There’s a moment during David-vs-Goliath biopic Moneyball when Brad Pitt’s beleagured baseball general manager explains to his colleagues why he’s thinking big despite the odds against him. “Adapt or die!” he rally-calls – a sentiment this 48-year-old tabloid fodder appears to have based his career on.
That snake-hipped hottie in 1991’s Thelma And Louise had no intention of going back to Levi ’s commercials and Dallas walk-ons, didn’t want to rest on his heartthrob laurels and fade into obscurity.
Pitt knew he needed to change, to throw curveballs, in order to survive the washing machine of Hollywood.
So rather than repeat his star-making turn he chose projects obliquely; True Romance, Se7en, Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, Babel, The Assassination Of Jesse James, Inglourious Basterds, The Tree Of Life … Movies that cannily teamed him with directors at the cutting edge of their art (Fincher, Malick, the Coens, Soderbergh, Tarantino), roles that screwed with audience perceptions and sharpened his skill set.
A conscious self-preservation plan – as he famously said of working with Redford on A River Runs Through It : “When you play with someone better than you, your game gets better.” Pitt is now a man at the top of his game.
He’s one of the world’s most famous faces thanks in part to his real-life dramatics. Married to America’s sweetheart Jennifer Aniston before divorcing and hooking up with Angelina Jolie after smooching on screen in Mr & Mrs Smith , Pitt’s six-strong brood of adopted and natural children are papped every where they go and Daddy is still regularly voted People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive.
He’s rich, connected, influential, a committed philanthropist (he and Jolie regularly donate millions to charity and he spearheads the Make It Right housing project in New Orleans) and an actor able to pick and chose his projects (as he told The Telegraph , “I’m much more experienced now, so I can find films that are interesting quicker and cut out the films that don’t really matter…”).
A For Action
He’s as A-list as they get. Which is why, in a hotel conference room in Cancun, he is carrying off a pale V-neck sweater like a god, rocking the unflattering centre-parted, long-haired barnet of current project World War Z and causing unusually high traffic of hotel staff to appear carrying un-asked-for trays of water, napkins, snacks.
His star wattage is unmistakable, tangible, but Pitt remains a gent. He goes out of his way to be courteous to everyone, ponders every question with considerable thought as though it’s the first time he’s ever heard it, and is endearingly uncomfortable with flattery.
When TF relays the compliments showered on him by his Moneyball co-star Jonah Hill, he wriggles in his seat and mumbles affectionately, “Aw, Jonah’s a dick.” Pitt’s mantra remains the same as when he started out, to judge him on actions not words: “In Missouri, where I come from, we don’t talk about what we do – we just do it…”
Will Moneyball travel outside of the States? It’s a baseball movie…
"I knew, really, very little about baseball, besides taking one in the face when I was in junior high. And I didn’t spend a lot of time watching the sport. But I became obsessed with this book that was about these guys questioning a system and going up against a system, and what that took.
"You have to understand, this team was a team with a $40m dollar payroll, and they’re trying to compete with teams with $240m dollar payrolls. And it’s an unfair game. That’s the title of the book, How To Win An Unfair Game ."
So it’s a universal ‘triumph of the underdog’ tale?
"These guys said, “We can’t fight the other guys’ fight. We have to question everything. We’ve got to search for new knowledge. We’ve got to re-examine the sport and where we place value.” In that process, they found great inefficiencies in how people were judged for merit.
"And they were able to exploit that and put together a formidable team and I think that ultimately the film is about that. It is about value and how we place value on people. What’s a winner, what’s a loser? These themes are universal."
The Quiet Victory
That kind of inner peace is worth more than a home run or any of the usual corny sports movie clichés…
"Yeah, there are victories that are splashed across the headlines – being carried off on the shoulders of your teammates – but there’s also such a thing as the quiet victory, the personal victory that only you and you alone experience. And that’s enough."
Did the lessons of Moneyball make you question the system in Hollywood at all, that the studios have so much power?
"You know, it’s a cyclical business. I think there are great things happening right now. I think the invention of the digital camera has opened up new avenues for people who didn’t have opportunities before. For me, it just makes me question my own beliefs. I look for my own bias, and I’m going to leave it at that."
Come on, you have to expand a little bit!
"Well, again it comes down to value – if I’m going to invest time into something, what can I bring to it? For me, on the producer’s end, it’s just been more about getting stories out that may have a difficult time seeing the light of day."
Do you often learn lessons from the material? The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button , for example, examines our mortality.
"When we began the film, David [ Fincher ] had already dealt with the death of his father and Eric [ Roth, writer ] with the death of his mother, and about a month into shooting, Angie’s mother passed away, so… I tell you, the thing I walked away from that film with was, you know, time is short.
"I don’t know if I have a day or 10 days or 10 years or 40 years. Am I halfway, or close to the end? I don’t know, so I’ve got to make sure I don’t waste those moments in any kind of bitterness or laziness or so forth, and that I surround myself with what’s most important to me and with those people who are most important to me."
It sounds so simple but it’s not always the way, is it?
"You know, I had a friend who worked at a hospice and he said something really interesting. He said that people in their last moments don’t discuss their successes, their awards, their trophies, what book they wrote or what they accomplished; they only talk about their loves and regrets. I think that’s very telling."
Back to baseball. What happened right after the ball hit you in junior high?
"Eighteen stitches was the result of that incident! This scar here [ points to face ]. But, I like to play ball with my boys, throw the ball around, these kind of things."
What’s your favourite baseball movie?
"Well, I think the ultimate baseball movie is probably The Natural. I would say it has the most iconic moments."
This year has been a great year for you. It must have been a dream to work with Terrence Malick on The Tree Of Life …
"Terry is quite jovial, incredibly sweet, laughing most of the day over when the dog would act up and bite one of us! He finds pleasure in the day, is my point. I think this is the difference between great directors and good directors – he truly loves all his characters in a very passionate way, he respects them and appreciates them."
What was his filming process?
"Terry started by renting the entire block and then dressing it as the ’50s, therefore allowing us to walk outside, to go wherever we wanted, even with kids jumping ropes outside. His idea is, even though he gave us a very dense script, he never wanted to hammer-and-tong a scene as it was written – he was more interested in capturing what was happening on the day.
"The kids weren’t allowed to see the script. They had a closet of clothes, they put what they wanted to put on that day and that’s what they shot in. We would do two takes. Terry would also get up every morning and write for an hour; he would give us pages in the morning, single spaced, like three or four pages, and we kind of developed something out of that.
"I think that’s why the moments are fresh. The lighting: there was one light in the house, everything else was natural light, everything else was handheld. It was a pretty incredible experience."
The American Dream?
Some critics took issue with the film for being overtly Christian…
"We had a lot of theological debates throughout the project. Terry’s a very interesting man to talk to. I would say he’s more of a spiritualist than a compartmentalised version of Christianity. He has a more universal viewpoint, in my opinion."
You played a stern, forbidding character. Where did that anger come from?
"In the film, the American Dream as we grew up to understand it is not working. The father’s on the tail end of that. There is a lot of anger because of it and he passes that on to his sons inadvertently.
"I do think there are elements of the story that are personal to Terry, elements of the story that are personal to me. But I don’t think it is an exact template of either one of us."
You were raised a Christian, right?
"I grew up being told that God’s going to take care of everything. It doesn’t always work out that way and when it doesn’t, you’re then told it’s God’s will. I’ve got my issues, man – you don’t want to get me started!
"But, many people find in religion something to be very inspiring. I’ve personally found it very stifling as an individual – more focusing on what you can’t do than experiencing and discovering."
Working with Malick was just the latest step in a charmed career. You’ve worked with David Fincher, the Coen brothers, Terry Gilliam, Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino…
"I’m fortunate to surround myself with people that I trust. You know, Hollywood has this reputation for being cutthroat but I have met the most interesting, intelligent, lovely people."
The Tree Of Life shows boys’ fascination with guns, and you played a celebrated cowboy in The Assassination Of Jesse James . Did you play war or cowboys and indians as a child?
"I liked being outside, in the elements. I am not big on guns. I really don’t care much about them. I guess it was a rite of passage for a father to give a gun to his son, and I got my BB gun when I was in kindergarten.
"I got a shotgun when I was in first grade. I shot a .22 by second grade. My father always stressed the respect for the thing that’s in your hands and it was actually good training because I got through guns early and I haven’t really cared about them since."
So what exactly was the appeal of playing Jesse James for you?
"I think it has something to do with being above the law, being able to make your own rules, not being stifled. We live in a society of laws and we have to operate within them, and there is in the back [ of our heads ] a tendency to strike out."
If Jesse James wasn’t an idol for you growing up, who was?
"When I was little I liked Elton John. And I liked Evil Knievel. I was a huge Evil Knievel fan! And Muhammad Ali. Ali I got to meet a few years ago and it was still an honour for me."
Quick On The Draw
For someone who doesn’t like guns, you’ve handled a lot of them in films! For The Assassination Of Jesse James , and Mr. & Mrs. Smith , you worked with gun-legend Phil Reed...
"He’s an extraordinary man. This guy trained us to quick draw and shoot from the hip. He’s one of the legends in that world, a world champion of quick draw – you literally can’t see the movement and he can get off two shots!"
Did he get you to a place where you felt comfortable with guns?
"It’s just another appendage. I was surprised by how doable [ shooting from the hip ] was. You can do something that connects with the geometry of the brain. You can shoot from the hip and hit things! But I was afraid of shooting myself in the foot…"
A Sense Of Security
You obviously live in a world where security is key. Have you had many run-ins with real-life nutters?
"I’ve had break-ins in the house before. A few years ago, a girl broke in the house. Hatred doesn’t happen very often, but I have run into it. You feel it, at times."
You mean you sense the madness coming off someone?
"You develop a radar over the years. It’s very rare, but I’ve run into a couple of unbalanced people and you feel it when you’re approached by them and you know to get out."
The Work/Life Balance
How do you balance the work with the family?
"I don’t want to go into too much detail but it’s just as you assume… we’re a normal family, a mother and father, and the kids get unruly! The kids are fantastic and say the funniest things I’ve ever heard!
"But the most important thing for us is to make sure we carve out time for them, that we get group time and one-on-one time because it’s our responsibility to show them around and help shape them. So I guess the only thing I can say is that it’s fatherhood first, family first, and then I slip in the work."
You’ve been a nomadic clan over the years. How does that work out?
"It works for us. The family becomes the core. The places they get to see they may not understand at this early age but it’s seeping into their consciousness. We’re in an international schooling program, so wherever you go, it’s the same curriculum.
"The only problem is the assault, the paparazzi. Quite frankly, I have a problem with it. I think there should be laws against it. It’s out of hand and crosses all lines of decency. These kids didn’t ask for this and it’s really discombobulating for them, and a bit frightening. Video cameras right in their faces, yelling their names…
"They don’t know why these people are yelling their names and they have this idea that any time they step outside, there are people following them around with cameras. I mean, it’s a strange view of the world. It bothers me."
Another string to you bow is being a licensed pilot, so you can actually fly your family around!
"The idea was we could throw the kids in the back of a Suburban and go somewhere – have some freedom. Then there’s a real sense of accomplishment. Flying is an amazing marriage of human ability with nature and machine and any one of those things can go wrong at any moment so there’s a real call for focus and attention up there.
"I’m telling you, it can go wrong seriously fast. But I highly recommend it. Just to be 40 and still able, I guess, to achieve things that are personal to you, a personal goal… It’s rewarding."
You’ve now been in movies for 25 years. How have you changed as an actor?
"Well, we can’t be followed, which is a plus! I enjoy the craft of it more than ever. I am much more experienced now so I have a process and can get to what I find interesting quicker; I can cut out the cacophony of things that sometimes come with a production or a character or a film.
"Acting also now means more to me because my kids are going to see my films. I want to do them proud."
How do you choose your projects?
"Well, to me, first and foremost, it’s a directors’ medium. It’s all about the storytelling, it’s the most important thing to me. I look for directors with a strong point of view, then I feel free – it frees me to go and try anything because I know I’m in proper hands that are not going to abuse [ me ]. I can try many things until I find that line, that vein, and start following it…"
Catching The Fever
There are so many directors we could ask you about, but let’s settle for Tarantino. how was it working for him on Inglourious Basterds ?
"He’s hilarious and very serious, very committed to what he’s doing. I was interested to learn he dropped out of school somewhere in high school and I think films became his continuing education. He’s self-educated through films. His knowledge is just extraordinary. He has an incredible memory.
"He is also an example of how with some directors you know you are in the best of hands so you can be as ludicrous as the impulse takes you."
When you were growing up, was there a particular film that inspired you to become an actor?
"Strangely enough, I liked Saturday Night Fever ! I loved it. But it wasn’t, you know, the bad suits and the dancing, although I can do the hustle [ laughs ]. It was the idea of people… Well, I didn’t know people could live like that. This idea of a different culture.
"I’d seen only my corner of the world, which was Oklahoma and Missouri, so it’s the idea that there are complete other ways to attack life out there."
So John Travolta’s flares are responsible for your becoming an actor?
"A week before I was supposed to graduate from college, everyone had applied and were receiving jobs. I hadn’t applied anywhere. I didn’t have a clue, nor did I have any interest at that point of going anywhere.
"Then it occurred to me I’d always thought, “I wish I’d grown up in New York or LA because there’s the opportunity to go into films…” And it just struck me one night that, well, I can just do it.
"So within a week I’d decided I was going to go to LA. I’d work for a couple of weeks, pocket some cash, load up the car, and go to LA! And that’s the way it went."
You’ve seen a lot of the world beyond Oklahoma now. you must be a very different person to the all-American boy who set off to Hollywood…
"I remember when we were filming Ocean’s Twelve in Amsterdam and it was strange to me because, you know, we’re used to being American and people wanted to come here for the opportunities. But the perception of America had changed.
"I get a bike wherever I go and I was on this pedal bike, riding around. I had left the guys and was going for a midnight ride around Amsterdam and there were some guys coming out of a bar. They were trashed, having a good time. I said, “Excuse me” and swerved out of the way, and they started screaming: “You fucking American! We’ll fucking kill you!” I’d never come face-to-face with that turn in our public perception."
You’ve also travelled a lot with your environmental work. does being a celebrity help you achieve your goals or is it an obstacle to getting people to take you seriously?
"That’s a good question. Of course it helps because there’s a spotlight on us. It’s opened many doors and you can get access to meeting a lot of great minds. Where it hurts is… Well, it doesn’t hurt. It’s just important that when you take something on, you stick with it.
"Hollywood has a reputation of being flighty and self-serving, so it better be something you believe in enough to stick with."
OK, let’s end on a bright note. You were great in Johnny Suede and Burn After Reading . Can we expect to see you in more comedies?
"I do like a comedy. There’s some great comedy coming out in America – I’m thinking of Zach Galifianakis, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride…
"But the point is just to keep messing it up. I figure I’ve only got so many more of these [ films ] I get to do, and I wanna make sure they have some… worth, to me."