A flurry of high-profile parts followed in films by Robert Rodriguez, Paul Haggis and Ridley Scott, culminating in a star-making turn in the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" and now the title role as George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's "W."
"I was making my money other ways, so I could say 'No,' and the minute I started doing that, within six months, once I created a hole, it started to be filled with incredible opportunities," Brolin said in an interview. "I mean, really incredible opportunities."
The son of actor James Brolin, who co-starred on TV's "Marcus Welby, M.D.," Brolin had begun his career with a high-profile role as Brand Walsh in 1985's action comedy "The Goonies."
In the 1990s, he co-starred in the Western TV series "The Young Riders" but found himself generally stuck in character-actor mode, sometimes working with filmmakers for whom he had little respect.
The last few years have changed that. Brolin landed a role in Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda," along with a showy part in the TV miniseries "Into the West."
Rodriguez cast Brolin in "Planet Terror," part of the "Grindhouse" double-feature he made with Quentin Tarantino.
In fall 2007, Brolin had choice supporting roles in Haggis' war-on-terror drama "In the Valley of Elah" and Scott's crime tale "American Gangster." Then he starred opposite Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem in "No Country," playing a wily Texan on the run with a fortune in drug money in the Academy Award best-picture winner.
Barely a month after "W.," which opens Friday, Brolin co-stars with Sean Penn in "Milk," playing Dan White, the San Francisco city supervisor who shot and killed gay political pioneer Harvey Milk, along with the city's mayor.
"Milk" adds another director, Gus Van Sant, to Brolin's recent list of top-name collaborators.
"I'm so grateful. You have no idea. Because they're easy. They're not difficult directors," the 40-year-old Brolin said. "It's the other guys who are difficult. The egos and the power struggles, all that. Then you see the finished product and you go, `You've got to be kidding me."
"And with these guys, amazing directors from Woody Allen to the Coens to Oliver, they're all in it for the same reason. They love storytelling. Now I want to go out and find the worst director I can, so I can be in charge and dictate this whole rise and fall," Brolin joked.
Brolin initially turned down the Bush role, figuring anyone who wants to get a dose of the president could just turn on CNN.
The actor said he potentially had more to lose than he might gain by starring in a chancy film such as "W.," with all its expectations and preconceptions.
"I said at the time, why do you need to see a movie about this guy, and why am I going to play the incumbent president when things are going pretty well for me, and I have choices?" Brolin said.
In the end, Brolin was drawn to the risk, though "No Country for Old Men" had opened up more commercial prospects for him.
"He could have done a big-budget movie, gotten paid a lot of bucks after that. He was very much in demand and still is," Stone said. "He chose this movie for nothing, and it's a challenging role, because that's his nature, to be challenged by the material. I have to give the man full credit. He has the potential right now, at his age, at 40, because he's been up and down, to really become a mainstream American star."
Co-star Richard Dreyfuss, who plays Vice President Dick Cheney in "W.," figures Brolin already has arrived at that star plateau.
"There's a moment in `Lust for Life' when Anthony Quinn is first seen. His back is to the audience, and the moment he starts to speak, you say, `Star. Academy Award,'" Dreyfuss said a day after the first big Hollywood screening of "W."
"Last night," he continued, "you saw Josh become a star."
Given Bush's verbal missteps over the years, Brolin could have fallen into the trap of playing him like a "Saturday Night Live" caricature, said James Cromwell, who plays the president's father. But Brolin delivers a performance that presents Bush as a full-blooded character, Cromwell said.
"It's a testament to the quality of the actor not to make the easy choice and not to hide behind that," Cromwell said.
Brolin said he drew on similarities between his own background and Bush's to help get at the character.
Both are sons of famous men who followed their dads into the same profession. Brolin's upbringing on the family ranch in Paso Robles, Calif., also gave him insights into Bush's Texas background, he said.
"I talk about Paso Robles all the time because it brings me to a place that makes me comfortable. I just fit in there somehow," Brolin said.
"He does the same thing in a bigger, a much bigger way. Bush tried to bring Midland, Texas, with him to the Middle East and wanted to do basically what Reagan had done during the Cold War. `I will bring Midland, Texas, to the Middle East and everyone will praise me.' Without taking into account having any respect for the diversity of this world. It's like what he says in the film. `Any kind of government's fine with me as long as it's democracy.'"
"W." hits theaters less than three weeks before the presidential election, but Brolin doubts it will influence how anyone votes.
He does hope the film might inspire more people to at least consider voting.
"We need to get out there and create what we want to create," Brolin said. "It's our responsibility. You can sit there and point at the administration forever from your seat, from your couch, through your TV, or you can get up and actually do something about it.
"The Europeans, as much as they can be annoying, they have an incredible passion. They are involved. We're very involved in sports, statistics, winning, losing, but when it comes to politics, when people don't vote, I don't understand."