In the Coen Brothers' new film No Country For Old Men a deadly cross-border game of cat-and-mouse errupts between Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem. And we mean errupts: Just try to keep your eyes off the screen for a moment in this compelling high stakes thriller which represents yet another new high point in the careers of directors and cast alike. In a few months, all the talk will be of awards, but for now, the chat is of the sitdown variety between Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier and the man playing a mouse trying to run with with $2,000,000's of someone else's money, Josh Brolin...
Emmanuel Itier: There’s so little dialogue in this movie, you have to convey everything with body language. How much work did you put into that?
JB: I mean, it was a fear, for sure, because dialogue – that’s what you kind of rest upon as an actor, you know? Drama and all that stuff is all dialogue-motivated. You have to figure out different ways to convey ideas, and you don’t want to overcompensate because the fear is that you’re going to be boring if nothing’s going on, so you start doing this and this and taking off your hat and putting it on again or some bulls*** that doesn’t need to be there.
So yeah, I was a little afraid of that in the beginning, but I also knew people that, like the Coens, who feel absolutely no need to uphold their end of the conversation or only really say what needs to be said, and they don’t sit there as directors and manipulate you and go into page after page to try to get you to a certain place. They may come in and say one word or two words, so that was nice to be around in order to feed the other thing. What should I do right now? I’ll just watch Ethan go humming to himself and pacing. Maybe that’s what I should do too.
EI: Well, it’s interesting because we understand completely what your character’s plan is and what Javier’s character’s plan is, just because we see you guys putting things in motion.
JB: Right. I mean, everybody has a lot more dialogue than I do. For me, there was a part that we actually rehearsed that I said, “Hey, I think we should inject something here, and I think it’s important and I’m afraid if we put something here, he’s going to be talking to himself so much that it’s going to seem like he’s crazy and we don’t want him to come across as being crazy.” He’s just a guy who, once in a while, answers an inner monologue—an inner dialogue that he has because he spends so much time alone.
So anyway, when he finds the money, flips open the money and looks at the dead guy, then there’s a moment where he goes, “Um…huh,” you know? That was my added dialogue. And every time we’d do it, we had a whole conversation about it and we tried different ways, and every time we’d screen it, no matter where Ethan is in the theatre, I can hear him go [Laughs], so he loves that moment. But the whole thing with that is I’m used to improvising, and this is a whole different monster. The fear is being boring and the fear is overcompensating. So I don’t know, hopefully we pulled it off.
EI: I know the Coens auditioned a lot of people for this role before they got to you. Do you remember anything you did in your audition that caught their attention?
JB: Well, I did my first audition – Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino filmed my first audition on a $1 million Genesis camera during lunch during Grindhouse, and so that was a really cool-looking audition, but I didn’t get the part. It was turned down. They watched it and their response was, “Who lit it?” But I was much bigger and I had a goatee, but it had nothing to do with the physicality–they just didn’t see it. It’s not what they were looking for at that moment. It wasn’t resonating, and I have a brilliant agent who just became a persistent pest and just said, “Meet him, meet him, meet him, meet him.” Not “He’s perfect for the part;” not “You’re making a mistake;” just “Meet him.”
What I found out now was their last casting session, they were focused on a couple of actors and they called me the night before and they said basically “No harm, no foul. Leave us alone, have him come down,” and I studied a few scenes and I came down and I met them, and there was really no reaction in the meeting. I walked out thinking it was great meeting the Coens. I’m a big fan. That’s cool, and by the time I got home I found out they wanted me to do it.
EI: I read recently that when you were in an accident on, I think it was Highland Avenue or something, and you were thinking something about, “Oh I didn’t get to work with the Coens.”
JB: When I was in the air.
EI: When you were in the air.
JB: That’s true, actually. I mean that, and I’m going to die or whatever - all that stuff. Yeah, that was two days after I got it. I was going from a wardrobe fitting for the Coens’ movie to a wardrobe fitting for this movie that I did called The Dead Girl, and somebody just... it wasn’t my fault, but you’re on a motorcycle so it’s inevitable, and I hit it and snapped my collarbone in half.
EI: Do you still ride?
JB: Do I still ride? I do. Yeah, I do. Not as often and not in traffic. I try to get out.
EI: … and not on Highland.
JB: And not on Highland! No, but it was a whole process and story in that—it’s really boring, but I lied and I told them it was much more minor than it was, and then I was told I was liable if anything happened to me. And then I talked to my doctor and then he lied for me, and then really the only reason I was able to do the movie is I remember Ethan said to me after he talked to the doctor, he said, “What shoulder is it?” I said, “It’s my right shoulder.” He said, “Moss gets shot in the right shoulder. We’ll be fine,” he said, and we never had to change anything in the movie. I couldn’t plate it because of the risk of infection of cutting me and going in an plating it, so it was a floating break, So during the river scene, it was moving all over the place.
EI: Was that extremely painful?
JB: At that point, uh huh. Later on it was okay, and the dog didn’t friggin’ help–the untrained dog, the non-movie dog. They thought that was funny. I remember the trainer saying at one point – I was sitting in the water and the trainer goes to the crew - he’s not talking to me - but the trainer looks at the crew and says, “If the dog runs after you on the beach, do not move.” I was like, “What the f***, man? He comes swimming after me every take.” So it wasn’t fun.
EI: Can you talk about working for the Coens and was it what you expected? Was it a little different, you know, wanting to work with them for so long?
JB: I don’t know. I enjoyed them for a long time. I don’t know. I don’t ever remember thinking, “God, I would love to work with them.” I think it was so far over there that I just never entertained it, you know? So when it came up, I was like, “Oh yeah, of course I would love to do that.” But Javier tells the same story but from a Spaniard’s point of view. It’s like, “I’m a Spaniard. When am I ever going to work with the Coens? It’s not going to happen.” So I think both of us were equally like, “Really? Us? Now?”
And how is it working with them? Easy. It’s not weird. They’re not little freaks that walk around and do a funny really kooky Coen thing. We’d all like to believe that, you know: Planet Coen. They’re really sweet, really collaborative – they pay attention. They don’t not listen. I’ve worked with a lot of directors that kind of half-listen to you. They’re extremely attentive and they tweak. They get in there and they say, “What if you only brought your hand up half-way. What? But maybe you should just go like that instead of like that.” Okay, and then I do it and I go, “Wow, that’s really cool like that. That’s good. Visually, that looks better,” or whatever, but there’s no major…I think they put the majority of their anxiety and their onus on the casting process. Once they cast the person that they feel is right - they could have cast my part a lot sooner than they did. They could have just said, “No, he’ll be fine,” but they wanted that person that made them go, “That’s the guy,” or, “His interpretation of it is similar to ours,” kind of thing. But it was fun.
It was easy and it was fun. Extremely collaborative–that’s the thing that stuck out, and the total lack of ego on the set. Total lack. There’s no petting, there’s no, “Great job.” There was only one point where Woody came in and we were doing the scene in the hospital, and Woody had just come in and there was a speech that Woody has when I’m in the bed and he’s talking about Chigurh and who he is and what he is, and Woody was stumbling through it. He was kind of forgetting a line here and I think he had changed one thing and it was f***ing him up, and anyway they finally got it right and they said, “Cut,” and the Coens were like, “Oh my God. That was great.” And Javier and I were like, “What the f***, man? You’ve got to be kidding me. Throw us a bone, like a little good job or anything.” Woody comes along and he’s like, “Oh my God. Wow.”
EI: You’ve spent a decent amount of time in New Mexico lately. How’s the state treating you?
JB: The state is great. It’s a fantastic state. I’ve always been a guy who’s worked in Arizona most of my time and a little bit in Texas, but New Mexico is fantastic. Santa Fe I’ve worked in. Las Vegas, New Mexico, Albuquerque…In The Valley of Elah I did in Albuquerque. I’m not crazy about Albuquerque personally, but… it’s rough.
EI: It depends on what neighborhood you’re living in.
JB: It really does. But it’s diverse and I love the desert. I’m a huge fan of the desert.
EI: You’ve had a few productions there. Have you noticed anything about the crews and the way…because the state is really working very hard to build up the industry…?
JB: It’s big right now. I mean, you guys have your tax break, so therefore a lot of people are showing up. It’s like what Canada used to be, you know? I’m happy for you guys just economically. I’m sure it’s a great thing for you.
JB: Yeah, it’s a great place to work. I mean, honestly. I wouldn’t say that just because it sounds good. I think it’s a great place to work. I think Arizona is too. I think West Texas is too, but I personally have an affinity for those areas. Waterless, hot, dirt, grit…but there’s a diversity, though. You have the red mountains, and you have a bunch of different…I like it, personally.
EI: Had you read it before?
JB: I had read it. Sam Sheppard turned me onto the book when I was doing Grindhouse, before I even knew about the movie - two months before I heard about the movie, or a month and a half. I was out drinking with Sam at one point and he said, “Man, I just read this Cormac McCarthy book. It’s phenomenal. You have to read it.”
I went and got it the next day, and I read it and just loved it for this great, weighty, literary piece of art. It wasn’t until later that I heard that they were making a movie and what that was. I didn’t revisit the book until I actually found out that I was doing it and after I was over the initial collarbone pain. Then I could fix my eyes enough to read it.
EI: Is it 100% now? Because I can see you moving it.
EI: Very good. Good rehab.
JB: And there was no rehab, by the way.
JB: No, people ask me that–even doctors, they go, “It doesn’t heal like that. When you have a floating collarbone, it doesn’t heal like that.” They said, “What did you do for rehab?” and I said, “I swam away from a rabid dog. I got shot. I got this and that. I ran away from the Mexicans in the truck. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that technique. It’s a good one.”
EI: Your character knows about how to shoot and how to use weapons. Did you have training and did you talk with someone who had weapon experience?
JB: Yeah, the props guy, Keith, that we talked with about guns and all that kind of stuff. But when you can draw your own antelope, you can basically shoot anywhere and you’ll hit them. You know what I mean? Because they’re fake. No, I’m not particularly a good shot. I don’t like to hunt, personally. Yeah, I’ve worked with guns a lot, having done a few westerns and real westerns. I don’t consider this a western. I think it takes place in the west and there’s a cowboy hat and a horse in it, but westerns I always think of like the turn of the century kind of thing. Yeah, to answer your question, I’ve worked with guns for a long time.
EI: …Talking with some veterans like who went to Vietnam and…
JB: Oh, did I talk to any Vietnam vets? No, I didn’t actually. I know a lot of Vietnam vets personally, but did I go and specifically talk about what was it like? No, no. No, I should have, though. I did a lot of research, but it was more about the vernacular of the place, the feeling of the place, how people held themselves in San Saba, and Tommy’s from San Saba so I felt a real pressure to do it justice because Tommy would say, “You realize that your character is from San Saba, right?” I go, “Yes sir.” He goes, “You know I’m from San Saba.” I go, “You keep telling me every couple of days.” He goes “Yeah, have you thought about your clothes?” I go, “Personally or character?” Long, long pause. “Character.” I said, “Yes, I have.”
And he’d just go into these tangents and I’d just be like, “F***, get me out of here, man.” But later on, it turned out where he’s an extremely sweet, nice guy. He left a message - he was the first guy to leave a message on my voicemail to say… giving incredible compliments about the movie and the performance and all that. He said, “Extended moments of originality,” which I’ll never forget.
EI: Many people in the press have been talking about it—this is your year with Grindhouse and In the Valley and American Gangster, and this, obviously. Do you feel like this has been a culmination, in many ways, of your career, like its sort of all…?
JB: Come together? I’m starting to feel that because you guys are saying it so much, but no. No. Honestly, if I strip all that away and pretend that I haven’t spoken to anybody about it, no. I really enjoy the work that I’ve been doing and I’ve always enjoyed the work that I’ve done, and I’ve been picky before now, and it’s not that I’ve gotten pickier, I just met a lot of really great filmmakers in a very condensed amount of time who were doing really great films, and for some freaky reason they saw me as that character.
The greatest compliment for me is the Coens saw me as this character around the same time that Ridley saw me for that character. That, I don’t quite understand. It’s the greatest compliment that I could get as an actor because there couldn’t be two more opposite, opposing personalities, and then Robert’s character is so extreme and it was so much fun and ridiculous and over-the-top. I’ve just been extremely fortunate. People say, “Do you feel pressure?” No, I don’t feel pressure. I just really enjoy the year and the collaborative effort with these guys. It’s a great year.
EI: So obviously, you said you’ve been very picky. Have you been picky enough to find something to shoot over the next couple months?
JB: Well, I shot my short recently, so I’ve really been focused on that. We’ve been really focused on our theater company here in Los Angeles. Yeah, there’ve been things that have come my way–things that I really haven’t responded to yet, and there’s three movies that we’ve been looking at for January and they’re all great. I know I’ll be working soon, I just don’t know exactly on what yet. We’ll see. I may never work again. That would be a more interesting story, wouldn’t it?
EI: Do you and your wife - do you trade off in terms of one of you will work and one of you will be home with the kids? Because I know the kids are like teenagers now.
JB: Yeah, I have a son in college and I have two kids in high school, so yeah, no. No, no, no. I mean, Diane’s worked a lot. She’s been working a lot, which works for me because I’m at home training downstairs, and so that’s all good so I can take the kids to school and pick them up from school. The last year has been a little bit different. I’ve worked nine months non-stop. I mean, literally non-stop, and I was working before that too with a little bit of break in between–enough to break my collar bone. But now Diane’s slowed down. She feels like she’s had enough that she’s done, and then I know come January I’ll start working and I don’t know. It works itself out. We don’t sit down and have pow-wows about it because we both have a need to be with the kids, so it’s not like you have to be with the kids so I can go have fun working. I think it’s quite the opposite. We have to go work because we haven’t worked in a year now, so I guess I should.
EI: So it’s just been kind of serendipity the way things worked out?
JB: Yeah, luckily. I miss my wife now.
EI: Can you talk about the challenges of filming in that river, though, with the dog? I was just going to ask you about the challenges of on-location filming and that authenticity that only comes with filming on location.
JB: You know, man, it’s better being home, but the Coens just went through it, and I watched them go through it because they just shot in New York, and they haven’t shot in New York I don’t know if ever - the movie with George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Frances, and it pretty much drove them insane because you have your household responsibilities and then you’re working and consuming yourself, and especially if you’ve been on location a lot, you really allow yourself to become totally myopic in what you’re doing, and you can do it for three months and get completely exhausted beyond belief and get home and like, “Okay, now I can get back into my life and I can just focus on that.”
I love location because it does—it lends a certain—I can’t imagine doing No Country in the backlot of Universal with some kind of painted background, you know? It really, for me, lends to what’s happening in the story. It’s a character unto itself that I think really helps the tone of the movie. And the river, you know, the river’s a pain in the ass, truthfully. It looks great and I love the way it turned out, but you know, when you’re waking up at 4:00 in the morning because Roger Deakins wants to get the light just right and you’re doing that for a full week, and you can only shoot from 4 to 5 because that’s when the light’s perfect and you’re freezing your ass off, and you’ve only slept from 1:00 because you couldn’t go to sleep because you’ve been doing nights, and you wake up at 4:00 completely discombobulated and then they say, “Jump in the river when it’s freezing and then we’re going to throw the dog after you.”
There’s moments where you go, “Why, why? I could trade and I could never do this again and it would all be okay. And they’ll still eat and go to college. It will be fine.” But when you look at it, Javier and I watched the movie together for the first time and we kind of supported each other because we didn’t know how is the movie going to be. Don’t know, and they’re not going to tell us—the Coens. They don’t call and say, “Oh my God, we just cut it, we just locked it, and it’s amazing. Good bye.” But we watched the movie together and we were deeply satisfied. Javier leaned over and goes, “This is a pretty good f***ing movie.” I said, “Yeah, man. I think it’s pretty good”.
EI: Was there anything that surprised you in the translation from the page to the screen? Because Kelly had said that she read the script and she thought it was very funny. Then when she watched the film, she realized how brutal everything was.
JB: How brutal it was. Yeah, well, Kelly wasn’t around the whole time, you know. Kelly was focused on her accent. Kelly would do this thing, man I’ll never forget. We were doing the scene on the bus and she kept popping her button, so we’d be in the middle of this scene and she’d be doing this great accent, you know, this Texas accent, and you’d hear “pop,” and you’d see the pop and she’d go, “Ooh” and she’d go right into this…fuck my head up so bad, I didn’t know who she was or what. Was there anything surprising?
EI: Yeah, or just something that translated differently.
JB: Oh, from the book?
EI: No, from the script.
JB: Honestly, it was much funnier than I thought. It’s the opposite for me. I was very, very happy because the humor’s very, very subtle. It’s very absurd and it’s very subtle, and I think that that’s so needed in movies like this because it allows you to go back to a base and allows the tension to build once again and all that, so you get to go through all those fluctuations, you know, like the story I told you about the mm-hmm. I think that that’s a necessary moment. It’s almost like a breather, so I feel quite the opposite. I was very happy to hear people laughing where they were laughing as opposed to places where they were just laughing out of tension. I think it was more intentional than that.
Miramax Films' 'No Country For Old Men' is in theaters from November 9, 2007.