Brad Pitt: The Leading Man
As the stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Brad Pitt laid down a performance of vintage Hollywood dudeness. His character is equally at ease being a human security blanket for his B-list-actor boss, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as he is subduing murderous Manson family members while tripping on acid. In James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” Pitt used the same tools he wielded so deftly in Tarantino’s film — laconic cool; understated emotion — to build an entirely different version of masculinity. In it, he’s Roy McBride, an astronaut on an interplanetary mission to find his absentee (in multiple senses of the word) father. But McBride’s imperturbability is rooted in repression and hurt, nothing like Booth’s so-it-goes acceptance. “The two characters could be connected,” Pitt says, “in the sense that you have to go through an evolution to get to a place of comfort. You have to go through profound internal hardships.”
There’s such stillness and ease to your work in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “Ad Astra.” Those qualities weren’t always there earlier in your career. Is that because you’ve gotten better at picking roles? No, because I don’t know what the outcome of the work is going to be. But in the ’90s I did become aware that there was this kind of leading-man role that you could plug any of us into and it didn’t even matter. We would all have the same result. So as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more conscious of thinking, If I am the one to play something, what can I bring that’s unique?
What did you bring to Cliff Booth and Roy McBride? With Cliff it’s connected to my dad, the way he carries himself. It’s also the iconic figures like Butch and Sundance and in Clint Eastwood movies. Then it’s where I am in my life. I don’t care who you are, life is struggle. It’s how you perceive those struggles. As I’ve gotten older, I take them more as another day in the office, acceptance of what the day throws you. And in “Ad Astra,” we were looking at this idea of being older, being a dad. You become more aware of your shortcomings. You look into starting to break some of that open, which is not always comfortable. I said to James Gray: “I see this as very still, and I want to see how much truth and honesty can read on camera, can resonate.” It’s what they say: The camera doesn’t lie. Though I don’t know if that’s true. I’ve seen some people lie on camera, and it looks pretty good.
Have you lied on camera? I must have somewhere. Some days you’re drowning on set. You just can’t quite get there.
Was there a performance where you never got your head above water? My first 15 years of them.
Those 15 years include films like “12 Monkeys.” You got an Oscar nomination for that one. I nailed the first half of “12 Monkeys.” I got the second half all wrong. That performance bothered me because there was a trap in the writing. It’s not the writing’s fault, but it was something that I couldn’t figure out. I knew in the second half of the film I was playing the gimmick of what was real in the first half — until the last scene — and it bugged the [expletive] out of me.
Looking at the arc of your career, it seems as if a real shift happened somewhere around 2004. You started working more exclusively with higher-caliber directors. And maybe as a result, your acting had this new depth to it. I can see a line from then to now. Sorry, I realize that’s an observation and not a question. But you’re absolutely right. I’m happy someone could read that. It was really a turn on “Troy.” I was disappointed in it. When you’re trying to figure things out in your career, you get a lot of advice. People are telling you that you should be doing this, and other people are saying you should be doing that. There was this defining film I never got to do, a Coen brothers film called “To the White Sea.” We had an opportunity to go, and then it was shut down. Then another interesting opportunity arose, and instead I was talked into: “No, you need to be doing this other thing. You can get to your art project later.” I ended up taking that advice.
And you made “Troy”? No, it wasn’t “Troy,” it was another thing. But that really made me think, I’m following my gut from here on out. I had to do “Troy” because — I guess I can say all this now — I pulled out of another movie and then had to do something for the studio. So I was put in “Troy.” It wasn’t painful, but I realized that the way that movie was being told was not how I wanted it to be. I made my own mistakes in it. What am I trying to say about “Troy”? I could not get out of the middle of the frame. It was driving me crazy. I’d become spoiled working with David Fincher. It’s no slight on Wolfgang Petersen. “Das Boot” is one of the all-time great films. But somewhere in it, “Troy” became a commercial kind of thing. Every shot was like, Here’s the hero! There was no mystery. So about that time I made a decision that I was only going to invest in quality stories, for lack of a better term. It was a distinct shift that led to the next decade of films.
You didn’t get much opportunity to do comedy until fairly deep into your career, and now it’s a real strength — Cliff is such a sly, funny character. Was developing that side of what you do also part of the effort to get away from the straightforward leading-man stuff? Well, I was very conscious of that when I did “Kalifornia.” It’s kind of a B film, but it was important for me. I was going against the things I was getting at the time. I got to do character work in it, and there’s humor laid in there, too. I’ve gotten to do a few comedies. They’ve just been subtle. I’m better at behavioral comedy than jokes.
It’s interesting that you mention “Kalifornia.” I see that as a very method-y, flashy performance. It doesn’t strike me as pointing toward the kind of work you’re doing now. But it was another big turning point for me. After “Thelma & Louise” I was offered hitchhiker roles, which is no surprise — but you would be surprised at how many hitchhiker roles there were. I was also being offered romantic leads. For me in the ’90s, there was this strict imprint of what a leading man was. It felt limiting. So what I’m pinpointing with “Kalifornia” is a moment in which you can tell yourself that the box is bigger than the one you’re being defined in.
I think an example of the kind of behavioral comedy you just described is Cliff’s LSD scene in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — at least before he starts bashing heads. Actually, wait, I’m curious: Have you taken LSD? Who, me?
Yeah, you. Oh, sure. Oh, sure.
The way you said that suggests more than a passing familiarity. [laughs] I’m microdosing right now.
You’re holding it together nicely. By the way, that was brilliant of Quentin. He came up with that a couple of weeks before we started shooting. We already had the script, and then he said, “You’re going to be on acid in that scene.” I said, “Great!” It gives you so much room. The clichés of acid trails; it’s always funny. Everyone gets it. But the scene might’ve played the same way without acid: Cliff would find it so damn funny that he was having a normal night and then these bozos show up at his house. He was feeling the opposite of fear. There would have been humor for Cliff regardless. It was just amplified on acid.
Let me ask you this: A movie like “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is so much about how certain kinds of cultural figures and images evoke particular associations and memories. And along those lines, it’s not some brilliant leap of interpretation to suggest that our — and the movie’s — awareness of a “Brad Pitt” persona affects our feelings about Cliff Booth. As an actor, are you aware of how the audience’s idea of you can resonate with a role? No.
Really? That resonance feels so central to the pleasure of the movie. The answer is no. I mean, I’m aware of when a director is using my persona really well. Fincher in “Fight Club” was twisting it. In “Jesse James,” it was pretty blatant. But no, I’m not really aware, and I’m not sure I should be. I stopped reading all press about 2004. Not just reviews. I mean any magazine in the doctor’s office. Because some of it would bounce around like a rat in the skull. It would stay there, and it would inform some of my decisions and choices in work, in life, and I didn’t find any of it helpful.
People always say they don’t read about themselves. I never believe it. I don’t go out of my way to avoid it; I just don’t seek it out. I don’t know how many women they’ve said I’ve been dating the last two or three years, and none of it’s true — I just flashed on something, but maybe it doesn’t mean anything.
What? When I first started my career, I was in USA Today. I was pretty pleased with myself. Two days after it came out, I go over to a friend-of-a-friend’s house. In the kitchen I look down and there’s a litter box for the cat — and there’s my piece in USA Today with a cat turd on top of it. That pretty much defines it.
This is a different, probably more embarrassing version of the question about your persona: Are your looks a tool you can use or subvert to particular actorly effect? No.
How could the answer be no? What about all this business about actors and their instrument? Yeah, but you don’t know how you read. I’ve had moments where I’ve seen pictures of myself from years ago and gone, “That kid looks all right.” But I didn’t feel that way inside. I spent most of the ’90s hiding out and smoking pot. I was too uncomfortable with all the attention. Then I got to a place where I was aware that I was imprisoning myself. Now I go out and live life, and generally people are pretty cool. I just flashed on something else: When I was a kid, I loved the Harlem Globetrotters. When they came to my town, it was a big deal. We had seats up in the bleachers, but I sneaked down and sat in the front row, and Meadowlark pulled me out of the crowd. I was the kid for the thing when they threw the bucket of water, you know?
You’re talking about Meadowlark Lemon’s famous Globetrotters bit where his water bucket is filled with confetti? Yeah. And I remember how when that happened I felt as if I had been touched by someone great. So what I’m getting at is that after I stopped hiding out, once I got back out in the world, I realized that you have that ability to make someone feel good for a moment. I’m not trying to say anyone is being brushed with my greatness. I’m trying to say that I have the opportunity to brighten someone’s day. That’s a rare thing.