American Idol

With a divorce in the works and paparazzi in his rearview mirror, Brad Pitt should be in lockdown. Instead, he’s having a candid conversation about how it feels to be the most hunted man in Hollywood.

Tucked behind the Chateau Marmont, past the pool, sits bungalow 3, a slablike outbuilding for the privacy-minded guest. The entrance used to be a simple metal gate. Now the gate is covered by a gawker-proof tarp with a fist-size peephole cut into it.

Shortly after I ring the bell, a familiar blue eye fills the hole. “Hello!” In the tranquil twilight, there’s a neighborliness to the greeting.

Why Brad Pitt has no majordomo stationed at the gate screening guests, I’ll never know. A few days ago, Jennifer Aniston filed for divorce, providing proof that their union was kaput.

Pitt’s got a cantilevered stride, recognizable from his shirtless roles, bringing to mind the cunning way his long, hard breastplate of a torso seems to attach to his hips like a snap-on piece. We small-talk down the path. He shares a phone message he just got from his mom: “I’m disappointed in you, I’m angry with you, but whatever you do I’ll always love you,” Pitt quotes her as saying, which he clearly enjoyed. “All my b*ches are mad at me right now,” he says with a laugh, declining to elaborate.

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We head into the spare, midcentury-style living room spindly and clean. Since the breakup of his marriage, Pitt’s been hotel-hopping. As for the elaborately terraced, $13.5 million spread he lovingly refurbished and lived in with his wife will they sell? “Well, we’ll see, we’ll see. I don’t know exactly, just yet.”

There’s a pile of cash on the table that Pitt pulls from when delivery guys show up bearing food. Naturally, the wedding band is gone, but there is a large silver ring on his right middle finger with a curious space where a gem would normally be “the anti-ring ring,” as he’ll later describe it. I ask Pitt who gave it to him. “This one?” Pause. “Actually, a friend.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re walking this fence line right now,” he says of the paparazzi. “Outside our house, mine and Jen’s, we had teams there every day. You’d have one team of three cars, a secondary team of three cars. And you’d drag ’em across town, but some days you just don’t want to play.” It feels chivalrous somehow, his uttering the name “Jen” thus relieving me of having to be the first. In his casual way, Pitt tries to undercut the mythic quality of his life and our equally outsize fascination with it.

“They’re really nasty out here. I mean, some of the things they’ve said during my and Jen’s split things that are just deliberately said to get a rise out of her, just truly cruel make me want to punch their lights out. And more toward Jen than me, which made me even more mad. Grown men saying awful, despicable things. Things that a normal father or husband or brother would go and kill them for.”

It’s hard to imagine dismantling a marriage with any kind of grace amid all that, as tabloids sling facile theories and “truths” for example, that he wanted kids and Jen didn’t. “That was one version and total bulls*, by the way.”

There was also the theory that Angelina Jolie was a factor.

“And it’s pretty much still going that way, is what I hear,” he says, unperturbed by the mention of that radioactive name. “Jen and I have felt pretty impervious to it all. We have not seen a thing, so that we can carry on in this new incarnation with the love we still have for each other. My attitude was, say what you want, we’re not playing.”

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So you’ve figured out how to handle it.
“The only thing to figure out is between Jen and I. And there’s a beauty in that. There’s a beauty in our coming together, there’s a beauty in our time together, and there’s a beauty in this, for us. I’m actually really proud of us. We’ve done it another way we’ve done it our way, and I love her for that. We’ve kept the love we have for each other.”

Marriage can be a hard business.
“But it’s fantastic,” Pitt whispers, wide-eyed with delectation. “Anything worth anything is a beast. The thing I don’t understand is looking at this as a failure. It’s talked about like it failed, I guess because it wasn’t flawless. Me, I embrace the messiness of life. I find it so beautiful, actually.”

“I’m sure there are some dark nights coming, but that’s the deal that’s part of it. A friend of mine wrote to me, ‘Sometimes love changes shape.’ And I just thought, That’s so well put.”

The way Pitt describes it, he and Aniston had “great communication, great honesty we really put everything on the table. We didn’t hide who we were or what we wanted in any way. I think it was bold on our parts and really successful.” As for the breakup, he pleadingly attributes it to “not one thing; it’s so complex and multifaceted.”

On-screen Pitt does the shimmering and chiseled hero thing like a penance. In movies like Legends of the Fall, Meet Joe Black, and Troy (“We got into some shallow water in some areas”), tight close-ups are flaunted like the money shot; you can sense directors holding his face in the frame for as long as possible.

It’s the part of this job Pitt has liked the least. Describing 1992’s A River Runs Through It, which required him to pose in golden light, as delicious and doomed as a pinup, he recalls, “I can’t say I had a clear-cut idea of what I was doing in that movie, and that bothered me a lot.” He skipped town and hunkered down in Amsterdam for three months. He was 27 years old. “I rented a little basement apartment on the canal, and that was the extent of it: a bike, a Walkman, and three couch cushions to sleep on. Then I came back and did Kalifornia and True Romance.” In the latter he turned down the lead “and that was a big turning point.” So this is his pattern: ritually detoxing from the pretty-boy parts with something goofy or grungy.

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But then he did Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall, both in 1994, before regaining his footing a year later as a twitchy loon in Twelve Monkeys. And also in Seven but only after the studio agreed to not neuter the picture by cutting its grisly climax. “I had it put in my contract that it stays,” Pitt says, pleased. “It’s his wife’s head in the box it’s Paltrow’s head. Well,” he laughs, “it wasn’t Paltrow’s head; we hadn’t cast her yet.”

He operates on instinct and fights hard to get it right; as the director of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Doug Liman, says, “Nobody directs Brad Pitt as well as Brad Pitt directs Brad Pitt.” He knows what works.

“Did you ever see the letters in the front of those magazines?” Pitt says, referring to the credulous, commentary from fans concerned about their favorite stars: Stay strong, Jen! We’re pulling for you! “This kills me. I’d understand if it’s about Rwanda that people have things to say, but to actually sit down and take an hour out of your life and, one, read something [about a celebrity] and absorb it as truth, and, two, be either moved or really outraged and comment on it…either way, it’s hilarious to me.”

Perhaps, I say, although for people possibly going through a divorce of their own, it’s remarkable to know that even someone like Brad Pitt can have a setback, that life can be tricky for us all.

“You know what? That’s a great point. That explains the person writing in, actually. I stand corrected. If you wanna use my thing to make your thing a little better, have at it. I’m fine with it. Really.”

Pitt’s been grateful for his schooling in alternatives to midwestern stoicism and reserve. “In Paltrow’s family, I just adored it. Bruce,” her father, “was so vocal about everything, and it really taught me something. Ideas, opinions, ailments such an entertaining, charismatic arena to be sitting in as an observer. I loved him. Bruce was gold.” Pitt’s own father epitomizes the strong, silent type. “He wouldn’t say much, but when he did, it was a zinger,” Pitt says, clearly relishing the benefits of having remained close, through it all, to his folks, his sister, and his brother. “It would just have the rhythm of truth. He operates from that kind of wisdom. He’d sit back and let me go off the rails, and a couple of times he’s said to me, ‘Sometimes it takes a while, but I always knew you’d figure it out.'”

I ask him about the scar below his left eye, a sideways crescent, visible in his movies.

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“Fourth grade, pop fly, center field, midday. Caught a ball right in the face; twenty stitches. I’ve got a lot of scars.” He hikes up his trousers. “These are from the last wreck” a projectile spill from his motorcycle during a ride in the desert on Oscar night.

“This was my worst accident on Troy,” he says next, serving up his shin. After arriving at a hotel near the set in Mexico, he and Aniston were checking out some paparazzi who’d materialized on a roof across the way when Pitt’s leg got caught on the treadmill Aniston was using. “We looked at the machine, and there was literally like an apple peel of skin with hairs on it. It was gross, man. It’s funny that my biggest scar on Troy was from my wife.” Still, Pitt shoots down my theory that the constant presence of paparazzi strains a marriage unduly. “It can also galvanize you because you’re in the fight together, and you get quite protective of each other.”

In the happy tracking of his various nicks and flaws, he proves that he has taken his licks, too that life hasn’t been one long victory lap, despite his having a face that looks virtually immune to disappointment. Crawling into his forties advances the cause. “I’ll take wisdom over youth.”

“I [appreciate] architects now. Guys who reinvent how we live and think about things. A piece of art you get to walk through and experience. It drives me crazy. It’s all about beauty being in the material, and you don’t have to go decorate it like a cake. There’s much more honesty and purity in that.”

When Pitt says, “Playing within parameters leads to great discoveries getting everything you want can actually hurt the project,” I like to think he’s riffing on a life lesson that’s dear to him.

“I love a construction site,” he says with a moony look; “I guess it’s the possibility of what it could be.”

“I’m interested in other things now too. Like family.”

And what kind of father would you be?
“I’ll be able to figure it out when I get there. I have great faith in that. I’m just really aware of the responsibility of putting your life second, and your job is to show this little one around the world,” which reminds me of the best moment in Legends of the Fall, when he joyfully somersaults a child from the ground all the way up to his shoulders. “It’s what makes sense to me. It would have been harder for me when I was younger, because I’ve always been Shackleton, in some way. Always wanted to explore and go on the drift.”

Presumably having a family would entail remarrying.
“I can’t even think that way,” Pitt says, more quietly now “trying to decipher what this new incarnation is, and still feeling the aroma of what was, and my Jen, and what it’s gonna be. I’m not ready to think that way yet, and I think she’d say the same.”

At which point I offer idiotic reassurance that he’ll surely find a way to make it happen for himself. “Hey, wait, no confusion here. I’m not worried that it’s not gonna happen. I’ll make it happen. You go make the things that you want.”

Maybe it would be easier with a nonactress. Do you ever think about that?
“No because I like so much the people I’ve spent time with. I’ve had great experiences, great schooling, great laughs. It is true that Jen and I were times four. It’s one thing to go, ‘Is that Brad Pitt?’ It’s another to go, ‘That’s Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.’ There’s no ducking or hiding or confusion. Get us together, we’re four times the money.”

He’s not been unaffected by the fame; although he hides it well, there’s a smidge of the naked, quietly vibrating artiste who finds comfort in being surrounded by people who understand. “I’m not sure what I really mean by this, but there’s just a few of us like when you go to the Golden Globes and you look across the room, it’s like a convention for all of us who’ve been cut off, in a way. We can relate to each other because we’ve all experienced the same thing. It’s a different life.”

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“I do want to get back out on my lawn, sit in a lawn chair, and crack a beer,” he says, pleased by the California law that now prohibits people from using high-tech gadgetry to photograph subjects on their property. “That just passed a few years ago, because our forefathers didn’t foresee telephoto lenses that can shoot you from half a mile away.

“I’ve been feeling it a lot lately, with all the scrutiny, and being followed. It’s why I got on a bike again. Because I can be on the streets with everyone else, and I’m in a helmet so no one knows it’s me, and I can be right next to a car with the windows down, and I hear their music, and I don’t have to sequester myself. That’s how I grew up, and there’s something really important about that. And it’s a great way to lose the paparazzi, ’cause we can split lanes here. That means you can go between the lanes down the white line, especially at intersections. So when there’s suddenly this thing where I have three to seven cars on me, all on walkies, Nextels, communicating with each other ‘He’s going, he’s moving, he’s on the move!’ I don’t expect anyone to have any sympathy, but they’re horrendous, man, and I take great pride in being their nemesis. There’s no respect.”

And they’ve done their damage. Can Brad Pitt even stroll into a store on his own anymore?
“You just gotta keep moving, like a gazelle at the water hole. You can’t stop and read the labels. You figure that stuff out when you get home.”

Pitt also wants to have some cathartic fun at his own expense. The highlight of this year’s Super Bowl halftime might have been the Heineken commercial in which Pitt appears, beset by paparazzi when he goes out to buy beer a clever swipe at the absurdity of his life, directed by his friend David Fincher. “A funny, funny f**er,” Pitt calls him. “He’s been around me for a long time, and he’s seen how we’ve been harassed, and he definitely saw a window for some humor.”

For anyone as analyzed and objectified as Pitt, playing himself in that manner and offering up a spin of his own must be incredibly satisfying.

Then there’s Pitt’s growing commitment to the cause of alleviating poverty and AIDS in Africa and elsewhere, the enormity of which reduces his issues to dust; much of Africa doesn’t even know what a Brad Pitt is, as he discovered on his first trip last November. “Some areas I was in never heard of the United States, never heard of England, Tony Blair, Bush…, how refreshing. I got to be an observer an active observer. At the end of the day, it just wasn’t about me.”

Could you imagine adopting?

The suave, lazy features reorganize themselves into a round-eyed mask of chastened concern.

“I don’t know how I can’t now, seeing what I’ve seen. Yeah it makes all the sense in the world to me. I’m going back in a couple of weeks. There’s some kids I want to visit; it’s as much for me as them.”

Was Angelina influential in getting you involved with this?

That name again. It floats like a curl of singed bark into the air.

“Ummm, I certainly respect what she’s done, but many people have been. Bono especially and yeah, her as well. And a host of others. She contributes staggering amounts of money staggering amounts. In fact, she probably makes money so she can give more away. That seems to be more her concern than films.”

Films, presumably, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, whose strongest suit, according to Doug Liman, is the chemistry between its two stars. “There’s no way to manipulate or direct that,” he says, “and they were amazing from day one.” Rumors that their good chemistry was a factor in the big breakup were inevitable, as were the adamant denials from both camps. “It’s a love story,” Liman says, “and it lives or dies based on whether that relationship works.”

“I like my place,” Pitt says. “I don’t want to be first; I don’t even want to be second. I just like being in the game.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in GQ Jun.2005.

June 1, 2005 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links