Josh Brolin doesn’t mind being hated. In fact, playing the heavy has served him well this year. Fresh off a career-making nice-guy turn in the Coens’ No Country For Old Men, Brolin played President Bush in Oliver Stone’s W., and now, he’s appearing as killer Dan White in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. White has a special place in homosexual hell as the man who shot Harvey Milk, the first openly gay major elected official in American history. He also famously pioneered the use of the so-called “Twinkie Defense,” citing his increased consumption of Twinkies and Coca-Cola as evidence of depression.
Van Sant’s film and Brolin’s masterful performance depict White as a struggling, less-than-bright ex-cop who ascends to elected office in San Francisco, only to be foiled by fellow city supervisor Milk and Mayor George Moscone. White’s homophobia and ambition lead him to murder both of them in 1978, a tragedy made all the more poignant here by the joy Penn breathes into his portrayal of Milk.
Brolin’s character here is the outsider—a red meat-eating, heterosexual male caught up in changing times. Brolin opened up to The Daily Beast about his sexual tension with Sean Penn, his “gay” haircut, and the impossibility of working with his wife, Diane Lane.
Why are gay rights not seen as civil rights?
I don’t know. It honestly doesn’t matter to me. Why can’t people just do what they want to do, as long as it’s not hurting anyone? That’s all I care about. The discrimination, I do not get it. I would think that African-Americans would be extremely sensitive to that, knowing that better than anybody. And yet that’s not the case. They voted something like 70 percent for Prop 8. The religious factor came into it.
What was it like working with Sean? He seems so serious.
He’s not. He’s the most gracious actor I’ve ever worked with. Bar none. That dude gets a bad rap and I do not understand it. He doesn’t pander and he gets slammed for it. It’s great being around people like that if you’re a geek like me, who truly—in the most nerdish way—loves to sit down and create something with someone.
Do you think Dan White was secretly gay?
The only time that I even thought about that was in a scene where Dan and Harvey meet on Harvey’s birthday in an empty lobby. It’s a strange scene, a creepy scene. Goes like this: I see him. I’m a little angry at him because he didn’t vote on my bill. I take out a bottle of alcohol and give it to him for his birthday. I originally thought, “That’s kind of boring. Why don’t I be drinking the alcohol, just out of resentment that’s brewing in me?” But then there was a look—with Sean—where it was no longer acting. Sean was looking at me going, “What’s happening?”
To play Dan White, don’t you need to know whether he was gay or not?
Did the latency play into the fact that he murdered Harvey and mayor Moscone? I don’t think that’s true. Dan White had a lot of pressure from a lot of people around him. He didn’t have the skills. He didn’t have the talent. He didn’t have the brain to be able to do what a politician does. A politician gets hammered more than anybody, even actors. … Do I think it could have been a possibility? Sure. It could have been a possibility with anybody.
“I was into the whole punk rock thing and I got a haircut and some older gentleman said I looked like Harvey Milk. Later on I remembered that comment, so I did it just to spite that guy.”
Why do you want to play characters like White and George Bush?
It’s not a Freudian thing for me. Something did happen to me when I was a kid—I won’t tell you who it was—I was into the whole punk rock thing and I got a haircut and some older gentleman said I looked like Harvey Milk. Later on, I remembered that comment, so I did it just to spite that guy. He was using that to say, “You look like a fag.”
Given Prop 8, you think there’s a need for more understanding of the gay community?
If we all say, “We’re God-fearing. God’s going to punish us if these people get married,” they’re still going to be kissing in the streets. They’re still going to be holding hands. It’s not going to go away. What’s the fear? Dan White’s fear was, “I’m going to disappear. I’m not going to be liked anymore.” That was a major thing with him. He had always been praised. He had always been The Guy. He had always been The Great White Hope in a very small pond. Then he gets put into this big city and suddenly he’s fighting for any recognition.
What about the Twinkie Defense?
Stupid. Diminished capacity is very real. The Twinkie Defense, the media grabbed onto that and it was a great thing to be able to use. And it made it even more ridiculous, the fact that he got seven years and he only did five years. But the Twinkie Defense was a very small portion of his defense.
You don’t think it was a determining factor for the jury?
No. I think corruption was. How do you shoot, in a federal place, two public figures and get manslaughter? It’s impossible. It doesn’t happen. That’s corruption. That’s having amazing connections. That’s having people in high places looking out for you.
Would you ever like to do something with your wife, Diane Lane?
I do do things with my wife all the time. (Laughs) But I can’t imagine working with my wife. When you start a relationship based on working together, that’s one thing. We’ve talked about it, but immediately both of us go, “Are you kidding me? That’s stupid.” We’d just laugh the whole time.
Tom Tapp is the West Coast Editor of The Daily Beast. He has been covering the entertainment industry for over a dozen years as an editor and writer, both online and in print. Before joining The Daily Beast, Tom Tapp created and ran Hollywood WireTap.com, which was named one of the 100 "Sites to Bookmark Now" by Entertainment Weekly before being sold to Hollywood Media Corporation.