The Unbearable Bradness Of Being

Brad Pitt swishes down the Lisbon streets, one more American on vacation. In his hand he carries a camera, which he shoots from waist height. “I learned a few tricks from the papara*holes,” he announces. “They all look alike to me – horns and a pointed tail and a big Cyclops eye.” He snaps a ragged, down-and-out Portuguese man on a bench and pushes through a flock of pigeons, a little disappointed that the birds, with their seen-it-all urban ways, are too underwhelmed to scatter in front of the lens. Instead they nonchalantly hop out of his path, and he swishes onward.

Pitt seems relaxed. His girlfriend, Jennifer Aniston, is back in the hotel and will not be seen today, but the very fact that he mentions her so readily – and that he is happy to meet up during their European break – marks quite a change from the blinds-down, determined privacy behind which they have previously shuttered their relationship. “We did well for a while there,” he says. “We just didn’t participate. We just wanted to see if something was going to grow on its own without any outside influence. We just wanted to keep it special. Keep it ours.”

If you are famous like Pitt, you adopt smart tactics. You learn that the best way to see a city is on a bicycle – you can out-pedal any pedestrian attention and cut away to places where the paparazzi cars can’t follow. But even on foot, there are useful strategies. “Good hats,” he says. “You’ve got to switch the hats. You’ve got to have some good glasses and stay on the move.”

They have to check into hotels under assumed names. In Portugal, they are the Vegases; Pitt is Ross Vegas. “I love when they call up: ‘Something for the Vegases.'” Pitt has also been Abe Froman (“The sausage king of Chicago… a Ferris Bueller reference”) and Bryce Pilaf (“one of my personal favorites. As in rice pilaf”)

“I’m a little more concerned about it than when I’m on my own. Because I don’t want…” 

It’s called chivalry.
No, it’s called…(Pitt gets this far through the sentence and stops, as though he realizes he has a decision to make. And he makes it) …love I suppose.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with that.
No, there’s not. Absolutely not. (More confident) Absolutely not. [Grins] Greatest thing in the world. On the record, I say that.

In the cafe, a Portuguese woman comes to the table and asks whether he is Brad Pitt. “No”, Pitt replies, though not in an unfriendly manner, and she backs away. He tells me that when he is asked that question, he usually replies, “No – not today.” Anyway, later, when another person approaches with the different opening line, “You make film of Tibet?” he nods and happily signs a shirt.

Back in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri, Pitt and his father are developing a subdivision with forty or fifty houses. Fighting the hegemony of the strip mall. “We’re going to do something where everybody’s got land and space,” Pitt says. A way of living where “we don’t completely have to destroy and manipulate nature.”

Do you physically draw stuff up?
Yeah. Oh yeah. I’m in a frenzy. I want to build cities! I’m quite mad with it.

So what would Bradville be like?
It wouldn’t be called Bradville. I’ll tell you that right now.

I know. What does this fantasy city look like?
Seriously? A plethora….listen, I’ve been drawing for the last decade. Chairs to cities. Most of it’s crap – some of it’s really good.

“I’ve noticed,” he says “that if I was ever in a chaotic relationship, I was always into very linear thinking, very proportion – divided – off, very strict. In this relationship thing I’m in now, I find myself going more toward the whimsical, this free flowing, freeform architecture. I respond more to cleanness and a modern perspective. Instead of darkness now I go more light. Light rooms.”

So your taste in architecture reflects your spirit at the time?
Yeah, absolutely. Because if you look at Frank Lloyd Wright, he had a terrible family life. Chaotic. Horrendous. He couldn’t get it together. And out of that, I feel, came this strict perspective where things are very orderly.

If your taste in architecture reflects your emotional state, does the way that you act do too?
Absolutely. One hundred percent. 

Does that mean you become a worse actor when your personally unhappy?
I think I become worse. (Dwells a moment longer) I don’t go for that whole argument that you have to be miserable to create great art. Listen, I’ll put on a Doors record any day on a road trip, but you can’t maintain it, that’s the problem. Jim Morrison couldn’t maintain it.

Pitt tells me that he is happy. And then, almost as soon as he has told me this, he begins to worry about it. (It doesn’t take much to get him worried.) His imagination begins rolling away with itself, scaring him as it goes. “I just saw a dreadful title,” he says. “Brad Pitt Talks About His Happiness.’ Listen man, it’s all up and down. It’s all up and down.”

I nod vaguely, wondering why he’s saying this, but then, he says something strange and interesting.

“Your talking to a guy,” Pitt begins, “who’s always had this kind of congenital sadness. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know what it is – the state of the world, the state of yourself. I don’t know. I had a very easy childhood, deprived of nothing per se, so, you know…” -and, not knowing, I wait, and he shrugs – “…I mean, turn on the news man.”

So your less sad now?
I’ve got reins on it. Awww, man, listen. I see it in so many people. I just always had so many questions growing up; why this, why the state of the world, why does God want this? Congenital sadness. It always came up, for no reason. I don’t know what it is.

And you’ve had the same as an adult?
I always had periods. I always had times.

Obviously, people who read about you from a distance…
(Nods) “You’ve got it made” Listen, I also live the life of a rock star.

The only bad thing they think they know is that you might have had a couple of love affairs that didn’t work out.
I know. (Exasperated) I wish they’d leave it alone. Everybody’s got ’em.

(Laughs) Love doesn’t guarantee happiness.

Before you were in love, were you expecting to be in love?
Of course. Of course. What’s the point of going on if your not?

I mean, you stick around long enough, it’s bound to happen, is it not? I’m not saying I was pining for it. Listen, this L word, it’s so abused and bastardized, you’ve got to have a fair understanding of yourself before you can experience any of that…

And what do you understand about yourself?
(Long pause) I just stepped in a pile there. I’m really, truthfully, not good at explaining myself. I don’t know how to say it without being preachy or pedantic. I hate saying this, but I’m a pretty decent guy. Growing up, I always judged things according to how I would behave in that situation, and I was a na├»ve kid because I really believed… I’ve just come to understand that people don’t think like I do.

He’s been thinking about his formative years a lot recently. Reading serious psychology books. Cleaning house inside his head. Figuring stuff out. (But don’t ask anymore. Please. “That’s something truly I just wouldn’t talk about,” he says. “I just feel like it would all get corroded.”)

When Pitt talks about his childhood, the details are usually slight. Though the bonds still seem to be strong between him and his family, I suspect that, to an unusual extent, he had to completely leave the world he grew up in – the internal one as well as the external one – to become who he has become. There is one subject he refers to time and time again, and that is religion. “I would call it oppression,” he says, “because it stifles any kind of personal individual freedom. I dealt with a lot of that, and my family would diametrically disagree with me on all of that.”

To him, the parable of the prodigal son is an authoritarian tale told to keep people in line. “This,” he explains, “is a story which says, if you go out and try to find what works for you, then you are going to be destroyed and you will be humbled and you will not be alive again until you come home to the father’s ways.” It is not hard to see how he relates this to his own departure westward. When I ask whether he thought he would come back, he says, “I never thought past the leaving.”

When Meet Joe Black came out, you got a pretty stinky ride.
(Smiles) Oh, yeah. We got slaughtered on it.

Were you hurt?
No, I just figured it was my turn. Listen, I didn’t agree with most of it. I like the pace of Meet Joe Black. I think it got a little long-winded. But so what? It’s not infallible. It’s art. I don’t think it deserves a beating from people who don’t make things. If Marty (Brest, the director) had made the same movie with someone else, it wouldn’t have got the flogging it got.

So don’t you then think, “Why do they want to have a go at me?”
Because, look, I represent the guy who’s got everything. I deserve a beating, you know what I’m saying?

I’m not that guy. But I see that guy out there sometimes – what he’s turned into – and, you know, I want to beat him up. I want to slap him. The me out there (he points across the room, where no one is) who’s not me.

What does he look like?
(Pauses, then grins) He’s pretty good-looking.

(Laughing) They’re going to kill you for that.
Listen, they’re going to kill me anyway.

“I read so many of the same stories and I can’t do them anymore. It’s like Leading Man Guy. The Leading Man is truly one character – the guy who figures things out (Laughs). He’s MacGyver, that’s what it is. And there’s a handful of us, and any one of us [can do it]. It’s really not so fulfilling anymore.

You know exactly what I’m talking about. These are traps I’ve tried to avoid in Hollywood. The inevitable fight against becoming a personality, you know?

What’s a “personality”?
People who you know too much about – too much useless information.

Fight Club seems to have engaged Pitt on a level beyond personality. 

Fincher, who worked with Pitt on Seven, knew from the moment he finished the book that Pitt should play Tyler. “It’s probably a character that’s closer to Brad in real life than most people would be comfortable knowing,” Fincher suggests. “There is a childlike sense of anarchy to things that interest Brad.”

Pitt quotes approvingly the Tyler line, “I feel sorry for those guys packing into gyms trying to look like Calvin Klein told them they should look like.” When I suggest that, willingly or not, he’s surely a kind of poster boy for that kind of image, he scoffs.

“I’ve always been on a slow suicide route,” he insists. “I mean, what is this?” He holds up his cigarette. “When I started, this was cool. Now it’s a crutch. And I eat cr*. I’m one of those guys you hate because of genetics. It’s the truth.”

There have been storm clouds gathering over Fight Club. It is a film that includes home bomb-making and anit-corporate terrorism. I tell Pitt that this is exactly the kind of movie about which President Clinton might argue: What’s the point of entertainment that just shows lots of very nasty things happening without any moral redemption?

“Well, that’s the whole question of ‘What is art?” says Pitt. “There’s art that’s meant to just take us away, let us forget our troubles, and then we’re right back where we were. That is definitely not Fight Club. Or there are things that push the buttons. That speak some kind of truth. Listen, I know we’re going to get hung up in the morality net somewhere, and I think that would be a shame, because they’re missing the whole point.”

To play devil’s advocate, what is the point that they’re missing?
The point is, the question has to be asked: “What track are we on?” Tyler starts out in the movie saying, “Man, I know all these things are supposed to seem important to us – the car, the condo, our versions of success – but if that’s the case, why is the general feeling out there reflecting more impotence and isolation and desperation and loneliness?” If you ask me, I say “Toss all this, we gotta find something else.” Because all I know is at this point in time, we are heading for a dead end, a numbing of the soul, a complete atrophy of the spiritual being. And I don’t want that.

So if we’re heading toward this kind of existential dead end in society, what do you think should happen?
Hey, man, I don’t have those answers yet. The emphasis now is on success and personal gain. (Smiles) I’m sitting in it, and I’m telling you, that’s not it. Whether you want to listen to me or not – and I say to the reader – that’s not it.

But, and I’m glad you said it first, people will read your saying that and think…
I’m the guy who’s got everything. I know. But I’m telling you, once you get everything, then your just left with yourself. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It doesn’t help you sleep any better, and you don’t wake up any better because of it. Now, no one’s going to want to hear that. I understand it. I’m sorry I’m the guy who’s got to say it. But I’m telling you.

“I think that Tyler was a great outlet for Brad,” says Edward Norton. “He has this great irreverence. Tyler was such a creation of Brad’s natural mischievous impulses, and I think all his best instincts were set loose by that part.” Recently, at the Venice Film Festival, Norton and Pitt watched the film together for the first time. “We were just standing up out of our seats,” says Norton, “and Brad turned to me and said, ‘I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be in a better movie than that.'”

How do you feel when people make out that you’re really dumb?
It’s part of it. It’s part of it.

I’m not looking to flatter you but…
(Sarcastically) You’re doing a great job.

…but that’s not my impression. Do you think you play up to it?
Aidan Quinn said to me during Legends – and this was the first time I heard the phrase “You’re dumbing yourself down” – he said, “You do this at times.” I had no idea. I was surprised. I think it was something I learned when growing up – there’s a big sense of that in a country mentality, in not wanting people to feel bad. (Gets a little more agitated) I don’t mind showing flaws. I think the beauty in people is flaws. I do know that I’ve run into people who love to find something wrong with me.

“The part of the world I came from, there was not a whole lot of communication going on,” he explains. “That’s not the way. So many things are said between the lines. And what’s not said is almost as important as what is said. And it’s deciphering that. It’s another language and another culture, and it doesn’t transfer when we get to this situation. Listen, I’ve got nothing to hide. It is true that somewhere in me I’ve always felt I was protecting myself from some great injustice or some great shame. And then when I look at me and I break down where I stand and how I operate, I’ve got nothing to hide from. I am trying to communicate with you the best I can. I’m trying to get the thoughts and feelings across. We didn’t label them at home. I had to learn to start labeling and deciphering them after I left, which is after college. So it’s a different world for me in that aspect.”

“I think I am better than I have ever been now,” says Pitt. “I’ve seen a progressive growth. You see some of the first stuff I did – it’s absolute cr*. It’s amazing someone let me get in there again… I’m just horrid. Really, really bad. Just no acting clue whatsoever, man. Horrendous. Just phony as phony. And then you start to discover things that feel right….”

What’s your favorite word today?
Any one of them I can pronounce.

“As we’re going into the twenty-first century, I think we’re far enough along – we know enough now, that no one can save you. I go crazy when I read a script and one character says, ‘I can’t live without you.’ It drives me crazy. Because we’re teaching the wrong thing.”

Do you believe in happy ever after?
No. No. [Shakes his head] No, there’s no such thing.

Does your girlfriend mind that?
We’re pretty much on the same wavelength.

Some people would find that unromantic.
Oh, I find it quite beautiful. 

What takes its place?
I don’t know. (His tone changes) The gauge comes up and I start monitoring when we start talking about the relationship, only because of the ways it’s been perverted in the past, and I’m hypersensitive. But I will say this about Jen–She’s fantastic, she’s fair, she has great empathy for others… and she’s just so cool.

Can you explain what the two of you have in common?
No, that’s really all I want to say. We’re pretty much after the same thing – I’ll say that. Just great respect for each other. It’s fantastic. We don’t get hung up on… there’s no offense ever taken.

Pitt is girding up to go back to work and has accepted a role in the new ensemble movie Diamonds, from Guy Ritchie. Maybe he’ll do David Fincher’s next film, The Mexican. “I’m just excited about the prospect of doing something small-scale and gonzo,” says Pitt, “because all these films seem to become so important and ultimately none of them are, except what you enjoy.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Rolling Stone Oct.1999.

October 1, 1999 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links