White Noise: Josh Brolin on Being the Bad Guy in Milk

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By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Brolin in Milk

Josh Brolin, 40, made a spectacular re-entry into films last year, setting himself up as one of the major actors of our time, but it was not always easy. The son of James Brolin, Josh made a big-time debut in the Steven Spielberg project The Goonies (1985; check him out, top center), then followed it with years of television, theater, and second-rate roles in second-rate movies. Then, in 2007 as if by divine inspiration (or at least a smart new agent) he landed roles in -- and stood out in -- four high profile films: Planet Terror, In the Valley of Elah, American Gangster and No Country for Old Men. Though he didn't receive an Oscar nomination for any of those, he must have been close at least for the latter. This year, he comes even closer, with exemplary performances in two political biopics. He plays a comic, but deeply troubled and needy George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's W., but even more astonishing is his supporting performance in Gus Van Sant's Milk.

He plays Harvey Milk's fellow supervisor Dan White, who eventually pulled the trigger and ended Milk's life in 1978. (The real-life White received only a light sentence based on what came to be known as "the Twinkie defense." See the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk for more info.) Brolin's White comes across as a frustrated, underconfident fellow. He only appears in a handful of scenes with Milk, but their attempts to reach one another are almost touching.

Milk was filmed largely on location in San Francisco, with local star Sean Penn occupying and excelling in the lead role. The world premiere was held at the Castro Theater (where else?), and Van Sant, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and actors Penn, Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill assembled the next day for a group press conference, rather than individual interviews. Greecine sat in on the event and recorded Brolin's typically boisterous comments.

Brolin with Penn in Milk

Q: Was Dan White a victim of society, much as Harvey Milk was a victim of Dan White? Did you employ that idea in your performance?

Josh Brolin: Harvey wasn't victimized by Dan White until the end. The fact of the matter is that Harvey came up against a lot of obstacles, which I think is the case for any gay man, with the irony of Prop 8 being what it is now and Prop 6 being what it was then. Obstacles are OK to me. Anita Bryant, and all these guys that are represented in the film, that's OK. When you resort to the violence that Dan White resorted to, that's when it turns into something else. That was a very sad moment. I see him as an incredibly frustrated guy.

A lot of questions were asked about whether he was a latent homosexual and all that. Who knows? It's all conjecture. It's a very sad moment, when they feel that the only resort is to do something that's... tangible. That's how I saw that moment, as being the only tangible thing. Cause and effect. If I do this, this will happen. Dan White was not a ready-made politician. He was a guy who was in way over his head. He had tremendous pressure through the police force and the fire department to bring back San Francisco to what it used to be, and to stop the whole gay and lesbian moment, which was ridiculous. It was a trajectory that was inevitable. And there was no stopping it. So he had pressures that were beyond his control.

Q: Can you compare and contrast your portrayal of Dan White and your portrayal of W.?

JB: "Dubya." Get it right, man! What was the question? It was a weird year. Last year was the moustache year. This year was the political year. You study the people. I've never really done that before. Having done a lot of theater, I've never really put myself in a position where you had to make decisions based on a real person, whether you're going to carbon copy them, or what. W. was very different than Dan White.

I did Dan White first, even though it's coming out after W. comes out. With W. it was more "in the spirit of" whereas with Dan I really felt like I had to nail something. It's a sad character to me. It sounds so pretentious, but when you re-humanize a character and it's somebody who has done something so evil as to resort to the incredible violence that he resorted to, it's tough. Because there's some kind of identification for all of us, that we're all capable of anything at any time.

This was a character, to me, who was very sad. It's not just an evil character. He was pushed. He had incredible pressures and he didn't have the foresight to realize that Harvey Milk and the gay and lesbian movement, that it was their time. And that that time would peak and it would move into something else and then he would have his time. Being a politician, you have to have incredible patience, if I've studied correctly. He never really fit. And then what it came down to was an incredible frustration.

I saw the movie, but I was really disturbed. People came up to me and said, "Hey man, congratulations! You did a great job!" And I'm like, "F--- you! I'm a bad person." So I'm thoroughly confused today. There was a guy on the red carpet last night who handed me a Twinkie and he thought it was funny. And I laughed because I thought it was stupid. It's so far beyond that. But the legacy that Harvey left, and I don't mean to be cold, but maybe he needed to die to have the impact that he had. Last night, half of the Castro was behind the barricades, the people are so proactive. It was an incredible night.

Q: You've played all these anti-heroes and villains lately: W., No Country for Old Men, Dan White, etc. And you're very good at them, but will you ever play a good guy?

JB: I'm the a--hole for hire. When am I gonna do the romantic comedy? It'll be the sequel to Milk. It is kinda strange. I like these characters, though, because they're mixed. They're complicated, but they seem simple. That's what I like about them. They seem very simplistic and they're not. Between "Dubya" and Dan White. They're sad characters and they're complex characters.

You know, I carry around a memo pad. I just ask myself a lot of questions [about the characters], 90% of which are meaningless, but 10% of which are very interesting to me, just behaviorally. It's very interesting to me to get into why someone resorted to the extremes that they resorted to. So thanks for the compliment. Honestly.

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