‘Only the Brave’ Interview Series Part 4: Josh Brolin

Josh Brolin attending the premiere of True Grit at the Berlin Film Festival 2011. (Siebbi/Wikimedia Commons)

Josh Brolin is known for his roles as Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men (2007), George W. Bush in W. (2008), and Thanos in the Avengers series. He is currently filming for the second Deadpool movie. Brolin plays Eric Marsh, super of the Granite Mountain Division.

Interviewer: We thought your performance was great. The whole cast was great. Everyone gave a lot of human weight to these characters, which sometimes you don’t see in a dramatized version of a story. What did you do personally do to give it that human weight, to make sure it wasn’t sensationalized? And did you meet with Amanda?

Josh: I’ve [been] very close with the wife. She’s like my little sister. We spend a lot of time together. We talk almost every day. And she’s doing great. She has a great fiance. I spent a lot of time with the family. Last night we were in Phoenix and she actually apologized for the first thing she said to me, which was “Eric was a lot taller than you.” I couldn’t change that. They were appropriately sensitive and tough in the beginning, which I kind of liked because having been involved in the firefighter community for as long as I have, 30 years, I was a volunteer firefighter in my 20s, so I think when I met Jo I was very reticent. I knew about what had happened. The chief of our firefighting department knew Eric and went to the funeral. I was reticent, and I think we raked Jo over the coals a little bit, once we started I went from 240 to 190. I was doing another role that I got really big for, so I put myself through an appropriate amount of hell in order to get where I needed to get in order to lead 25- to 35-year-olds as a 47-year-old guy purely out of fear. Once I was there I think I was appropriately and respectfully — thinking of those guys that all firefighters that I know — hard on my guys. We would randomly weigh their packs to make sure nobody took out anything — everyone wore 45-pound packs. We hiked seven to nine miles a day at major pitches between 7,000 and 10,000 feet [in elevation]. There was a lot of blood and there was some whining, but we got through that pretty quickly and everybody was pretty stripped down. So by the time we started the movie — I mean look, we create — that’s what happens out of pain, machismo, whatever you want to call it. The community that was created out of that surpassed the movie. That’s the kind of spirit firefighters hold. We still communicate every day, no matter how inappropriately. We have a text chain. There’s constant challenging going on. There’s constant ribbing going on. That’s the reality of what you saw, so half of that was acting and half of that is who we had become because we had stripped everything away — all ego, vanity, that entitlement that actors have when they show up and want to know where their coffee is and where their trailer is. We were in the dirt between shots. We created this game called silent rock where we’d throw a rock at each other — a lot of bruises. No teeth lost. But if you dropped the rock you did 25 squats with the pack on, 25 sit-ups or 25 push-ups, so on the average each person would do between 300 and 400 of each per day and that’s how we stayed in shape. And it was all good.

Interviewer: You mentioned that you had some firefighting experience in the past, how much wildfire experience did you have?

Brolin: Some. I was volunteer for wildland fire, but I trained in some structural fire. So I’ve been fully inflamed in structures and stuff like that. So I’ve had some, but I’ve never experienced anything like thousands of acres ablaze. Nothing like what you see in California right now.

And we had to deal with our own fire. It was controlled and safe, but it got away from us a couple of times.

It’s like what the real Chief Steinberg said at the end our training, “You’re not hotshots, but we love that it’s you who’s representing us.” Which I thought was appropriately tough and all the kind of go-ahead that we needed. “You can pretend you’re hotshots, but you’re not dealing with it.” That’s an important point in the movie is to make conscious and aware the everyday goingson of these guys — they’re putting themselves in peril every day in order to ensure your safety. It’s nice because they’re very shy. They don’t want to be known.

Interviewer: What was it about Eric that resonated with you the most — that really made you feel like you could play that role?

Brolin: That he was flawed. I liked that it was a character who was flawed. Maybe I embrace the fact that I’m flawed, I don’t try to pretend like I’m not. He’s sober. I’m sober. That was a connection that I didn’t really know until later that was interesting. I know a lot of firefighters. My chief had a really close friend who knew him well and was at the funeral. There were a lot of connections. Crazy amount of connections. Which made me more reticent than forward-moving because I wanted to make sure. You know I have been involved with some movies where people say, directors especially say, “I’m going to be up there with you and I’m going to be this — and it’s going to be — and we’ll be in it together.” And then you see them again and they’re wearing a cashmere sweater on, staying warm somewhere on the side, watching their little monitor. And you’re like, “Where the fuck did they go? Like what happened to that whole thing where we were going to do it together?” Joe Kazinsky on the other hand is a guy who is technically extremely proficient, a very, very brilliant technical director and I was reticent because I was like, “You have that — are you going to show up?” And having had those experiences before I think I was a little tougher on him than I would have been on somebody else, but he was just honest. He was straightforward, like I was with the families. I said, “I’m not going to be your son. I will never do a perfect job. I will always do something that you can find that is wrong, but what we hope to do is bring the spirit of who these guys were and hold the authenticity as much as possible.”

Interviewer: The flaws are really what made the movie, because you have superheroes and good-guys doing this and that, and you don’t see that they’re really just messed up people like everyone else, and that makes the whole thing more tragic.

Brolin: I think that’s the power of editing, which I put a lot of onus on because you can find a performance and find a story in editing when you may not think that you have it when you’ve completed [filming]. Sicario is a perfect example. I finished that movie and I was like, “Well that didn’t work.” And then I saw the movie and was like, “Well apparently that worked.” You don’t know. It’s the power of editing. You can create a story — it’s like when you guys are writing a story or I’m writing a story or prose or a short story. It’s a very difficult thing to really be able to pull people in and to know when to let go and when to pull people in and that’s the genius of great storytelling. There were times we took out family stuff and we put in more fires. There were times when we took out fires and put in more family stuff. I was very, very pleased with the balance.

Interviewer: Were there any challenges pre- or post-production? Anything you struggled to wrap your head around with the character, the physical, the mental?

Brolin: It was all tough. The biggest challenge for me was to toughen up and not be so sensitive. I’m a crier. I remember there was one situation in the beginning where we were training where I had the boys up on a hillside and I had them do emergency deployment. I had them deploying all over the place. In buildings. We were out in the desert for two weeks and one guy was being — he’s a jokester — and I found it disrespectful at that moment so I made him stay under for about 20 minutes in about 105-degree weather. He’s a big guy and I was kind of shitting my pants because he was going to kick my ass. I felt like the moment was too important to pass up. I told him how I felt afterwards — about the respect for these guys, and not that there was a ton of humor, but we hadn’t earned it yet. Once we earned it then it was okay. It’s a tough story not just because of the tragedy but just because of what these guys do on a daily basis.

So I’m all sensitive and all that, but even when I was doing press, I had to tell myself to get my shit together. I’ve seen the movie four times now. The premiere was the easiest for me because I knew I had to go out and meet with people, but when I finished the movie I cried a lot in the three times I’ve seen it since to the point where I couldn’t really speak after for quite a long time before I gave notes and told them what I thought needed to be changed. In the premiere when Jeff and I left, we just embraced each other and were crying and we’re not even involved. I can’t even imagine what the friends and the families and all that. So I still have a sensitivity to that. I still think it’s important what we did and I still think it’s important, especially now, with a hotter and hotter and hotter world, to deny that this exists, to deny that there’s global warming is disrespectful to every moment these guys live in protecting us.

Interviewer: What was it like screening in Arizona? Did the families come?

Brolin: It was great and it was difficult. I slept last night. I was exhausted last night because everybody — one thing when you’re in a premiere in L.A., you see people and you’re like, “Hey! How you doing? How you been?” And then when you’re in Arizona, everybody I turned my head to I knew or had some connection to either my firefighting history or a connection to Eric and his family or anybody else of the 20 people involved. It was crazy, crazy personal, which made it  — I had no nerves that night, which was interesting. Normally I’m a little nervous and usually you’re running from one thing to the other and people are grabbing you and asking you the same question over and over — it was really satisfyingly personal but also very emotional. Not even always in a sad way. Sometimes it’s elation or, like, spending time with Eric’s mom was great. She was so — she was really kind of hyped up and into it. Not because of the nature of the red carpet but we loved seeing each other again.

Interviewer: Did all the families come?

Brolin: For the most part. There were a couple of people — there were some really emotional moments for some people, and we expected that. You go with the greatest intentions, and then boom — especially at the end of the movie when you find you can feel this like freight train coming, which we describe earlier in the movie. It feels like there’s a 747 flying 15 feet above you. To imagine — I have kids — it’s not. There’s both sides of it.

The other thing that can be just as emotional is how much the movie celebrates these guys. The tragedy is the end, and I love the end — how quickly it happens. It’s very fast and brutal. And you go, “That’s the fragility of life. It can end *claps* like that.” I just wrote something on Instagram this morning that just came out of a moment. I woke up and I just saw this guy put up a video of waves and the ocean, and I’m so affected by how important it is to live your life to its fullest extent right now because you never know — especially with all of these natural disasters.

Contact Arts Editors Austin Willeke and Stephanie Wood at auwi8572@colorado.edu and stephanie.a.wood@colorado.edu.

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