A Commanding Lead

by Cathy Horyn for Vanity Fair | November 1998

Between this month’s Meet Joe Black and the upcoming Fight Club, Brad Pitt covers both poles of his career, swinging from romance to visceral drama. At the 34-year-old actor’s Los Angeles home, Pitt firmly charts his own course, combining the courtly derring-do required of a $17 million sex symbol with the tasteful domesticity necessary to design an engagement ring or plan a Monet garden.

So what is he like? Surprisingly, irresistibly… true – a man whose openess and unspoiled sense of decency are precisely the reasons why he is able to come across to millions of moviegoers as “the real thing”; a straight shooter who looks you in the eye even when he’s being evasive.

“Hey Cathy Horyn”

Delighted, I could only laugh and reply: “Hey Brad Pitt.”

That is how the 34-year-old actor first appeared to me on a hot summer afternoon in the Hollywood Hills as he ambled across his lawn. 

It was while he was preparing to film Meet Joe Black in Rhode Island, in the summer of 1997, that Pitt and his girlfriend of two and a half years, Gwyneth Paltrow, broke off their engagement. Just what caused Pitt to split from the cool-eyed Paltrow – whom only a year earlier, at the Golden Globe Awards, he called “my angel, the love of my life’ – has never been publicly made clear, but speculation continues. Since then, Paltrow has taken up with actor Ben Affleck, while Pitt is said to be involved with Jennifer Aniston.

Before I got to L.A., I had heard a story that I think says a great deal about how he treats his celebrity. According to a stylist who works for Vanity Fair, Pitt had gone to Cooperstown, New York, in May to be photographed. A freak storm blew up – actually one of the area’s most devastating storms in 50 years – and Pitt and the crew were caught in the middle, their driver paralyzed by fear. Pitt took the wheel and, his banter unsubdued, drove the van, dodging falling trees, safely back to the hotel. He actually seemed to enjoy the ordeal, the stylist said, and later calmly retired to his room to strum his guitar. What really got to her was the fact that he had journeyed on his way – without entourage – to the upstate location. It was just Brad Pitt in a beautiful summer suit.

To Pitt, sitting on his porch, the idea that he had done something novel by traveling solo struck him as faintly ludicrous. He looked at me hard and laughed.

Although Pitt is a straight-forward person, he is not a conventionally satisfying interview. Journalists used to celebrities who emote on demand often come away from an encounter thinking the fellow’s evasive…

For instance, Pitt and I were talking about various literary styles when Cormac McCarthy’s name came up. “he’s one of the all-stars,” Pitt said admiringly. He went on to discuss McCarthy’s lyricism, referring to passages in the Border trilogy books and the author’s earlier novel Blood Meridian. In fact, when Pitt mentioned that he had read the Border novels on tape, it didn’t immediately hit me that he meant he had narrated the trilogy for Random House’s audio version. He let this detail slip out unobtrusively, as he does almost every detail.

“It’s more about what’s not said in the South,” Pitt said. “You know, we’re not Woody Allen talk-talkies – talkin’ about every bit of pain. It’s a different vibe. It’s what’s between the lines.” Obviously Pitt was talking about himself, but indirectly.

“It’s true that Brad is very sweet, but people shouldn’t be misled,” said Aidan Quinn, his Legends Of The Fall co-star. “This is a warrior you’re dealing with. He’ll sometimes play a dumb country boy, but he’s one of the most well-read actors I’ve worked with.” [Alan] Pakula [director of The Devil’s Own] said, “To be a wonderful actor you have to have a great sense of observation, and your way of expressing that is in playing the character, not talking about it. And I think that’s very much true of Brad.

Pitt, then, turns out to be that most surprising of celebrities – a modest man. It’s not what he says that makes you pay attention; it’s what he doesn’t say. And who he turns out to be. “Pitt’s got a code,” said Feldsher. “He grew up with a code that’s sort of born out of his bread-basket Christianity. In terms of morality and ethics, he’s not negotiable. He has a life and an understanding of how he’s meant to live that life. And all this movie star stuff is not going to deter him.”

“Here’s the revelation about Brad – and it’s a big clue about who he is,” director Marty Brest told me. “We were sitting in a room alone, talking about the script for Meet Joe Black, and the door was closed and I was smoking a cigar, stinking up the place. Brad lit a cigarette and went over to a window and opened it. He was talking to me and holding the cigarette out the open window. I said ‘Brad, what are you doing? I’m smoking a cigar!’ There was something so courtly and deeply decent and polite about that. And even when I pointed it out, he said ‘No, it’s alright.’ That small gesture was the key to a whole area of his character that never ceased to amaze me.”

Pitt stood up now and left the porch to stand on the grass in front of me. He massaged the pack of muscle on his shoulder, and I remembered that he had been up the night before, trading mock punches with Ed Norton down on the Fight Club set. Through everything Pitt said, even the fractured sentences and aborted thoughts, he had kept his eyes on me. It made me think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line about personality being “an unbroken series of successful gestures.” Well, in Pitt I had a bunch of them – beginning with the “Hey” on the front lawn. Still, there is something hard to articulate at the center of Pitt. Whether his friends were talking about his personality, or the power of his screen presence, they invariably described an evasiveness that was both baffling and entrancing. I heard this first from Tom Skerrit, who played Pitt’s father in A River Runs Through It.

“You could see that he was going to be one of those that they would choose – and the Powers That Be always seem to choose who’s going to be the heir apparent. Redford was that. Cruise was that. Now Pitt. It has been seven years since we made A River Runs Through It, and Brad was still somewhat green and insecure. But it was the first time you could see this… mystique. Like Steve McQueen. You want more from this guy than he is willing to give you.”

At the outset, Pitt had doubts about doing Meet Joe Black. “When I first sat down with Marty, he was doing his best to describe it,” Pitt recalled, “but he said there was no way he could, because it sounded like a Whoopi Goldberg concept movie. I thought Marty’s made some good movies, but there is no way I’m doin’ this picture. And then I got the script. It’s actually quite beautiful.”

The film is slowed by Brest’s old fashioned pace, but the acting is consistently wonderful, and there’s enough heat in the love scenes between Pitt and Forlani to make you forget those 100 years in Tibet. Pitt gives an elegantly restrained performance, and it’s a bonus to see him paired again with Hopkins, his Legends Of The Fall co-star.

Claire Forlani said, “There was a moment when Tony and Brad were off camera, in my eyeline, and they were sitting on boxes, reading magazines. In fact, Marcia and I were standing next to each other, and I think she said something like ‘That’s $30 million sitting right there.’ It was a really sweet image, though, just seeing Tony and Brad on apple boxes, reading magazines.”

Pitt is happy with the film, and his performance, but when I innocently mention his romantic appeal, the gorgeous shoulders slumped, the soft pool-blue eyes clouded, and he muttered, “Rotten conversation.”

“I think he suffers – or feels that he suffers – for his great good looks,” Laura Ziskin, president of Fox 2000, which is making Fight Club. “Someone described him as ice cream on the screen. You can’t resist him. But I think his good looks become a motivation for him to do something more daring.”

That would be Fight Club. It’s violent and subversively funny. I could see how the story would appeal to Pitt’s love of brutal realism. “Usually, the next project is the answer to the last,” he said. “This one really gets me going.”

“So your happy with the script?” I asked.

“Yeah.” His eyes twinkled with mischief. “A lot of people won’t be.”

His last two pictures, The Devil’s Own and Seven Years In Tibet, were duds, and there’s talk in Hollywood that Brad Pitt needs a hit.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that,” he said. “And it goes in one ear and out the other. If you start making choices out of fear, you’re already f**ed.”

And it may just be that Pitt hasn’t yet found the role that perfectly satisfies both his darker impulses and the audience’s constant romantic cravings. “That’s what’s great about giving Damon and Affleck credit,” he said, referring to the fact that Matt and Ben had written the hit Good Will Hunting. “Those guys made the material. That’s huge.”

“Are you jealous at all?”

He shook his head firmly. “Absolutely not. That’s something to inspire you. That just tells you if your sitting around complaining, your a piece of sh*. Right?”

Pitt stretched his arms and folded them over his chest. He looked at me intently. “It’s all experiments right now. A relationship with a woman is an experiment. It’s all an experiment.”

Though understandably protective of his parents, whom he flew to Ireland at the end of The Devil’s Own shoot, Pitt told me he’ll show them scripts from time to time – but more than that. “I’m at that stage where your parents become your friends instead of your nurturers.”

It’s hard, then, to escape the impression that Pitt, for all his glorious sex appeal, is essentially a domestic guy. “Homesteader is the word for it,” said Feldsher. He’s fun-loving, to be sure. But he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to throw a girl over lightly.

“When he’s in a ‘relationship’ relationship, he’s very committed,” said Feldsher. “And he believes deeply in the joy and singular possibilities that can come out of sharing your life with someone.”

Pitt told me as much himself when our subject inevitably shifted to love and marriage. “It’s fantastic,” he said. “What’s a bigger high? Spending your life with another – I feel I’d be quite good at it. If I find it, I find it. If I don’t, I don’t. But I think with another person in your life you have the opportunity to get further, to grow more.”

So I wondered about his breakup with Paltrow. They had seemed so devoted – “madly in love” wouldn’t be an exaggeration. When I interviewed her last summer she seemed sophisticated and bright, and maybe a little hard on people – not mean, just competitive in the way of popular, pretty girls.

I told Pitt I had talked to Paltrow.

“Oh really?” he said, looking surprised. I was about to continue, but Pitt cut me off. “I don’t want to know what she said.”

There are a lot of rumors going around Los Angeles and New York about what happened, some of them suggesting that Paltrow may have wavered in her commitment, and that it was Pitt who called off the engagement. “Obviously there’s curiosity about [the breakup], because there wasn’t a lot said about it,” said Keener, keeping tight-lipped. “Everyone only has a piece of the puzzle except the two of them.”

“So what happened?” I asked Pitt.

“Well, I mean, you know what happened,” he said mildly.

“But why?”

He laughed. “Ahh, no.” Then he said, “Isn’t it true of a lot of people? Since you started dating, there’s always been that period until you find the one you want to go the distance with?”

“But you thought you had found the one.”

He looked away. “But I was wrong. You figure it out.”

Feldsher told me, “I think [his relationship with Gwyneth] was a great thing. First of all, they were really happy for a long time. Gwyneth is much more savvy than Brad about the business, having grown up with her mom, Blythe, and her dad, Bruce, in the Hollywood milieu. She was very helpful to Brad in that way. And when the relationship ended, O.K., maybe it was painful and they both found out it wasn’t for them, but he’s certainly much better for it, and I hope she is as well.

“I think she taught Brad a lot about existing in the klieg lights, and I think he has taught her a lot about it being O.K. to live out of them – that doesn’t mean you don’t exist.”

Pitt didn’t appear to be in a hurry to change the subject and said “Listen, there are painkillers for this and bandaids for that, but the bottom line is there are tough times and good times. One of the scenes I love in Meet Joe Black is when my character says, ‘You do the best you can, and if your lucky, you take some perfect pictures with you.’ And I wouldn’t trade any of the rotten times. They’re vital to defining who you are, what you want, how you want to live – all those grand little topics.”

I asked him if he thought he had rushed into his engagement to Paltrow.

He smiled at my persistence. “No,” he said emphatically. “I believed.”

“Have you talked to her since?”

He laughed. “It’s done.”

For the past several months, Pitt has been going out with Jennifer Aniston. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said when I mentioned her. “I have no idea what to tell you. No idea.

“I’m not in a hurry. Listen, if it’s not right, I don’t want it. I’m telling you straight: it’s a damned good time of my life.”

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Vanity Fair, Nov.1998.

November 1, 1998 | Interview , | this post contains affiliate links