Generally, when you interview a celebrity like Josh Brolin, there’s a moderator of some sort. An executive, a PR person, somebody to keep things clicking. So to pick up the phone and hear, “Hi, this is Josh Brolin!” was a pleasant surprise.
Brolin plays studio fixer Eddie Mannix, who shares a name with a real-life MGM fixer from Hollywood’s Golden Age, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!, out today on Blu-ray and DVD. Brolin spoke with us about portraying Mannix, and how the Coens ordered him to eat more apple fritters.
Mannix cycles constantly through so many roles: Tough guy, bureaucrat, matchmaker, family man, psychologist, detective… How’d you get into the headspace of a guy who’s got so many people to please?
It’s easy, because I’m sitting here trying to please a bunch of people with the Coens. You’re working with people like Tilda [Swinton] or Ralph [Fiennes]. You have to act like you’re not awe-stricken by these people, that they’re children. There’s a lot of pressure and it was showing on my face. When I was doing the research, they even said, “You look too healthy.” I was eating apple fritters to look unhealthier!
They wanted you unhealthier for the role?
Yeah, a little bit! I had just done a role where I was very healthy. They didn’t want him to be like that, a guy this obsessed, having his boss constantly whispering in his ear. They wanted him to be a little stressed. And he’s got this offer. He’s always in angst. He loves being a problem solver, but there are constantly problems for him to solve. They didn’t want me to show up looking like I just came from the gym. I remember hearing a backhanded compliment in the review of No Country for Old Men: “We love that he doesn’t have a six pack!” [Laughs.]
One of the more interesting aspects of Mannix is that he’s often literally in the dark, observing. How does that affect the performance when you’re driving the scene and yet not participating in it?
It’s funny that you said that. There was a lot of rehearsal to figure out what that balance is. You don’t want to sit there and listen, just do a bunch of expressions. Some of the performances to me were so good with Ralph, Tilda, Scarlett [Johansson], Alden [Ehrenreich]. There was something always active about it.
I only screwed up with Ralph. He was going off in a monologue. I was just listening, thinking, “Fuck! He’s so good!” There was this great pause, he just totally embraced his pause, and then I realized I had a line! I’d totally forgot, I was so focused on him. Working with people like that, you don’t feel that you need to fill the space all the time.
How much research did you have to do into the jobs of guys like Mannix? Hollywood fixers from the Golden Age were notoriously close-lipped.
They were close-lipped, but there were a lot of books out there depicting the massive debauchery going on. There was a lot of controlling behavior, a lot of power plays, a lot of starlets taken advantage of in a big way. I could be wrong, but it feels like there’s less of that going on now than then. The debauchery was at a peak. You had people used to making $30,000 a year suddenly making the equivalent of $400 million.
And Eddie Mannix himself was brutal. The more I read about him, the more I didn’t want to do him. How can I justify him in the tone of the film? So I read about [Irving] Thalberg and [Nicholas] Schenk and others and created a hybrid to make it a little more bearable. The important thing was to show how much he cared.
Mannix’s Catholic faith only comes up in one or two scenes, but it’s pretty clearly important to him. How do you weave that into a character who does some pretty unethical things?
I like that! He’s got this one thing, he’s such a control freak, he’s so pacifying of these children, making sure they don’t get out of hand, finagling whatever needs to be pacified. It’s amazing, and then the guy goes and does this “poor me” bit. It’s an amazing balance. I started going to church a lot, and I really enjoyed it. For a guy who didn’t grow up in any specific sect, it was really interesting.
As lame as it sounds, I wanted to be as much in his mind. He’s a pure guy. I love who he was and I loved what he stood for. I never had such a problem letting go for that character.
Probably the actor you spend the most time with in the movie is Heather Goldenhersh, who plays Mannix’s secretary. They’ve got a very crisp, almost screwball interplay. Where’d that come from?
We did have to work on it. It’s so quick. None of this shit comes naturally. She had gotten out of acting, and we were finding it. When you’re insecure with a role, and you do the work, and you get on the floor to do it, you’re trying to focus as much as you can, but at the same time you feel like a schmuck. Out of nervousness, the quippiness came out.
When you had the pauses, it resonated, the cadence of that vernacular. You can’t make it too comic-booky, you go too much with it, it sounds stupid, you had to keep it in the vein of what we all know. Pre-Brando! (chuckles)
Hail, Caesar! is out today on Blu-ray and DVD via Universal.