Our hero is under attack.
Splayed in the dirt, perfect abs planted in a muddy trench, impossibly blue eyes squinting through a scope, he squeezes the trigger and sprays a few hopeless rounds at the enemy. Around him, a relentless swarm of Vietcong soldiers advance, their heavy artillery buzzing his ears. Though tan and trim in his army fatigues, he collapses in the dirt, overwhelmed by the weight of his weapon. Someone barks, “They’re closing in on you! They’re 600 feet away. They’re 400. They’re 200…Fire! Fire!”
Brad Pitt pulls a protective brace from his forearm and whips it across the Moroccan desert.
“I have a bit of a break,” he says cheerfully.
When does Morocco look like Vietnam?
When Hollywood says it does.
It’s a cool December afternoon at the edge of the Sahara, and Brad Pitt is at work in the dusty village of Quarzazate, Morocco. It’s been a busy year.
Since early November, Pitt has been shuttling between England, Hungary, and, now, the arid foothills of the Atlas Mountains filming The Spy Game, a $90 million thriller directed by Enemy of the State’s Tony Scott. The final leg of this journey is the result of some chaotic last minute rescheduling. After real combat broke out in Haifa, the movie’s original faux Vietnam, the cast and crew hit the road to Morocco.
“I would have liked to have gone to Israel,” Pitt laments. “And as I stand here in my military fatigues, I must say, war is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
Pitt takes my bag as we hike up to his trailer, passing a thicket of palm trees that were trucked to the middle of this wasteland of rock and scrub to suggest a Vietnamese jungle. His face is hidden by a thick layer of greasepaint camouflage. The flaxen hair is tucked into an army-green-do-rag. He doesn’t look like Brad Pitt.
Pitt’s trailer is tucked behind a fortress of Land Rovers, Jeeps, and minivans in the farthest corner of the set.
For the past eighteen months, the 37-year-old actor has been observing a great deal of flora and fauna from the window of a trailer. In January, Pitt will appear as an Irish gypsy boxer in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, the follow-up to Mr. Madonna’s 1998 debut hit, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. In March, he’ll play Julia Roberts’s loser gangster boyfriend in The Mexican. Then it’s on to Ocean’s 11, Steven Soderbergh’s gloss on the Rat Pack classic. Pitt gets the Dean Martin part.
Of course, this passport-shredding schedule leaves little time for Pitt to rehearse his latest role-husband. As some may recall, he married the actress Jennifer Aniston this past July.
Can so much traveling be good for young love?
“I get a break for Christmas,” Pitt explains, settling into a La-Z-Boy. “I’ll be with Jen in LA. We’re starting our own thing this year.” He’s excited by the prospect of a new tree-trimming tradition, but not enough to overcome the quiet frustration of three more wifeless weeks at the office.
“Why do all trailers look like they come from the same family?” Pitt wonders. Despite a productive cough (evidence of a lingering flu), he lights up a Marlboro. “Mauve carpeting, cheap prints, bad red-oak cabinets. I call it a waterbed aesthetic,” he says. Pitt’s pronouncements on furniture should be taken seriously-he’s an architecture enthusiast… last summer, he contributed photographs to a coffee-table book on the Greene Brothers, pioneers of California’s bungalow style. And he’s just getting started. “I’d like to design something like a city,” he says. “Or a museum.” He pauses for a moment. “I want to do something hands-on,” he adds “rather than just play golf, which is the sport of the religious right.”
Golf seems to invoke thoughts of a less hectic future, when Pitt’s $20 million-a-movie price tag will have evolved into a health pension. “Know what I’m gonna do when I retire?” he asks in an Ozark strum that’s surprisingly heavy for someone who left Missouri fifteen years ago. “I’m gonna design my own fleet of trailers.” Changing his mind, he springs from the recliner. “No!” he cries. “I’m gonna record an album like Jennifer Lopez. It’ll be an acoustic version of K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Then maybe I’ll design a line of clothing like Puff Daddy, but all in synthetic fur…”
Pitt grabs a Coke from the refrigerator and pulls the scarf from his head, unfurling a mop of gold-tipped hair. “This movie takes place over three decades,” he says, by way of explaining the new do. “Right now we’re in the seventies,” he adds, extracting a well-placed bobby pin. “For the eighties, I think I’ll go for the dull Don Johnson mullet.” For a man who’s been depicted as an irritable interviewee, Pitt seems to enjoy playing the goofball.
“I used to be infamous for putting my foot in my mouth,” he concedes. Four years ago, during the making of The Devil’s Own, Pitt told a reporter that he was unhappy with the script. His off-the-cuffs remark made instant headlines.
I remember being an extra in Less Than Zero,” he says, offering me a lukewarm bottled water. “I got to stand in the doorway during a party. I wore a pink-and-white-striped tank top and sunglasses-I got paid 38 bucks.”
Despite the lame paycheck, Pitt loved being on a set. Soon after, he clocked a full minute on Dallas as the boyfriend of Priscilla Presley’s daughter. Small films with smaller audiences followed. Then there was J.D., the cowboy hustler in tight Levi’s who made Geena Davis-and millions of other lustful viewers swoon in 1991’s Thelma & Louise.
Pitt’s promotion to box-office golden boy came with a starring role in A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford’s paean to family, religion, and fishing thigh deep in Montana trout streams. For the first time since River, Pitt is working with Redford, in The Spy Game. The young blond star has an interesting theory about the older blond star’s appeal to a certain politician.
“I think Bill Clinton patterned himself after Redford,” Pitt says. “He idolized him. It’s so blatant. Watch any Redford movie with a cause and then watch Clinton.” Pitt offers a demonstration, stroking his jaw like the randy retired president. Other than admiring Clinton’s good taste in actors, Pitt has little love for the politician who grew up on the other side of the Ozarks.
“I think Clinton’s a phony,” he says. “Don’t you wish he’d just said, ‘This is not your business. We’re handling it in the privacy of our home.’” Still, Pitt has some empathy for the president’s predicament. “Clinton has this quest to be liked,” he adds. “It’s the same with movie stars.”
Pitt easily wins the popular vote on the Spy Game set.
Grueling fourteen-hour days, he cheerfully agrees to photo ops with starstruck soldier extras; he clowns around with his entourage-drivers, assistants, personal makeup artist, and a burly British bodyguard known simply as Safety Dave. For such a high-profile commodity, Pitt seems very much a man of the people. Even his colleagues from other films agree. “Brad never complains,” says Julia Roberts. “If I had to describe him in two words, I’d say sunny disposition. He radiates it to everyone around him.”
Radiance is particularly evident in the range of Pitt’s interests. In one four-hour session we move from Buddhism to Ayn Rand to the Planet Of The Apes – “the most brilliant film on religion ever made,” he says. In conversation, Pitt is frequently excited without ever seeming self-conscious. When the word Schadenfreude comes up, he asks me to spell it.
Of course, there are a few subjects left unspoken. For instance, there is no mention of the 19-year-old woman who broke into Pitt’s home two years ago and spent ten hours in his sweatpants. Nor does he want to address his recent coronation as People magazine’s Sexiest man Alive, for the second time. Or the oft-televised exegesis on the Pittian holy trinity-glutes, abs, pool-blue eyes-by woman of all ages and stations, from an adoring Oprah Winfrey to the yentas on The View to the legions of doe-eyed creatures who smell him out wherever he walks. Of his celebrated pretty-boy image, Pitt will say only this:
“I mean, I knew I was lucky with the ladies…”
When I ask some folks if they know where “l’acteur” is staying, their response is “Gerard Depardieu est ici.” The hefty French actor is shooting an adventure at a nearby location. Here in Quarzazate, Pitt can enjoy a rare moment as a nobody. Paparazzi don’t move around so easily in the desert.
For all his laid-back charm – Julia Roberts calls him “a very low-key, groovy guy”- Pitt’s graciousness does not always extend to the press, particularly those prying paparazzi. For their “secret” Malibu Beach wedding last summer, Pitt and Aniston were adamant about preventing the ceremony from collapsing into a publicity circus. …guests included Cameron Diaz, Edward Norton, and Salma Hayek, there were 50,000 flowers, fireworks, four bands, and a pint-size Frank Sinatra impersonator (a favorite of the groom’s) – the couple dreamed of an intimate affair.
“Jen and I both wanted privacy, but we also wanted to be outside,” Pitt says. In the interest of achieving this goal, he tried to clear airspace with the FAA. The young couple pleaded that helicopters would violate the neighborhood decibel limit. But the FAA refused. “Jen finally said, ‘Look, if they get the picture, they get the it. Don’t forget what the day is about’. She was right.”
Still, the happy couple didn’t take any chances. Staff was required to sign a wedding nondisclosure document with up to a $100,000 fine. The Malibu sheriff was lassoed to keep the press at bay. According to reports, a former Mossad intelligence officer was retained.
But then, just as vows were being exchanged, something magical happened: Pitt leans in to explain. “The press completely backed off,” he says. “It shocked the hell out of me. I was like, ‘I love humanity!’” He throws his arm towards sky and smiles. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been to.”
Not bad for a man who until recently wasn’t such a big fan of the institution. Pitt, of course, was once engaged to Gwyneth Paltrow. After the golden couple broke up in the klieg-lit glare of gossip columns, Pitt was in no rush to get married. Now, he says, something’s changed. “We’ve made a pact. Jen and I call it the Adventure. We’ll see where it takes us.” While some have suggested that Gwyneth is heartbroken over the Aniston acquisition, Pitt seems to have moved on. He mentions his former girlfriend only once, coolly calling her “Paltrow.”
Now the tabloids are wagering over the due date of the first Pitt-Aniston progeny. Having just given in to marriage, Pitt wants to wait a bit longer before breeding. “I’m still a little selfish,” he says, “I’m sure I’ll f** them up somehow.”
No matter. He won’t have the opportunity to practice the first stage of the process anytime soon. For the next three weeks, all he has of the woman he simply calls Golden is the phone and a handful of Friends tapes.
“Distance is a beast,” he says, stamping out another Marlboro.
Like his new wife, Pitt has recently given serious thoughts to redirecting his career. He seems burnt out by mainstream, Vaseline-lens vehicles like Seven Years in Tibet and Meet Joe Black, both of which languished in theater’s. Despite its fetishistic ab shots, Fight Club seems to have inspired Pitt to get uglier on screen. Now he’s determined to drum up a little indie cred. After he leaves Morocco, that is.
Pitt is surprisingly candid about where Spy Game falls in the battle between his budget and independent effort. “I like playing a soldier,” he says. “It’s like being 7 years old again. But listen to these lines.” He reaches for his pages and starts reciting. “target in sight. Do we still have a go? Repeat, do we still have a go? Being a grown man, I feel silly.”
Which may explain why Pitt was so impressed when he saw Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. He called up the English director, immediately volunteering for any future role. Size didn’t matter. Neither did paycheck. Fortunately for Pitt, Ritchie had a part in something called Snatch, yet another matey caper flick, this one involving gypsies, a diamond, and a pig farm. Pitt didn’t blink.
Though Ritchie was hesitant to invite one of Hollywood’s prettiest players into his bloke ensemble, Pitt immediately roughed it up for the part of Mickey “One Punch” O’Neil, the Irish Gypsy boxer with a bed-head hairdo, a tattooed torso, and a broken nose (Pitt wore a prostethic bridge). Off camera, Pitt quickly became one of the lads, pranking with fellow cast members, having a laugh over pints and soggy potato sandwiches, and playing in all-night poker games. Ritchie was impressed. “Brad’s a film star in the Paul Newman-y sense,” he says. “I can understand what the kids go bonkers about.”
Nor did Pitt simply dress up in dirtbag makeup. He also mastered the obscure, indecipherable “Pikey” accent. “I got him hooked up with some Gypsy friends just south of London,” says Vinnie Jones, the fearsome soccer star turned actor who plays Bullet Tooth Tony. “Brad visited them for a day and just nailed it, like he’d been speaking that way all his life.” Pitt was so convincing, the director claims, he even thought of subtitling his lines.
“I don’t mean to blow smoke up his ass,” Ritchie says. “But he was experimental, interesting, and intelligent.” Although several British critics panned the film for its humdrum heist-gone-wrong plot, Pitt’s performance may be proof that the New Brad could pay off; many see the part as his smartest role to date. “He gets a bad rap in the press for being just a pretty face,” says co-star Benicio Del Toro, who plays Franky Four Fingers in the film. “He’s not.”
Pitt took his new act to the set of The Mexican, a low-budget comedy with a script tailored to channeling his inner funny guy. He plays a bungling mob patsy who’s sent across the border to retrieve a priceless antique pistol. Julia Roberts certainly noticed the change in her costar “I think Brad is entering new territory with this part,” she says. “He’s not handsome, he has no standout quality,” she says. “And he’s so earnest doing it.”
Trading in your leading-man status for a few small-time snaggletooth roles is all well and good. But what if the regular-Joe riff stops selling tickets? Could Pitt’s retirement fund run dry? The question may be moot. Just as his heart-throb wattage starts fading, Pitt will reassert his marquee muscle when he tops a cast that includes George Clooney, Matt Damon, Roberts, and a host of other Hollywood A-listers in Ocean’s 11. So much for indie cred? Not at all, Pitt says. Pinballing between the independent and the commercial is all part of the plan. “That’s career maintenance,” he says dismissively.
Still, with a lovely new wife and a possible future as an amateur architect, does he really care about what people think of his acting? After all, it’s only a job.
“But I don’t want it to be a job!” He cries. “I want it to be my life.” For a moment, he’s the same no-name kid who headed west fifteen years ago. “Look,” he adds. “I’m in my thirties.” Here, in the Moroccan desert, the former pretty boy is suffering what may be his first midlife crisis.
“I’m halfway done.” He says. “I don’t want to waste time.”