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Brolin's big breakthrough

'Listen," Josh Brolin says, leaning forward and stroking his beard as if he is about to impart a great secret of international importance. "Every actor is always scared of being found out. Before any role you think, 'Am I going to lose it or do I have the skills to be able to pull off this part?'"

If these are Brolin's genuine concerns, then he is doing a pretty decent job of overcoming them. Within the past decade, few actors have gained such a reputation so quickly for being a character actor of the kind that you could be forgiven for thinking was extinct, if you glanced around the clean-cut, fresh-faced posters in the lobby of your local multiplex.

It wasn't always this way for Brolin. Now 44, his career hasn't followed the usual upward curve. It started off at lightning speed, as the bench-pressing, sweatband-wearing older brother in The Goonies, but throughout his 20s and beyond movie work was often hard to come by and Brolin turned largely to theatre to hone his skills.

Now he is the go-to guy when the Coen brothers need another mumbling character with a grizzly face, or when Oliver Stone wants someone to play George W Bush, or when Gus Van Sant needs someone who can do complex and repressed.

Even when he does tent-pole summer blockbusters, Brolin does it slightly differently -- taking on and establishing a role full of character and subtlety in the kind of movie where subtlety is normally handed in at the ticket desk in exchange for your 3D glasses.

He imparts his secrets today while on a round-the-world tour promoting the third instalment of the Men in Black franchise, a film that has supposedly been beset by problems and has been nearly 10 years in the making.

Not that you would know it from Brolin's breezy demeanour. Dressed in a crisp cream suit and tie with his dark beard almost making him seem older than the tanned skin beneath would suggest, he delivers his answers in a lazy drawl, often with "you know, man" or some such derivative attached on the end. It's easy to see a similarity with Jeff Bridges. No wonder the Coens are so enamoured with him.

"Strangely enough, and hopefully not narcissistically, I will miss this," he says of a publicity tour that probably cost more than the entire budget of most of the films he has been in. "It's always nice when people like a film. When you take a challenge like this, there's a lot of room for failure because it's injecting yourself into this chemistry that's worked so well for them in the past.

"How are you going to create chemistry that's even close to as powerful as the chemistry that those guys have? There's a lot of room for failure, man, which, conceptually, I like because it motivates me and makes me do the work, but ultimately it can bite you in the ass."

Brolin plays a young version of Tommy Lee Jones's Agent K, who has to assist Agent J (Will Smith) when he travels back to 1969 to help avoid the destruction of the earth. As ever with the Men in Black movies, the performances cover up any gaps in the plot.

Initially, despite being a fan of the first two films (he has seen the first one 45 times, apparently), he says he had no interest in getting involved in the third one.

"Then they said I would be playing young Tommy and that big fear came up. That's always a good thing for me. You think, 'you can't do that. You probably shouldn't do that.' And then I thought, 'well, you probably should do that'.

"Contrary to popular belief, because I do all these serious movies, I love all that stuff. I love 2001, I love Aliens. The imagination goes stratospheric with subjects like that. The mystery of it and the humanity of it."

The process of playing a young Tommy Lee Jones, or a young Agent K, as he is keen to point out, was, he says, no different to playing a George W Bush or a Dan White, the San Francisco supervisor he played in Milk, which earned Brolin an Oscar nomination. Just as then, he studied tapes watching movement and cadence and searching for any insights he could find.

"The only difference with Tommy is that I know him," he says. "But the mistake I made in the beginning was thinking that I was playing a young Tommy, and not a young Agent K." This is the third time he's appeared in a film with Jones but they have yet to appear on screen together or act out a scene together, surely some sort of record: a pub quiz question for the future.

But Jones is more than just the latest role Brolin is playing. In many ways, he embodies the acting realm Brolin inhabits. "I like that Tommy has character," he beams. "We don't have a lot of character any more. Nick [Nolte] is a good buddy of mine and he's got the same kind of deal. I miss the old bad boys."

Is that because character is no longer a valuable commodity in the industry that demands (at least publicly) a squeaky clean image from its stars?

"I think they're still out there," he says. "They peek their heads out once in a while and you're reminded that there's still character in America. There's a lot of it around here, man. There's a lot of it in Europe. I go all over Europe and see some of these people: gruff, severe, well-educated, definitely opinionated. That's great. There's less of a fear. This whole emasculating idea of what a leading man is now doesn't really exist.

"But there's some great actors out there. Look at Michael Fassbender -- he's fantastic. Look at Michael Shannon or Tom Hardy. There's a lot of really good actors coming up."

While not quite "coming up", Brolin could well be the leader of the new wave -- the successors to Tommy Lee Jones and Jeff Bridges. But for many years he was "the guy from The Goonies", something which became a source of frustration. "It's great now that I have other movies. There was a time when that was the only movie and I thought, 'this sucks. Obviously I'm not doing very well'. But there's not one movie anymore and that's good."

What frustrated him, he says, was "the fact that I hadn't done any work that was seen as widely as The Goonies.

"That film turned into a cult hit. People's kids and grandkids saw it. Some eight-year-old would be looking at you saying, 'that's the guy' and you think, 'that was so weird. I was close to your age when I was doing it'. It was 28 years ago. But I'm glad that it exists."

The years following were often tough with work hard to come by. From the safe vantage point he now occupies, Brolin can see the benefits in that.

"I'm lucky because I really enjoyed being a dad. So as much as I wanted to work more, I just didn't, so I worked one job a year. If it was a smaller part it was one month. If it was a bigger role it was two months.

"And then I was home with my kids. I didn't have a nanny. I didn't do any of that stuff. I couldn't afford one."

During that time he played the stock markets and has said that his success in that field enabled him to avoid having to take any movie roles purely for money.

He even set up his own trading website -- marketprobability.com -- though it is no longer in existence. It's hard to imagine he has much time to watch the numbers.

His children, both grown-up, are from his first marriage to actress Alice Adair. In 2004, he married actress Diane Lane. With an actor father, star of Westworld, James Brolin, and Barbra Streisand as a step-mother (his father married the singer in 1998), it's not much of a leap of imagination to imagine a world where Brolin and Lane are some high-powered Hollywood couple photographed at every glitzy event.

Instead, despite being two high-profile people in their own right, their marriage is decidedly low-key.

"We don't create a lot of controversy," he says, almost pleading. "We have some that people love to try and exploit. But we put our heads down and get through the day. We're not interesting people. We're just not. We don't have that thing. I think that that's why I'm lucky enough to be given the opportunity to play different characters because nobody wants me to play me. I'm not nearly as interesting."

'Men in Black 3' is in cinemas from Friday

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