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THE ACTOR'S CRAFT

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

October 12, 2008|Robert Abele | 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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 109 words Type of Material: Correction
Harvey Milk: Recent articles in the Calendar and California sections based on the release of the movie "Milk" have referred to San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk as being the first openly gay man elected to major public office in this country. While he was among the first openly gay politicians to hold office in the United States -- Milk was elected city supervisor in 1977 -- at least one other official preceded Milk as an openly gay candidate to be elected. Allan Spear, who served in the Minnesota Senate from 1972 to 2000, announced that he was gay in 1974. Two articles earlier this year also included the error.

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."

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.

"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.

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