Left: No Country for Old Men, Right: W.
LEFT to right: © Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection; © Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

Brolin admits dealing with 60 horses was “bone-tired hard work,” and he didn’t necessarily like it, but the effort informs his approach to everything. “It parallels me going through an acting job and making sure that I earn my pay. It’s about the work, whether it’s emotionally or physically, and it really is blood, sweat, and tears. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Living with an animal activist, Josh and Jess were surrounded by sharp-toothed critters. And often, instead of “getting big Tonka toys” for Christmas like everyone else, they’d get a new live present. “We’d get a small fox or something. ‘Okay, guys, go play with that!’ I remember this bobcat that used to come into our room, rub against us, and then bite our cheeks to wake us up, and it actually would draw blood sometimes. I would say, ‘Mom, do you see this, this is not okay!’ She’d reply, ‘Awww, it’s just a love bite, you’ll be fine.’ We had mountain lions, wolves, everything as companions, until they were released back into the wild.”

If his late mother was not a typical Hollywood wife, she shares similar qualities to his step-mom, the also very private Barbra Streisand. “Both very strong women. Both very curious about life, about challenging situations, and people. Diane has that. She’s very talented. I have a lot of respect for her.”

It follows, then, that the holidays for the Brolins are perhaps atypical as well and not so much about elaborate game plans. “We don’t really have any set rituals. The key is that we all just get together for Christmas, the exes and everybody. We’re all beautifully dysfunctional,” he laughs. “We did it up at the family ranch I used to have in San Luis Obispo. For us, it’s really more about finding a quiet place as opposed to getting caught up in the holiday rush.” He takes a deep breath, as if re-creating that special quiet time where there is no paparazzo and no hoopla. “That’s the best time. We all turn off our cell phones — no business, that’s the rule — and just hang out together.”

Brolin has used his past ranch expertise with horses to great effect in his career — in the TV series The Young Riders (1989-1992) and Into the West (2005), as well as in No Country for Old Men and now True Grit — and has the scars to prove it. “There is one thing about riding horses as opposed to people who don’t ride and have a romantic notion about it — when you’ve been riding since you were 5 years old, it’s a different deal. Horses are beautiful, but they don’t come easy!” The character of Moss in No Country for Old Men was also based on real guys who worked around the Brolin ranch and lived off the land, where nothing came easy. “There was something very economical about one guy, Rick, who lived in a trailer. He only said what needed to be said, and I used that for Llewelyn.

“I learned how to ride a motorcycle before a bicycle, and I might’ve learned about riding horses before a bicycle,” he says with a laugh. Brolin’s had a few wounds from riding cycles as well, after crashing his motorcycle on Highland Avenue in L.A. just days after he was cast in No Country for Old Men. “I T-boned a car at about 35 miles per hour, and suddenly my motorcycle’s gone, and I’m flying over the car. I really got a lot of air! When I landed, on my face, it wasn’t too bad . . . I’d only shattered my collarbone. And it didn’t stop me from working on No Country. Do I still ride? Yeah, I still try to get out, but not as often and not in traffic — and not on Highland Avenue in traffic!”

Another thing that informs Brolin today is the work he did performing in and directing plays at the Geva Theater in Rochester, New York, from 1990 to 1995. Relishing the memory, he offers, “I was given an opportunity from a great friend, Anthony Zerbe, who saw in me something I didn’t see or didn’t really know existed, and that was characters. I learned about getting a hook into a character. It opened up my whole life t o acting, to psychology, sociology, everything.”

That Geva experience, learning “why people do what they do and what makes them tick,” later stood him in good stead when he took on such challenging characters as George W. Bush (in W.) and Harvey Milk’s killer, Dan White (in Milk). But Brolin didn’t get to those breakthrough roles until he had changed up some other things in 2005 and 2006.