There’s a scene — one of several — from “No Country for Old Men,” the new Coen Brothers movie adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, which will be obsessively taken apart and reassembled for years to come. A girl by a pool. Some beers. A proposition. Sure, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is married and, yes, his wife is on her way into town. But maybe he’ll join this girl with her cold beers and big heart — so long as there’s no horsing around. What happens next is intensely important and yet maddeningly vague. And it all happens off-screen.
With “No Country” about to arrive in theaters, Brolin is sitting by the pool at the Chateau Marmont. Soon he’ll be driving out to the airport to pick up his wife, actress Diane Lane, who’s been marooned on location in Toronto and North Carolina these past six months. But that’s a few hours from now. He removes the you-lookin’-at-me? shades and kicks off his black Converse All Stars. “I’m so ecstatic to get to know my wife again,” Brolin begins. “I just want to sit there and look at her.” His big, suntanned hands in the air, he squeezes something soft and curvy from memory.
Neither of us is booked in at the Chateau. Truth is, we have sneaked out here — Brolin has never played it safe, so why start now? He lights up the first in a series of Winstons. “Young Nolte” is how the 39-year-old actor is presently known in Hollywood. Smug, sick, and twisted are becoming an on-screen sideline: A believably bisexual federal agent in David O. Russell’s “Flirting With Disaster.” A self-satisfied dentist in Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda.” A mad doctor in the Robert Rodriguez half of “Grindhouse,” a character who seems like he’s on his 15th coffee and drunk at the same time. Even so, it’s taken awhile to gain momentum with such blue-chip directors, and a year ago Brolin was forced to sell his farm in Northern California and become a serious day trader. “That’s how I earn the majority of my money,” he says, “so I don’t have to do roles I don’t want to.” He doesn’t usually tell people about his convoluted stock-picking system. “It’s all about patterns. If you look at the graph after a while, all you see is fear and greed. All stocks are fear and greed. It’s people.”
But now, with his career overheating, he’s shopping for a replacement farm. Currently, he’s costar as a corrupt cop with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster.” He shows up as a cop again in Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah.” But first comes Llewelyn Moss, tripping over a heap of dead Mexicans and a suitcase padded with hundreds out in the Texas desert after a drug deal gone to hell. Llewelyn, for all his good intentions, finds himself being hunted by a creep named Chigurh — Javier Bardem as a flesh-and-blood Terminator with a ridiculous Monkees mop-top. Llewelyn’s wife (Kelly Macdonald) and the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) worry after him as the chase jerks its way through sad, shag-carpeted motels.
Brolin spent most childhood vacations checked into motels — a world away from this patio, where he is now mocking the fries that have become “frites” on the menu before settling on a Sam Adams on draft. Hotel-motel living gets him talking about his mother, Jane, a former casting assistant who dated Clint Eastwood and then married actor James Brolin after an 11-day courtship. Jane was afraid to fly and logged up to 60,000 miles a year behind the wheel, until one terrible night in 1995 when her Chevy Suburban sped into a tree. “She was an amazing character,” says Brolin affectionately. “A big drinker. A riot, about that tall” — his palm hangs heavy in the air at sternum level — “and 90 pounds. She would find the biggest guy in the bar and wear him down and then probably end up sleeping with him.”
Brolin likes women who come with opinions. He has this in common with his father, who divorced Jane in 1987 and has been married to Barbra Streisand for nearly a decade. “Barbra’s no bullshit, and she has probably no filter — which I really appreciate in women,” says Brolin the younger. “My wife is like that, and my mother was like that.”
At 13, Brolin enrolled in psychoanalysis, which didn’t exactly roadblock the mohawk, tattoos, or Dead Kennedys shows in the years that followed. “I had a shrink who tried to turn me in at one point,” he casually remarks. For what? “For whatever,” comes the nonanswer. Brolin eventually bailed when somebody wanted to put him on pills: “The point was supposed to be a never-ending hashing out. That was the point.” Recently he went on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” his system bushwhacked by Prednisone prescribed for a shoulder injury. “That stuff just drives you insane. It was torture.”
Once in a while, Brolin and wife Diane leave the kids — his college sophomore son and teenage daughter from his prior marriage to actress Alice Adair, and Lane’s 14-year-old daughter from her prior marriage — and do the full, five-star-spa deal in Mexico. But he has to be honest: “The last really expensive trip we took was so uncomfortable. It’s so lazy. I want somebody to give me a great $30 massage as opposed to a bad $265 massage.” Preferably one administered minus the tinnitus of New Age music. “And don’t talk to me! Don’t talk to me! I don’t want anyone to be spiritual with me. I just want somebody to jump on my (stuff) and make me feel like a noodle.” Suddenly, a piece of Brolin’s front tooth cracks off on a hard piece of bacon. “Man, this (stuff) always happens to me.” As a kid, Brolin was studding a horse on the family ranch in Paso Robles, Calif., when his front teeth got kicked out.
Another mishap almost cost Brolin the Llewelyn gig. Two weeks before rehearsals, he flew over the handlebars of his Ducati motorcycle and snapped his collarbone in half. His lawyer informed him he was obliged to say something. Brolin copped only to a hairline fracture. Luckily, his character gets shot in the right shoulder early on in the film, and is entitled to look like he’s been run over. But there is still that scene where he must swim some rapids with a hungry pit bull in pursuit — a painful action sequence most definitely not CGI’d into the footage. “Long story short, the lying helped,” he rationalizes. “Most people lie most of the time.” Brolin’s no pessimist, just a realist with a Ph.D. in human nature. “It’s probably a bit of a power trip when you befriend somebody enough that they trust you to tell you things,” he says. And he will tell you things. And get you to tell him things. Researching Llewelyn’s Texas accent, he’d randomly call folks in hotels and stores with his tape recorder running. “You’re from the area? What’s fun to do there?” he’d say, pretending to be a tourist.
Off the set, Bardem put away Chigurh’s slaughterhouse stun gun — a murder weapon as memorably freaky as a medieval mace — and bonded with Brolin like a brother as the two actors puzzled together over the Coens’ way of doing business. “For the first two weeks, Javier and I were flipping out,” says Brolin. “There were no compliments. Zero compliments. Like, ‘These guys (friggin') hate us. We’re going to be fired.’?” (Later, “Josh was calling around the set tricking people, doing Javier’s voice,” says Kelly Macdonald.)
“Your feet look sunburned,” says Brolin after a few hours, looking for his sneakers. Ours would not be a never-ending hashing out, much as it’s clear he’s a talker. Long story short: The airport awaits.