Rapid-fire, always passionate and blunt when he needs to be, actor Josh Brolin has been a key figure in conveying the insanity encompassing the set of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” calling the film in its lead up to release “absolutely fucking chaos” akin to Cirque du Soleil. Well, the wait is over: after seeing Anderson’s latest effort and hearing from the “No Country For Old Men” star during a recent L.A. press day, it appears what ended up onscreen is a subdued version of what transpired on set. Nevertheless, Brolin, who will appear next in The Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar!” and “Everest,” still took us through his wild experience on Anderson’s vivid detective drama/fever dream.
Playing Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, an LAPD lieutenant with a flattop and SAG card whom the actor describes as “an era and three quarters behind” the times, Brolin first described his relationship to Thomas Pynchon and how the novelist’s work melded with Anderson’s California mindset.
“I knew who Pynchon was, but I wasn’t familiar with his writing much at all,” he said. “I was very fortunate though, because I spent a lot of time with Roscoe Lee Browne and Anthony Zerbe, and I got to hear a lot of really wonderful, dense writers being read in a way that was not very accessible but musical. I got it. People look at E.E. Cummings and go, ‘yeah, I get it, it’s semi-colons and a comma.’ But then you hear somebody who actually reads it in a way that’s so beautiful and accessible, like Roscoe. It actually does have a voice. So I loved trying to find the voice in [‘Inherent Vice’].”
Brolin’s character of Bigfoot —eternal foil to Joaquin Phoenix’s private investigator Doc— originally remained one-note as Anderson conceived it. But after reading more into the character’s contradictions and emotional insecurities, Brolin and Anderson realized the wealth of material that could come from such a place.
“Bigfoot is more in the midst of a tantrum than at the pinnacle of his abilities,” Brolin explained. “He’s a guy who’s really focused on trying to have an impact, as opposed to actually having an impact. In this absurd world, it’s fun to find the music in that. Selfishly, I thought that if I can humanize this character, then that’s a great challenge.”
Returning to his experimental time on set with Anderson and Phoenix, Brolin noted a “feeling of “immeasurable possibility. There was just always a feeling that anything could happen. We could be in the middle of the scene and I’d just smack Joaquin in the back of the head, or he’d throw something at mine.
“We even danced a version of [a scene where Doc attacks Bigfoot’s police car]. It was originally a dialogue scene,” he explained. “I was supposed to be in the car and Joaquin was supposed to be outside. Then I asked if there was a speaker and I could do it through the horn, then that went away. Then Paul said, ‘why don’t you do it so every time you would say a line, dance the line that you would dance? And then Doc, mirror what he’s doing, and then when Doc has the line, you dance and then Bigfoot mirror what he’s doing.’ Weird shit, you know?”
One of the more heavy slices of Brolin’s bonkers experimentation remained in his final scene with Phoenix, where [SPOILERS] Bigfoot visits Doc a final time in Gordita Beach and eats his entire stash of weed, evoking a single tear from Doc in response.
“All I was supposed to do was grab a joint and eat the joint, but then I saw the pot, or Bigfoot saw the pot,” Brolin laughed. “He’d just thrown in the towel at that point. He lost it. He suddenly realized he wasn’t getting the Froot Loops in the grocery store, and that’s a learning moment. But I have Paul guiding, pressing, pushing me to go to these places, sometimes unspoken, that might seem caricatured or even are, but with some hint of humanity.”
Some of the best moments of Anderson’s film also come from glimpses of Bigfoot in various acting gigs, whether wielding a oversized Afro in an infomercial or glancing around nervously as a cop on “Adam-12.” Anderson and legendary DP Robert Elswit tackled the additional pieces as well, gleefully “trying to find conviction in something but not having the ability to be convincing,” as he puts it
Brolin explained how an “actor mentality” might cripple a memorable rendition of Bigfoot. “Back then and now, a lot of cops are on sets when they’re not working. They’re not necessarily actors but they’re definitely working on sets, because that’s where there’s money. The fact that Bigfoot wasn’t a prime investigator during the Manson murders and all that —he is not getting his, and look at him. The wigs, hating hippies while playing a hippie,” Brolin said. “It reminds me of doing theatre in NY, where people would all talk about how awful Hollywood is and then two weeks later you’d see them in a chicken commercial. What happened to that judgment, that integrity? I see [Bigfoot] the same way. He’ll do anything for fame, for notice, some kind of validity, and yet he’s going about it the wrong way.”
Born in Los Angeles but driven to New York to become a what he termed a “real actor,” Brolin said he similarly gave short shrift to the wealth of characters and acting experience living in his hometown.
“New York is not where the actor exclusively lives or learns, but it really depends on the person,” he said. “Coming back to California, I realized there’s great characters here, especially on the beach or in the [San Fernando] Valley. Paul has been great in using the Valley, which has been perceived as the blandest place on earth, and he’s made it into something true. Also, being a beach guy myself, I know I can go down there now and there’s not a lot of difference between 1970 and 2014. It’s the same dude, just a different generation with a lot of character.”
“Inherent Vice” opens in select theaters on December 12th, and goes wide January 9th.