"I lost a lot of my joy while doing the movie," says Tobey Maguire of the family drama "Brothers." "I wasn't even aware of it. I don't mean it to sound goofy or artsy or something, but two days before we wrapped, I started telling some jokes and laughing, whatever, and it was like a release for me. I hadn't done that in, like, two months."
It's something of a relief too, to see Maguire looking much fitter than in the Jim Sheridan film, which opens Dec. 4. He had dropped more than 20 pounds from his already slender frame to play Sam Cahill, a Marine captain who survives captivity in Afghanistan only to find his relationship back home with his family -- and his self-image -- changed. It is a role that required the "Spider-Man" hero to lose himself in dark, emotional depths that his fans may be unaccustomed to seeing.
The film isn't all gloom, although most of the warmth emanates from scenes with his brother (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and wife (Natalie Portman) before his rocky return.
"In the area of our veterans coming home with traumas or PTSD or whatever, it's one of those issues that isn't pretty to look at," Maguire says. "We ask these people to fight for us and risk their lives, and certainly potentially alter their outlook of the world or how they react to things. I think it would be nice for us as a society to have some more awareness of what they go through, and to take on some more responsibility for the results of our asking them to go over there."
The current wars have so far proven hazardous ground for box-office battles, but Sheridan's remake of the Danish "Brodre" could be set in any time, during any war. While the film does contain some harrowing depictions of wartime action, it focuses on the shifting dynamics among the siblings, their father (Sam Shepard) and Sam's wife and family. Maguire's Sam was a high-school football hero; Gyllenhaal's Tommy is fresh from prison as we meet him.
"Tommy finds himself to be unworthy, unlovable," says Maguire of Gyllenhaal's character, "so he isolates, he doesn't get attached or connected. The older brother is such a strait-laced good guy who's been good at things his whole life, had the attention of their father, ended up getting a great wife and family and all of that. And when I go away, Tommy learns how to show up and he learns responsibility. He learns how to care for people and gets cared for."
However, the good brother-bad brother relationship is not as simple as it seems.
"Sam is also damaged at the beginning of the movie -- but on the surface, there's the appearance of order. He has sort of played his life like that," Maguire says, now in the comfort of a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. "He's damaged from his previous tours. And probably from childhood, there's a fair amount of dysfunction. I'm so wound tight and put together with such precise construction, I need this dramatic incident to shatter me as a person, to connect in an honest way with someone who loves me."
Backlit by the halo of the diffuse glare of an overcast day, Maguire says living in such an "intense world" as Sam's had unforeseen effects on him.
"I'm not going home and calling myself by the character's name or anything like that -- I've got a wife; at that time, I had my older child and now we have two," he says. "But the general sort of tone of the piece and the character stuck with me -- it was more like a mood. I was in a mood for two months. Then when it started to release, I started laughing and loosening up and my body felt different. I was like, 'Wow. This has been so tough.' "