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Actors Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin attend a news conference for the film "Labor Day" at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, September 7, 2013.

FRED THORNHILL/Reuters

Onscreen, Josh Brolin has shown a predilection for portraying gruff, hardened sorts – since 2007's No Country for Old Men, he's depicted a war veteran, a Tommy gun-blasting gangster, a corrupt detective, a murderous Wild West outlaw, a bounty-hunting vigilante, and, in Jason Reitman's latest film Labor Day, a convicted murderer who escaped from prison.

The real Brolin, Reitman argues, cuts a slightly less menacing figure.

"Josh made a pie every single day we were shooting," the Montreal-born director announced during a press conference Saturday organized as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, where the drama is holding its debut.

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"He is a picture of masculinity, but then you show up to his cottage and he's wearing an apron, and he's thrilled, he's over the moon about the crust he achieved that day, or the juices that came out. It was a very different side.

"And he would give the pies to everybody. At first, it was really charming, like 'Oh wow, Josh made me a pie.' By the end of the shoot, it was like: 'Oh (no), he made another pie. Can you take (it)?"'

With Reitman having now captured the curiosity of a roomful of journalists, Brolin was asked what flavour of pie is his strongest.

"I only made one type of pie the entire time," said the Oscar-nominated Milk and True Grit star, with a sheepish grin. "I made a peach pie every single time."

Well, the sweet pastry figures in a memorable scene in Reitman's simmering new film. Set in New England over one weekend in 1987, Labor Day casts Brolin as a mysterious runaway convict who dives from a second-floor hospital room after an appendicitis. Soon, he imposes himself with only a vague threat of menace upon an agoraphobic single mom (Kate Winslet) and her charmingly protective adolescent son (Gattlin Griffith).

While police cruisers creep around the city prowling for Brolin's on-the-lam ex-con, an unlikely romance begins to blossom between the emotionally distant mother and her possibly dangerous – if helpful – house guest. All the while, Reitman masterfully dials up the slow-burning tension – much of it sexual. On Saturday, he even mused on the painstaking process behind the ever-present beads of sweat that seem to collect on every character as the trio stews at home.

In tone, the steamy drama is a far cry from the funny, more dialogue-heavy films he's known for, which include Up in the Air, Juno and Thank You For Smoking. But the writer-director says he didn't choose to adapt Joyce Maynard's novel simply because it would provide a departure for him.

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"This was a very technically complicated movie for me and very different from everything I've done, but I don't look at genre as: 'Oh, I want to do one of those,"' he said. "I want to do personal films, and it's really the ingredients underneath that interested me in this."

Besides, after watching Reitman and Brolin spar jovially onstage, it doesn't sound as though making Labor Day was a particularly laborious process.

"It was a lot of laughs. It was a light set," Reitman said.

"For me," Brolin continued, "especially with a drama like this that's so laconic and so subtle in its behaviour, I kind of make an ass of myself onset.

"A lot of his direction came to: 'Please stop moving around and (messing) around,"' he added with a laugh, in fact casually dropping an F-bomb. "I found it very important to keep things light because then I feel that we have a place to go, and when we go to that place it becomes much more reactionary and dynamic."

That irreverent tone bled into Saturday's press gathering, so much so that when young Griffith referred to his director with the formal "Mr. Reitman," it prompted a wave of laughter from the press.

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"Trust me, you tell him 20 times, and he'll never call you by your first name," Reitman replied with a smile.

Scenes between Brolin and Winslet sizzle, especially one in which the trio collectively get their hands dirty with a pie-making session led by Brolin's jailbird. Chemistry, Reitman said, is crucial, and he was thrilled his leads had it.

That harmonious relationship extended off-screen, though it was of a different nature.

"Me and her, we're like brother and sister," said Brolin of Winslet, who was absent at the press conference.

"We just got it right away. She's an amazing person who's not intimidated by anyone or anything."

Certainly not by her pie-making co-star, who acknowledged he liked to tease the British actress.

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"I got to use the Academy Award thing with her," he said with a laugh. "I've only been nominated. She's won an award. She'd have a question and I'd say: 'I'm sorry, is this an Academy Award question? Because I've only been nominated, so I'm not sure I can answer that question.'

"I think Gattlin was her first child," he continued, "and I became her second child."

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