For reasons that involve a promotional apron, a discussion about going for a gag and it not working, and a combination of the two things, my conversation with Josh Brolin – in town to talk about his role as Cable in Deadpool 2 – got off to a slightly different start. We were talking about failure, and about being willing to risk failing when you tackle something.
And that’s where we began…
Isn’t it the fear of failure that stops people trying things?
Absolutely. Humour is such that. If you are unwilling to fail, you might as well leave the room.
I think it’s Andrew Stanton at Pixar. When he’s talking to animators there, he tells them to ‘fail fast and fail often’.
That’s my whole career. And that’s not a joke. People have said to me, even me doing stage and that kind of stuff… all actors have their worst nightmare. I’ve had every worst nightmare come true. In a good way, in hindsight. Not while it was happening, but in hindsight.
I’ve forgotten major monologues on stage, I’ve had props that weren’t there that were supposed to be there. Lighting problems where we had to start a play over, and when we finally got someone over from New York to critique what was a really good play, it fucked up the entire night. To movies that were supposed to work that didn’t work.
In my experience, I think that’s a really good thing, because it’s kept me from – even though I may come across with some arrogance – having any true arrogance whatsoever. Because I’ve been humbled too many times to believe it’s not always right around the corner. Even right now, by the way.
I believe we have a generation of creative talent coming through who are so used to being instantly judged by social media, that fear of failure – whilst it’s always been present – has never been greater.
It’s through the sky. It’s funny you should say that right now. I’m not really on social media. I’m on Instagram. I went on a couple of years ago. I don’t have the same reaction that most people have about social media. First of all, I’m used to being judged. I think I’m used to seeing both sides of the coin. So when I see it, I don’t take it personally. I expect it. It’s more like a sociological study to me, as opposed to a personal definition.
When I post shit… I just took off two posts, because I said that’s inauthentic to me right now. I put those up, and it’s not totally me. I put them up for the movie, and I don’t like that.
Authenticity and social media aren’t always a natural crossover.
It’s a must for me. Even if it’s full of shit!
Going back to The Goonies. Coming off the back of that film succeeding, had that film existed now and you – as a young actor – would have been exposed to that level of social media instant fame as a consequence, do you feel your career would have taken a different curve?
Totally, totally. I was 16, man! 17 when it came out!
Goonies was a great example of knowing after that movie, and a movie and a couple of TV shows after that, that I didn’t have the experience that I needed. I felt the cage of naivete and inexperience. I did the typical thing. I backpacked, I went to Europe, had amazing experiences. I thought that helped, but then you realise after a while it’s just life experiences, and whatever you have, you use.
Naivete is an interesting one to me too. As valuable as failure, I’d argue. There’s a book by Nicholas Hytner on his time primarily overseeing the National Theatre in Britain. But he talks about his film work there, and says he made his best film – The Madness Of King George – when he knew the least.
That he surrounded himself with the best people he could, and listened.
Absolutely. But I think that’s the thing. What do they say? The pinnacle of wisdom is to treat everything with a beginner’s mind. I don’t really follow that, but that’s the thing. People say what’s the similarity between you doing Avengers, Cable, No Country For Old Men. There’s no throughline to any of it other than I’m acting in any of them.
For me, there’s no difference between doing Avengers, No Country, Milk, The Goonies. It’s all dealt with and dived into in the same way. It’s a new part, it scares me, I don’t think I can pull it off. I’m very into prep, confronting my own fear and insecurities about being able to pull something off. That’s never changed.
I’m a little more comfortable with being embarrassed and being in a professional of humiliation than I was before.
I think you said back when you earned plaudits after No Country For Old Men, and got box office profile, that the only difference to you was that people watched the film. That you were still doing the work you always had been.
That was the only difference. I’ve said it before, but people have said ‘what was it like doing C minus work when you’re doing A work now?’. And I say ‘who the fuck said it was C minus work?!’. It was the best work I was able to do at that time, and I now I continue to do the best work I’m able to do. The difference is, which I still adhere to and when I go off this necessity of working with great filmmakers, because it’s a great protection… when I don’t do that, I see the result. The result is usually not very good.
Doing these tentpole movies… we’re talking about doing Quasimodo again. It’s something I’ve been developing for a long time. It’s something I was going to do with Zhang Yimou. But then [the studio] didn’t approve him at the time, and so it kind of fell apart. We’re revisiting the idea of doing that as bigger film, and I love that. Why would you say ‘I want to do this as a guerrilla film, a practical film?’ Having experienced Deadpool and The Avengers, I’m like why would you not want to take advantage of the technical proficiencies now? This cutting edge time? To be able to do Quasimodo climbing up in Notre Dame. I love the idea of that.
I also love the idea of doing George And Tammy as a much smaller movie. It depends, man.
George And Tammy [about the relationship between George Jones and Tammy Wynette] was a film you’d developed for some time, with Taylor Hackford attached to direct. As I understand it, the delays that hit that project opened up opportunities that ultimately led to us chatting today. But is George And Tammy still a live project for you?
Do you still have a burning heart for it?
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
What changed? Time?
No. I just think it’s a type of movie that I don’t know is appropriate for right now. If the film wants to get made outside of my being involved as an actor, I’m not against that, if it’s the right actor. Like Matt [Damon] with Manchester By The Sea, that sort of thing. Or if we get to next year and we find a filmmaker that I feel is really exciting, then I might still be involved.
How do you approach, then, a summer like this? Where success is coming in abundance for you. You’ll get to the end of this summer, and you’ll have a key part of films that have grossed billions of dollars in total.
Going back to what you were saying, about how you’ve always been acting: does that change how you react? Does it change the after of a performance, when you see the huge success of something you’ve been involved with?
It does affect you. If you deny it affects you then you’re in denial.
It affects you when somebody tells you that you’re great. It affects you when somebody tells you that you’re not so great. As long as I keep all that very conscious. My biggest fear is believing the hype. Becoming worse and worse and worse at what I do. I’ve seen it happen a lot, and I don’t like that phenomenon. I don’t like that reality.
Going back to that beginner’s mind again, if there’s more people when you leave your hotel sitting there wanting your autograph, it’s really good to me to know that there are fans out there for sure, and then there are people out there who make money off autographs. I like to remember things like that. That they may not care about you or your performance, they care about how much money they can get for your signature. That’s always a nice reality check.
That’s just one example. Again, going back to humility, and I’m not going to pass myself off as somebody incredibly humble, because I’m not always incredibly humble. I have my arrogance in certain areas. But I think believing the hype is never necessarily, at least in my life, good for me.
You mentioned fear earlier. John Badham wrote a couple of really interesting books about directing actors. And he argued that a lot of directors are scared of actors on a film set. I wonder how it feels being an actor, though, moving onto a huge franchise set? Does that change the dynamic for you in any way? Is there something intimidating about that?
No. There’s intimidation with all of it. When I worked with the Coens on No Country, and on True Grit, and on Hail Caesar!, I remember going onto Caesar the first day and being terrified, thinking I couldn’t pull it off! But I knew I had the confidence of my guys for the most part. I don’t know, man. I don’t know why I don’t feel that kind of pressure. I always feel the pressure to perform, and to utilise my imagination, and whatever skill that I have. But I think the difference between the $1m film and the $500m film is the same to me. Other than I look across the thing and I see Chris Hemsworth and go ‘what the fuck is he doing there?!’ on this one million dollar film!
When I was doing Avengers, and sitting in the chair. There are all these actors I’ve worked with, who I’ve known for a long time. There’s Don Cheadle, there’s Ruffalo, there’s Scarlett Johansson, there’s Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth. I’m like, what the fuck am I doing here? How did I get here? That’s more the awe moment than doing the work. Because you see everybody struggling doing the work.
You’ve talked about preparation being key for you. I don’t think it’s a massive secret that the character of Cable is going to recur in future films. But does that affect your preparation?
No. Every preparation is the same, in that deal with it in the same way. Can I do this? Can I pull it off? What do I need to learn? What should I look at? How much should I use my imagination? How much do I have to stick to the comic book? That kind of stuff.
That kind of fear, and you gather all of the information and look at it all, and panic, and then you start to slowly build this character. The hairdo is very different in this, can we do that, well it looks better on my head. We know that there’s going to be a certain amount of people who won’t like it, but then again, if they like the character and we create a character they’re able to invest in, they’re not really going to care about the hair. There’s that trust. You start to build something.
And then when you get into it, working out, not eating sugar, dieting, having eleven weeks to get into shape, to not use steroids, to do all that kind of stuff. I like all that kind of challenge. That’s as much a physical challenge as it is a psychic or emotional challenge. Then, doing something like No Country, where I broke my clavicle right before I did it. Two weeks before, I snapped it in a motorcycle accident. That lent whatever it lent to the character.
I wonder how it contrasts with something like Only The Brave, though? Where in that film, obviously based on a real story, you’re putting across the start, middle and end of that character’s journey. Whereas in Deadpool 2, it’s more the start?
I don’t know if the prep’s different. Because I think in all honesty, I was finding the character in this movie. I feel like we’re in the rehearsal of a play and the play hasn’t opened yet. I feel like X-Force will be more like the play. Cable is the leader of that group.
This is no criticism, more I just thought this was really interesting. Eddie Marsan gave an interview recently, where he talked about how he struggled going from Happy Go Lucky, straight into Hancock. He argued that he couldn’t quite find his character in Hancock, because he was still in the mindset of the other character. You had an 11-week training build-up to Cable. But I’m curious if you ever see any overlap in your own characters.
No, I don’t think so. The only time I ever truly really experienced that was W. When I played George W Bush. I didn’t leave my house once, I didn’t even go out to dinner once. I just didn’t leave. I had him on near loop all the time. He was in my headphones all the time. I was always muttering something. I was so anti-social during that film that when I finished the film, for at least eight weeks after, I felt myself not completely able to remove myself. When I tell a joke I’d go ‘okay so, guy walks into the room’, and I’d see bits of him sneak him. And I didn’t want it anymore!
Oh, and I did a play Pits And Joe, and that a little bit too. I went to a hospital and checked in as a guy with traumatic brain stem injury. I was in the hospital for quite a while, and five people in the hospital knew so I didn’t get caught.
You’ve talked about working with perhaps less established directors. You’ve just done The Legacy Of A Whitetail Deer Hunter for Jody Hill, who made Observe & Report. It’s not a film I loved personally, but I thought the boldness of Seth Rogen’s character in that was really something. I thought that film took a real swing. Is that the kind of character you’re looking to play?
That’s the hope. If I go off with someone who I feel is experienced, like Oliver Stone, or Ridley Scott, or the Coens… I want to go with the Russos because I had such a pleasurable experience playing Thanos. Having someone whisper in my ear saying “it’s like he has a gun to his fucking head, remember The Godfather”, and me going ‘I completely understand these guys on every level, and they obviously understand me!’
David Leitch, he comes from the stunt world, and I just get it. Jody Hill was more of a push for me. Observe & Report, I love what Seth did in that movie. Talking to Scott Rudin, the producer, who I’ve known for a long time, what he wrote in The Legacy Of A Whitetail Deer Hunter was genius. It would take a very smart structurist in order to pull all the intelligence out of that cult-ish type film. I don’t know if he did it or not. I don’t know! I think it’ll end up being a cult-ish type of film. It’s really quite silly. I would like to know if it’s as smart as it intended to be.
Does silly as a concept bother you?
Yes. Although I like silly, as long as it’s intelligent. I think you can be very intelligent and be silly. If you’re making social commentary, it needs smart and illuminating. If not, silly is just silly.
One last thing. We try and use the audience of our website to talk about issues of mental health that we may all be going through, and to creative people who haven’t yet been discovered. Is there a message you could send to someone who perhaps happens across this article, and is in a low point?
Mental health is obviously something I’ve delved into on a massive scale. In my own family it fascinates me to the point where I think I became an actor off the back of it. Reading Malcolm Gladwell, those types of sociological books. What makes me tick, what makes other people tick, why are people capable of what they’re capable of, how much control do they have over it? All that. When to take medication, when not to take medication? When it is a mask, rather than a resolution.
All of that stuff is so elusive and fascinating to me. I understand the pain behind it is unparalleled. That’s something that I can understand.
That being said, somebody like myself, who wasn’t discovered until his late 30s, early 40s. It doesn’t matter. I was doing what I was doing. I was never bitter. I think the worst thing that can happen to a person is they become bitter for not being discovered. Because what is discovered? More money? More judgement? It can actually be awful. I’ve seen people be discovered, then they’ve disappeared within two years, and they’re not doing anything creative anymore. Because they have this expectation around discovery and what that means.
I felt good about just being a working actor, and being able to live off what I was earning. But I watched my son go through it. He’s an incredible artist, but he’s never sold paintings. I know it’s a struggle. I know the grass always appears greener on the other side, but if you’re a creator, just create.
Josh Brolin, thank you very much.
Deadpool 2 is in cinemas now.