Josh Brolin's brazen cowpoke, who absconds with millions in found drug money in No Country for Old Men, doesn't always exhibit the best horse sense.
Not when Javier Bardem's murderous madman relentlessly tracks his character, Llewelyn Moss, and his ill-gotten gains from one West Texas motel to another, leaving heaps of carnage in his wake.
But the actor, 39, who first caught the public's attention in 1985 as the jock elder kid in The Goonies, is no fool when it comes to Hollywood's sudden "discovery" that he's a talent to be reckoned with. After a couple of dozen features, he figures it just means he's keeping better company these days.
"Flirting With Disaster was the last movie that I did that I really loved, that I looked at and said, 'I really enjoyed that movie,' " says Brolin, echoing an opinion held by many about the freewheeling 1996 comedy.
It has taken more than a decade, but Brolin is flirting with hard-won success. "Instead of being the guy who hears people say, 'I thought you were great, but I hated the movie,' whether it's Hollow Man or whatever, it's nice to be in a movie where the focus is on the film."
Actually, the focus is on several films. First, there was his thermometer-chewing doctor beset by zombies in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror portion of Grindhouse. He then took on a brief though memorable part as cop Charlize Theron's superior in Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah.
Topping those: He out-strutted Denzel Washington's drug lord as a corrupt narc in Ridley Scott's crime epic American Gangster. His Trupo is the type of brute who will nonchalantly threaten your elderly mother and then shoot your dog to get his share of the cut.
Now, he is in the position of possibly being up for not one but two Oscars, supporting for Gangster and lead for No Country. As Variety declared, "Brolin has graduated to the bigs this year."
He had been the go-to guy for mustachioed heavies in TV and movies, and was often overshadowed by the fame of his family members — father James Brolin, stepmother Barbra Streisand and Diane Lane, whom he married in 2004.
Still, he accepts his rise in status with measured gratitude. "I'm very happy to be involved with great filmmakers," says the actor, who during slow periods has supplemented his income by day-trading stocks and kept busy with competitive surfing, car racing and shooting short films. "I'm not ashamed of the other stuff that I did. I was very OK with how things were going. Suddenly, I'm in movies that people are excited about, and that is a nice change."
Brolin had to sweat an audition and pay some extra dues in bodily injury before he was able to elicit such critical reactions as this from Rolling Stone's review of No Country: "He rips into the role like a man possessed, giving Moss the human touch the part needs."
When he learned of the part in Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country, "I did an audition tape on the set of Grindhouse. I went to Robert Rodriguez and said, 'Hey, man, the Coen brothers are doing this film. I've got two scenes, and would you videotape me during lunch?' He said, 'What the (expletive)? Let's use our camera.' Quentin Tarantino (who did Death Proof, the other half of Grindhouse's double bill) directed me. Robert shot it on a $950,000 Genesis camera."
The Coens' reaction? According to Brolin, "They asked, 'Who lit it?' They said it was the best-looking audition tape in the history of audition tapes. But their response to me was, 'Not what we are looking for.' "
Brolin's agent insisted that they have a face-to-face meeting, and the Coens had a change of heart.
Still, the actor's daredevil tendencies almost caused him to blow the opportunity a second time. Weeks before filming began, Brolin cracked his collarbone after hitting a car with his motorcycle. He decided to carry on and make the movie, despite being required to fall off cliffs and fend off pit-bull attacks.
Turns out, the pain managed to be a bit of an advantage, since, as Brolin points out, "My character gets shot in the right arm anyway, so it kind of worked."
He and the Coens ended up bonding. "They're just really good people," says the actor, who was raised on a ranch in rural central California. "It's almost like they're an Eastern version of what I grew up with. Which is, they're very quiet. They're very sparse. They don't feel the need to uphold their end of the conversation. They're not into compliments."
Neither is the ever-terse Tommy Lee Jones, with whom Brolin ends up sharing zero screen time in both Elah and No Country. Yet that didn't stop the grizzled veteran from leaving a message on Brolin's voice mail after seeing No Country the first time, Brolin says. "He just said, 'Nice job, young man.' " And, 'extended moments of originality.' Stuff like that. In his very West Texas laconic fashion."
Meanwhile, as Brolin considers his next step, he's keeping it all in perspective. "Look, I'm going to take full advantage of this situation just because I love working with great filmmakers. But I've been around for a while, and I'm not going to play into the hype that I'm some great, you know, discovery."