You couldn’t ask for a better face than Josh Brolin’s to play square-jawed tough guy Sgt. John O’Mara, the real-life L.A. cop who headed up a secret unit to take out ’50s mobster Mickey Cohen when he tried to move his East Coast Mafia operation westward. Put Brolin inside a natty suit, place a Tommy gun in his arms, then let him scowl and growl, and he becomes a perfect fit for the little-known story told in “Gangster Squad.” The film, also featuring Sean Penn as Cohen, and Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooters, opens on Friday. Brolin recently spoke in Los Angeles about playing O’Mara.
How did you approach playing a real person?
We got to talk to some people. We got to talk to John O’Mara’s daughter. But then you kind of create a composite character, and see how it works. You also kind of lend yourself to the romantic idea that you have of that time and what it is for you personally. When we filmed it, O’Mara was less of a laconic character, but in editing we found it was much better to have me shut up and go for more of that Bogie-Clint Eastwood type thing, and it seemed to balance things out better. So even what you do on the set isn’t necessarily right.
Did you find yourself identifying with O’Mara’s behavior?
I think he has a lot of integrity. I like the fact that it’s kind of this old idea of somebody who has the honor of not following the manual of what they say law is. Back then I think law was a lot less paranoid than it is now, and I think the boundaries of law were a lot more malleable than they are now. So the good guy was not necessarily the good guy. He had to think dirty in order to snuff out these guys who were trying to make Los Angeles into the Wild West, into a cesspool.
Did you know much about the story?
I was talking to my pop [James Brolin] about what it was like back then. He didn’t tell me anything that was usable (laughs). But then he came to the set one day. We were looking out on the street that had been recreated, and he just kind of went off on these stories about how, when he was 9 years old, he would go and peek in the back door of Slapsy Maxie’s or go down the street to Ciro’s, looking for Mickey Cohen and his goons. He was talking about all of this corruption and all these gangster stories with the idea of gangsters as celebrities back then, but there was an innocence in everything he was saying.
Page 2 of 2 - What was the biggest challenge for you?
I think the big fight with Sean was the most difficult, because Sean didn’t rehearse as much as I did, so his fists were flying wildly during the fight. It was a tough fight, and I love the way it turned out. But I think for both of us, being the current and ex-smokers that we are, it was the most challenging part.
Ed Symkus reviews and writes about movies for GateHouse News Service.