Rebel Star Top Dog

for Rolling Stone | April 1997

Getting to Brad Pitt is a pain in the ass. First of all, he is in the Canadian wilderness, where he is filming Seven Years in Tibet. So you take a six-hour flight from New York to Vancouver. Then there is another flight up to the mountains on the terrifyingly named Wilderness Air. After you land on a tiny airstrip, you must wait for a van to pick you up, so you wander down a long road, over to a diner situated in the middle of a piney field. As a waitress slaps a burger on the table, she remarks, “Been a lot of moose attacks around here lately. Mother protecting their babies. They just come barreling out of the woods at ya.” Wait. What? What was that last part? She shuffles away with a you-city-slickers-wouldn’t-last-five-minutes-out-here snort.

No matter. Here is the van, which winds through hills for an hour and a half. Finally you arrive at the camp, which is blanketed in 6 inches of mud due to recent inexplicable thaws. And here you are, at one of the few places on Earth where Brad Pitt can walk around freely.

“Hey,” he says. Big grin. He’s dressed for the mud and the mountains – boots, sweat pants, rugged black suede coat, mirrored shades, stubble, bed head – and the first thing you notice is that unlike most male actors, he clears 6 feet. The second thing you discern is that you are instantly at ease. Pitt is low-key, free of attitude and positive. “I like everywhere, pretty much,” he says of his travels. His favorite expressions? A conspiratorial “Yeah, right?” when you agree on something, followed by “Yeah, man,” for a emphatic statement, closely followed by “Excellent.”

As you chat with Pitt, it’s quite easy to forget he’s a huge movie star until, as he makes his way through the mud to his trailer, he turns around with his sunglasses and starts telling you about – well, who the hell knows, really, because you’re thinking, “Damn, this boy doesn’t look like other folks!” With a jolt, you get the full force of his blue-eyed charisma as he animatedly tells you about… something. Then he turns around with a “Yeah, man” and continues slogging through the mud. Excellent.

The 33-year-old Pitt finds himself in this remote locale because the Canadian Rockies substitute for the Himalayas. It is not the most commercial of movies, but Pitt doesn’t care. He’s not interested in the blockbuster; he wants a compelling role. Tibet is based on the memoirs of Harrer, who escaped from a British prison camp in India in 1940 with a fellow POW, played by David Thewlis. The pair weaseled their way into Tibet, where Harrer ended up tutoring the young Dalai Lama before he was driven into exile by China.

Before Tibet, Pitt was trying to quit the embattled The Devil’s Own, in which he plays a gunrunner for the IRA – until, that is, he was threatened with a sizable lawsuit. Pitt’s recent remarks to Newsweek regarding the chaotic process of making The Devil’s Own without clear direction or even a discernible script (“It was the most irresponsible bit of filmmaking – if you can even call it that – I’ve ever seen”) got him in a little spot o’ trouble.

“I didn’t even think about it,” Pitt says, stepping up into the trailer. “This was old news. Then I get home. I’m so happy to just hang out, see the dogs, relax. Boom! The calls start at 7 in the morning. ‘Go on Entertainment Tonight,’ they begged. ‘Say you didn’t mean it.’ I was like, ‘I can’t do that. [he shakes his head] I said it. I said it.’” Pitt wrote a letter to Newsweek, saying that his remark referred to his dilemma before filming, not to the actual movie, which he likes. The chaos continues, however: The ending for The Devil’s Own was recently re-shot.

Then there were the reports of tension with co-star Harrison Ford. “He’s absolutely cool,” says Pitt. “Look, it was tough. It was the hardest film I’ve ever been on. But as for reports about out-of-control egos and people hiding out in trailers, that just wasn’t the case. It was everyone trying to make the best movie they could under the circumstances. I’m playing a Catholic kid from Ireland,” he says. “I’m speaking for this situation that’s gone on for years. I felt a huge responsibility for that. So I’m not just gonna sit there and say, ‘Oh, I’m Irish! Give me a Guinness!’” He laughs. “I’m not gonna make leprechaun jokes.”

In fact, Pitt went to Belfast alone to research the role. “At one point I stop at a Protestant bookstore,” he says. “I look in the window for two seconds. Boom! I get this wing job from two Catholic guys. It about knocked me over. They just kept on walking. You know that walk?” He struts around, elbows out. “When you’re pumped?”

Pitt, for his part, has been having a ball. Mountain climbing was new to him – he and Thewlis prepped by “doing some glaciers” in Austria, then tackling the Dolomites, in Italy. “Sure, I’m scared of heights,” he concedes, “Absolutely. But this is fantastic.” He uses the words mission to describe recent shoots in the nearby mountains. “We all pile in these helicopters. You take off in this little tin cans, and you fight the wind, trying to stay level.” He pauses. “I’m getting excited. I have to stand up.” By all means. “Thank you. You fly up these mountains and land on a frozen lake,” he continues. “This wall of blue ice glowing. It’s fantastic.”

Filming is often delayed because of the temperamental weather. “The minute the safety guys say, ‘We gotta go,’ we dump everything, stop shooting, everybody gets in the helicopter, and we go down,” says Pitt with relish. “Wild.” He’s moving around, talking with his hands.

But there is one thing missing. Or, more specifically, one person.

Ask Pitt to name the most significant change in his life in the past year, and he looks slightly incredulous. “I’m getting married,” he says. Of course. She is Gwyneth Paltrow, 24, Hollywood’s darling after her elegant turn in Emma, smart, stylish, the child of actress Blythe Danner and TV producer Bruce Paltrow.

“I can’t wait, man,” he says heartily. He is hiking in the woods behind the camp. “Walking down the aisle, wear the ring, kiss the bride,” he says. “Oh, it’s going to be great. Marriage is an amazing thing. And what a compliment: ‘You’re the one I want to spend the rest of my life with,’ you know? Because I’m only going to do it once.” He saw his fiancée a few days ago, when the pair drove up the California coast to Big Sur to celebrate their 2-year anniversary. They try not to let more than two weeks go by without seeing each other. “It used to be a three week rule, now it’s two,” he says. “You should see our phone bills.”

Sparks flew on the set of Seven. “I knew immediately, I’ll tell you that much,” he says. “I got within 10 feet of her, and I got goofy. I couldn’t talk,” He shakes his head, he sprinkles his conversation with mentions of her (“Gwynnie’s a major cook. What bonus huh?”). Clearly, the man is besotted. Part of the reason that the Tibet shoot was so pleasant, for instance, was her presence. “Gwynnie was with me the whole time [in Argentina]. It was excellent. You put in a hard day, then you come home, and…there she is.” He proposed to her in Argentina, in December. “Why do people get married? [Knocks on table] For the bad times.” He gets all Allman Brothers on you: “She’s sunshine. She sure is.”

Pitt’s next project is Meet Joe Black. The movie will be shot in New York. “Gwynnie will be in there,” he says. “We got it all worked out.” Soon the two will begin filming Duets, directed by Paltrow’s father.

Then they will get married. Because they are the young couple in Hollywood right now and because all of America talks about the wedding with a proprietary air, as though it is happening to a cousin, this event will be a challenge to pull off without hordes of press and fans. It is hard enough for the two to emerge from their Los Angeles home as it is.

When they are home, they do what you do – bum around. Watch movies while eating dinner in their pajamas. When they go out to restaurants and the like, it is often Paltrow’s idea. “She goes out more; I get her home more,” he says. “It’s a good balance.”

It is hard to comprehend the enormity of Brad Pitt’s fame, but the hysteria that surrounded the star’s arrival into Argentina is a good way to start. “On the first day,” says Annaud, a charming, garrulous Frenchman, “I invite him to a restaurant in a tiny village. There are 250 people living there. You have to get to the village by crossing two ropes.” As they attempted to eat, “there were like 600 people banging on the windows.” Housing Pitt was another matter. “Brad was in an army camp,” says Annaud. “We had to put up a double-barbed-wire fence because people would climb the walls. And people would charter buses from Buenos Aires to come see the star. They were yelling and screaming, ‘Braaaad!’”

The obsession with Pitt became so fevered that Annaud was forced to call a press conference. “It was starting to get ridiculous – every detail, what shoes he was wearing,” says Annaud. “So Brad and I said, ‘Listen, we are here to work. We need serenity. Could you leave us alone?’ And, magically, they did.”

When the director first met with Pitt, he had slight reservations: “I was thinking that he is maybe too much of a… good-looking person? But Brad charmed me. He’s very genuine. Even if he doesn’t know how to say it, he is preoccupied with the dilemma between fame and self-respect. He knows it’s not the same thing at all.”

If Brad Pitt wanted to, he could crank out a formulaic romance picture every year, and folks would be lining up. Instead, when it comes to career choices, he seems to have followed his Inner Agent. His role as the twitchy, mentally unbalanced rich kid in 12 Monkeys garnered an Oscar nomination (a performance that Pitt wasn’t entirely happy with because he didn’t take the role to the next level: “I should have made him completely frightening in the second half of the movie,” he says). Pitt has only occasionally ventured into more conventional fare such as Legends of the Fall. Indeed, with his offbeat choices, he seems to operate within the Hollywood system, yet he is curiously removed from it. In the past, he never seemed to play by Hollywood rules, and now, he doesn’t have to.

A few years back, Pitt said that he felt he was a good actor but that he would never be a great one. “I’ll always be a good, solid actor,” he says. “I’ll never let you down. But will I ever have one of those great performances?” He considers. “Well, I feel like I’m better than I was when I said that.”

Pitt has headed off to his trailer. He has told you to come by before you leave. “I’ll give you my number, in case you need anything else,” he says. It’s time to go, and the van guy awaits, so you start for the trailer. It looks dwarfed by the enormous, starry Canadian sky. A soft yellow light shines from the trailer’s windows, and the faint, wispy harmonies of a Shawn Colvin CD can just barely be heard. You think of what Pitt said earlier about enjoying this remote part of the globe. “I think if it wasn’t for family and Gwynnie and Gwynnie’s family and a couple of good friends,” he says, “I could have gone this route.”

You decide to let him have a little peace. “I’m ready,” you tell the van guy.

“We have to drive slowly,” he says. “Been a lot of caribou around here lately runnin’ out in the road.”

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Rolling Stone, Apr.1997.

April 1, 1997 | Interview , | this post contains affiliate links