Josh Brolin is making a habit out of going up against Sean Penn on screen as real-life rivals. But for their latest team-up, "Gangster Squad," the "Milk" co-stars switch sides, with Penn's gangster Mickey Cohen pursued by Brolin's boyscout detective John O'Mara in 1949 Los Angeles.
In our chat with Brolin, we hit on some of his favorite topics, including the lost art of fisticuffs and the importance of being willing to look like an idiot to be a good actor.
Metro: Your John O'Mara is a hard-charging, all-business detective in a fedora with a square jaw. So basically Dick Tracy, right?
Brolin: That's not a bad thing. I mean, it's funny because I had problems with the dialogue at the beginning when we were first going through the script, and I think the decision between all of us was made to kind of pull some of that dialogue away and make him a little more laconic than he was intended in the beginning, and I think that was right. It was this kind of Clint Eastwood-ian take on the guy that I think was good and let Sean kind of do what Sean was doing, which was bigger, and then Ryan [Gosling] doing what he was doing, which was more ad-libbing.
Is it less fun or less of a draw to be the serious one in the group?
No, because I have so much fun otherwise. I'm the humorous [off-camera], so I have a blast anyway. So I have somewhere to go. I don't walk around the set acting like I'm John O'Mara all the time. But you know, it's like I just finished "Old Boy," which has a ton of humor in it. It has many, many, many colors. But yes, to answer your question, yeah a little bit.
You've got an impressive fist fight with Sean Penn in this film for which no stunt men were used.
That was a good fist fight. I felt really good about that. I mean, I like fist-fighting anyway. I just like the concept of fist-fighting, I just think it's a lost art. I was talking to my dad about this, and I was like, I wonder if there was less violence — less extreme violence — back when people could fist-fight and actually it would be OK, as opposed to you touch me and I touch you and we sue each other. Sean and I both had to get in very good shape, we had to rehearse a lot. We spent a lot of time both at his house and on the set rehearsing. And I was really happy the way it turned out, really happy. There were a few slips. I've got a little scar right here [on my lip]. Occupational hazard.
There's also the occupational hazard of looking foolish when a punch goes wrong.
You just have to get over feeling like an idiot. People talk about acting, and I go look man, it's a profession of humiliation, that's what it is. You feel like an idiot on the set most of the time, you're embarrassing yourself most of the time, and hopefully you get to some kind of magical moment that the audience gets to see where they don't get to experience all that embarrassment. The older I get, thank God, the less and less I care about embarrassing myself and looking stupid. It's very liberating.
Can you give me an example?
I'll give you the latest example. I would do "Old Boy" and I would be naked in the motel room doing eight-minute-long takes, and basically Spike [Lee] saying, "You know what? You're in a motel room, you've been here 13 years, go." Do I climb under the bed? Do I masturbate? Do I talk to the poster? Do I wait for the alcohol? Do I eat? Do I try to sniff what I'm eating? I mean, what's going to be cool, what's going to be dynamic? Doing things literally that were ridiculous and then saying, "OK, we can probably use 30 seconds of that." But then you've got seven and a half minutes of just absolute retardation.