Josh Brolin just can’t be pinned down. He has transformed into George W. Bush (W.) and a young Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black 3). He’s a great crime fighter (American Gangster) and an even better cowboy (No Country for Old Men). But nothing—save his unhitched gay agent Tony Kent in David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster—could’ve prepared audiences for Bigfoot Bjornsen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970s crime caper Inherent Vice. From the way he eats a banana, or pancakes, or a plate full of pot for that matter, Bigfoot is a bizarre, lovable creation that is all Brolin.
What’s your process when you get a script, and what were your first thoughts when you read the one for Inherent Vice?
When Paul (Thomas Anderson) called me I was on my way to a vacation, and I was really tired. I had been working a lot. He called me and he said, “Hey, I may have some work for you”—I love that line—“Can you meet?” And I can’t believe I said, “Can we meet when I get back?” That’s how tired I was. My agent was like, “What the fuck did you say?” I’ve known Paul for a while. I think he’s one of the great filmmakers of all time. So I said, “Well, what is it for?” He said, “This thing Inherent Vice that I adapted and it’s something that I’ve had for a long time, will you read it?” And I said, “Sure.” And he sent me the script. I might as well have not read it. I mean, I loved it, and I think that I’m good at reading dense things and getting my head around kind of strange, absurd authors like Beckett and Ionesco. But this was so… I mean, the thing with (Thomas) Pynchon is, he just goes off on these tangents. So you’re going through it, and then all of a sudden he just takes a big bong hit and he goes somewhere else. And it’s great. Once you get your head around it, it’s fantastic. But I was confused. I said, “I don’t get it, and it’s not that I don’t want to get it, but where’s your head at?” And Paul told me about his relationship with Pynchon, the writing and all that, and it was intriguing, and it’s him. Even if the film turns out badly, there’s going to be no thought of, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that,” because you know it’s going to be an experience. You know that Paul’s creative head is in a space that I want to be involved in.
You have such a range of films, but was there a feeling that this was uncharted territory for you?
Uncharted territory? Yes, in film. Uncharted territory in life or in theater? No. It’s almost like when I first started acting. People would say, “OK, he’s got a kind of dirty blond hair and he looks like a jock.” I’m the opposite of how I look. Now I think I’m starting to look like I feel. I’m a little older now, and I’m more comfortable with my humor and the fact that it may not work for everybody. I always felt kind of like a misfit or a little bit of a freak. The prom was not something I was going to be going to, you know? And not because I didn’t want to go. I did want to go. So now, actually meeting people who aren’t social misfits, but just people who are interested in just different things is cool.
Your character appears square and straight, but he’s a misfit like others in the film. Did you ever feel like you fully inhabited this character on what was an experimental set?
Paul had stripped away a lot of the color of the character (from the book), because obviously he’s thinking of the tone of the film. He’s thinking of the other characters. I don’t really have to think that way. It’s an interesting idea to have this kind of desaturated character come in and differentiate himself from everybody else, but I didn’t particularly agree, so I was like, “Why don’t we resaturate it?” Once we started doing that, we started having so much fun together, bringing back what was in the book. Once we got on-set then we just fucking started pouring all kinds of Day-Glo paint on it, and it just became… It made sense. It’s not like I read the script and thought, “I know how to play this guy.” That never happens, ever. Instead, you go through a massive torture that I don’t wish on anyone. It just has to do with creating anything. I have to present this (character) to people as if it works.
You’re big on preparation. What did you do for this role?
I read the book probably 10 or 11 times. I read this script a lot. For me, this was a lot of fun because it was rebelling against the tone of what Paul was creating, so I could go to set when I wasn’t working, and I’d get a feeling of what they were doing and I’d think, “Wow, this feeds me because I know what to go against tomorrow.” But, like, the bananas. That’s a good example. Bigfoot eats bananas. All right. So then the question is, how does he eat bananas? How many bananas does he eat? Are we going to be dumb and hold one banana in each hand? Are we going to have a desk drawer full of bananas that, when you open the drawer, we’ll put a little dry ice in there so it’s like he created a freezer in the drawer? I mean, these are all things that we talked about.
What was it like working opposite Joaquin Phoenix?
There’s nobody who’s more willing to allow an organic moment to come out of a tone that you intuitively understand than Joaquin. And that’s fun. It’s dangerous.
Was there a scene that was difficult for you two to put together?
The pancake scene was probably the hardest. It wasn’t jiving. It’s turned out to be one of people’s favorite scenes, which is amazing to me, because we finished the scene and we said to Paul, “Do we have it?” And he was like, “I don’t know.” I’d smack Joaquin in the back of the head just for no reason in the middle of a line, and then that would create something else, and then we’d start screaming at each other. With Joaquin, (what we’re doing) is still all within the (characters’) relationship. That’s what was kind of nice about watching the film. I believe that these guys are in a relationship. It keeps changing, but I do know that they are truly connected. They feed off each other.
What did you gain from working with Anderson on this film that just made it a very distinctly “PTA” experience?
He’s a personal peer. I’m not going to say we are like-minded, because I have such respect for the guy, and I hold him in such high esteem, that to put myself there would be, I don’t know, ridiculous and just inappropriate, but it felt like-minded. It was a relationship with somebody where I didn’t feel like a freak.
Forget the critics for a moment. What experience do you hope audiences will get out of this movie?
It’s the difference between growing up with the Barnum & Bailey circus, where you see the animals and the guy who puts his head in the lion’s mouth, and then seeing Cirque du Soleil. I don’t know if that’s an accessible feeling, but I do know that there are things to appreciate other than the mainstream, you know? So what do I hope people get out of Inherent Vice? A varied experience, a different perspective on life, which I think is very, very interesting and can’t hurt anybody. I feel very grateful to be working with these filmmakers who still just want to do their thing. There’s nothing more that they want to do other than, “Can I just see my vision through for better or worse?” And I like those people a lot.
Photograph of Josh Brolin by J.R. Mankoff