For most people, the vastness and splendor of the American West are sources of beauty, wonder and inspiration.
But wandering in those spacious landscapes can also lead to peril. Just ask Josh Brolin, the Oscar-nominated actor praised for his portrayals of complex characters at the mercy of forces outside their control.
In the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” Brolin played welder Llewelyn Moss, whose discovery of the bloody aftermath of a busted $2-million drug deal in the middle of a New Mexican desert puts him in the crosshairs of a psychotic hitman (Javier Bardem).
And in Amazon Prime Video’s new neowestern “Outer Range” — think “Yellowstone” meets “The X-Files” — Brolin portrays a haunted Wyoming rancher whose life is further upended when he comes across a massive hole with metaphysical powers in the middle of his property.
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“This whole metaphysical thing is really interesting to me and really fun for me,” said Brolin of “Outer Range,” maintaining that the project fits in with his quest to play offbeat, complicated characters: “I need to be scared.”
Brolin, who scored an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of tightly wound politician Dan White in the Harvey Milk biopic “Milk,” also starring Sean Penn, was in good spirits as he sat in a Los Angeles hotel room.
A few days earlier, he had presented at the Oscars, and referenced how Hollywood was still buzzing about lead actor winner Will Smith slapping Chris Rock after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
He compared the incident to the premise of “Outer Range.”
“It’s behaviorally fascinating, if you’re able to take the judgement out of it and be somewhat objective,” he said. “The parallel to our show is what people will do under extraordinary circumstances, and how many choices do you have when you’re confronted with the unknown.”
“Outer Range” marks Brolin’s first role as a TV series regular in nearly two decades. After all, he’s been busy elsewhere, appearing in several large-scale films in the last several years: A major part in last year’s space epic, “Dune,” came on the heels of playing the supervillain Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” another villain named Cable in “Deadpool 2,” and headlining alongside Benicio del Toro in two gritty drug cartel dramas, “Sicario” and its sequel “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.”
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Although he did not know how audiences would respond to “Outer Range” — “my perspective on the show is meaningless at this point,” he said — Brolin was encouraged by early positive reactions to the series, on which he is also an executive producer.
Asked what appealed to him about his character, Royal Abbott, he proclaims, “The Secret,” alluding to the mystery at the series’ center. “I’m not a big secret guy, especially now. I think I was before, and I think I understand what that is. The tone [it sets] as a paternal force — it’s not determined all by Royal, but is dictated by him. And you see how that affects in a very negative way everyone in the family.”
Even before he discovers the massive hole on his property, Royal has much on his mind. His daughter-in-law has vanished without a trace, and his family, including his religious wife Cecilia (Lili Taylor), is still grieving. He’s at war with neighboring ranchers. A drifter named Autumn (Imogen Poots) who is camping on the ranch seems to have a sinister agenda.
“Outer Range” creator and executive producer Brian Watkins said he was inspired by his fascination with the West, where he grew up. “It’s always been for me a place filled with equal parts wonder and danger. I always tell people you can walk to the edge of a tree line or stand before a mountain and feel like you’re staring into another world or dimension. It’s a place where exteriors shape interiors.”
Abbott’s discovery, said Watkins, “sets in motion a stratospheric chain of events that begins to reveal the void within him and his family. And Josh is just dream casting for this part. His performances in the past have informed and shaped our imaginations of the American West.”
The first episode, in which Abbott is pursued in the darkness by enemies driving vehicles with bright headlights, might even be described as a shoutout to a similar scene in “No Country for Old Men.”
“We needed someone who seemed to have a great secret and is torn up about it,” said Watkins.
Brolin said he was drawn to the material for a number of reasons. “I grew up on a ranch in Paso Robles, California. Royal is a laconic man, and he reminds me of a lot of the guys I grew up with. It also reminded me of Sam Shepard, who was a good friend. It harkened me back to his earlier stuff, the sense of Sam. I also know on a practical level what will sustain me, like, ‘Am I going to get bored with this halfway through?’ Cause I’m not going to give 1,000%, whereas I normally would.”
Brolin, whose breakout role came as Brand in “The Goonies” in 1985, recalled being offered a featured part in 1987, when he was in his late teens, in “Back to The Beach” — a comedy that was designed as a “comeback” for 1960s teen sensations Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
“I was offered the role of ‘the surfer guy,’ ” said Brolin. “But I was interested in a role in this TV series called ‘Private Eye.’ When I said I would rather do that, people said it would never happen because they were looking at everyone, doing auditions around the country. Agents were telling me if I didn’t do the Frankie and Annette movie, I was a dumb s—.”
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Brolin stood his ground. “I said, ‘I’ll kick myself if I don’t try for this, regardless of the outcome.’ And I got the part. The series didn’t last, but I met my first wife [actor Alice Adair] and the mother of my two oldest kids. That would not have happened if I had done that movie” — he paused before chuckling — “which, by the way, made $4. No offense to them.”
After the frenzy of doing so many blockbuster movies back to back in 2018 and 2019, Brolin decided to step away from the business for a while. During the break, he and his wife, former assistant Kathryn Boyd, had two kids. “Being with them was very important to me,” said Brolin.
After taking time off, he signed on for “Dune,” which reunited him with his “Sicario” director Denis Villeneuve. “That movie is a work of art, whether you like it or not,” said Brolin. “What everybody did collectively on ‘Dune’ was phenomenal, to create something like that with that book, which is the densest book.”
He then jumped to “Outer Range.” It was a rigorous shoot in Santa Fe, N.M. “The elements were brutal. At night, it would get down to eight degrees. Lili and I would be doing a scene, and in the middle of it, I’d see her starting to shake.”
While proud of the series, Brolin said he’s also aware that it’s competing against a slew of other projects on streaming, cable and network.
“The only thing that makes it worth it is that you’ve created something that incites some emotion and is of a tone that I find inspiring. That’s all you can do. And I have faith,” said Brolin.
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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