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After some misgivings, he got ‘W.’ down to a T

Special to The Times

Friends told him not to do it. He’d even turned it down once already. The possible maelstrom of partisan controversy weighed on him. But in deciding to play the Decider for Oliver Stone’s new satirical biopic, “W.,” Josh Brolin relied on a very non-George W. Bush-like standard: doubt. Unlike the 43rd president of the United States, a man fatally confident of his actions, Brolin wasn’t sure he could pull it off.

As he explained recently over lunch in Westwood at -- where else? -- the W hotel, being scared puts him in a good place. “That makes me focus more,” Brolin says. “I don’t do safe stuff anyway, so what am I fretting about? So what it came down to was, I said, ‘Oliver, man, you have to be my rock. I’m willing to be totally humiliated in front of 100 people in order to not be humiliated in front of millions of people.’ ”

An avowed lefty who considers Bush “dopey” and “arrogant,” Brolin knew what he didn’t want the movie to be when he jumped on board. “I didn’t want poisonous writing and poisonous reaction,” he says. “I wanted compassion and understanding of him as a person. If we can get away from party leanings, it becomes a very interesting biopic.”

Ultimately Brolin responded to the oft-reworked melding of fact and fiction that was the “W.” script, which combined imagined scenes, biographical moments and well-reported quips and statements to tell the story of an establishment clan’s wayward son who finds himself and in the process fails upward. “I was blown away following the guy through the labyrinth of his life, the personal conviction he found once he stopped drinking and deepened his relationship with Jesus,” Brolin says. “He had a conviction like no other human being.”

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Brolin admits to even coming to like Bush the guy, if not Bush the leader. “He grabs you, slaps you on the back, says, ‘Let’s go have a beer.’ I understand it. And I understood wanting to get away from this elitist, untouchable thing of presidents in the past.”

But Brolin and Stone hardly sought to convey the dark-shadowed seriousness of conspiracy and corrupted potential that mark the director’s previous presidential films, “JFK” and “Nixon.” Instead, they colored the drama of Bush’s bristling under a disappointed father (James Cromwell) with a farcical take on the cowboy complex that spurred Bush to see the Iraq war as a way to do Daddy one better. Brolin recalls on set once hearing Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn -- who plays Barbara Bush -- discussing Bush’s life in terms of a Greek tragedy. “Yeah, I understand it,” Brolin says, “but nobody said comedy. And I always saw this as a comedy.”

He also terms Bush a “character lead,” a role-type he wants to embrace after the cumulative profile-raising effect of last year’s acclaimed turns -- big, supporting and cameo-sized -- in “No Country for Old Men,” “American Gangster” and “In the Valley of Elah.” Because after an up-and-down career dotted with quirky gems (“Flirting With Disaster”), third-lead blahs (“Hollow Man”), lurches into television (“Mister Sterling”) and countless unseen indies, Brolin is ready to use his heat to work with filmmakers he respects rather than chase paycheck- fueled stardom.

Stone knew Brolin was at a perfect time in his life in terms of history and achievement to grasp Bush.

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“He’s 40 years old, and he’s been through what Bush went through in his life to some degree,” says Stone. “There’s failure, and he came late to success, which is crucial to understanding George Bush. Bush wants to be John Wayne, and Josh has that John Wayne quality of being cranky, rural, don’t back down. He’s a wonderful actor. He just has a raw, leading-man strength.”

This year’s theme

Tough hombres have always been a Brolin specialty. But if 2007 was his imposing mustache period -- it was there for “Elah,” “Gangster,” “No Country” and even the “Grindhouse” half “Death Proof” -- then his unintentional theme for 2008 would be deconstructed machismo in the form of the dangerously needy politician. Coming on the heels of “W.” is the eagerly awaited “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s film about the first openly gay elected official in the country, San Francisco businessman turned supervisor Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn. Eager to work with Penn and Van Sant, Brolin took the role of Milk’s Board of Supervisors colleague and eventual assassin, Dan White, a former policeman and firefighter who represented conservative, working-class southeastern San Francisco, a district at odds with Milk’s message.

“Bush had that connection with people, but Dan White didn’t have it, period,” says Brolin, who felt White was harder to play than the commander in chief. He cited “the massive amount of insecurity and uncertainty and overcompensation” in White, who murdered Mayor George Moscone and Milk over what he perceived as their ending of his political career. To avoid the role’s symbolic villainy, Brolin aimed for the gradual unraveling of an idealist who chafed at political back-and-forth. “There was immense pressure on him from his district to be the Great White Hope, to restore San Francisco back to what it was,” he says. “But he didn’t have the foresight to see that every politician has his moment, that this was the gays’ and lesbians’ time, and then that’d go away and he’d have his thing.”

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Brolin notes that he “stupidly, wrongly” ate a lot of junky sweets while playing White, whose defense lawyers at his murder trial notoriously argued that too many sugary snacks were at fault, a tactic famously coined “the Twinkie defense.” For the actor, the idea was to convey a fit physique gone slack. “I wanted that bloatedness, that the one thing that had motivated him -- his athleticism -- was gone, and now he was in a political world he didn’t understand,” says Brolin. “But I actually had medical problems after that movie. It messed with my head.”

From Milk to Bush

Brolin filmed “Milk” first, in February and March, then headed straight into preparation for “W.,” and what he says was the most research he’s ever done for a movie: “I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”

For starters, he worried about the president’s familiar, much-imitated Texas accent. The actor’s usual method for voice work -- randomly chatting up hotel clerks by phone in the area he wants to learn, as he did for Llewelyn Moss on “No Country” -- wouldn’t do. So Brolin created a chart for the psychological motivations behind Bush’s dialect, assessing how a clean Midland twang at 21 could become a careful inflective choice at 31 when he’s wooing future wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks). Explains Brolin, “He’s been back East for a while, so is he going to have some Eastern influence? But when you research how his time in college went and how he was perceived, you go ‘Screw the East, I want to make sure none of that’s in there, those people didn’t accept me.’ So he exaggerates his Texas roots.”

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The “W.” shoot in Shreveport, La., would prove to be an intensive 46 days, and Brolin was in nearly every scene. “The work ethic was so high, so massive, that there was no messing around,” he says. “We did that for nine weeks, I had a blast, and then I went to jail.”

He’s referring to the July 12 incident at a Shreveport bar during an informal celebration of the end of shooting. Brolin, costar Jeffrey Wright and four crew members were arrested. Brolin’s charge was interference with an arrest. With the issue unsettled, he won’t go into details on what happened, but he says with measured indignation, “I do know that people were arrested for asking questions and that certain nice people who are very innocent now have in their lives that they went to jail.”

While he awaits resolution on that matter, he’s staying busy with a theater company he runs with a friend, expanding a short he directed into a feature-length script with Paul Haggis and producing a documentary based on historian Howard Zinn’s “The People Speak.” His next “character lead,” though? Well, he admits he has told his wife, Diane Lane, just back from a promotional tour of Europe, that he was 99.5% sure he was going to take a big movie he’d been offered and that today he’s now 99.5% sure he’s not doing it.

Obviously, it’s tough job being the Decider.

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