Interview | Josh Brolin Slapped George Clooney for All of Us

Hail, Caesar! would be an irresistible movie for any actor. For Josh Brolin, working with The Coen Brothers again after they helped revitalize his career with No Country for Old Men, and with a stellar ensemble that includes George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Ralph Fiennes (to name a few), the new comedy had an added benefit. He also got to slap George Clooney, and in this interview, he jokes that he did it for all of us.

Hail, Caesar! stars Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a “fixer” in the Golden Age of Hollywood who helps pregnant starlets save face and turns cowboys into debonair dramatic leads. The biggest challenge of his career comes when superstar Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is kidnapped just days before production ends on an ambitious biblical epic, forcing Mannix to call in favors and evade the gossip hounds in order to save the studio.

I caught up with Josh Brolin on the phone to talk about whether we should really be romanticizing the early days of the Hollywood studio system, what went through his head as he completely blew a scene with Ralph Fiennes, and why it was so important to slap George Clooney right in his handsome, talented face. (For the record, I think he might have misheard my question.)

Hail, Caesar hits theaters this Friday.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Crave: One of the things I love about the whole industry is the history of it, and I feel like there’s a certain romanticization of the early studio days. From your perspective, as an actor, do you look back on this era as a halcyon age, or were actors treated so differently that you would have no interest in it?

Josh Brolin: No, I mean… I wasn’t part of that but I know people that were. I became very good friends with Eli Wallach and I got to hear a lot of stories even from Brando, about the time back then and what that was with studio control, and when that kind of got split up once things started to hit TV, and once media existed. 

You know, back in the era that we’re dealing with right now [in Hail, Caesar!], Nick Schenck and his brother Joe had a kind of amusement park in New Jersey. It’s not Prospect Park, it was another park, I can’t remember what it’s called right now. [Editor’s Note: It was Palisades Amusement Park.] You know, Eddie Mannix worked head of security for them over there, so the point is all these guys would come over. This new thing called “the movies” or “the films,” whatever, “moving pictures.” 

“You could never victimize yourself and blame a studio for how one is now.”

And these guys who were used to making $30,000-40,000 a year come over, and even during The Depression the movie industry didn’t suffer at all. They actually prospered and continued to prosper. People were making the equivalent of like $200 million a year all of a sudden, so that kind of power [laughs] obviously spawned a lot of debauchery! And a lot of drugs and confusion and whatever. 

So I don’t know if I look back on it like… because if you go back and like, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, they were all kind of drunks and drug addicts. Amazing people, but also just so much crap going on, and you wonder, what was it then? Was it the fact that they felt imprisoned by the studio system? 

Because it doesn’t exist like that now. It doesn’t. You could never victimize yourself and blame a studio for how one is now. First of all because there’s nobody controlling it. It’s more of a corporation, and within those corporations, even though the profits are bigger now than they’ve been ever, they’re still lesser profits compared to the rest of their business. Like Sony, for example, you know?

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

And yet there’s a sense of camaraderie within the characters of Hail, Caesar!. I’m curious what you talked about with the Coen Brothers. Is this some kind of latchkey family, or were you looking at it from a different perspective?

How do you mean?

Well, you’re just a whole bunch of misfits…

But I’m not!

You’re not, that’s true…

No, they are, and that’s what it is. What better people to display or parallel the most extreme parts of the human condition, than people who are emotionally really fucked up? [Laughs.] You know what I mean? It’s not natural to ask somebody to cry on cue, or to fight, or… you know, it’s an unnatural profession. The skill is to be able to break yourself down, is to be able to trick your mind and your emotions and your psyche. That’s not a natural thing, so it’s almost like an athlete taking their body past what it’s been made to do, and that’s what makes people special. That’s what makes people want to look up to them. I can’t imagine doing that. 

Or, like I’ve heard many times, “I can do that!” [Laughs.] I hear that all the time, you know? “You know, I can do what you do!” I go, “Oh yeah, I’m sure you could.” And then you put people in front of a camera and then they freak. They literally freak out, and they don’t know what to do. So yeah, I forgot what you asked me in the first place.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

It actually leads me to an interesting question. You’ve worked with the Coen Brothers several times now. How do they elicit, in such an unnatural environment, such interesting performances from you and your team? It feels like no one’s ever quite the same as they are in a Coen Brothers movie.

[Laughs.] I know! And I don’t know, and I don’t know how we hooked up. I do, I feel like I’m sleeping with them at this point. But I love their sensibilities and them seem to get mine. 

It’s almost like, I dunno, I was asked to play the piccolo on a great Tom Waits album. I go, “How’d you know I know how to play piccolo? That was kind of something I kept to myself, you know? I didn’t tell anybody. I was little ashamed of it.” [Laughs.] I don’t know. Why they hired me for this movie I have zero clue, because I don’t see what about me you see in this. But anyway they did, or maybe they didn’t want to make a new friend or something. 

“I totally blew it, and it didn’t phase [Ralph Fiennes] for a frickin’ nanosecond.”

But I’m very grateful to them because I don’t know if there’s anybody that’s better than them at making films, and being authentic to their own vision. So I felt like I got to work with some of the best people, and people I’ve known for a long time but wanted to work with, Tilda Swinton, and George [Clooney] I’ve known for a long time. Channing [Tatum] I just got to know, but I love just even doing a little bit with him. Jonah [Hill], Scarlett [Johansson] I’ve known for a long time but I’ve never got to act. You know, it was just great, man. Alison Pill, you know… 

Ralph Fiennes… are you kidding me? I fucked up that whole scene because the guy’s doing a scene to me and he’s so perfect on the first take, and there was this pause and I was sitting off-camera – I wasn’t even on film – and there was this pause and I’m like, “God, even the guy can hold a pause for like, super long, you know? That’s totally unnatural but how is he doing it? He’s still compelling!” And then the pause kept going and I was like, “This is so pregnant! This is amazing!” and I go “Holy shit, I have a line! He’s waiting for me to speak! God damn it!” and I finally spoke. [Laughs.] 

And he never broke! He never said, “That’s your line.” He never said anything! He just very pleasantly waited until I said my line. Off-camera! So I totally blew it, and it didn’t phase him for a frickin’ nanosecond.

That’s amazing…

It IS amazing, man! And I’m very grateful to be able to helm this ship with them, and it was really a nice thing to be able to construct with them from the very beginning, and I’m grateful for our friendship and our professional relationship.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

When you have a scene that requires you to slap George Clooney, is he the kind of actor who really wants you to go for it?

[Laughs.] Yeah. Everybody in the whole world wants to go for it. All the times he ever said he was going to be single forever, the perpetual single man, and all the women who felt like they were losing out, and all the men that hated him because he was so handsome and all their women wanted him… I slapped him for all those people. 

On behalf of those people, I thank you.

We had grand fun that day. I kept it a little more serious than he did that day. Usually I’m the instigator of a lot of clownish behavior, but he stayed true to form that day and I tried to keep it… because he didn’t have to do anything, he just had to look like an idiot and be slapped. [Laughs.]

How many times did you have to slap him? How many takes did you do?

With all the different angles? I think they only used two angles, maybe three… yeah, we probably did six or seven sides… With each slap? So there was a forward slap and a backward slap?

I’d say a couple hundred.

Good times.

Yeah.

Well done.

Thank you.

Top Photo: Tommaso Boddi / WireImage

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.