the TV show?
BROLIN: It was great.
Q: Did Paul direct those as well?
BROLIN: Yes, he did. And Robert Elswit was right there doing all that stuff. It was fun. We did it a lot of different ways. It’s interesting to try and find conviction in something but not have the ability to be convincing. That’s weird but a lot of fun. So, it’s different variations of that.
Q: Did you enjoy shooting around Los Angeles?
BROLIN: I enjoy stories that are about California. Being a guy who lived in New York and went to New York to become an actor, a real actor, and all that kind of stuff, and then I realized that that’s all bull. It just really doesn’t matter. There are great people from anywhere. New York is not where the actor lives or learns. It can be anywhere. It really depends on the person and all that. And then, coming back to California and realizing there are great characters in California, especially beach characters or Valley characters. Paul has been great in exploiting the Valley. I mean, the Valley is perceived as being the blandest place basically on Earth, and he’s made it into something that is not only true, but he’s exploited the fact that there’s character even in these places that you think are completely bland. So, being a beach guy myself, having grown up in the country but then moving to the beach, living in and out of Venice since I was 17, I know. If I go down there now, which I live close to there now, there are a lot of guys you see down there and there’s not a lot of difference between 1970 and 2014. It’s the same dude. It’s just a different generation. It’s great. There’s a lot of character, man. And there are a lot of characters. So I love stories that are about California. I’m a staunch Californian and absolutely am deeply prideful of living in California in a good way, I think.
Q: Did you and Joaquin talk a lot about your dynamic before or during shooting at all?
BROLIN: No. Not at all.
Q: Was it just sort of understood between you two?
BROLIN: There was nothing understood about it. It just happened. Paul and I talked a lot about it. But no, it was just always a feeling of a measurable possibility. It’s just always a feeling that anything could happen. I mean, we could be in the middle of a scene and I might smack him in the back of the head. Or he’ll throw something at me. It just would happen. Even when you go to the scene where Bigfoot says, “Pick a card,” obviously there’s one card out for him to pick. So Doc tries to get every other card other than the card that’s intended. But when we did that, a lot came out of that. You got the pretty straightforward version, but I love that kind of stuff. It’s like what is he going to do? If he picks the wrong card, does he have a tantrum right away because he knows what he’s doing? Why do you always have to do the opposite of what I want you to do? And then, this whole idea of him wanting to have an impact saying, “I’m giving you the card to choose and you’re not doing what I’m telling you to do.” And then he gets into a childish tantrum. I don’t know. It’s like anything can go during “action” and “cut,” and every time it’s different. It’s not a total free for all. It’s still within an understanding of what we’re doing.
Q: That scene in front of the car is very funny where he’s rolled up into a ball and you’re stomping him.
BROLIN: That was the first time we worked together. That was our first day.
Q: That looked very real.
BROLIN: It was real. But we also danced a version of it. It was a dialogue scene that turned out to not be a dialogue scene. I was supposed to be in the car and Joaquin was outside of the car. Then I asked if there was a speaker, and could I do it instead of outside the window, could I do it through the horn? And then, that turned into we couldn’t get the speaker to work. So Paul said, “Why don’t you do it so that every time you would say a line, dance the line that you would dance.” This was the direction for Bigfoot. “And then, Doc mirror what he’s doing. And then, when Doc has the line, you dance whatever you think is appropriate for that line. And then, Bigfoot mirror what Doc’s doing.” And then, that was unusual, but that created something else. It created what we chose ultimately. That’s Paul. And he’s chosen people that will go there and freely go there, willingly go there. And that’s really fun to be around.
“Inherent Vice” is now playing in limited release before going wide on January 9th.