As the son of actor James Brolin, Hollywood runs in Josh Brolin’s genes. So it’s appropriate he stars in “Hail, Caesar!”, a portrait of the Golden Age circa the 1950s. The actor, 47, plays Eddie Mannix, a slightly fictionalized version of Hollywood’s most notorious “fixer”: a studio figure whose job involved hiding up scandals, even ones about sex and murder. The Oscar nominee’s third film with the Coen brothers (after “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit”), it finds him dealing with an AWOL movie star (George Clooney) and other headaches.
Our phone interview begins like this:
I don’t even have any questions. This is all I've got.
Let’s just keep doing this.
So your first name is Josh.
My first name is Josh, my last name is Brolin. My middle name is James, but we don’t use that because then it gets confusing.
It’s odd that your father would give you his name but as the middle one, not the first.
Yeah, why would you do that? I don’t get it. I understand naming your kid your actual name, because there’s some pride in that. But when you get the middle name it’s like you weren’t good enough for the first.
This leaves me with no smooth segue into “Hail, Caesar!”, so I’ll just say, like a lot of Coen films, there’s a lot to unpack. Some of it doesn’t become clear till after it’s over.
It was very interesting to watch it. I didn’t think it was nearly as interesting when I was doing it. And I’m the first guy to watch a movie I’m in and say, “Eh, it’s OK!” I was as objective as I could be and I thought it was one of their better films.
Is that nerve-wracking for you: watching a film once it’s completed?
It’s enervating. It’s unnerving. You [the audience] are seeing it after the fact, but I’m starting it before anything happens. We’re all living in nervousness about what could go wrong. [Laughs] This role is hyper-specific but the guidelines are so general. There’s no way to play it with any specificity. There’s a lot of room for failure. Which I like, in hindsight, but not during the process. I hate it during the process.
The movie’s version of Eddie Mannix isn’t exactly like the real one. Did you still do a deep dive in Hollywood history?
I wasn’t told by the Brothers that it wasn’t the same guy, maybe because they were interested in me finding him for myself. Not that he’s nothing like him. He’s still Norman Mailer-simian-brutish. But he’s very different when it comes to his faith and his family, which he’s pretty hardcore about. He’s a fairly diplomatic and nice guy. The real Eddie Mannix was violent all around. I read a book called “The Fixers,” which had [fellow fixer] Howard Strickland and [studio heads] Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. He’s an amalgamation of all those guys. His levity, his religious beliefs — all that’s Thalberg.
By the end you realize he’s a metaphor for Christ. That’s why I like the confession scenes. That’s what Jesus did: constantly keeping himself in check, even though he’s dealing with beggars and whores. Eddie deals with debauched actor children.
But he’s also godlike: The masses never know all the strings he’s pulling behind the scenes to deliver wholesome Hollywood entertainment.
But he’s doing it for Nick Schenck [MGM’s top brass]. It’s like he’s Jesus doing it for God.
How did you come up with that voice? It's very old school Jersey, which is where Mannix is from.
I would try on different cadences. I would listen to Bud Abbott, because he was from Jersey. I always liked his accent, but I wanted to go further with it, but without going so far that it sounded phony. That’s why I liked the scene with his wife, played by Alison Pil. There’s something very human about him in that scene.