Josh Brolin resists ‘man’s man’ label, but here’s ‘Oldboy,’ ‘Labor Day’

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Josh Brolin is a little tired of being thought of as a “man’s man” type of actor. But he scaled Mt. Shasta anyway.

The performer, who has embodied a swaggering masculinity in such movies as “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit,” says that he’s growing weary of the macho tag.

“It was fun at first and then it just got to be a little too much of —” he pauses as he contemplates the right word, then settles on an “rrrrr” cave man growl.


Still, Brolin, 45, can’t seem to escape the archetype. To prepare for the part of an extreme mountain climber in a new adventure film called “Everest,” he’s been scaling daunting peaks, first in Switzerland and then in Northern California.

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And this holiday movie season finds Brolin once again exploring the sharp topography of two new masculine characters.

In “Oldboy,” Spike Lee’s remake of the Chan-wook Park blood opera due out Nov. 27, Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, an unrepentant jerk inexplicably held captive by mysterious forces in a motel room for two decades. Upon release, he seeks answers and revenge, while also looking for reconciliation with his now-grown daughter.

In “Labor Day,” Jason Reitman’s ethereal adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel that arrives in theaters Dec. 25, he stars as Frank Chambers, an escaped convict who forcefully takes refuge in the home of single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her adolescent son in their quiet suburban home one holiday weekend.

With their “man-cornered” premises, the films offer an actor twofer of sorts. Both suggest Brolin as desperate and tightly coiled, relying on keen animal instincts that, one senses, are as likely to get him into trouble as they are to get him out of it.


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But the parts also offer different views into the male psyche. A tenderness rumbles beneath his “Labor Day” character as Frank develops a relationship with Winslet’s depressed romantic. “Oldboy’s” Joe, on the other hand, is all grit and hard-boiled rage, the character’s emotions volcanically bursting through even when he’s trying to take the proper family-man course.

The differences were especially felt during the production, Brolin said.

Calling “Oldboy” “probably the hardest movie I ever had to shoot,” Brolin notes that he lost more than 20 pounds in three weeks to play the part and also cites the role’s intense physicality that, particularly in the captive sections of the film, had him alternating between states of manic anger and focused determination.

“Labor Day” required Brolin to ratchet down the intensity, at times maintaining a stillness he called “really uncomfortable” and even performing a scene that has him baking intimately with Adele in what serves as a kind of pie-themed equivalent of the sensuous potter’s wheel moment in “Ghost.”

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“I had an older woman come up to me at a screening the other day and say, ‘Thank you for helping me restore my libido.’ I think that may have been a first,” he said and chuckled. (Incidentally, Brolin said he’s not the baking maestro the movie suggests, though he can get busy with a mixing bowl if pressed.)


“Oldboy,” on the other hand, is unlikely to prompt a run to Victoria’s Secret. Produced by Good Universe and distributed by FilmDistrict, the movie possesses a dark baroque quality that will likely alienate some critics and even seems to have elicited a mixed reaction in Brolin. “I do have opinions, but it’s better to bite my tongue,” he said when asked what he thought of the finished film. (The actor says he was more enamored with Lee’s earlier three-hour director’s cut that was both quieter and filled with more character-centric moments.)

The roles mark the latest turn for an actor who has seen more peaks and valleys than some of the terrain he’s recently been climbing. After a breakout as a teenager in the treasure-hunting classic “The Goonies” nearly three decades ago, Brolin went into a career quiet period, bottoming out in the 1990s when he landed roles on short-lived TV shows so obscure that he says he considering giving up acting.

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His fortunes changed drastically about six years ago when the Coen brothers cast him as the outlaw Llewelyn Moss in their western manhunt tale “No Country for Old Men.” An Oscar and box-office smash, the movie prompted a resurgence that had Brolin landing juicy roles in the likes of “W.” and “True Grit,” though, befitting his erratic career, also yielded such no-shows as “Jonah Hex” and “Gangster Squad.”

Brolin said he feels on surer footing these days, though still finds himself facing unexpected challenges. A few months ago, he was approached by a man, an apparent panhandler, who pulled out a knife and stabbed him. (His wound wasn’t serious.) Though sounding almost like a larger-than-life tale from one of Brolin’s movies, the experience shook him up, causing him to question his ability to read situations accurately.

In the meantime, he is offering his own kind of unpredictability on the screen.

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In addition to “Everest,” from the Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, and a new “Sin City” film, he’s set to star in a more literary effort, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice,” playing the colorful detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, as well as the father in the Sean Penn-directed survival tale “Crazy for the Storm.”

“These new ones are still manly roles. But there’s also more vulnerability,” Brolin said. He added with a small laugh, “There’s a trajectory here. A little bit of one, anyway.”