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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 sympathetic?
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 ridiculous.

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 about them.’

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 comedic overtones.

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 picture.

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.

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