One of the most popular actors in Hollywood, Josh Brolin has a lot of A-list friends. But the friendship with the guy he calls his "dance partner," Sean Penn, was sealed with a kiss.
They met back in 2007 on the set of Milk, in which Penn played San Francisco's Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. Brolin played Dan White, the disturbed city supervisor who assassinated Milk, and served only five years in prison after invoking the infamous "Twinkie defence," which claimed he was under the influence of a junk-food binge.
The two were literally mortal enemies on screen. But when they met on set Penn chose to break the ice by publicly kissing Brolin full on the lips. After vowing to find another project to do together, years later the two friends are back at each other's throats, as real-life gangster Mickey Cohen (Penn) and his LAPD nemesis Sergeant John O'Mara (Brolin) in the period piece Gangster Squad.
Reports from the set tell of a brutal, choreographed, knockdown fight between Penn's Cohen and Brolin's O'Mara. "Good versus evil," Brolin says of the skirmish during an L.A. interview. "It's pretty primal."
"It was really good man, really good," continues Brolin, laidback in jeans and a black shirt. "Not only is Sean one of the most talented actors ever, but I love working with him. Some actors, it's an easy dance." Brolin says that after doing Milk he and Penn found Gangster Squad together. “"And we'll continue to work together."
From Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, Gangster Squad recounts the battle to prevent Brooklyn-born mob boss Cohen from setting up shop in Los Angeles through the 1940s and '50s. For the most part, Cohen gets an easy ride courtesy of the police and politicos on his payroll. But a small, secret LAPD squad has quietly been given the power to take Cohen down by any means necessary. Leading this bunch is O'Mara and his right-hand man Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling).
Mention of his sidekick Gosling inspires the 44-year-old to launch into a stream of accolades for the current generation of actors. "There are actors coming out of the woodwork right now that are just phenomenal," he says. "Michael Shannon, [Michael] Fassbender, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain…"
And then there's Gosling. "I really enjoyed working with Ryan," Brolin says of the Canadian phenom. "He comes from a totally different kind of world. He's never taken an acting class and he’s just kind of taught himself. He loves that whole kind of [John] Cassavetes approach [handheld cameras, enigmatic, spontaneous acting], which I think is fun.
"I love Cassavetes, I love improvising. And he's big into that. I watched [Gosling in] Blue Valentine again the other night. It makes you feel like sh-t for three days, but it's really good."
Not that Brolin was going to let Gosling get too serious on him. He needled the Canadian kid about his time on TV's "The Mickey Mouse Club," a period during which Gosling appeared on the show alongside the likes of Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. "I even had a little piece of his Mickey Mouse singing put on video. I was going to play it on the set, but the ambience was never right."
The son of actor James Brolin (making Barbra Streisand his stepmother), Josh has turned out to be a late bloomer, winning accolades for recent turns in No Country for Old Men, Oliver Stone's W., and even Men in Black 3, in which his impression of a young Tommy Lee Jones became the most talked about part of the movie.
The earlier part of his career wasn't so solid.
Having been on the cusp of stardom since 1985's kids' pic The Goonies, Brolin fondly recalls the night he and pal Johnny Depp were unknowns, both up for a part in the new Fox TV series "21 Jump Street," waiting for the phone call in Brolin's apartment. Depp got the part, "and the next day he was on a plane to Vancouver," where the series was shot, remembers Brolin. Depp was en route to stardom, while Brolin continued on with TV guest spots and indie movies.
"So you have all these great stories when you've been in the business for 28 years," Brolin says. "But the bottom line is, you just want to work, man.
"And the career thing, I like it right now, because I don't feel I've sold out. I feel good about the characters I'm playing and the movies I'm in.
"I've turned down a lot of 'event' films over the years," he continues. "Money's neat, money's fun and when somebody's holding out their hands [full of cash] saying, 'You want some? You want some?' there's a little bit of withdrawal when you say, 'No.'"
Jim Slotek writes about movies for The Toronto Sun.