Brad Pitt’s Cool World

Since he played the thief who hitched a ride in Thelma & Louise, Brad Pitt has been hot property. Now, with three films, the actor proves he’s very much his own man.

Brad Pitt doesn’t know this, but at one o’clock in the morning, as we were leaving the swank Atlanta restaurant where much of the following interview took place, our waiter tugged at my sleeve and whispered, “Remember Thelma & Louise? Remember Brad’s love scene with Geena Davis? Everybody I know wants to be in Brad Pitt’s shoes or Brad Pitt’s pants.”

There may be one or two people who are not aware of last summer’s Ridley Scott film. For instance, the woman who transcribed the tapes for this interview kept hearing Thelma & Louise and kept typing down Dom De Luise. Well, you can’t reach everybody.

Pitt’s performance in Thelma led to work in a landslide of films, both great and small. This summer he stars in Tom DeCillo’s Johnny Suede and appears with Gabriel Byrne and Kim Bassinger in Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. The former film is a surreal, oddly endearing, low-budget outing in which Pitt plays a pompadoured young singer who wishes he were a teenage idol but is instead a hapless dope. The latter is a swirling mix of live action and animation in which Pitt figures as a ’40s-style detective in a double-breasted suit. Pitt has also finished work on Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It, which is based on Norman Maclean’s meditation on life, brotherly love, fly-fishing, and more fly-fishing.

And when I caught up with him in Atlanta, Pitt and his girlfriend, Juliette Lewis, were shooting Kalifornia, in which Pitt plays a hillbilly serial killer named Early Grace.

Enough already. In person, Brad Pitt, who is twenty-eight and a native of Missouri, is laid back, charming, and extraordinarily inquisitive. He’s a good deal brawnier than one would expect, and he has such good posture that he sometimes looks as if he’s bending backward. Pitt seems modest. He seems to have a healthy capacity for awe, especially in regard to acting and love. He seems to eat a lot. At one point I asked him what he thought a person’s goal should be, and he said, “Killing your buttons,” which I think means controlling your temper, or your paranoia, or your arrogance, or whatever else keeps you up at night. Pitt seems to have killed most of his buttons.

Where interviews are concerned, Pitt belongs to the Lockjaw Generation, that great wave of young actors who will hint at psychic baggage but not actually discuss it. Pitt’s own brand of reticence makes sense, though: He believes one can know too much about an actor. He wants to disappear into his roles. (When I visited him, he had gained twenty pounds for the part of Early Grace, and he was ecstatic that he had just chipped his front tooth on a Mountian Dew bottle because it made him look more like a serial killer.) In short, Pitt doesn’t want audiences to get distracted by his true life trivia. One breezy night, as he drove me around Atlanta in a rented Mustang convertible, I asked him who his favorite actors were, and he rattled off John Malkovich, Robert Duvall, and Christopher Walken. Pitt was wearing torn jeans, a black T-shirt, and a Rasta-style knit cap he had found lying on the street in L.A. I then asked what he knew about his favorite actors, and he smiled, worked the gas pedal with his hiking boot, and said, “Not a single thing.”

Pitt is often evasive, but there’s always a twinkling, old-movie-star elegance to his evasions. His meter is the generalization, the intriguing, half-baked remark that he decides to explain (the phrase “killing your buttons” comes to mind). Listening to a tape recently, I realized that, at one juncture, I was talking about L.A. and Pitt was talking about the Afterlife.

Toward the end of my stay in Atlanta, Pitt surreptitiously recorded this message on my walkman: “Who is Brad Pitt? What is he really like? Is he that bad boy who stole Thelma’s heart? Is he that redneck, hayseed Okie from Muskogee? Or is he just that wacky next-door neighbor with a heart of gold? Jeff Giles finds out in the next issue of Details.”

“I still got all these scars on me.”

Fake scars?
Yeah, I’m a little on the baby-butt side, so they had to rough me up for Kalifornia. This guy’s gotta be scarred. He’s gotta have, like, a road map all over his body.

Is it fun to play a serial killer?
It’s dandy. Remember when you were a little kid? You get with a couple of buddies and you hide behind a tree. Then, when cars go by, you throw eggs at them. Or rocks.
And if they drove on, you were kinda disappointed. But if they stopped-and they chased you-there was that thrill, that excitement. I see a parallel there.

I noticed that in three of your movies you’ve played characters who beat their girlfriends.
Have I really?

Yes. Isn’t it difficult to understand a character like that?
No, I don’t see it as difficult. So what am I? For the record, I never partook in slapping my love around. But you’ve got to know moments when…

When what?
When you get to that point. When the rage builds up and you take it out on what’s there. You know? You may kick the wall, you may hit whoever’s closest. What did you think of Johnny Suede?

I liked it.
You’re serious? It’s not a film for everyone. It takes more of life’s pace. I mean, it’s not Lethal Weapon 8. It walks uphill. It rolls downhill. It stops and thinks for a bit.

If you become much more visible as an actor, you’re not going to be able to do offbeat, low-budget films, are you?
I don’t see why not?

Aren’t your agents going to say that you’re worth more?
Let me tell you something. They’re always telling you what you’re worth. And it’s usually a lot more than you feel like you’re worth. Know what I’m saying? They told me not to do Kalifornia. I just knew it was right.

They must be thinking that you’ll never be this hot again and that you should be cashing in.
You can’t just “cash in.” It seems to me that you take a role…you take a role because there’s something you kinda want to check out. You know? In your own mind.

What intrigued you about playing a killer like Early Grace?
O.K., I’ll tell you about Early. I haven’t had thoughts about hacking people up or anything. But I did want to do a guy who had, like, a pinball machine up in his head.

Well, I don’t want us to start getting off on little life philosophies.

Do you have a life philosophy? Can you trace it back to your childhood?
Oh, yeah, completely.

Tell me about it.
I’ll tell you this, I love this steak, but I hit a chewy part.

Brad, I don’t mean to badger you.
Oh, I know that. I can tell you’re a sweet guy. It’s just that a lot of things are…sacred, almost. I will tell you that everything stems from growing up Baptist.

Are your parents very religious?
I don’t like that word. They’re very dedicated, and I completely admire them for it. What I’m talking about is growing up with someone else’s views. You grow up believing certain things: Doctors always heal, or whatever. Then, one day, some things don’t add up and the next day you lose your faith.
It’s a scary place to be.

Did that happen to you?
Yeah, I would say that it did.

I don’t want to do this. It’ll break my mom’s heart. We’re very tight, and we’ve spent a lot of hours talking about this. I think it would break her heart to have it floating around out there, like garbage.

Let’s change tack. What were you like in high school?
I was into everything, really.

Were you a good student? A troublemaker?

Were you a great guy? An asshole? A womanizer?
All of the above. You know: on the class cabinet, but getting suspended.

You left the University of Missouri right before graduation. How come?
‘Cause I was done. In my heart, and in my head, I was done.

Was your family supportive?
Well, they didn’t know that I didn’t actually graduate. They just found out last year when they read it in a magazine article.

Why didn’t you tell them yourself?
Oh, you know, they plunked down all this money for my education. I didn’t know if they’d understand that what I got out of college was very valuable, even if I didn’t have the piece of paper to prove it.

After you left school, you drove out to L.A. and worked. You chauffeured strippers around at one point. How did that happen?
I went to this place that had all these odd jobs, but they had flexible hours. And they paid cash. But all that’s boring.

We’ve read this a million times about other people. It’s a cliche’. Everyone has had to do silly little jobs. I remember when I first got to L.A., I read about Michael J. Fox and how he had to answer a pay phone because he didn’t have a phone of his own. I mean, everyone’s been through this. What’s interesting to me now is that a kid who had never been farther west than Wichita, Kansas, loaded up his car until he couldn’t even see behind him and drove to that crazy city. I remember going to the Grand Canyon. I was thrilled by the whole journey. Then I got into L.A., and there was so much smog, and I realized that I didn’t know anyone. And I was like, this is kinda depressing. So I got a Quarter Pounder with cheese and a large fries. And I got the newspaper and looked for work as an extra. The first couple of nights, I had to crash in the car.

When did things start picking up?
It was all very gradual. But even getting work as an extra was exciting to me. Looking back, it all seems very sweet. Real innocent, you know?

You met Juliette Lewis two and a half years ago, while you were playing an abusive junkie on a TV movie called Too Young To Die?
My agents had been pushing me toward sitcoms. I knew that I had to find something ugly and real so I could prove to them that they were pushing me wrong. When Too Young To Die? came along, I knew I was going to get the part. And I knew that I was going to be very good friends with whoever played the young girl. It was just a feeling I had. Sometimes you get those little whispers in the ear.

Not long ago, there was a gossip-page item that said you’d moved out on Juliette, but you two have never even lived together, have you?
No, never. I honestly don’t know where they get that stuff. I wish they’d come up with something original, like BRAD PITT: FORMER SKINHEAD.

Living together is a big step, because you can’t just move out if it doesn’t work; you have to break up.
Yeah, you can jump into it too early because it looks all fun and grown-up. But a lot of responsibility comes with it. I think we’re ready. We really surprise me. You know all the pretty things that come with a relationship, all the things you think you just gotta put up with? Out the window.

You’re not trying to tell me that you don’t fight, are you?
Oh, we fight. We’re staying in the room next to yours and were going to stage a fight for you tonight. We were gonna throw things and scream, “Get out! Get out! Get out!” Of course we fight. But I’m talking about getting around it. I just see a more mature, dedicated love than I’ve seen around me, and I’m quite impressed by it.

Is your age difference ever an issue?
I don’t see ages as relevant. You’ve got to see past the surface, you know? Different people go at different speeds. Juliette, man – I’ve never seen anybody sit more comfortably in a chair.

Do you sit comfortably in a chair?
No, I pace better.

How do you and Juliette feel about each other doing love scenes?
I don’t want to do anything that…that goes against me and Juliette. I mean, they want you to bounce around naked and it’s just not needed half the time. Watching porn is not sexy for me. Watching two people who love each other and wondering whether or not they’re gonna get to it-that’s sexy.

How do you draw the line about how far you’ll go in a love scene?
Well, you live and learn. I read a lot of scripts, and I just don’t like where some of them are going. People are always cutting some guy’s finger’s off. People are talking about you, you know, “***.” Most of the time, all that’s just not necessary. I don’t have a problem with nudity in film, if it’s needed. But I do have a problem with an actor and an actress just bouncing off each other naked for no reason.

Why get naked if you’re not going to bounce off somebody?
Listen, nudity can be antiglamorous.

Your character in Thelma & Louise wasn’t exactly anitglamorous.
No. That’s why you follow a role like that with a role in skidmarked underwear.

You had a small part in Thelma, but it turned a lot of heads, didn’t it?
Yeah, Ridley really did me right when he gave me that role.

What did you think of your character, J.D.?
I loved the guy. He just had it figured out. He knew what worked for him, and he was so damn nonchalant.

What did you make of all the buzz about your stomach muscles?
I just saw it as irrelevant. I thought it was silly.

Didn’t it have something to do with getting the public’s attention and getting other parts?
My stomach?

No, just the general buzz. It gave you an instant image, right?
Yeah, but as soon as you get an image, you gotta break it.

When critics wrote about the movie, a lot of them obviously liked J.D. against their better judgment.
Well, he fulfilled a lot of woman’s fantasies. Uh-oh. Can I say that? I’m saying the character fulfilled their fantasies, not me.

Have you had problems with the paparazzi?
Not really. You give them time and you give them respect. Once in a while, though, people will get greedy. they start going through your trash and you want to punch someone in the throat.

Someone’s gone through your trash?
My buddy came home and found this guy in the trash. And the guy’s wearing a suit jacket. So we’re not talking about someone who needs food. I mean, come on.

Cool World might make you an even hotter commodity. Is it a sort of Roger Rabbit scenario?
It’s like Roger Rabbit on acid. It’s much more twisted. It’s got an underground-comic-book feel.

You play a detective who patrols the cartoon world.
Yeah. Cartoons and humans cannot have sex because it would throw off the balance of the world. So my job is to stop them. I know this sounds crazy. Sounded crazy to me, too.

Was it fun?
It was fun. But I got into some bad habits because I did most of the film by myself. Behind a blue screen, you know? Acting’s magical when it’s fresh. Someone throws something your way, and you catch it and you throw it back. It’s hard to be impulsive when you’re working with a blue screen.

You’re not fanatical about “character work,” are you?
Well, you can do all this stuff, but it’ll just end up in the toilet. I had this crazy woman play my mom in a movie once. One night, she wanted to go out for a walk and do some kind of character exercise. She wanted to be the mom and she wanted me to be the kid. You know? I figured I’d give it a shot. We start on this walk. … I had to walk around three hours with this lady. Biggest waste of time in my life.

You went right from Cool World to A River Runs Through It. I just read the novella that the movie is based on.
When you got to the last page, it tore your heart out, right? Here’s a good example of what we were talking about before. Here’s a kid who grew up in a religion, who grew up with someone else’s views. But then he starts to find contradictions and he eventually self-destructs. River just makes me so sad. The guy needed so badly for his family-for his older brother-to understand him, and they never could.
I always had these dreams growing up. I’d wake up in a sweat, crying my head off. You know? I’d be crying in my sleep, and it was always because something had happened to my brother. But I used to terrorize that kid. I’d lock him outside naked. I’d make him go get things and I’d time him. I’d say, “If you can make it by twenty…” And then, just as he was running down the stairs, I’d say, “Twenty-one, Aw, too bad. I woulda given you a prize.”

So he must have been surprised to learn you were crying in your sleep.
He didn’t know. No one knew.

You shot A River Runs Through It in Montana.
Yeah. It was great. I camped out on the river. See, I can’t even do it justice. I can’t tell you about…I’d get some food from the set and I’d go up to my camp and make a fire. You know? And I had my dog with me.

Was it hard being away?
I really value the time away and I really value coming back.

What was working with Redford like? Were you intimidated?
No. Earlier on, I might have been. I might have felt a little bright-eyed and green. But now it’s like a tennis match, where you want to play against someone better. Now I just want to improve my game.

Did you tell Redford that you worshiped Butch Cassidy, or anything like that?
No, I never did. I didn’t have to. The truth is, hell, I grew up on his movies. I remember seeing Butch Cassidy at a drive-in. I cried at the end, when they died. I just remember that so vividly. I was really embarrassed and I didn’t want my parents to see me crying, so I ducked down in the back seat and pretended I was asleep.

Will you always be an actor?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll always enjoy it. I just want to enjoy things. I want to enjoy my dog. I want to enjoy people-even silly, stupid people. I respect that so much more than getting angry about things. I remember when I first started out, I was real critical of some people’s acting. I’m talking about a couple of actors who are huge at the box office right now. Anyway, I couldn’t stand them. I thought they were just awful.

And now?
I still think they’re awful, but the thing is, who cares? Obviously the public likes them. If they can make money and enjoy their lives, more power to them. They might be doing awful acting, but it’s not for me to say.

Are you religious in any day-to-day sense?
I definitely have strong beliefs.

How would you raise your kids?
I think the key is not to treat them like kids. I think it’s gonna be the hardest thing in the world to watch your kid fail at something, but I’m a firm believer in trial and error. Every trial I’ve ever been through has made me all the better. You know? I respect those trials. They were an alarm clock going off and saying, “Get your s* together!”

As far as acting goes, do you have any thoughts about how big a star you’d like to be?

And the answer is?
The answer is that I’d rather not talk about it. I’d rather just do it. You’re beating your head now, I know. But L.A. is a town of talk, talk, talk. So many people talk s* about what they’re gonna do. It never amounts to anything, and I never believe it until I see it. So I’m a little apprehensive.

You must have thought about where all this will lead.
Oh, I have, completely. Let me tell you.

Tell me.
I’ll tell you that I’ve thought about it completely.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Details Aug.1992.

August 1, 1992 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links