In Hail, Caesar!, the seventeenth feature film written, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, a coterie of scandalous Hollywood players whirl around Eddie Mannix, the real-life Hollywood studio fixer played by Josh Brolin. It’s a movie that, on the surface, seems like a silly sketch-comedy revue, but it hints at heavy and very current themes, like religion, politics and privacy. The film marks Brolin’s third collaboration with the Coens, after 2010’s True Grit and 2007’s No Country For Old Men. In fact, it was No Country that placed Brolin’s name atop movie-theater marquees for the first time—22 years after he debuted as the big brother in Spielberg’s kid-classic Goonies.
A few selections in the Coen filmography reward multiple viewings—I didn’t notice the absurdly grandiose way Philip Seymour Hoffman opens doors in The Big Lebowski till the eleventh time I watched it. With Hail, Caesar!, Brolin, 48, bats in a performance that demands to be seen several times. On the eve of the movie’s release on Blu-ray and DVD this week, the actor chatted with Playboy about the the Golden Age of Hollywood excess, keeping Oliver Stone out of his head and America’s best tri-tip.
I’m gonna tell you something up front.
Go for it.
I like your magazine a lot. I like what you guys have done with your magazine. I think it’s even better than before.
But I just got off the phone with [another magazine], and I didn’t like his questions. Ask better questions than him.
Okay, pressure’s on. First question: You grew up in central California, which is famous for its tri-tip. What’s the best tri-tip you’ve ever had?
Fuck. There you go, dude. You’re already there. There’s a tri-tip place in Atascadero, California, which is right down from Paso Robles, where I’m from. It’s in the parking lot of a gas station right in the middle of Atascadero, and it’s the best tri-tip I’ve ever had, other than … Robert Rodriguez took me to a place, I’ll remember the name of it in a second, in Austin, Texas, and it was the most succulent tri-tip I’ve ever had.
Equal to California tri-tip?
So in Hail, Caesar!, your character Eddie Mannix is a studio fixer. What kind of research did you do into old Hollywood for the role?
There was a book that I read that turned into my bible. It was about Eddie Mannix and that time. The real Eddie Mannix was much harsher than the guy I played. I played more of a hybrid of [Irving] Thalberg and [Louis B.] Mayer and Eddie. Because Eddie was much more brutal. I couldn’t put that book down because the debauchery that went on back then. You think today is bad? You think, Oh my God, Jay Z fucked around on Beyoncé and that’s in her album? That’s nothing compared to what was going on back then, with the brothels and the drunkenness. The debauchery was on such a massive scale that the Coens trivialized it a little bit. It was really severe back then.
I read that George Clooney’s character had hints of Clark Gable in it, so I went back and read what Gable was like and my jaw dropped.
I know! I watch that movie and I ask myself, How much of this is true? The way it’s being played is a little exaggerated. But no, everything in the movie was based on something true.
Speaking of research, your physical movements on screen are reminiscent of the way actors moved on screen in the 1940s, like a Preston Sturges character. How would you describe the physicality of Mannix?
Franklin Barbecue! That’s the tri-tip place in Austin. But yeah—Abbott and Costello, who’s the tall one?
I think Abbott?
You’re too young. One of them, Abbott or Costello, was from New Jersey. And Eddie Mannix was from New Jersey. So I worked with a voice coach on that New Jersey accent. We listened to an old baseball commissioner, and we listened to Abbott and Costello. Getting into a voice is always fun. It’s a nice way into a character. We found this voice, and the voice made sense. Then we work on body movement. It sounds cliché, like, “Did your really work on body movement?” I did. This guy moves in a specific way. He was a blockhead, which is nice because I’m sort of that way too. We exaggerated it. With the movie I’m doing right now I lost a lot of weight, I’ve tried to liven up and be in better shape, but with Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan had me eating apple fritters every morning. They said, “We want you to look a little unhealthy.”
There’s a lot to unpack in Hail, Caesar! It’s a film that rewards a second viewing. Out of curiosity, what movie have you seen more than any other?
The Warriors. 66 times. 65 times on a VHS tape, and then one time on the big screen in Austin, Texas. 66 times. I marked every time so I know that for sure.
You’ve worked on three features and a short film with the Coen brothers. What was your first impression when you met them?
Joel scared me! He was staring at me a lot. I found out why recently. They were frustrated that they hadn’t found what they were looking for, for No Country For Old Men, and when I finally walked in, they couldn’t believe it was happening. Like, is this the real thing? Is the shoe gonna drop? Is he gonna open his mouth and sound like a girl? He was very, very intense looking with his arms crossed. Whereas Ethan, who was on my right, he had written a book of poetry that I’d read, and a book of short stories. And I really liked his writing so much. We mostly talked about that. I really loved him. I love both of them, but I really loved Ethan. Then it turned out later that he’s the least sociable, the more socially awkward. Whatever one is, the other one won’t be. It’s very rare that they’re in the same mood, or tone, as the other.
Is there an expression or gesture that either Joel or Ethan Coen says or does frequently on set?
Yeah, a shrug of the shoulders. Which means: We got it. We’re good. A shrug of the shoulders usually means: Eh, I don’t know. But not with them. It’s their thumbs up.
I read that you got your start doing improv comedy. And I saw that you’re working with Danny McBride and Jody Hill. Do you have an itch to do more comedy?
Only because it’s more where I came from and it’s more who I am. People who know me ask, “Why are you playing all these serious roles?” Obviously you’re exploring what works for people. Professionally I’ve been very lucky over 32 years. I spent 22 years in oblivion. I did movies people did nobody saw. Then I did movies that people saw. I wanna keep expanding. I had a very good past 10 years, but I have no interest in repeating the past 10 years.
You’ve worked with a murders’ row of directors: the Coens, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, David O. Russell, Gus Van Sant, Guillermo Del Toro, Spike Lee, to name a few. Who’s taught you the most about filmmaking?
Everybody. Gus Van Sant and Harris Savides, who’s not around anymore, who was his DP, were two people I look up to on a massive scale. They were both experimental. They were both familial and collaborative with their work, like it used to be in the ’70s. I really had a great time with them. Oliver Stone is a master in his own way. I heard nightmares about him and I haven’t experienced one. There was only one time when he came up to me and said, “Hey man, how you feeling today?” And I said, “Oh no. I know what you’re doing, because I’ve heard about this. Don’t do that.” And he walked away saying, “Oh fuck. Josh is tough.”
What was he trying to do?
He has a reputation of psychologically getting inside actors. And I think he really trusted me. But he had a hiccup one day and tried it with me. I just said, No, that’s not gonna work with me. Just letting you know. What works for me is when you come up to me and tell me what you need. Then I will fuck with myself accordingly in order to get there. Nobody needs to fuck with me.
Back to Beyoncé and Jay Z and the TMZ/social media era that we live in. Do you think we’re better off now than the era depicted in Hail, Caesar?
I don’t know if we’re better off; it’s just different. It was almost communistic back then. You had Big Brother telling you what to do, what to say, what movies to be in. They had no power over their lives. Then they’d go out and tie one on and get hookers. I get it. Now it’s much more individually propelled. You’re more alone in the world. You look at social media—it’s crazy the stuff that’s being said. Now because of the anonymous nature of social media, I read some of the meanest possible things you can write about another human being. How do you allow yourself to do that? I don’t understand. They forget there’s a human being on the other end of it. I don’t know if we’re better.
OK, now for a few lightning round questions. What’s the last good book you read?
How to Choose a Leader: Machiavelli’s Advice to Citizens.
Who’s a director you’d like to work with who you haven’t worked with before?
And finally, you’ve played George W. Bush in a movie. Would you ever be interested in playing Donald Trump?
Yeah, man! Of course I would. I wanna play all the unplayables.
Hail, Caesar! is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD.