The Coen brothers’ new film, No Country for Old Men, has been called a masterpiece by several national critics, and it’s the second most roundly praised film of the year behind Ratatouille. Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Cormac McCarthy, the movie is about the chain of events that happen after Llewelyn Moss grabs a bag of money from the site of a drug deal gone wrong. The movie stars Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin in a career-making performance in the lead role of Llewelyn. I recently sat down with Brolin to discuss the movie.
How did you land this coveted part? I was doing a movie called Grindhouse directed by Robert Rodriguez, and I asked Robert if he minded putting me on tape to send to the Coen brothers. And he said, “Why don’t we just use the camera I have?”-and this was a million-dollar Genesis camera. So basically it turned out to be the greatest-looking audition tape in the history of audition tapes. We sent it to the Coens and they were not interested, so they turned me down, but they wanted to know who shot my audition tape. It wasn’t until two months later that I was able to get in the room because of my agent. And we found out it was the last casting session and they saw me as a favor-no harm no foul, “we will see him again if you stop bugging us”-and we just really hit it off and I found out I got it on the way home.
So you were cast, and then got in an accident right before shooting started. Yeah, I did. I got the Coen brothers’ movie and hit a car on my motorcycle and snapped my collarbone in half. I lied to the Coens and told them it was only a hairline fracture. I coached my doctor on what to say to the Coens, which could have gotten his license taken away. He said it would heal in a few months and I said, “No, no. Months are not good-say days.” So it wasn’t until I actually got close to the brothers that the story would slowly leak and become more of what it really was. It was about a month into shooting when Ethan finally said, “What happened to the collarbone? We need to know at this point. You are in the movie at this point, we can’t replace you now-so what happened?” And I said, “It snapped, it snapped in half.” So there are things like the scene when Llewelyn has the gun on the rock when he’s shooting the antelope and the boots on the rock. In that scene, I was meant to hold up the gun but I couldn’t. I was in too much pain so I called up an old friend who was a Vietnam vet and asked what a sniper would do. And that’s why he holds his hand over like the way he does. We just improvised.
Were you familiar with the novel prior to reviewing the script and auditioning? I was doing Sam Shepard’s True West in New York, and Sam said I had to read this book. I thought it was amazing and I read it without thinking what part I could play. I read it for the literary amazing piece of art it is.
In the movie-the scene with Carla Jean, your wife-you guys barely look at each other. Was that something you came up with or was it the Coen brothers? We were doing the scene and I didn’t like how it was going, and this wasn’t something that happened a lot on the set. But we were doing the scene and we were looking at each other and I felt like we were trying to force a chemistry. And there are these people, my old ranch hand, Rick Clement-I just saw him yesterday-he and his wife do that. There is a lot of teasing that goes on, but they don’t look at each other. : I went to the Coen brothers and I told them I would really like to pattern this relationship from that. The fact that they are not looking at each other and the fact that they are teasing each other, at least when I see it, I know these people are going to be together for the rest of their lives. And it was very important to me to express the way they do this scene. That’s probably or absolutely why he takes the money at the beginning of the movie, which sets everything in motion. He loves her so much and wants to create a better life for her.
What was it like working with the Coen brothers? They are really straight-forward; they are extremely well-prepared. They put a lot of pressure on themselves to cast it correctly, at least from their perspective. And they let the actors do what they do and they focus on the technical and the structure of the story they are telling. It’s a very quiet set, but it’s one of the funnest sets. The thing about the Coens is that there is a massive lack of ego. There was no, “Wow, that was a really great scene. You’re amazing, let’s go do the next one.” There is none of that. The biggest compliment I got from Ethan was a shrug, and I thought that meant, “You’re not getting it.” Later, I found out, once I got to know them better, that it meant I was perfect. We got what we needed; if you want another one let me know, otherwise let’s move on.
What happened to your career this year? You’re not only in this movie-you’re in American Gangster, In the Valley of Elah, and Grindhouse. I don’t know, I don’t know. I think it is just serendipity. I don’t know. I have been very fortunate and I feel very honored to work with so many great filmmakers. It’s not that I didn’t before. I worked with Woody Allen. I worked with David O. Russell. I worked with a lot of great filmmakers. But, I don’t know. I’ll go do dinner theater from here out and it will all be complete.
No Country for Old Men is currently showing in Santa Barbara theaters.