Brad Pitt Talks Divorce, Quitting Drinking, and Becoming a Better Man

by Michael Paterniti for GQ | Photographs by Ryan McGinley | May 2017

Brad Pitt is making matcha green tea on a cool morning in his old Craftsman in the Hollywood Hills, where he’s lived since 1994. There have been other properties in other places—including a château in France and homes in New Orleans and New York City—but this has always been his kids’ “childhood home,” he says. And even though they’re not here now, he’s decided it’s important that he is. Today the place is deeply silent, except for the snoring of his bulldog, Jacques.

Pitt, who exudes likability, general decency, and a sense of humor (dark and a little cockeyed), says he’s really gotten into making matcha lately, something a friend introduced him to. He loves the whole ritual of it. He deliberately sprinkles some green powder in a cup with a sifter, then pours in the boiling water, whisking with a bamboo brush. “You’re gonna love this,” he says, handing me the cup.

Serenity, balance, order: That’s the vibe, at least. That’s what you think you’re feeling in the kitchen of Brad Pitt’s perfectly constructed, awesomely decorated abode. And it carries its own stories, not just about when the Jolie-Pitts were a happy family, but also from back in the day, when Jimi Hendrix crashed here. It’s said he wrote “May This Be Love” out in the grotto, with its waterfall. “I don’t know if it’s true,” says Pitt, “but a hippie came by and said he used to drop acid with Jim back there, so I run with the story.”

And yet Pitt is the first one to acknowledge that it’s been chaos these past six months, having been put on a journey he didn’t intend to make but admits was “self-inflicted.” The unfortunate worst of it surfaced in public this past September. When he was on a flight to Los Angeles aboard a private plane, there was a reported altercation between Pitt and one of his six children, 15-year-old Maddox. An anonymous phone call was made to the authorities, which triggered an FBI investigation (ultimately closed with no charges). Five days later, his wife, Angelina Jolie, filed for divorce. By then, everything in Pitt’s world was in free fall. It wasn’t just a public-relations crisis—there was a father suddenly deprived of his kids, a husband without wife. And here he is, alone, aa 53 smack in the middle of an unraveled life, figuring out how to mend it back together.

And yet the enterprise known as Brad Pitt inexorably carries on. In November, Allied came out, starring Pitt and Marion Cotillard. At the premiere rumors of an affair with Cotillard, and an on-set encounter between her and Jolie, had been so virulent that Cotillard took to social media to deny them, underscoring her love for her own partner. Meanwhile, Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, found itself winning an astonishing third Oscar for Best Picture, with Moonlight

He mentioned his estranged wife’s name only once, when referencing her Cambodia movie, First They Killed My Father, telling me, “You should see Angie’s film.” The loneliness of this new life, he said, is mitigated by Jacques.

When I ask Pitt what gives him the most comfort these days, he says, “I get up every morning and I make a fire. When I go to bed, I make a fire, just because—it makes me feel life. I just feel life in this house.”

Brad Pitt: We grew up First Baptist, which is the cleaner, stricter, by-the-book Christianity. Then, when I was in high school, my folks jumped to a more charismatic movement, which got into speaking in tongues and raising your hands.

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So were you there for speaking in tongues?
Yeah, come on. I’m not even an actor yet, but I know… I mean the people, I know they believe it. I know they’re releasing something. We’re complicated. We’re complicated creatures.

But as a kid, I was certainly drawn to stories—beyond the stories that we were living and knew, stories with different points of view. And I found those stories in film, especially. Different cultures and lives so foreign to mine. I think that was one of the draws that propelled me into film. I didn’t know how to articulate stories. I’m certainly not a good orator, sitting here telling a story, but I could foster them in film.

I remember going to a few concerts. I realized that the reverie and the joy and exuberance, even the aggression, I was feeling at the rock show was the same thing at the revival. 

The best actors blur into their characters, but given how well the world knows you, it seems you have a much harder time blurring these days?
I have so much attached to this façade. [gestures]

But then, in War Machine, you find the little gesture that makes the Glen McMahon character ours. Like the way he runs, which is hilarious.
The run to me was important because it was about the delusion of your own grandeur, not knowing what you really look like. All pencil legs, you know. Not being able to connect reality to this façade of grandeur.

The other equally distinctive characteristic is Glen’s voice. Where did it come from?
You know, it’s a little bit of a cliché, but I just enjoyed it too much: There’s, you know, of course, Patton in it. But I could not get Sterling Hayden out of my mind. I’m just fascinated with Sterling Hayden, off-camera, between films, and I couldn’t escape that. There’s even a little bit of Chris Farley in mannerisms. And then Kiefer Sutherland in Monsters vs. Aliens, you know, doing the cartoon voice. It just wouldn’t go anywhere else; it kept coming back there.

Have you ever felt the need to be more political?
I can help in other ways. I can help by getting movies out with certain messages. I’ve got to be moved by something—I can’t fake it. I grew up with that Ozarkian mistrust of politics to begin with, so I just do better building a house for someone in New Orleans or getting certain movies to the screen that might not get made otherwise.

You’re good at playing that kind of character, the one that doesn’t have a truly accurate vision of himself.
It makes me laugh. Any of my foibles are born from my own hubris. Always, always. Anytime. I often say the wrong thing, often in the wrong place and time. Often. 

And the movie really pokes at this, too, right—America’s hubris?
When I get in trouble it’s because of my hubris. When America gets in trouble it’s because of our hubris. We think we know better, and this idea of American exceptionalism—I think we’re exceptional in many ways, I do, but we can’t force it on others. We shouldn’t think we can. How do we show American exceptionalism? By example. It’s the same as being a good father. By exemplifying our tenets and our beliefs, freedom and choice and not closing borders and being protectionists. But that’s another issue. 

You’ve played characters in pain.
Yeah, I’m kind of done playing those. I think it was more pain tourism. It was still an avoidance in some way. I’ve never heard anyone laugh bigger than an African mother who’s lost nine family members. I just got R&B for the first time. R&B comes from great pain, but it’s a celebration. To me, it’s embracing what’s left. It’s that African woman being able to laugh much more boisterously than I’ve ever been able to.

You know, I just started therapy. I love it, I love it. I went through two therapists to get to the right one.

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Do you think if the past six months hadn’t happened you’d be in this place eventually? That it would have caught up with you?
I think it would have come knocking, no matter what.

People call it a midlife crisis, but this isn’t the same—
No, this isn’t that. I interpret a midlife crisis as a fear of growing old and fear of dying, you know, going out and buying a Lamborghini. [pause]

I do remember a few spots along the road where I’ve become absolutely tired of myself. And this is a big one. These moments have always been a huge generator for change. And I’m quite grateful for it. But me, personally, I can’t remember a day since I got out of college when I wasn’t boozing or had a spliff, or something. Something. And you realize that a lot of it is, um—cigarettes, you know, pacifiers. And I’m running from feelings. I’m really, really happy to be done with all of that. I mean I stopped everything except boozing when I started my family. But even this last year, you know—things I wasn’t dealing with. I was boozing too much. And I’m really happy it’s been half a year now, which is bittersweet, but I’ve got my feelings in my fingertips again. I think that’s part of the human challenge: You either deny them all of your life or you answer them and evolve.

Was it hard to stop smoking pot?
No. Back in my stoner days, I wanted to smoke a joint with Jack and Snoop and Willie. You know, when you’re a stoner, you get these really stupid ideas. Well, I don’t want to indict the others, but I haven’t made it to Willie yet.

I’m sure he’s out there on a bus somewhere waiting for you. How about alcohol—you don’t miss it?
I mean, we have a winery. I enjoy wine very, very much, but I just ran it to the ground. I had to step away for a minute. And truthfully I could drink a Russian under the table with his own vodka. I was a professional. I was good.

So how do you just drop it like that?
Don’t want to live that way anymore.

What do you replace it with?
Cranberry juice and fizzy water. I’ve got the cleanest urinary tract in all of L.A., I guarantee you! But the terrible thing is I tend to run things into the ground. That’s why I’ve got to make something so calamitous. I’ve got to run it off a cliff.

Do you think that’s a thing?
I do it with everything, yeah. I exhaust it, and then I walk away. I’ve always looked at things in seasons, compartmentalized them, I guess.

Really? So, this is the season of me getting my drink on….
[laughs] Yeah, it’s that stupid. “This is my Sid and Nancy season.” I remember that one when I first got out to L.A. It got titled afterwards.

So then, you stop yourself, but how do you—I don’t know why this comes to mind but I think of a house—how do you renovate yourself?
Yeah, you start by removing all the décor and decorations, I think. You get down to the structure. Wow, we are in some big metaphor here now.… [laughs]

You strip down to the foundation and break out the mortar. I don’t know. For me this period has really been about looking at my weaknesses and failures and owning my side of the street. I’m an a*hole when it comes to this need for justice. I don’t know where it comes from, this hollow quest for justice for some perceived slight. I can drill on that for days and years. It’s done me no good whatsoever. It’s such a silly idea, the idea that the world is fair. And this is coming from a guy who hit the lottery, I’m well aware of that. I hit the lottery, and I still would waste my time on those hollow pursuits.

That’s the thing about becoming un-numb. You have to stare down everything that matters to you.
That’s it! Sitting with those horrible feelings, and needing to understand them, and putting them into place. In the end, you find: I am those things I don’t like. That is a part of me. I can’t deny that. I have to accept that. And in fact, I have to embrace that. I need to face that and take care of that. I am those mistakes. For me every misstep has been a step toward epiphany, understanding, some kind of joy. Yeah, the avoidance of pain is a real mistake. It’s the real missing out on life. It’s those very things that shape us, those very things that offer growth, that make the world a better place, oddly enough, ironically. That make us better.

Can you describe where you’ve been living—like, have you been in this house since September?
It was too sad to be here at first, so I went and stayed on a friend’s floor, a little bungalow in Santa Monica. I crashed over here a little bit, my friend [David] Fincher lives right here. He’s always going to have an open door for me, and I was doing a lot of stuff on the Westside, so I stayed at my friend’s house on the floor for a month and a half—until I was out there one morning, 5:30, and this surveillance van pulls up.

How are your days different now?
This house was always chaotic and crazy, voices and bangs coming from everywhere, and then, as you see, there are days like this: very…very solemn. I don’t know. I think everyone’s creative in some way. If I’m not creating something, doing something, then I’ll just be creating scenarios of fiery demise in my mind. And so I’ve been going to a friend’s sculpting studio, spending a lot of time over there. 

I’m working with clay, plaster, rebar, wood. Just trying to learn the materials. You know, I surprise myself. But it’s a very, very lonely occupation. There’s a lot of manual labor, which is good for me right now. A lot of lugging clay around, chopping and moving and cleaning up after yourself. But I surprise myself. Yesterday I wasn’t settled. I had a lotta chaotic thoughts—trying to make sense of where we are at this time—and the thing I was doing wasn’t controlled and balanced and perfect. It came out chaotic. I find vernacular in what you can make, rather than giving a speech. I find voice there, that I need.

It just keeps knocking. I’m 53 and I’m just getting into it. These are things I thought I was managing very well. I remember literally having this thought a year, a year and a half ago, someone was going through some scandal. Something crossed my path that was a big scandal—and I went, “Thank goodness I’m never going to have to be a part of one of those again.” I live my life, I have my family, I do my thing, I don’t do anything illegal, I don’t cross anyone’s path. What’s the David Foster Wallace quote? Truth will set you free, but not until it’s done with you first.

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But if you had a slideshow of all your worst moments as a human, you wouldn’t want anyone to see that slideshow. The way you’ve had to live for years, that slideshow has been public.
But so little of it is accurate, and I avoid so much of it. I just let it go. As far as out there, I hope my intentions and work will speak for themselves. But, yes, at the same time, it is a drag to have certain things drug out in public and misconstrued. I worry about it more for my kids, being subjected to it, and their friends getting ideas from it. And of course it’s not done with any kind of delicacy or insight—it’s done to sell. 

How do you make sense of the past six months and keep going?
Family first. People on their deathbeds don’t talk about what they obtained or were awarded. They talk about their loved ones or their regrets. I say that as someone who’s let the work take me away. Kids are so delicate. They absorb everything. They need to have their hand held and things explained. They need to be listened to. When I get in that busy work mode, I’m not hearing. I want to be better at that.

When you begin making a family, I think you hope to create another family that is some ideal mix of the best of what you had and what you feel you didn’t have—

I come from a place where, you know, it’s strength if we get a bruise or cut or ailment we don’t discuss it, we just deal with it. We just go on. The downside of that is it’s the same with our emotion. I’m personally very bad when it comes to taking inventory of my emotions.

It must be much harder when visitation is uncertain—
It was all that for a while. I was really on my back and chained to a system when Child Services was called. And you know, after that, we’ve been able to work together to sort this out. We’re both doing our best. I heard one lawyer say, “No one wins in court—it’s just a matter of who gets hurt worse.” And it seems to be true, you spend a year just focused on building a case to prove your point and why you’re right and why they’re wrong, and it’s just an investment in vitriolic hatred. I just refuse. And fortunately my partner in this agrees. It’s just very, very jarring for the kids, to suddenly have their family ripped apart.

How do you tell your kids?
Well, there’s a lot to tell them because there’s understanding the future, there’s understanding the immediate moment and why we’re at this point, and then it brings up a lot of issues from the past that we haven’t talked about. So our focus is that everyone comes out stronger and better people—there is no other outcome.

What in the past week has given you immense joy? 
It’s an elusive thing. It’s been a more painful week than normal—just certain things have come up—but I see joy out the window, and I can see the silhouette of palms and an expression on one of my kids’ faces, a parting smile, or finding some, you know, moment of bliss with the clay. You know, it’s everywhere, it’s got to be found. It’s the laughter of the African mother in my experience—it’s got to come from the blues, to get R&B. That’ll be in my book.

But do you worry about the narrative others have written for you?
What did Churchill say? History will be kind to me: I know because I’ll write it myself. I don’t really care about protecting the narrative. But I know the people who love me know me. And that’s enough for me.

I know I’m just in the middle of this thing now and I’m not at the beginning of it or at the end of it, just where this chapter is right now, just smack-dab in the middle. I just don’t want to dodge any of it. I just want to stand there, shirt open, and take my hits and see, and see.

There’s obviously incredible grief. This is like a death—
Yeah.

So is there an urge to try to—
The first urge is to cling on.

And then you’ve got a cliché: “If you love someone, set them free.” Now I know what it means, by feeling it. It means to love without ownership. It means expecting nothing in return. But it sounds good when Sting sings it. It doesn’t mean f**-all to me until, you know—

Until you can embody it.

Until you live it. That’s why I never understood growing up with Christianity—don’t do this, don’t do that—it’s all about don’ts, and I was like how the f** do you know who you are and what works for you if you don’t find out where the edge is, where’s your line? You’ve got to step over it to know where it is.

For the photo shoot you went to three national parks in a week. It sounds like a boondoggle.
What’s the definition of a boondoggle?

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I think of it as a sort of ridiculous adventure—
Sounds very Ozarkian. Like something I should know but I don’t. Yeah, it was great. Ryan [McGinley, the photographer] had us jumping in the Everglades, you know, like gators. But they had the old wrangler, he’s got his snake pole and it’s got this grabber, like something Grandma would use to pick something off the top shelf, but fine. He took a little walk-through, and if he didn’t get eaten, then reportedly I wouldn’t get eaten. At least that was the logic behind it all, but he said to me, “When you get to be my age, never pass up a bathroom. Never trust a fart. And never waste a boner.”

Then White Sands?
I’ve never seen anything like it. I mean the dunes are so sculptural and modern and simple and vast and just incredible shapes. To see them white and reflecting white—the sky’s actually darker than that ground. It’s an odd, beautiful place.

We did Carlsbad Caverns. If we’re going to do a celebrity shoot, let’s make something, work with an artist, see what we come up with. It’s always more interesting.

After all this, do you feel constrained as an actor in some ways?
No, I don’t really think of myself much as an actor anymore. It takes up so little of my year and my focus. Film feels like a cheap pass for me, as a way to get at those hard feelings. It doesn’t work anymore, especially being a dad.

Do you see yourself as having been successful?
I wish I could just change my name.

Come out as a new person?
Like P. Diddy. I can be Puffy now or—what is Snoop? Lion? I just felt like Brad was a misnomer, and now I just feel like f** Brad.

When you’re talking, you kinda rub your thumb against your fingers a lot—it’s just an observation.
I don’t know. I’m tactile—I’m a tactile individual. “I like to feel things up,” he said. [laughs]

Yeah, in high school he was the boy voted most likely to—
To feel you up. [laughs] I don’t know, I guess it’s back to feeling. I think I spent a lot of time avoiding feelings and building structures, you know, around feelings. And now I have no time left for that.

I would say more in comedic stuff, where you’re taking gambles. I can turn out the hits over and over and I just—my favorite movie is the worst-performing film of anything I’ve done, The Assassination of Jesse James. I spend a lot of time on design and even this sculpture folly I’m on, I have days when—it all ends up in the dirt anyways: What’s the point? So I go through that cycle, too, you know? What’s the point?

So what’s on the agenda later?
I’m anxious to get to the studio. For me I’m having a moment of getting to feel emotion at my fingertips. But to get that emotion to clay—I just haven’t cracked the surface. And I don’t know what’s coming. Right now I know the manual labor is good for me, getting to know the expansiveness and limitations of the materials.

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in GQ, May.2017.

May 12, 2017 | Interview , | this post contains affiliate links