Born to be Brad

Perfumy Sade music engulfs the Pitt household. In fact, the volume is notched up so loud that no one can hear me knocking. As the minutes pass, Brad Pitt and his live-in companion, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis don’t answer. A sandwich delivery man joins me now, and his knuckles prove golden. Two short raps and Brad Pitt, the guy who knocked everyone’s socks off as the glorious Paul Maclean in A River Runs Through It, appears at the door, waving us in like a matador who once played for the Fighting Irish.

“I was taking a shower,” Brad apologizes, signing for the sandwiches. A smile breaks across his face that could set feminism back 25 years. He is handsome to the bone. An untended, marshy beard hangs across the lower half of his face, roughly matching the tarnished blond of his damp hair… Certain parties, Brad reveals to me, have been lobbying heavily for exfoliation. The magazine that has to shoot him for the cover wants him cleaned up.

“I’ll shave for tomorrow,” he says, his vow lacerated by an irritable moan. “They always make a big deal out of it. I say, don’t tell me how to tie my shoes.” 

When the phone rings, I politely ask if Brad has to get it, since he’s told me Juliette is on location in Texas. “Ah, no. I check my machine every three, four days. Call the people I need to,” he whispers.

We’re browsing through the house, which is really an apartment, one of a few long, narrow units surrounding a courtyard with a dirty swimming pool in it.

“But hey man, don’t write about my house,” Brad says as he sees me looking at the opened book splayed over the arm of a stuffed chair near the window. “Every time they come up here, like, my house gets ripped to shreds. I like my house. My poor mom, she reads these pieces, she says, ‘You really live like that?’ I gotta tell her, ‘No mom, it’s really nice.’”

Indeed, someone here is a fine housekeeper, and having seen Juliette’s place before she and Brad moved in together, I have my money on Brad. Everything has its place here. Stacked in the corner of a small reading alcove are enough film scripts to provide a week’s worth of toilet paper for all the major studios.

About the only thing around that seems cluttered is Brad’s speech. His honeydew Missouri drawl has a hitch in it I don’t remember from his movies. Since the aberration is disappearing now that his conversation is more spontaneous, my guess is that Brad, who reportedly did his own underwear-ripping for his part in Johnny Suede, is still suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder after playing a homicidal drifter in his most recent film, Kalifornia. I haven’t seen it but I know that his character, Early Grayce, is bad news and has a sweet and naive girlfriend, played by Brad’s real-life girlfriend, Juliette.

“I wanted to do one of those trailer-dwelling, greasy nails guys—no education, canned food, real white trash,” says Brad. He seems fairly pleased with his portrayal. “You almost have to see Kalifornia, ” he tells me. I get the feeling Brad thinks I have to see Kalifornia because he knows I’ve seen A River Runs Through It.

“You wanna show what you can do,” he says. “You wanna do something different from the last one, before they think they know what you’re about. It’s part of this… it’s the farthest thing from Golden Boy, know what I’m sayin’?”

Brad Pitt knows the impact of his effort in A River Runs Through It. He knows that his Paul has created a classical impression. He knows that when we see the hint of unrequited danger in Paul’s smile, the sleepy cool of his eyes, the f**-all chivalry, the blond similarities with the young Redford are evident. And Brad wants to fight the obvious.

These, then, are the two bodies of water that await Brat Pitt. There’s the freshwater pond of the Golden Boy and the briny tide pool of the Rebel. It should be noted that few species survive in both. The Golden Boy inhabits a blue-blooded world of idealism and virtue. The sponsors at his confirmation of divine right are Gable, Grant, Cooper, and, of course, Redford. The Golden Boy lives in sublime segregation from us commonfolk, and is what we aspire to be.

Now, for the Rebel, memories are only as good as the brain cells scorched from making them. His saints are Dean howling at the moon, Brando. The Rebel needs the confessional for absolution of a long list of human frailties. The Rebel plays to win and occasionally loses as well, although he willfully resists the temptation to allow the results to move him in any way.

“Could I have played the good guy in Kalifornia? Sure. But I needed to play the bad guy. I needed the balance,” Brad maintains. “I don’t believe in the ‘all-your-eggs-in-one-bucket’ kind of theory. You get pushed in this business, you just gotta push back harder. Because it comes down to you. I mean, people got different takes on things, people got good takes. But only you know about your own deal—your own creation, right?”

“You ever been in a real fight?” I ask. Sade has been put to bed in favor of the incomparable Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“Ohhh, yeah, you kidding?” he chuckles. “You don’t get to this age without being in a fight. I remember one. I was 18. Worst one I ever had. The teacher got involved, she got her dress ripped. When you’re going at it you get lost. It was over something stupid, I can’t even remember.

“I had a friend in college—real baby face. But he’s built like a stump. Real solid, like Barney Rubble. People thought because he was smaller and had this baby face, they could wail on him. Well, I seen that guy drop some big fellas. Just drop ‘em. Someone said something to me, even, he’d drop him. Listen, it’s really easy to get out of a fight. But when you’re a kid, you just swing and ask questions later. I’m the one who hit the teacher, by the way. I know I didn’t win, but I didn’t get my ass kicked. There just wasn’t a winner there.”

“There” was Springfield, Missouri, where Bill and Jane Pitt raised their children to know the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Brad once recounted an incident from that life, in which, fearful that he might be called upon to give benediction one Sunday, he averted his eyes from those of his Baptist preacher. On that day, and one suspects, most days since, Brad’s faith was supplanted by the desperate chant of “Don’t let it be me.”

Then there was the decision to enroll in a journalism/advertising program at the University of Missouri. “It was about creating—creating, say, a successful, imaginative ad campaign,” says Brad, evenly defending his lengthy stint in a world about as marvelous as unbuttered toast. “Finally I realized there was something better. But it’s an individual thing. I’m not knocking the job.”

The dull thought of going through with art school seemed about as realistic a plan as holding up a gas station with an ocarina. Instead, Brad shouldered himself into the perpetual marathon of those pursuing an acting career, supporting himself working the requisite odd jobs that show up later in the folklore of the enormously prosperous—chauffeuring strippers in a limo, passing out cigarette samples, climbing into a chicken suit for a fast-food chain. After sporadic work as an extra, he did some television—HBO’s The Image, Fox’s “Glory Days,” then a TV movie, Too Young to Die, playing opposite the young lady with whom he would eventually share a toothbrush rack.

With his agents pushing him toward TV serials and sitcoms, Brad might have become the next incarnation of Dan Tanna or Magnum had it not been for what he likes to call “the six thousand dollar orgasm.” Ridley Scott, filming Thelma & Louise, needed someone to replace William Baldwin, who had chosen to take the lead in Backdraft. Along came Brad Pitt as J.D., swaddled in Levi’s and Fruit of the Loom, hoisting his dufflebag into the back seat of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon’s T-Bird, hoisting Geena Davis to her first orgasm, then hoisting the girls’ traveling money. Looking like a more wholesome, cornfed version of the James Dean who brooded through Giant, Pitt gave 15 minutes of screen time that stands out; his performance has the sneak attack ass-kick of spiked iced tea.

Unfortunately the starring roles that followed Thelma were just colored water. If you blinked, you missed the esoteric Johnny Suede, a low-budget character study of a rockabilly charlatan. The grand experiment that successfully matched animation with reality in Who Framed Roger Rabbit yielded tepid results in Brad’s other summer ‘92 release, Cool World. “Nobody got out of that film alive,” a film industry savant told me recently, “but Brad looked better than anybody else.”

“It’s hard to be impulsive when you’re working with a blue screen,” Brad lamented after the film’s poor showing. Next came A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford’s admirable endeavor.

The ease with which he demystifies his performance in River is startling. “Well, of my part, there could’ve been more underneath, in my opinion. Little more backstory, maybe. But there’s no getting around it. Redford did a fantastic job crafting that film, shaping it into chiseled granite. A film adapted from a book’s got to take its own form—Redford did that.” Then, cupping his hands behind his head, he settles into the imaginary darkness and adds, “It’s an afternoon movie. Can’t go see it in a big crowd. You gotta see it in the warmth of the afternoon.”

There is no denying Brad’s vexation when he mutters the phrase Golden Boy. The idea of being knighted as filmdom’s next Favorite Son clearly troubles him, trails him around like a bright yellow balloon. “I don’t want people to think I’m the next anything,” he says. Golden Boy is as much a part of Brad Pitt as his blue eyes and which hand he uses to eat, but he’s intent on stretching the limits of his identity to a point just short of time travel. Now that he has a place in Young Hollywood, he wants his own place.

“Young Hollywood,” Brad picks up the thread. “What a nightmare.”

“You fit right in, dude.”

“Yeah, that’s me.” He hunkers down, shucking off the teasing. “Naw, it’ll turn around. It’s a trend, Young Hollywood. I think it’s sidetracked right now. It’s a night at Roxbury, fighting the woes of personal hygiene. Just cool for cool’s sake. That’s okay. It’s gonna turn around.”

“To what?”

“Well, don’t you wonder where the young Pacinos, the young De Niros, the young Duvalls, the young Newmans, the young Redfords are? Who do we have now that’s young and inspiring? Don’t get me wrong, there are a few. But not enough. We got Oldman, and he’s not that young, really. River’s good. Juliette is one. Dermot Mulroney. There’s Elias Koteas. He’s great.”

“What’s he been in?”

“See, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Someone get him, use him right. I don’t know. It’s just gotta come back around. I wanna see that collection of young guys get strong. I’d like to be inspired again. Let’s see some intelligence. I don’t see a lot of intelligence with the young people, you know?”

The delectable irony of William Goldman’s famous quote, “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything,” is that it has never rung more true—and for reasons not remotely related to the spirit in which it was intended. Where’s the material for young actors?

“No one expected River to do well at the box office,” says Brad. “Redford’s proved that you can elevate film. So, yeah, it’s partly material. It’s also partly the people making the movies. But you gotta take responsibility for yourself, eventually. What kind of choices are you willing to make or not make? Sure, it’s tough in this climate to make films. But that’s the challenge of it. You want it to be easy? No. Then you get bored. Look, everyone’s got their battles. It’s a good thing. But there’s dangers in every category. You just gotta watch out for the dangers.”

And the dangers, judging by the continuing proliferation of 12-step programs, are not limited to keeping your distance from leading ladies who are ‘toons and first-time directors who carry handguns.

“I’ve seen a lot of young actors go through that,” says Brad, referring to the enticement of drugs and the subsequent mental torture of recovery for those who think seeing the world through the diffraction of youth is not somehow destabilizing enough. “They think they’ll lose their creativity going straight. So many people—I even had the notion that you had to be miserable to be great. But then you gotta say, well why does everyone either die from drugs, or quit? So how good can it be? Very simple question. Very tough answer. I don’t trust drugs.”

Brad excuses himself for a moment and disappears down a hall to the kitchen. … When Brad returns he has a cup of coffee with a suspicious foamy top to it.

“Got yourself an espresso machine in there, don’t you, Brad?”

“Yeah, but I don’t know quite how to use it right. But I get coffee from it.” He savors his cup with a deep, affirmative farm-kitchen sigh.

“So you’re talking about little perfect moments. Don’t have many, but that’s what keeps you going,” he grins. “Because they’re all over the place, just hard to find. There’s this bag for perfect moments that you carry around with you. And then when you find them, occasionally, and add to the bag, you really appreciate it. That’s all right with me—that settles well with me.”

“So, you meet people every week, try and find something interesting about them, right?” he says with a wink. I turn the question around on him: Why, I ask, can’t we get enough of movie stars? Why do we, as otherwise rational and outwardly sane folk, commune with Liz Smith’s column each morning the way paramedics check vital signs?

“Well, I don’t know,” Brad hedges, in his way of beginning a thought with a rising moan, as if he’s shy at the idea of being an authority on anything. “I’m all for showing the pictures, showing he’s still alive, couple of words about what he’s doing, then hit the checkout line. But you drive around in small towns, see people’s lives, there’s almost a … I don’t know—they want more, there’s some of that—but there’s also the notion that they think maybe they could run into someone who might understand who they are.” Here Brad turns the questioning back on me. “What would you do if you had to do something else?”

I tell him that over in that alternate universe  I am eternally happy calling fair or foul as a baseball umpire.

“Hey, there’re a million things to be and do—you just gotta get out and do them. People get too concerned about the damn money. People limit themselves too much, man. There’s a million things to do. There really are. I’m just now getting into the opportunity to make some decent money. Any money I’ve come into up to now I’ve put into land, so I’m pretty much broke.”

There are also worse things to be than a matinee idol. The Rebel can do no wrong, since rules are for others to follow. He changes for no one, clings to the cloak of his nonconformity like a life jacket. He charms his own life. The Golden Boy, alas, is born into an existing world. At 29, Brad has the talent and physical graces to wade into a wide range of roles—tough guys, loverboys, loners, family men. It will ultimately come down to what he correctly identified before as “his deal.” He seems intent on stepping over the threshold of unleavened danger to test his will to come back. But, devoted as he is to maintaining his balance, renouncing his Golden Boy bloodline would seem about as logical as beating on a snare drum with a couple of long-stem roses. Still, if uneasy lies the head, then the head keeps moving.

“I’m taking off Thursday morning,” Brad stretches out, “just gonna go driving for two weeks, then end up home for the holidays. Gonna travel for a while, then do a project called Forget Me Not, with John Malkovich.”

“Gotta break that psycho-killer mold next, huh?”

Brad chuckles. “So what’s the catchy title for this? They always put such cheesy titles on these pieces.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Movieline Mar.1993.

March 1, 1993 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links