Labor Day's Josh Brolin gets his brood on in an ambiguous new role

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TORONTO—Judging by his appearance, Josh Brolin, rugged and handsome, with movie-star looks passed down from his father James, embodies the perfect hero. And though the L.A. native has played the traditional good guy in movies like Gangster Squad, he’s balanced his work with powerful villains (Milk, True Grit) and those who try their best to be heroes but fail (George W. Bush in W.).

In Jason Reitman’s Labor Day (opening January 31), he plays one of his most challenging characters to date: the morally ambiguous Frank, an escaped convict who forcefully takes refuge in the home of a reclusive woman and her son (Kate Winslet and Gattlin Griffith).

Speaking in a hotel in downtown Toronto during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, Brolin compared the film to one of his most critically lauded efforts—2007’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men—for the way both films keep their audiences guessing. “It’s more like, ‘Who is this guy? What are his real motives? Is he going to do this? Is he going to fall in love? Is it manipulation?’ All that stuff,” Brolin offered. “And I think the outcome is perfect in the way that you’re asking the question and you’re not positive. It was my opinion on No Country, too, where people were asking questions and then they saw the movie three times. It’s making you work, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Frank is brooding and complicated, and a good part of the film is heavily steeped in a dark mood. This is, after all, a film for which Reitman and the actors studied the way sweat was used in the 1981 noir Body Heat, as the director recounted earlier during the same news conference. To balance the intensity, Brolin intentionally kept the work atmosphere buoyant. “For me, with a drama like this that’s so laconic and so subtle in its behaviour, I kind of make an ass of myself on the set,” he said. “A lot of Jason’s direction was, ‘Please stop moving and fucking around.’ I found it very important to keep things light because I feel then that we have a place to go, and when we go to that place, it becomes very reactionary and dynamic than if I just live in this dark hole of being in prison for the last several years.”

Because there’s a pivotal scene in Labor Day in which Frank makes a pie, Brolin’s on-set activities involved baking in addition to all the joking around. (Yes, the guy bakes; sorry, every other male in existence.) “He’s the picture of masculinity,” Reitman said. “But you show up at his cottage and he’s wearing an apron and he’s thrilled, over the moon, about the crust he achieved that day, or the juices that came out. He’d give pies to everyone, and at first it was really charming, like, ‘Oh, wow, Josh made me a pie.’ By the end, it’s like: ‘Oh, fuck, you made another one. Hey, can you take this? Josh made me another pie.’ ”

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