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– by Joseph Jammer Medina

There are a lot of unsung heroes in our world. From those who go out everyday to keep our country safe, to those who do it on a more local level, we’re not wanting for a lack of heroes to look up to. The upcoming film, Only the Brave, chronicles a group of men who fight wildfires. With California currently in flames, this film could not come at a more important time, to highlight the true dangers these men go through.

Starring in the film in the role of Eric Marsh is Josh Brolin. Eric Marsh was the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a crew that was renowned for being the only hotshot crew that wasn’t at a state or federal level. Sadly, the 19 of the 20 members lost their lives in the infamous Yarnell Hill Fire in June of 2013.

LRM had a chance to sit down with Brolin and a group of other journalists to ask about the unique experience of bringing this film to life.


Great quote about firefighters, you said they were untouchably corrupt at a time where we’re suspicious of a lot institutions. I just wanted to see if you could elaborate on it.

Brolin: I don’t know if untouchably corrupt is correct. Is that what I said?

Yes.

Brolin: No, that’s wrong. I mean they haven’t been touched or tainted by any kind of corruption. A lot of different professions, I won’t name which, are kind of tainted by this kind of distrust. Whereas firefighting is untouched by that. Untouchably corrupt is not correct. Because there’s no sense of corruption for firefighters, even to the extent where it’s this great kind of regression where everybody wanted to be a cop at one point, or a firefighter, but now it’s pretty much just a firefighter. I’ve stated that any kind of power that is taken advantage of is not something I’m a major advocate of. A firefighter community, and it makes all the other righteous people in that profession look horrible, so it’s a select few that taint the whole profession. Firefighters to me, at least in my experience with them, having worked with them for the last 30 years, I don’t know there’s a purity about it. There’s a misfit nature about in the best sense of the word that I love. They’re as real as they get, they’re as riveting as they get. It’s a very tough community to get in. When you get in, there no loyalty about like a firefighter will give you.

You volunteered as a firefighter, right?

I did, doesn’t make me a firefighter, but I did volunteer.

Okay, but with like your experience, for the three years that you volunteered, how was it to be in this personal story, because it’s the lives of these firefighters that were lost. I see this movie as a war movie too. It’s like fighting a different kind of enemy, mother nature. 

Brolin: Totally.

Can you explain how from your experience, because when you were a volunteer and then having this story about all these lost lives, how were your personal feelings about this story?

Brolin: The story itself. You’re talking about two different things. You’re talking about the tragedies of war, the unpredictability of the quote unquote enemy, and the fire at that moment. These guys befriend fire, they’re around fire. They have a natural relationship with fire. Especially wild land fires, is so unpredictable, they’re so massive, they cover such a great area, that to be up there without water, you know what I mean? You have helicopter drops and all that, but basically you have one shuttle. You have a few guys that are creating lines and using the techniques that they’ve learned in order to protect their communities. I mean, it’s amazing. When it comes down to it, these first responders, and firefighters are putting themselves in massive danger, massive peril, in order to protect your home or your safety. I mean, how can you not? I have a huge amount of respect for them, and what I love about this movie is it goes back to dealing with their everyday lives. Kind of on a much lesser level, but kind of like actors who are leaving their homes and then they come back to their families, you know a wife or children, and they expect them to be a certain way. Thoroughly domesticated, and yet they’ve been living this heightened experience for so long, it’s impossible. There’s maleability, there’s sacrifice, there’s all this stuff involved. There’s always going to be some kind of tension, and then they reintroduce themselves and you find that you’re able to find some semblance of domestication. Then boom, they’re gone again. But without them, the whole world would be ash. You know what I mean, it’s absolutely 100 percent necessary. What they sacrifice is not just themselves, but families as well.

Because of your previous experience as a volunteer firefighter, had you heard of the Yarnell fire prior to the movie role, and did that draw you to the movie?

Brolin: It didn’t draw me to the movie, but I knew about it because I follow that kind of stuff, and I lived around and within firefighter community for a very long time. One of my best friends was at the premiere in LA. I flew him there. I wanted him to be there. Back when I was a volunteer firefighter, I slept on his couch in Mescal, Arizona, which basically the middle nowhere in his trailer, with a collapsing ceiling, and duct tape on the ceiling, and water coming in, you know what I mean. He didn’t have a lot and he’s done very well for himself, and the firefighting community. He knew [main character of the film,] Eric Marsh. He went to the funeral. I know a lot of people who knew Eric, outside of friends and family, that have met because of the movie. So yeah, I was very aware of it. So when it came, I didn’t want me to want to do it more, it made me more skeptical. I wanted to make sure that [director] Joe [Kosinski] was in the right place. He was very close. I know a lot of people who were very close, not very close, but knew Eric. So when I met with Joe, I was like, and I was kind of, I was 240 pounds for another role. I was in a bad mood when I met him, so I think that I kind of, it was very challenging to say the least, and I loved how straight forward he was. Joe doesn’t look like the kind of guy — a lot of directors, a few directors that I’ve met who look kind of like me, outdoor guys, they just have that way about them. Then I go into these movies with them, and they’re sitting there with this cashmere sweater over there staying warm, while we’re out there doing work. I don’t appreciate that so much. Joe, who doesn’t look like an outdoor guy, was out there every nanosecond. He was truly our leader through this whole thing, and I had an immense amount of respect for that. It just changes the movie. It keeps morale up because it’s a very sensitive subject, there were a lot of tears on set often. Also there was a lot of fun. I mean I think out of respect for the spirit of these guys, I think that we created a community that surpassed us being actors and that’s why we’re still in contact with each other. There’s a text thread that goes on that’s the most inappropriate thread I will ever be a part of (laughs).

Well, you’re firefighters.

Brolin: I don’t know what we are at this point, but we stay in contact everyday. Somebody writes something every single day.

Did you have a chance to speak with Amanda Marsh or others who were close to Eric? If so, what did you learn from them about Eric that you tried to bring to the movie.

Brolin: Let me show you a picture. The relationship is way too close now. Let’s say, can you see this picture [Shows picture of him and Amanda Marsh making funny faces in a selfie]? She’s like my little sister now. That’s me the other night, me and Eric’s mom. They accepted me. It was harsh at first, which I expected. There was one point where I wanted to get out of the movie because I’m a human being, and I was emotionally affected by it. I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do this.” I did a play called Pits and Joe on a stage in Rochester, New York, where I went into a real hospital and acted like a had traumatic brainstem injury for 10 days. I left that experience because I thought that would help me, and I think it did ultimately. I remember halfway through that experience I called the director, and said I’m outta here. I feel like I’m making fun of these people. I feel like I’m a fraud and all this kind of stuff. That’s why being an actor is so wrong on every level until the result. Am I faking it, am I this? Who am I? You’re trying to do research and piece together, kind of like what you guys do, piece together your story, but it’s your story ultimately. It’s your thumbprint, your fingerprint, it represents you as much as it represents us. I’m doing the same kind of thing and feeling like an asshole through most of the process. Then when it finally comes down to it, did I convey the spirit of who I felt these guys were? Ultimately, yes. In these relationships, they accepted me. Eric’s mom, the first thing she said, was “my son was a lot taller than you.” Literally the first thing she said. I was like, “Oh man.” She came up to the other night, and said, “I’m sorry I insulted you the first time I saw you. You understand how hard it was for me.” I said I completely understand, and one of the things I told her was, “I will never be your son. I will never try to be your son. I will never convey your son perfectly, but in the spirit of what your son was I hope to do the best job I can.” They have been very, very kind to me.

Did you get any resistance, so from Eric’s mom?

Brolin: I was very lucky. I think just because, and I’m not tooting my own horn, but the way I come across, I’m just kind of, I’m as much of a misfit as anybody else, and I think I’m just as flawed as anybody else. I don’t try to pretend like I’m not. I actually soapbox how flawed I am unfortunately, so I think they trusted me. I was very pleased about that. There was natural resistance. I don’t know if I want to see this. Is it too soon? If we wait wait two, three, four years, would it be too late? There’s never the right time. To me, it’s just a movie that honors people who should be honored, who don’t in any way, shape or form exploit themselves. I think it’s important in order to educate people, and be aware and conscience, don’t forget that these people are doing this everyday for us. This surpasses this whole divisive nature that we live in so deeply right now, with red and blue and this and that. It’s like come on.

 

Josh, In recent months, and beyond on that, actors have been very political and social, and talking about things, and that’s their right, your stepmom can be very passionate and persuasive at times herself. 

Brolin: Because a lot of people are listening.

But the one area that I’m surprised I haven’t heard celebrities discuss is free speech, and more specifically free speech on campus. I was kind of curious, your thoughts on that, and why is less attention paid to that? I just think, you know.

Brolin: Free speech on campus?

Speakers not being able to speak and having to hire security. Hundreds and thousands of dollars to appear on campus because there is violence, things like that. I’m just curious about your reaction. You’re a smart guy. You’re aware, and you’re in the industry, and you’ve been in the industry for awhile. I just really think people should be talking about that, in addition to immigration, and Trump and things like that.

Brolin: I mean I’ll talk about anything, I don’t know. But the truth of the matter is that I don’t know that much about it. So therefore, maybe that’s one of the reasons. I don’t know. I don’t know what the thing to talk about is. I mean free speech on campus is specifically, I wouldn’t even be able to talk about. But free speech period, you have two sides to free speech. 1 guy and me, who wasn’t involved in social media at all, then I got involved into Instagram, because if you have any kind of discipline whatsoever, you can use Instagram in the greatest of ways, not necessarily as a platform for free speech but I’ve met painters. I’ve met artists. It’s incredible. Then I obviously have my platform for free speech and talking or whatever. For me, it doesn’t affect my business at all, so I have nothing at stake. I don’t ever feel like I have anything at stake. I’m very lucky to have worked in this industry for 33 years. So if it ended tomorrow, like I did in the middle of my career and went and become a landscaper. I can do anything. I know how to make money, I’ll be fine. So I don’t really hold this in a place where people, of fear if I say something, what will happen to me. I say whatever I feel like saying, when I feel passionate about something. Free speech in general, I think there’s been — in Instagram particularly — when you erase somebody’s comment or something then somebody fights back with that’s anti free speech. I think that’s f**king ridiculous because some troll writes something that has nothing to do with anything but to instigate bad feelings.

It’s also your platform.

Brolin: And it’s my platform. I have the right to go whatever I want. I have the right that if somebody is talking to me face to face, to walk away. Obviously, forget the political leanings. I’m a major advocate of free speech period.

So you mentioned knowing that you can go and do anything. I imagine that gives you a certain kind of freedom in the roles you’re picking in Hollywood at this point. Does that shape how you decide what you’re going to do next and what you’re pursuing at this point? What is really pursuing you in the projects you’re choosing?

Brolin: It’s purely selfish. It is. Is is purely selfish. What interest me in that moment. I’m a fairly active guy. I’m right at the cusp of 50, and I need to continue to be active. So when I do Everest or when I do this, I know that I have to go from 240 pounds to 190. Plus, it’s a challenge, on a selfish level, it’s a challenge for me, and it allows me to be able to delve into a subject matter that I find interesting. This movie is very selfish for me because I spent a lot of time with the firefighting community, and it allows me totally saturate myself in them. I feel that as somebody who will momentarily be a spokesperson, at least for this movie, I have confidence in myself that I’m honest. I don’t have to lie about this movie. I believe in this movie. I think it’s very honest that its heart is in the right place. What happens after that is really none if my business.

You said that there were moments, sad and funny moments, between the cast and movie. Can you tell me a few stories?

Brolin: I’ve talked about Silent Rock, I’ve talked about this congregation of people between shots where we threw rocks at each other. I came up with this game. How nobody lost teeth is unbelievable, I can’t imagine. We had this rock that I had bronzed for everybody, and it’s called Silent Rock, I made everybody wear 45 pound packs all the time that were randomly weighed. They couldn’t stuff foam in there or do something like that and cheat. We would throw rocks at each other, whether hard or try to trick somebody into dropping the rock. If you dropped the rock, you did 25 push-ups, 25 squats or 25 sit-ups with the pack on. And then we did another thing, where you do what’s it called, four, four and four, something like that. I can’t remember. But you have to drink 4 liters of water in under 4 minutes. We have a lot videos of people throwing up too. For me, that’s fun. For the rest, they kind of look at you and go, okay well, thanks for coming in. It’s like the gallon challenge, that’s what it is basically. That was within the first four days of training camp, and then I knew it was all going to be okay once everybody threw up.

Only the Brave hits theaters on October 20, 2017.

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Joseph Jammer Medina is an author, podcaster, and editor-in-chief of LRM. A graduate of Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Television, Jammer's always had a craving for stories. From movies, television, and web content to books, anime, and manga, he's always been something of a story junkie.