In May 2006, two days after Josh Brolin got cast by the Coen brothers in their new film No Country for Old Men, he crashed his motorcycle on Highland Avenue in L.A. ''I T-boned a car at about 35 miles an hour,'' the actor recalls, ''and all of a sudden my motorcycle's gone, and I'm flying over the car I really got a lot of air.'' You'd think Brolin's life would've flashed before his eyes mid-flight, but guess not: ''I just remember thinking, 'F---ing s---! I really wanted to work with the Coens!''' he says, grinning. ''I was in the air going, 'Man, that was a good part!'''
It was a good part. Luckily, Brolin got to keep it, because when he finally landed (on his face), he merely shattered his collarbone. Two weeks later he showed up for work, and 15 months after that ever since No Country premiered to high acclaim at Cannes this May the guy formerly best known for playing the jock older brother in 1985's The Goonies is suddenly getting great-actor props for the first time in his long career. So far he's had well-received warm-up roles in Grindhouse and In the Valley of Elah. Next month, he does supporting work as a dirty cop ''an evil, evil guy'' opposite Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington in Ridley Scott's American Gangster. Then he's Llewelyn Moss, the laconic Texas antihero who runs off with $2 million in drug money in the darkly funny and sometimes philosophical chase thriller No Country. With these profile-raising turns, Brolin proves he can do more on screen than most of us realized.
The offers are already getting better, with men named Scorsese and Spielberg apparently admiring his work (see below). And Brolin himself, at 39, could not be more thunderstruck by his recent run of good fortune. ''C'mon!'' he says. ''I've just been a working actor for a long time, and I was absolutely okay with it, and not bitter, and I don't feel like, 'F---ing about time, man!' I feel like, 'Really?'''
Sitting poolside at an L.A. hotel, Brolin is great company, downing Coronas and smoking Winstons into the early evening. He likes telling stories and when he really gets into it, he's up on his feet acting out somebody's part, or slipping into ace impersonations of Ridley Scott or his No Country costars Javier Bardem and Kelly Macdonald, his dark movie-star hair flopping away. (During the accident story, for emphasis, he picks up my hand and puts it on his oddly healed, now-gnarled collarbone.) Ask him why he's done this or that in his life, and his answer is usually a giddy ''It's fun, man!'' Says Bardem, who plays Brolin's psychotic pursuer Chigurh in No Country, ''His sense of humor is totally crazy. Nuts! When I would sink into my dark Chigurh moods on set, Josh is the one who'd bring me back to joy. He can make me cry laughing.''
Brolin son of the actor James, stepson of Barbra Streisand (''That's only a big deal in that it's a big deal to other people'') debuted in The Goonies. ''I had a blast,'' he says, ''but it was the worst f---ing movie I could've done for my first one. After that everything was like, Eh.'' Still, he continued to act in stuff like the '80s skateboard drama Thrashin' (''I thought I was horrendous''), before shipping himself off to study with a New York theater group for several years. He's had steady if nondescript onscreen work since, coming closest to breakout status with an armpit-licking bit in 1996's Flirting With Disaster and as the lead in an NBC show called Mister Sterling that lasted nine episodes in 2003 (''I'm so glad that show didn't go, because it was more work than I ever wanna do again, and I love film'').
Off screen, ''I'm the Tasmanian Devil,'' says Brolin, probably the only movie star ever who's competitively surfed, raced cars, been mauled by a mountain lion (back when he was a kid growing up on his mother's ranch), and more recently scripted and shot his first short film, and directed a three-and-a-half-hour play that he also wrote. If you think of him as a devil, it's probably because you remember his misdemeanor arrest for suspicion of domestic battery when his wife, Unfaithful star Diane Lane, called the cops during an argument at their home in 2004. No charges were ever filed.
As with most things, Brolin doesn't mind talking about the arrest at length. ''It was the most misconstrued, awful thing that was the best lesson we ever had, because we both went, 'Oh, people are actually [watching],''' he says. ''If you call the cops, somebody has to go to jail. But what happened to being able to have a fight and screaming and doing your thing, especially since the kids weren't there'' together, Brolin and Lane have three teens ''and then have make-up sex, and wake up and laugh about it? But no, it's a totally different deal now. It was really, really embarrassing when it happened. And we're both like, 'That's a bummer,' and it'll always be out there as people saying [with a menacing whisper] 'Watch out for Josh!'''
Now people are saying ''Watch out for Josh'' under much more flattering circumstances. He doesn't have his next role lined up yet, but he knows it's an important time. ''The next couple of jobs will determine, at least from a business point of view, if I'm a guy who's actually the real thing,'' he says, ''or I'm a guy who's had a nice moment.'' That'll be decided later. Right now, once again, he's flying.
How Steven Spielberg taught Josh Brolin to act
At 16, Brolin got to work with a legend on his first movie: Steven Spielberg, who three years after E.T. exec-produced The Goonies, in which Brolin played jerky workout fiend Brand. He has a funny story about that. ''I was reading Stanislavsky at the time,'' Brolin recalls, referring to the thinker who helped develop the Method style. ''One day we were in the caves, and I said, 'Maybe this is like [Brand's] mother's womb, and I could be scratching at the walls, and crying.' Spielberg takes me aside and says, 'Man, just act. Just go out there and do it!''' Brolin laughs at the memory of being schooled by a master. ''It's embarrassing!'' Cut to 23 years later: Spielberg called Brolin after seeing No Country and told him they had to work together ''now.'' Says Brolin: ''I was like, Wow.''