The Center Of A Star

by Peter Biskind for Vanity Fair | December 2001

Brad Pitt shies away from traditional leading-man roles. Yet his indie sensibility hasn’t dimmed his stardom (or lowered his salary). In the fortress like studio where Pitt does architectural design and photography, and where his wife Jennifer Aniston, paints and sculpts, the 37-year old actor talks about fighting the celebrity trap and honing the fine art of Hollywood mischief-making.

One day Brad Pitt was standing in line waiting to buy a hot dog at Pink’s, the shabby if venerable fast-food shack on La Brea, in Los Angeles. Suddenly a van pulled up and a guy inside yelled, “Yo, Brad Pitt! Yo, man, gimme your autograph.” Pitt turned away, trying to ignore him, but the dude was not easily discouraged, shouting, “C’mon, man, don’t be like that. Give me your autograph. C’mon, man – is that how it is?” Suddenly, six or so shirtless guys, heads covered by black hoods, leapt from the van and jumped on Pitt, who, bleating like a stuck pig, begged for mercy in piteous tones unbefitting a $20 million-a-picture movie star, especially one who kicked ass in Fight Club and Snatch. But his weeping and wailing fell on deaf years. The assailants threw him into the van and sped off. It was all staged, of course, and filmed for Jackass. Pitt was the only celebrity to join the fun, and his trick was so realistic that one of Pink’s cooks hurdled the counter and chased the van down the street.

Looking back a few months later, Pitt shakes his head as if he still can’t believe it. “These guys” – the Jackass producers – “are in a league of their own,” he says, grinning. “I laugh my ass off watching the thing. It was outta hand.”

How many other movie stars would stage their own abduction? Few have as little reverence for their public profile; few have so disdained the care and feeding of their own stardom. Brad Pitt, in other words, is way too cool to be Brad Pitt. “He was sort of a hormonal neutron bomb in Thelma & Louise,” says David Fincher, a close friend who directed him in Seven and Fight Club. “He doesn’t want people going, ‘I love you with your shirt off.’ Who wants to hear that? It’s like, ‘You were such a cute baby!’”

In a way, Pitt has become the prisoner of his own image, and he’s doing his damnedest to escape. He doesn’t do conventional action pictures, doesn’t do giddy romantic comedies opposite Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock, and hasn’t done any high-toned Oscar-grabbing epics since Meet Joe Black in 1998. At first, he says, his agents “were frustrated with me, but now they know me well enough, it doesn’t surprise them. I enjoy action pictures, a little escape, but I don’t want to spend six months of my life doing one and then come back the next year for dubbing and then push the thing.” He doesn’t even like to play leading men, preferring character roles to feed his inner Dustin Hoffman.

“I certainly felt the pressure, when I was younger, to play the kind of man who gets the girls, has all the answers, never makes mistakes, and defuses the bomb in 10 seconds.” But not anymore. In last year’s Snatch Pitt played sixth, seventh, and eighth fiddle to a gaggle of British actors virtually unknown to American audiences. In last March’s The Mexican, he contented himself with half a plot (Julia Roberts and James Gandolfini ran off with the rest), playing a none-too-bright small-time loser, Velcro for misfortune.

“He doesn’t care what he looks like, doesn’t care what people think about the part,” says Steven Soderbergh, who directed Pitt in the upcoming Ocean’s 11. “I don’t think there’s anybody of that stature who even comes close to taking the risks that he’s taken. He’s absolutely fearless.”

His two new films, though certainly mainstream Hollywood fare, don’t entirely deviate from the recent pattern. Ocean’s 11 is another ensemble piece. In Tony Scott’s Spy Game he works opposite Robert Redford, but it’s Redford’s movie, and Pitt’s character although closer to classic leading-manhood than he’s allowed himself to get since Meet Joe Black, is beaten half to death, spending a good swatch of his screen time lying senseless, covered with blood, virtually – again – unrecognizable.

Thelma & Louise was released in 1991, so Pitt, now 37, has had a whole decade to ponder the up and downsides of celebrity. Says Julia Roberts, “He’s a boy with a dream who became a man living that dream, and isn’t going to b*ch about it.”

But Matt Damon recalls watching Hard Copy or some such show seven years ago, and at the end of it, along came a segment called “Pitt Stop.” “They said, ‘Today Brad Pitt, like, went and bought a gallon of ice-cream. And a pizza,’ and I remember thinking, What the f**? Do they do that everyday? Say what this f**ing poor guy did? He had nothing to do with it. Brad got caught in this thing where it was way beyond his control. You see a lot of people desperately trying to get press, and you see him desperately trying not to.” Since his marriage to Aniston – which he refers to as “the merger” – the scrutiny has only gotten worse.

Pitt’s celebrity has not always been backed up by big numbers at the box office the way you see with Hanks or Tom Cruise. Pitt has never had a hit where he’s had to carry the picture. Not that he hasn’t made a lot of good movies or turned in a string of fine performances. But usually a star of Pitt’s wattage starts to flicker if he doesn’t light up the box office. Not in this case. His just-shy-of-Harrison-Ford-size salary seems immune to financial downturns.

“I don’t think he gets credit for being as good as he is,” says Soderbergh. “In terms of movie-star performances, I thought he was as good in Snatch as McQueen ever was. It was a really star performance in the best sense of the word, absolutely riveting and charismatic, funny. If another actor had given that performance who didn’t look like Brad, it would have been talked about much more. I found him in Ocean’s 11 to be a really terrific actor, with really good instincts, a really good sense of timing, and an ease that I don’t think you can fake.

The back of his hand is covered with an abstractly enigmatic tattoo left over from Ocean’s 11 (“I have no idea what it’s suppose to be”), and he looks like he’d rather be anywhere but here. He’s a good sport, though, and gropes for an explanation of why he agreed to appear on Jackass. “The thing I love about Jackass is these guys just throw themselves out there and let the videotape run, and what will be, will be. You can get so controlled in this business. Once you get to a certain plateau, you feel like there’s something to protect, or at least that’s the sickness. I’ll tell you what – in the last few years I’ve just kind of given up all control. And it’s such a relief, such a relief.” He pauses. “That’s a lie, actually, I was joking.” He hasn’t really given up control. He can’t afford to.

The Mexican was a low budget indie film until Pitt got hold of it. Aware of the risk, he was reluctant to sign on, because he knew a star of his magnitude might capsize the picture, but when Roberts came on board he thought she could deflect the glare, and he overcame his doubts. During the production, they tried to remain true to the project’s roots. “Our approach to the thing was run and gun, gonzo, raw and loose, stick up a light and go, killing everything precious about making a film,” he explains. He wanted to give it the casual feel of Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket. In fact, The Mexican had a lot of promise – a good script, a talented director, and an all-star cast – but that’s often a recipe for trouble. The premise proved to be way too ambitious and the finished film was far too long at 123 minutes. But the coup de grace was delivered by the pairing of Pitt and Roberts, which set up expectations that the film could never satisfy. “My and Julia’s baggage threw it off somehow,” Pitt reflects. “It’s not an indie anymore, it’s not pushed like a small movie. I don’t know how to get around that.

“My week consists …five days out of the seven I’ve got at least three cars of paparazzi on me that I’ve got to either lose or whatever.” His voice is soft, barely audible. “The thing with our marriage is that there was an opening in the Hollywood-couple slot, and unfortunately we’ve fallen into it. Which I don’t like very much. I don’t like throwing us in this box. It doesn’t leave us room to be human, to make our mistakes and have our struggles, because that will just be another story, a whole new other life for the rags.” The media microscope has become so oppressive, he sometimes feels as if he were under house arrest. “That’s why we all end up hiding and creating communes or compounds, because it’s work when you go out there in public. You can’t just go to the doctor, sit in a waiting room, and read a magazine. You can’t go to the airport and wait for your flight, because you get mauled. So there are these little shortcuts. Which on one hand are a necessity because there’s such an intensive focus on what you’re trying to create that you cannot go out and get your toothpaste.”

“But on the other hand,” he goes on, “it’s just a huge trap. We are treated as special. We get away with things that other people can’t. And you start to believe the lie that you are special, that you’re better than other people. You start demanding that kind of treatment. Most of the time I fight it because I know I’m going to get older and it’s going to go away, but at times I succumb to it. I’ve got a couple of friends that might as well be family, and I’ve caught myself just ordering one of them to do something because you get accustomed to people doing things for you… It’s the money and the power, it just crushes everything.”

Talking about the studio in which we are sitting, where he draws, makes models, and dabbles in photography, Pitt comes to life. “This place speaks for me better probably than I can speak for myself,” he says, and that could be true.

Pitt is taken with the ways lines, planes, and angles intersect. “I always want to see some kind of freedom,” he says, looking across the big room. “You’ve got to be a line junkie to really appreciate the perspective of the place. Because there’s always perspective, there’s always freedom.” He’s right–the building consists of a play of freedom and confinement. 

“I came from a very white-bread Christian community,” he says. “There were 1,800 students in my high school. Four were black.” He recalls that Saturday Night Fever made a big impression on him when he was a kid. “Not the dancing or the clothes, but seeing these other cultures and these guys with their accents and the way they handled themselves and talked. It blew my mind and it got me on this quest for travel and other cultures.”

In many ways he’s rejected the values he grew up with. It’s hard to be a Baptist in Hollywood, and although he remains fascinated by religion and affairs of the soul he confesses, “I left Christianity pretty much behind when I left Missouri,” and he has a fairly low opinion of organized religions in general. “Islam freaked me out a bit, too,” he says, recalling the four weeks he spent in Morocco filming Spy Game. “I was just surprised to see, in a culture so steeped in religion, the ferocity with which they attacked each other, the fighting in the street over the most petty things. I could see the fanaticism… To me, it’s live and let live. I do.not.care. Do what you like as long as you do it yourself and you don’t push it on me, me and mine. Have at it.”

Pitt likes to make mischief, and he has a lot of company in Hollywood, where practical joking has been developed into a fine art by people with the time, money, and motive to do so. Pitt and his pals, for example, once arranged for a friend to be “arrested” by faux Mexican police while on a trip somewhere south of Puerto Vallarta. David Fincher is a similarly committed prankster, and when he learned that part of Spy Game was supposed to be shot in Israel, he arranged for Pitt to be pulled aside by the “authorities” at the airport and thrown into a back room, where every piece of his luggage was going to be torn apart in a quest for drugs. But, alas, Fincher’s elaborate scheme came to naught, because when fighting broke out between the Palestinians and Israelis in the fall of last year, the production moved to Morocco, where the director had no ins.

Pitt says Spy Game is “really a father-son piece, although saying that makes me uncomfortable, and I’m sure it’d make Bob even more uncomfortable.” I wonder what Pitt is alluding to, but when I ask, Pitt shrugs it off. Then he reflects, “I do think there’s an older school where you don’t show your feelings as much, or your flaws – I see that with my father – but I also have to turn around and say Redford can be very sweet at times.” Redford had directed Pitt previously, in A River Runs Through It. Nine years later, Pitt says, “It was a thrill to get on the same side of the camera with Bob, but I actually found it difficult acting opposite him. There was a lot of conflict between our characters, we didn’t see eye to eye, and what I figured out in retrospect was, watching his films growing up, watching him portray the guy who had the answers, when I had to disagree with him in our scenes, I would just shut down, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find my argument. I couldn’t believe in it, because I kept believing what he was saying. He would tell me, ‘No,’ and I’d want to go, ‘O.K., got it!’”

In a sense, both actors were typecast. Redford is a very cerebral performer. “Bob knows exactly where his character is every millisecond of every beat of every scene,” says Tony Scott, the director. “Brad acts from his instincts. He doesn’t articulate them, he just says, ‘I want to pull my character more this way.’ He wants to leave himself enough room to move and let the character shift or change with the environment, with the guy opposite him.” Redford led, Pitt followed, but that created problems for Pitt. As he says of Edward Norton, who has an approach similar to Redford’s, “He has such insight into the geometry of the film. What you get is an overall journey for his character that is pretty flawless. But me, I kinda like the flaws. I like it a little sloppier. I like to take a chance, to see what’s going to happen. Now, the downside to my approach is that when it’s not working, it’s not working – it’s really not working. And I don’t have anything else to fall back on.”

But if Pitt found acting against Redford problematic, you’d never know it from his performance. In one scene, the two men confront each other on top of a building in Berlin. In the script, the confrontation between the two men is a moment of high drama, and the set was similarly charged. For his part, Redford wanted to know why Scott was using a helicopter to film a two-character scene with dialogue. Pitt too was uncomfortable. Recalls Scott, “Brad didn’t quite have a handle on how his character should be feeling, but by the time we got rolling, I watched him build off what was actually happening between the two off them, the frustration of not quite getting the grasp. Brad was able to transfer that into anger. And it was great.” Indeed, as the camera circles the two men like a bird of prey, Pitt, his blue eyes flashing and his hair flying in the wind, berates his mentor with conviction, punctuating his argument by throwing a chair off the rooftop while Redford fixes him with a cold look.

Pitt has admired Steven Soderbergh since he saw Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, and can speak quite eloquently about why he thinks Soderbergh had changed the language of film. The two of them had been talking about working together for a couple of years. They finally came together for Ocean’s 11. The original wasn’t very good. In Pitt’s charitable words, “It had great moments, but to me it was more about watching the Rat Pack. This one has been completely reworked. It has a really sharp story laid out kind of in the fashion of The Sting.” Indeed, if the script, which fairly thrums with electricity, is any indication, Ocean’s 11 should be a hit. Almost every line is a zinger. From all accounts, it’s Pitt and George Clooney’s movie, but it’s got showy parts of Roberts, Damon, and the rest of Soderbergh’s troupe as well.

For the most part, Soderbergh has done character-driven pictures, and the far more elaborate and action-oriented Ocean’s 11 was no picnic. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s a movie about absolutely nothing, and I found it just brain crushing. Every day I felt I was hanging on by my fingernails. I would take two hours setting up a shot that I would abandon before we even shot it.”

For the actors, on the other hand, the shoot was pure fun, at least in part because of the pranks. Says Roberts, “It was like being the only girl in a family with 10 boys. At some point, you just go, O.K., yeah, my door has shaving cream all over it? O.K. My phone has Neosporin in the earpiece? O.K. ‘Hello?’ Squish – you just surrender.”

Even in this crowd, Clooney stood out – a prankster’s prankster. “George’s practical jokes border on the divine,” says Matt Damon. “They’re beautiful, and he rolls them out over the course of years. He meets somebody and he tries to figure out what their worst fear would be, what would really get them.” Pitt was especially worried about Clooney’s prowess, as Damon discovered. He and Pitt were staying next door to each other at the Bellagio while on location in Las Vegas. Damon had some friends visiting for the weekend, and Pitt was leaving, so Pitt – nice guy – offered to let them stay in his room. Back on the set Monday, he mentioned, in an offhand way, “Hey, man, can I have my room key back?”

The fact of the matter was that the keys – plastic cards – all looked the same and had gotten mixed up. Damon didn’t know which one was Pitt’s, but promised to return it later. Tuesday they had the same conversation. And Wednesday. By Thursday, Damon noticed that Pitt looked a little peaked, dragging on the set, bags under his eyes. And when Pitt once again asked about the key, trying hard to be casual, Damon detected a note of desperation. On Friday, Pitt finally sat Damon down and explained, “I can’t get any sleep, man.” He was convinced that Damon and Clooney were holding his key because they were going to prank his room. Pitt, who knows every conceivable trick, confessed, “I get home from the set, it takes me two hours, I rip my room apart . I check the closet, check the toilet, that it isn’t Saran Wrapped. I pick the phone up to check for Vaseline.” Damon ran off to tell Clooney, who said, “Don’t give him the key – this is better than any prank.”

But Damon finally told Pitt the truth: “Brad, I don’t know where the f** your key is, just get your room rekeyed.” But Pitt still didn’t believe him: “No, man, you’re bullsh*in’ me – you guys have something planned.” Says Damon, “He was convinced George had a prank running on him, and he was probably right.”

Now that he’s got Ocean’s 11 behind him, Pitt plans to return to following his more indie-oriented muse. “I mean to really make some good films in the next few years,” he says. “And how do I know that? I don’t know how I know that, but I do know that.”

Maybe Pitt’s mood had been provoked by his marriage, or perhaps by the rapid approach of his 40s, but something has made him stand back and take stock. “I figure I’ve got about five strong years, seven tops,” he says, talking about his own place on top of the Hollywood food chain. “I am still at a viable age, but I’m not hitting the cusp. There’s something changing. Funnily enough, for the first time I find myself not listening to music. I used to scour the bins for new artists and spend hours in the record stores and loved the finds. And now I just leave it for the younger kids. I’m not sure I want to be relevant anymore. The fingers on the pulse – that comes with the youth. All I know is I just wish someone would get Destiny’s Child off my television. Drives me crazy.”

“On one hand,” he continues, “I’m hitting my own stride now. On the other hand, I’ll tell you truthfully, I’m completely bored with myself in films. It’s time for me to try either a new direction or new horizons. I have other interests that I want to pursue that mean more to me. I think there’s room to go away from it for a while and then you can come back and re-invent. We’ll see where it goes… I find myself looking forward to a family. It’s not that I’m self-absorbed. Anything that’s going to take the focus off myself, I welcome.”

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Vanity Fair, Dec.2001.

December 1, 2001 | Interview , | this post contains affiliate links