BROLIN, JOSH - MILK
In Milk, Josh Brolin plays Dan White, a co-worker of Harvey Milk’s and his
eventual assassin. ‘I read the script and cried at the end,’ Brolin concedes.
‘This is a love story, a civil rights story, and a coming-of-age story. What had
a huge impact on me was speaking to family members. I think Dan was kind of
myopic in the way that he only saw what was right in front of him. He had
insecurities that were very deep,’ he explains in this interview on the release
of Milk on DVD.
You played maligned politicians in your last two roles. How do you make them
You have to remember that’s everybody's human. It starts to get very risky
because you know you're going to insult some people. With Oliver Stone on W, he
and I wanted to really try to humanize Bush. You want to re-humanize him because
there are more levels to play when you humanize somebody. And it was the same
thing with Dan White. I really tried to do as much research as I could, but with
an open mind. I was lucky enough to hear the confessional tape of Dan White,
which was extremely informative
You must form your own opinions about the man?
You do, although you need to be careful about ‘soap box’ acting. I go in and I
try and look at this character and think, ‘Why did he do what he did?’ I do have
my own theory. He had gone through 10 months of total frustration. I think he
really didn’t belong there. I think that his department, the fire department,
and the police department, really put a lot of pressure on him to try to get San
Francisco back to what it was founded on, this Christian White mentality,
without gays, without hippies. And I think he really started to fall apart. He
didn’t realize that this is what was happening now. And then that will turn him
into something else, and then he'll have his time in the future. He was just
saying, ‘Why not now, why not now?’ I think that he did the right thing when he
resigned. And they didn’t let him resign. After ten long months, if you put a
bullet in a gun, you cock the gun, you point it at somebody, you kill somebody.
That's tangible. Beginning, middle and end. So, I understand it. I don’t agree
with it, but I understand it.
What changed Dan White’s mind and made him take his job back?
I think he was so frustrated and vulnerable at that point. The police were
saying, ‘Look, we have different city supervisors in each district, Castro being
the biggest, and if you leave, we have nobody else. That's it: you're our guy.
You have to hang in there.’ And he realized, ‘I can't pay for my family. I'm
getting $9,600 dollars a year’, or whatever it was. He had on Pier 39, I
believe, a fries stand. He was trying to make extra money and he needed to. He
was really in over his head and I understand it. I get it.
So he was more driven by frustration than by homophobia?
Personally, I think so, but who knows? Homophobia is such an elusive thing. Was
he homophobic? The only scene that I let myself indulge in even a modicum of
that homophobia idea was the scene that we made up with me and Sean during his
birthday, when we meet in the lobby. That scene was written very differently
from how we played it. I was supposed to give him a bottle of booze for a
birthday present and I was thinking, ‘I don't like the scene, I don’t like the
way it's going.’ I thought, ‘What if Dan’s been drinking the bottle of booze
that was supposed to be his birthday present?’ It's more interesting to me. We
did it a lot of different ways. There was one point where I went into this whole
karate thing. It was just weird. Diego came in at one point. It’s a dangerous
scene, which I like.
Harvey suggests that Dan White is gay himself, and you seemed play it that
like that. Maybe there's something to it?
Other than that one scene? No. No. You don't need to at that point, because the
minute he says it, the audience immediately puts it on to you. It’s like W. It's
the same thing. There are certain things we don’t have to play because the
audience comes in with their own baggage.
Dan White got seven years in prison and served five, even though he murdered
two people. Why was that?
Because he had the cops behind him. I'm sure it was a corrupt situation. But the
‘Twinky Defence’ was a very little thing, diminished capacity, but that was the
thing that the media holds on to. It sounds great, but it was a very small thing
in the trial.
You’ve said that he was a difficult character to research. Why was that?
There's so much going on with him. There was never a straightforward scene.
There’s all this turning and emotionality and behaviour and there's always five
different things going on at once. Even when he comes in and he says, ‘Hey, I
invited some of the guys to the baptism, are you going to be there?’ These gay
guys are all surrounding him and he knows it. He has his own feelings about it,
so he's trying to be happy. He's trying, and then he comes off looking
Did Sean Penn stay in character when he was not shooting?
I shouldn't answer that, actually.
He’s a method actor…
We all try and stay in it is as much as you can. You don't talk to each other
like Harvey and Dan. And I didn’t shoot Sean. I did not. I wanted to, because
he’s Sean Penn. No I’m joking, but how old was he at the time? He looks like
he's 30 in that picture!
What went through your head when you heard that Proposition 8 had passed?
Confusion. I didn’t understand it. I've tried to go on the Internet and find out
and what the mentality is, and the Mormon Church are sending all that money over
here from Utah. I saw young people out in Westwood, holding up signs ‘Yes on 8’,
which I couldn’t believe. But now, I've started to break it down and I've seen
the breakdown in young people. I understand older people voting on it, because
of this whole value thing. I get that. The thing that surprised me was the
African-Americans. Seventy percent voted yes, the Latinos, massive amounts voted
yes. That really stunned me. I was like, ‘Wow, these are people who understand
discrimination better than anybody!’
To what do you attribute this up-swing in your career?
I have my own mafia! No, I’m joking. I don’t know, man. I don’t feel like I
wasn’t successful before. I don’t like it when people say that, actually,
because I've had a really successful career. I'm able to feed my kids, put my
kids through school, have a nice house. We live modestly, but I feel really
good. In the past, I’d do a job and the money would last a long time. I could be
home with the kids. Now my kids are older, the timing couldn't be more perfect.
Now, my kids are self-reliant. I can go out and do whatever and I don’t have to
worry. Also, when I taught myself about day-trading and real estate, the
business of buying apartments, it was great. I had got into a point where I
started looking back on my resume and I didn’t like it. And I didn’t like the
feeling of not liking it. I said, ‘I would rather not work and make money
elsewhere than do some of the things that I've been doing and not feel good
And then things picked up pretty quickly…
Literally, within three months, I started talking to Robert Rodriguez [about
Grindhouse] and I had done the Woody Allen thing [Melinda and Melinda], which
meant a lot, even though it was a couple of scenes. And then Robert and I
started creating the character in Grindhouse together — I pulled out of a movie
to do that — I was very happy. There's a time for everything, and I'm not Dan
White, so I don’t sit and go, ‘Why not me?’ I've never felt that. When I watch
movies and I see a great performance, I’m happy for them, happy that people are
giving great performances. I don't sit there and go, ‘Why can't that be me?’ I
don't understand that kind of thinking.
Was W a role you really hunted down?
No, Oliver [Stone] came to me. He came to me blindly. I had known him
previously, but he said, ‘Listen I have this idea, you come to my office.’ And I
heard his idea, I said, ‘There's no way.’ I talked to him and he said it's an
epic, and he spoke of it is an epic tale, the Holy War, but when we did it
together, what came out was a smaller, sort of intimate, personal portrayal. We
shot a lot of stuff. So, when Oliver and I went into a room and started editing,
we'd watch these versions together. And there's one version with me on a magic
carpet flying over Baghdad, just blowing up and I have pyjamas on and the cowboy
hat! What we really liked was the fact that here was a dramatic movie with
George W. Bush is like a caricature in real life. How do you approach a
character like that?
That is the case. I might de-caricature at a certain point. The only thing I
know is that with the comedians I’ve seen a couple and it’s nice because you see
the exaggerated effect of his gestures or of his voice or of his look. Honestly,
it helps. But when you watch a comedian it’s funny for about 15 to 20 seconds
and then it’s not sustainable. So how do you make it sustainable? If you do Bush
you have the gestures, the squint, so I simply I leave to Oliver in editing,
going either, ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ Or, hopefully, ‘It’s fantastic and it
works.’ There are ridiculous aspects of Bush that you simply cannot deny. I
don’t know if I used too much or too little.
How did your opinion of the man change while making the film?
Before, I wasn’t a fan, not in the least. I’ll be honest about that. I wasn’t a
fan at all and like a lot of other people I had a very myopic perception of him.
Now, I don’t. My opinion of the administration didn’t change and neither did my
thoughts on Republicanism. My opinion of him changed, though, because when you
humanise someone and you really start to do a lot of research you see the bigger
He’s no fool, right?
It’s just not possible. There is no way. Remember that book Emotional
Intelligence? Even if it’s just that he had the ability to corral 50 million
people to vote for him. And forget the ballot manipulation or any of that.
Forget it. He still had a 50 million-strong vote, and that probably says a lot
more about us than it does about him.
Do you have something lined up for 2009?
I have nothing lined up. Some directing, for sure. I directed a short film and
we're writing it into a full length piece. It’s an interesting relationship
piece between father and daughter, which is something that's always interested
me, movies like The 400 Blows, stuff like that. They've always been my favourite
movies. And I just love father-daughter, mother-son relationships.
Published June 18, 2009
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Josh Brolin in Milk
Born in Los Angeles, California, in 1968, Josh Brolin has enjoyed a career
spanning three decades, and recently starred as George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s
biopic W. He also appeared in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men,
which won four Academy Awards, and in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster.