These days, people view MCU and DCU — that would be the Marvel Cinematic and DC universes — movies as a license to print box office money, but Josh Brolin knows better.
He once headlined a movie called Jonah Hex, which was part of – let's call it the DC Pee Yew. He played a Confederate soldier with a burned face who could summon Native American zombies. It was made by the director of Horton Hears a Who, cost $50 million, and made $10 million.
>> READ MORE: 'Jonah Hex' has lots of action, not much interest
So he counts his blessings, and lately, his good fortune. This year, Brolin's Marvel Universe movies – Avengers: Infinity War, and Deadpool 2 — are among the industry's highest-grossing (first and fourth place, respectively).
And if Friday's Sicario sequel, Day of the Soldado, can make as much as the original's $46.8 million, the actor's 2018 output will have topped more than (dramatic pause) $1.1 billion.
That's rarefied air for any actor, and maybe especially rewarding for Brolin, a dues-paying pro who ignored his actor father James' warnings and entered the business as a kid with Goonies. He spent decades bouncing from job to job (let's call them the Mod Squad years) slowly building credibility and a chance to work with directors like Joel and Ethan Coen, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ridley Scott, and Gus Van Sant (he was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his work in Van Sant's Milk).
He's entitled to a pocket-lining victory lap, but Brolin says it's not about that. No matter the scale of the movie, the job is very much the same, he said, and the atmosphere on the set of a Coen brothers or Russo brothers (they made Infinity Wars) movie is fundamentally similar.
"What they all have in common is that they love movies. They revere movies. They refer to the great ones, and it's a common language. So even though you're working on Infinity War, and it involves an extraordinary amount of money, and you're standing in this black box, and you're relying entirely on your imagination, the process is the same. I'm talking to the Russos about [his villainous character] Thanos and his state of mind in a particular scene, and they're like, 'Think of yourself as Fredo in The Godfather, in the boat, with the gun to your head,' " Brolin said.
Another thing the Russos have in common with the Coens: They are confident and fearless.
"I remember working on Hail Caesar, and somebody says, 'Hey, did you hear so-and-so is also making a movie about Hollywood in the '50s?' That's the kind of thing that can send some productions into a panic. And you can see it has no effect on Joel and Ethan at all because they know that whatever somebody else is doing, it's not going to be in the same realm. And it's certainly not going to change their vision one bit," he said.
I asked Brolin whether he has a special connection to the Coens, based on the fact that No Country for Old Men gave him one of his best roles, a breakthrough that gave audiences a chance to see his chops in a meaty, complex movie.
Brolin, though, rolled back the career clock 10 years earlier to 1996 and the indie comedy Flirting with Disaster, starring Ben Stiller and featuring Brolin in a small but vividly funny supporting role as an FBI agent.
"Honestly, I give a lot of credit to [director] David O. Russell. He really wanted me for that movie, he really fought for me, and that movie has a reputation among people in the business, although it didn't have an audience," Brolin said.
At the time, the industry respect was what he needed.
"I was very happy being a working actor, not hardly making any money. It was survivable, and it was fun," he said.
That changed with No Country – a movie that found an audience ($100 million), and won best picture.
"I call it the gift of No Country," he said. "All of a sudden, as an actor, you have choices."
I mention that my favorite choice – I know, I'm in the minority – is PTA's Inherent Vice, the trippy, hippie detective movie based on a twisted and twisty Thomas Pynchon novel, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a pothead gumshoe in 1970s Los Angeles. Brolin plays his LAPD frenemy.
>> READ MORE: 'Inherent Vice' is a nutty homage to detective classics
"That was a trip. I was there for like three months, showing up and saying, 'Am I working today?' A very fluid situation. People coming and going. Owen Wilson shows up and absolutely kills it for like two days. And Joaquin – I still haven't figured that dude out. I'll tell you, though, never have I had more fun bouncing lines off somebody than with Joaquin. He's a genius," he said.
Brolin has a scene in Inherent Vice with Benicio Del Toro, his costar in the Sicario movies and a couple of Avengers entries. But their professional and personal relationship goes back much farther, to a short-lived 1980s cop show called Private Eye.
"He was amazing in it, but what caught my eye was how hard he was on himself, trying to get the scene right. I remember thinking, 'This guy's out of control. I love it.' "
Brolin, 50, and Del Toro, 51, have been close friends ever since.
I ask whether having a bond like that makes it easier to do a movie like Soldado, in which the two play covert agents and colleagues with a connection based on a shared, cynical understanding of how the world works.
"I think it does, even though I'd like to believe that it doesn't," Brolin said. "Acting is a feat of imagination, at least it is for me, in its purest form. But it's also a function of bringing conviction to the moment, and you want to use anything that can help, and so you do. And we trust each other, no question. We hang out. He was at my wedding. I love the guy," said Brolin, who married Kathryn Boyd in 2016. The couple recently announced they are expecting their first child.
Brolin has signed to play country singer George Jones in George and Tammy. He has the Avengers: Infinity War sequel already in post-production, and will be reprising his role as the Cable for a Deadpool spinoff called X-Force.
No sequel as yet to Jonah Hex, though when it comes to looking at past roles, Brolin has few regrets.