Josh Brolin headlines this weekend’s “Gangster Squad” as the tough cop who looks to take down gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) in 1940s Los Angeles. Behind the scenes, Brolin was also instrumental in getting his good friend Penn to star as Cohen (after passing on the role himself), as well as in shaping his own character — even if that meant cutting his lines.
At the film’s press conference, Brolin said that his big fist fight with Penn in the movies was tough: “One of us is a smoker and the other an ex-smoker,” he explained. When I walked into the room to speak with Brolin — where he discussed everything from gangster movies to firing a tommy gun — the pack of cigarettes on the table confirmed that he isn’t the one who quit.
[Spotting the cigarettes] Ahh, that’s why the fight scene was so tough on you.
You know, I didn’t smoke during the movie. I go back and forth, because I hate smoking. I think it’s the worst, most awful thing. And then we were doing “Oldboy” [his upcoming film with Spike Lee] and the fight scene was ten times what the fight scene was in here, and I was gasping for air and needing oxygen so bad and turning white and I’m thinking, “I can’t smoke!”
It must have been hard because “Gangster Squad” is a period film where everyone is smoking all around you.
I was the only one who didn’t smoke. The only one. Ryan, who I don’t think is a smoker, he smoked in this movie.
How hard was it to do a knock-down, drag-out fight with someone who’s a good friend?
I was happy that it was Sean because I trust him. There’s some people I wouldn’t trust in that situation. I was very, very happy that it was him because he didn’t want to fight. Some people can get so into it that you end up actually kind of fighting and you don’t want to do that in that kind of situation, especially if you’re working all night and it’s three o’clock in the morning and it’s your third day and you’re frickin’ tired beyond belief and you slip up and someone punches you… But we didn’t have any of that, luckily. I’m very happy the way it turned out.
[Director] Ruben Fleischer said that Sean got cast first and then he asked you to join the film.
Sean was asked when Ruben thought I wasn’t available to do the movie. Then I think there was a scheduling thing with Sean and then Ruben found out I was available and he offered me Mickey Cohen. And then I played with that idea and we did some makeup tests. And we said, “You know what? It would be a great character, but I belong playing this other guy. Let’s go back to Sean and let’s get Sean however we have to.”
What would your Mickey Cohen have been like?
I don’t know. It might have been really bad. I think that’s why I chose not to do it. It would have been different than Sean, that’s for sure. But I love what Sean did.
Are you a big fan of gangster movies?
Not necessarily. I think I’m a fan more of the gangster movies of the ’70s. I’ll go back to Bogie and all of that stuff. I watched some of those films when I knew I was going to do this, but none of that helped, I don’t think. I liked watching them. The one movie I did watch a lot of when I was a kid was “Once Upon a Time in America” with James Woods and Robert De Niro. I loved that movie. I watched it over and over and over.
Fleischer was telling me that you looked so right in this period — if you had a black-and-white photo of you in costume, people wouldn’t be able to tell you apart from real actors from that time.
It’s so funny. People talk about my jaw or the size of my head, whether the hat fits me right. I guess it’s a compliment.
He compared you to Sterling Hayden and Robert Mitchum.
I hadn’t thought about it, but there is that sort of Mitchum-esque feel, which I think is great. It’s a fun tone to get into. If you think of the laconic nature of the guy from “No Country For Old Men,” it’s a very different thing, it’s a very different mentality. Whereas this thing, it’s more furrowed brow and yet you get to see him with his wife, and it’s a softer side. It’s my romantic idea of what it was like back then. I can only live it through my dad, I can only live it through the people I talk to and then just kind of live within the reality of what they’ve created on set.
Ryan said he was jealous that you get to fire a tommy gun in the movie. Did you enjoy it?
It’s fun for about the first five minutes and then the gun starts jamming and you’ve got to get it fixed and then it’s three o’clock in the morning. I’m not a big gun-toting guy, even though I’m a country guy and everybody around me has guns and all that. It’s really fun for a little while, but I’ve done so many movies with guns.
You also played a cop in “American Gangster.”
He was very different . He was totally corrupt. I think [my character in "Gangster Squad"] had an honorable goal and he’s willing to do what needs to be done. The character in “American Gangster” is just a bad, bad, bad guy.
Today the kind of cop who breaks laws, even for the greater good, could not operate.
No, especially not today. It’s a much more paranoid time now. If a cop does a wrong thing and he’s videotaped, which most likely he will be… you can’t even be on a movie set now and be inappropriate.
You had to redo the shootout scene due to the tragedy in Aurora. How tough was it to go back and what was the mood like on set?
The mood was somber for a couple of reasons: first the reason why we had to reshoot it, and that we had to reshoot anything. When you go back and reshoot, it’s always a weird feeling. We’d done a movie or two movies since then and in your mind, once you’re done, you’re done. [Brolin previously spoke to Moviefone about why he thinks it's a better sequence now and why reshooting it was the right thing to do]
You’ve had this great run of movies lately. Do you feel like you’re hitting your stride now?
No, because I feel like I did some really great work in theater before this. A success stride, yes. I was never [this] successful, but that’s a different thing. I’m very fortunate in that I get choice now, where I never had choice before. I did, but on a much smaller scale. I’m getting to work with people I’ve always wanted to work with.