That indelible, careermaking performance came in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Although Brolin wasn’t nominated for an Oscar to cap the film’s eight nominations (it won four), his tight-lipped performance drew nearly universal critical acclaim. Finely wrought appearances in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster and In the Valley of Elah—he played police officers in both—further bolstered the notion that this former Hollywood also-ran had emerged as a potential leading man. “Things are very, very, very different,” Brolin acknowledges. “I just had a meeting with my agent, and there was a moment as we were going through the projects when I was like, Wow. Wow! This is a very different place than I’ve been. Tony Scott wants to do this. Ridley Scott wants to work with me again.” Brolin was even offered the chance to earn a life-changing paycheck—to say nothing of the opportunity to connect with a blockbuster audience—by playing John Connor, one of the storied action heroes of modern cinema, in next summer’s Terminator Salvation.
Still, early this year, he passed on the part—Christian Bale eventually took the role—for what may amount to juicier screen time in smaller movies. November will see the release of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, about the late San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), the first openly gay man elected in American politics. Brolin plays Dan White, who murdered Milk in 1978. During the trial, White’s lawyers concocted what came to be known as the Twinkie defense—claiming that the defendant had been temporarily deranged after OD’ing on sugary junk food. “It’s interesting when you turn down a movie like T4, how many angry people there are suddenly,” reports Brolin, who took Milk to work with Penn, an old friend, and Van Sant, a directing hero of his. “They tell you, ‘Who do you think you are?’ I’ve gotten that forever, and so I’m fine with that.” Brolin pauses and shakes his head as if remembering some particularly energetic browbeating. “I love it,” he says with a broad smile.
From the outset, Brolin says, Penn confronted the potential nervousness of a group of actors playing flamboyantly gay characters by just steamrolling over it. (Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch and James Franco appear in the film as members of Milk’s entourage.) At their initial cast dinner, recalls Brolin, “the first thing [Penn] did was, he walked right up and grabbed me and planted a huge one right on my lips.” Brolin’s retelling of the moment registers as a tribute from one alpha male to another alpha’s impressive bravura.
As he talks, Brolin is spontaneous, funny and energetic, so it comes as a surprise when he confesses that he feels physically and emotionally spent after this year’s relentless shooting schedule. He explains that he went from the San Francisco set of Milk to Louisiana, where, for the first time, he had the responsibility of carrying a movie: As President George W. Bush, Brolin shot 103 of the film’s 108 scenes. The story derives its impact in large part from the young Bush’s almost mythic struggle to win his father’s approval and, later, to make his own mark on the world by conquering the old man’s geopolitical nemesis, Saddam Hussein. Brolin says that Stone approached him out of the blue with the role. “He just said, ‘I want you to do this movie,’” recalls Brolin, who figured the public wouldn’t want to see any more of their unpopular president at the cineplex, especially when presented by Oliver Stone. “My initial reaction was, ‘Are you nuts?’ There was a point where I actually grabbed Oliver’s head and said, ‘No!’ It was like I was talking to a dog or something.” Stone persisted, and when Brolin finally read the script, he found a richer and more intriguing interpretation of the Bush presidency than he had expected.