Josh Brolin stars in “Only the Brave,” the stirring story of courageous Arizona firefighters, co-starring Jennifer Connelly and Jeff Bridges. Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who literally fight fire with fire, trying to contain raging wildfires and keep them away from residential areas.
You have some real-life experience fighting real-life fires, right?
Yes, I’ve worked as a fireman, but there is a big difference between structure fires, which you fight with water, and fighting wild fires, where those guys don’t use water other than helicopter drops. They have pick axes or shovels and they go out and they create lines to try to redirect the fire or have two fires come together and neutralize each other. The guys who fight those fires are never off duty. I have a really close friend who is an incident commander and he went right from the premiere to deal with the North California fires. They have this constant tireless effort and then when they get home they sleep for a month and their wives want them or husbands want them to be kind of domesticated immediately and that’s impossible.
The movie gets into that and I am most happy about the reactions to this movie from people who see that It’s not just about firefighting heroes but it gets into the families, the tension the normal domestic tensions of somebody who is away living in this kind of heightened reality.
This isn’t the first time you’ve played a real-life person. How do you start?
I start in fear. I start with a lot of fear. Acting is a pain in the ass. Acting is just difficult and it’s embarrassing and it’s humiliating and it’s all that wonderful stuff that people don’t think about when they think of acting. They think acting is talking. But the truth of the matter is when you play the spirit of somebody, it is humbling. I told the family in the beginning, “I will never be your son. I am not trying to pretend to be your son. I will not do it perfectly. You will always find fault in what am doing. I am not as tall as your son, I am sorry, but the truth of the matter is we’re trying to bring the kind of spirit of who the person is.” So whether I played George W. Bush or Dan White or whoever it is you try to bring the spirit more than, “Wow it’s miraculous that he had the perfect amount of prosthetics on.” A movie like this when you see it, it’s not about anybody’s performance particularly; it’s about the kind of emotional investment that you give. So whatever I am doing I would much rather be okay in a great movie than be great in an okay movie.
And I love the collective feeling of what we are all doing. So getting into a character and all that, you all start out with a lot of research. I love the research, it’s the part that I find most interesting and the sociology around it. You just try things on and most things fail. When Jennifer and I are yelling at each other in the car, that was done many, many different ways. In rehearsal we were screaming at each other I think partially just having nerves. And there was really kind of a tame version, the whispered version, and the sadder version and there was one with both of us crying. You’re just searching for the most organic moment that can represent how flawed we all are and how much we were desperately trying to reconnect despite all these obstacles and usually self-created obstacles.
It must be a challenge to you as an actor that so much of the dialogue in the film is either very technical or very indirect, but I liked the way the movie captured the music of the guy talk.
Hanging around these guys where there is a lot of ribbing and there are a lot of challenging behaviors, there are a lot of inappropriate behaviors, but it’s just fellowship and letting off steam. I love the sense of community, and of course none of them take it seriously. Maybe that’s why people like this like to fight fires because it’s the most direct thing you can do.
It also gives a lot of impact to the moments where you say something very direct. It’s very powerful when your character tells the guys how proud he is of them.
Even in saying that there is a sense of acting, and there is a sense of like really those actors playing those roles when I am saying that as Eric but am also saying that as me. We got a bunch of very possibly entitled, fame-driven actors to go out there and strip all that away, especially during the training in the beginning which was very very difficult, very painful. I put myself through hell to get to that place again purely out of fear that I was going to deal with these 25 to 35 year olds that were all in great shape. Luckily they turned out not all to be in great shape so when I showed up I was like, “Guys, here we go and you are going to experience the hell I just put myself through.” We had some of the real Granite Mountain Hot Shots there. They were all looking at me saying, “Are you a real leader? Are you a natural leader or are you going to be acting or do we have to hold you through the whole thing?” Out of all that came a real unity that I never experienced before in a movie. I think “The Goonies” is probably the only one where I stayed in contact with those people. It’s very hard to let this movie go.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on October 24, 2017.