Josh Brolin Is Freakier Than Ever

a man in a suit
Josh Brolin Is Freakier Than EverArt treatment by Mike Kim

This story contains spoilers from season 2 of Outer Range.

“I’m going to tell you this: It’s a name-dropping moment,” says Josh Brolin, who—Zooming in from his kitchen, wearing a navy T-shirt and a camo hat—is absolutely not a name-dropping type of guy. But he has to tell me this story. “I got a call from Warren Beatty one day. He was like, ‘Hey, do you want to have lunch?’ ”

I’m talking to Brolin on the occasion of Outer Range’s big, bold, and existentially terrifying return. The Prime Video sci-fi western series, now in its second season, stars Brolin as Royal Abbott, a rancher in Wyoming who discovers a mysterious hole on his property. Turns out if anyone just so happens to dive into this particular hole, they travel through time. Time-hopping tales are back in vogue, but you won’t find another one quite like Outer Range. Its mysteries elicit Lost-esque fan speculation, the cast (which also includes Imogen Poots and Tom Pelphrey) is stellar, and Brolin’s portrayal of Abbott is a masterful deconstruction of fading masculine ideals. If you’re here simply to hear from Brolin, thank you—but watch Outer Range when you’re done.

Back to the story. Brolin went to lunch with Warren Beatty, because when Warren Beatty asks you to lunch, you go. “I figured it was a project that he was working on,” Brolin continues. “By the second hour, I’m like, ‘So, what’s up?’ He was like, ‘What do you mean? I just wanted to talk to you.’ ” Brolin was floored. “I was like, ‘What a funny thing.’ ”

So they kept talking. Then Beatty said something that would stick with Brolin—and maybe even chart the course of his nascent third act, which is already feeling like the most electric of his career. “He was staring at me, and I go, ‘Why are you staring at me like that?’ He goes, ‘Have you directed before? You should start directing’ ” Why? Well, it was simple. “He said, ‘Because you’re a director. That’s why.’ ”

And when Warren Beatty tells you to direct. Brolin stepped behind the camera this season for Outer Range’s sixth episode, which is one of its very best. It’s trippy as all hell (even for this show); flashes slick action and a series-changing ending; and even features a Sister Christian needle drop. It’s the kind of effort that shows that the fifty-six-year-old has learned a thing or two from the Coen brothers, the Russos, Denis Villeneuve, Gus Van Sant—you get it.

In fact, Brolin would like to do more of it. He just needs to find the time. The actor’s memoir comes out this fall; plus, he’s writing a play, moving (which always sucks, right?), parenting his two youngest children (ages three and five), managing the Internet’s best Instagram account, and doing all of the other things Josh Brolin does. Today, though, he’s nursing a cold—which he braved to talk about Outer Range’s season finale, the future of the series, and his quietly stellar SNL hosting turn. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

josh brolin
Brolin directs the series-shifting episode 6 of Outer Range. “There were a lot of interests that I’ve had through the decades that I never really understood,” he says. “When I directed, I was able to funnel it all into one place without trying to force it.” Karen Kuehn/Prime

JOSH BROLIN: I’m warning you right now: I woke up with—it started yesterday, but really, it was this morning—a massive cold.

ESQUIRE: Oh, no.

I have children. It’s just the way it is.

I’m the cliché man who’s a huge baby when he’s sick.

I’m actually the worst. I have a very, very high threshold to most pain, but when it comes to being sick, I can’t stand it. When I was a kid, I got sick all the time. As I got older, it got worse and worse for some reason. My daughter Eden has it. She’s thirty-one. So does my daughter Chapel, who’s three and a half. It’s just the way our sinuses are designed.

When I was twenty-four, I literally walked off Eighty-sixth Street—between Central Park West and Columbus—and I went to an ear, nose, and throat guy, Dr. David Volpi. He’s literally my guardian angel. I walked in there, and I said, “I’m so miserable.” He looked in my sinuses and he was like, “You’re breathing through cracks of petrified wood.” He Roto-Rootered all six of my sinus cavities. I’ll never forget waking up from the operation. He pulled out the gauze and it was like a magic trick. That first breath—I felt it travel through my entire face. It was heaven.

Wow. Congratulations, by the way, on the new season. It’s really incredible.

Good, good. All the things that inspired me as a young actor—for whatever reason, I lean toward heightened absurdity that exploits human foibles—this show embraces fully.

Everyone writes in headlines: “This is sci-fi Yellowstone!” But that’s not what it is. It’s deeply weird. The rocks are like shrooms now!

It’s so good. If you look at the parallel now—not that it was on purpose—but if you look at the ayahuasca trends right now, it’s how to break out of your own self-perpetuated prison. Especially around American lore, stoicism, arrogance, and this idea that we’re unbreakable, yet we’re so broken. At least that’s how I like to look at it—especially me, because [the media is always referring to me as] like “Last Man in Hollywood” and all this kind of shit. I go, “Let’s take that, super masculinize it, and break Royal and see what he’s really made of.”

There’s so much you can say about Outer Range. Even just about getting older—there’s Wayne Tillerson walking into the bar that he went to as a young man.

It’s not even that you get it or you don’t, but when you really get it, you get it—because it is multilayered. It’s as cosmetic as you want it to be, or you can go further with it, which are the greatest stories. George Saunders just wrote a book on Russian short stories, and I’m almost through it. It should have been the most boring book imaginable, but those were short stories that I remember reading in a shitty Los Feliz bookstore, on the concrete floor, sucking this stuff up, and going, Why is this so good? It’s based on simplicity, but it can be as profound and existential as you want it to be.

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In season 2 of Outer Range, Royal Abbott has to atone for a lifetime of lying to his family. “The transition between lies and truth is major,” Brolin says.Amazon Prime

Tell me about directing episode 6.

When I first met [showrunner] Charles Murray, we just got on right away. He was like, “You’re directing six.” I went, “Okay.” That’s how it happened. It wasn’t like, “Hey, do you trust me with directing?” He’s like, “No, I’ve seen the stuff that you’ve done. I’ve spent enough time with you, and this is your niche.” But it was great. I prepped a lot. I wasn’t lazy about it. Like writing a book—I overprepped, and then I started shaving down and economizing.

I said this as a joke on Kimmel—I was like, “I don’t particularly love actors.” Especially people who won’t come to the set and that kind of shit. If there’s a good reason, I get it, but if you’re just an irritated actor because you’re so creative or sensitive, I just don’t buy it.

It’s a miserable way to live, carrying that attitude around.

There’s still an idea that the homeless, Jacques Prévert writer is the good writer. No. I wanted to write my book in this little shack that was designed after Dylan Thomas’s boat—my wife gave it to me for my birthday—but where did I write the book? I wrote it in bathrooms. I wrote it in Jordan. I wrote it wherever I wrote it. It’s about the work. Just do the fucking work wherever you are.

Did directing feel good enough for you to want to do more of it?

I loved it, man. I love the design of it. I love the architecture of it. I love the celebration of it. There were a lot of interests that I’ve had through the decades that I never really understood. When I directed, I was able to funnel it all into one place without trying to force it. My whole life made sense.…I’m not going to quit acting and just be a director. But it utilizes more of my sensibilities as a person. I’m naturally a communal person. I get excited by experimenting. To imprison that with just me feels really limiting. But I may just be a mediocre actor.

I wrote a play that we just did a reading of. We had Patricia Arquette come down. She’d never done anything like that. It was amazing, man. We really needed an audience to be able to get feedback and reactions. The talkback was amazing; I was really blown away. People got the play, but what I was most pleased about was they said, “We didn’t feel like we were being force-fed a message.”

I saw the Merrily We Roll Along revival a few weeks ago—I loved it, but that play does feel like it spoon-feeds you an existential crisis.

Totally. You get enough of that already. I remember reading the book twenty years ago I Know This Much Is True. I was just viscerally moved by it. I miss that feeling. I don’t know if it’s because I’m jaded, or Fonzie tried to jump the shark too many times, but I miss just being transported.

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What would Brolin like to see in Outer Range season 3? “What if we see him with a shaved head and a shaved beard?” he muses.Amazon Prime

It’s the times, too. You were promoting Outer Range on Instagram and said, “Don’t let the algorithm tell you what to watch.” It’s this cultural bleed of watching and Googling and talking algorithmically.

Look, the only social media that I have is Instagram, and there’s a way to utilize Instagram if you’re disciplined. I’ve found amazing writers that I’ve actually connected with. But if you’re just sitting there, a victim to their algorithm—which by the way, changes—you can start to go, Oh, you like this? You want to see that naked chick again? I got four for you. You go, Wait a second. I still have control over this if I want to. I can still discover.

Just to switch gears, I want to make sure I—

You do your job.

The line we hear in the finale: “Time is a river, Royal. This is your destiny.” What’s your take on it?

Was it Richard Bach? He wrote Illusions, and there’s a poem at the beginning. It’s like, if you hold on [to the riverside], you’re going to get battered. Whereas if you just let go of these ideas of yourself, you’ll flow in the water. That’s the whole Royal thing. The truth of the matter is that he has an idea of masculinity. What happens when you break that idea? That’s why I was attracted to it. It’s something that I’m doing constantly. My mom raised me to be a drunk, ass-kicking cowboy, and that’s just the deal. She was a tough, tough, tough woman. That’s what I was being sculpted as. Mine was self-prescribed for whatever reason—and I love it now. So there is a parallel: constantly being slapped by humility and saying, “Whatever idea that you’re coming up with about yourself? Not only is it inaccurate, but it doesn’t matter in the long run.”

I can’t remember anything that depicts the idea of changing yourself with more turmoil than what we see on Outer Range. Especially how hard it is to change what your upbringing may lead you toward.

This is where Royal’s head was at in the end of season 1. He said, “Okay, I’m going to divulge everything, everybody’s going to clap, and then we’re going to be okay again.” The transition between lies and truth is major. It’s like people getting sober. When you get sober, it doesn’t all get better, man. Don’t forget your wife has been sitting there and saying, “You have to stop. You’re killing our family.” Well, she’s gotten into that habit. Just because you choose to stop drinking doesn’t mean that she’s going to be able to break that habit.

That’s why it’s smart of Outer Range to spend all of season 2 showing how Royal has to untangle his lies. He could’ve just been okay by the end of season 2, episode 1.

That’s no fun. Season 3, we don’t know. Charles and I have talked about it. I’m really surprised, because initially I thought, One season and we’re good. We’ll take a big swing, and if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I am really into it now. I do think this season is better, more powerful, more dynamic, and it’s smarter. Season 3, there’s some outlandish ideas, mostly from me. Charles keeps it practical, which I appreciate. But I’m like, “What if we see him with a shaved head and a shaved beard?”

That’d be sick.

That’s what I'm saying. I’m like, “What would that story be? Why?” Then we start coming up with ideas. I liked that there was no transition between season 1 and season 2. It just literally started where we left off, which I thought was really fun. But I don’t know if that will be the case here. I know I don’t want to play it safe. I do know that.

Before we go, I just have to say: You hosted the best SNL episode of the season.

Right on!

The Sandwich King.

I love the Sandwich King. They wanted to cut the Sandwich King.

It was quietly really good.

It’s funny—[SNL] got better after that. I know they needed a shot of energy, and they were very sweet in telling me, “We’ve been a little static.” It was really fun. I know Lorne and I went in there—we didn’t need each other, because it was different from the last time I hosted, in 2012. This was like, “Do you want to do it?” I go, “Well, why would I do it? Because I want to make sure that I haven’t slipped into a sloth by doing too many big Dunes or Avengers, so I need the challenge.”

When we were talking about the ice-bath thing—I won’t tell you who said it—but they were like, “It’s not funny.” And I said, “It’s not meant to be funny.” It’s meant to be me. I said, “That’s what I want to be able to convey here.” They said, “The poetry thing is super creepy and doesn’t totally work,” and I go, “I know. It’s okay. That’s what we need to do.”

Anything I missed?

No, I’m happy right now. I’m happy with this time. It’s my version of a midlife crisis, and I really like it. I’m not buying a Porsche. We’re moving out of L.A. We’re directing, writing a play; we got a book coming out in November. We’re fucking with it. I’m tired. It doesn’t matter. What matters is manifesting whatever it is I feel, and it’s been a great liberation.

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