This story originally appeared in the April 3, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.
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, the story of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer. So you take a six-hour flight from New York to Vancouver. Easy, right? Then there is another flight up to the mountains on the terrifyingly named Wilderness Air. As the 12-seat Beechcraft reaches a comfortable cruising altitude, you notice that the pilot is continually talking to the passenger behind her, as if she is driving a Datsun, and that the co-pilot is reading a book. You look around for dibs on the meatiest-looking passenger, who you can eat when the plane crashes. 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. Mothers 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 desolate (but pretty) hills for an hour and a half. You pass Tatla Lake, a minuscule burg with one bar and a satellite dish. (Last weekend, boisterous Tibet crew members piled into a car to explore the town and slunk back a short time later.) 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. This seems to be a philosophy.) Talk to folks who know him, and they will say that he’ll remind you of someone — your brother, somebody you went to high school with, a friend. This is true. His favorite expressions? A conspiratorial “Yeah, right?” when you agree on something, followed by “Yeah, man,” for an 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 without 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 in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet, due out this fall. 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.
The making of the film has been slow going. For starters, Tibet preparations began in India a year ago, before the Chinese government reportedly voiced its opposition to the project. China views the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, as an enemy. And since the film contains emotional scenes of gentle Tibetan monks weeping as Communist Chinese soldiers sweep through the monks’ beloved country, the film isn’t exactly good press for China. A million dollars’ worth of sets and production costs later, a fearful Indian government shut down the project. OK, then, off to Argentina, where the Andes would serve as the Himalayas. 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 [Los Angeles]. 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 remarks 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.” He fires up a Camel. “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.” He gets up to sift through his CD collection (Bob Marley, Shawn Colvin, Dave Matthews Band …). “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?”
As he talks, a fetid odor insinuates its way into the trailer. He frowns slightly. “Smells like pooh,” he says. He keeps talking. It won’t go away. He goes to the door and pokes his head out. He finally locates the culprit — a burly crew member who hit a nearby Porta-Potti.
Pitt looks sly. “I thought it was you,” he says to me. He emits a dry cackle. “And be honest,” he says. “You thought that it was me, didn’t you?”
Let’s look around the trailer for a moment, shall we? A fax machine, a black Prada tote (hmm — fiancée Gwyneth Paltrow’s doing?), Scientific American magazine, an array of first-run movies such as The People vs. Larry Flynt and Sling Blade on tape, myriad packs of smokes, a book on Frank Lloyd Wright (architecture is one of Pitt’s passions) and a Gargantuan box of strawberry Twizzlers (“That could go in a day,” he says, grinning).
Pitt has been here only a few weeks. Before that, he had spent five months filming in Argentina (which was around the time that Martin Scorsese started filming his Dalai Lama opus, Kundun, in Morocco. Hollywood!). From the start, Tibet was a fairly Herculean affair. Start with a set located in the tiny town of Uspallata. Add 100 monks handpicked by Annaud, machine-gun-toting guards to protect Pitt from hordes of rabid fans and no less than 16 languages spoken on the set, and you have an epic even before the cameras roll.
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 word mission to describe recent shoots in the nearby mountains. “We all pile in these helicopters. You take off in these 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 guy says, ‘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. He puts on another CD — Soundgarden (“Greatest band in rock & roll right now”). For the moment, he is tired of talking about himself, so he cranks up “Burden in My Hand” and proceeds to rock out. It’s always sort of a strange moment when someone rocks out. What is the etiquette here? Fill in on air drums? Pick something up and examine it? You opt to look out the trailer door and take in the view of the mountains. After a bit, Pitt joins you in contemplation. “Man, this is beautiful,” he says. He looks around with a lazy smile. Yes, for many guys, this setup is ski-bum-bachelor heaven, and so it is for Pitt.
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 (The Prince of Tides) and TV producer Bruce Paltrow (St. Elsewhere).
“I can’t wait, man,” he says heartily. He is hiking in the woods behind the camp. His boots make squelches in the mud. “Walk 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 second 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, as many of you know, 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 (“Gwennie’s a major cook. What a bonus, huh?”). Clearly, the man is besotted. Part of the reason that the Tibet shoot was so pleasant, for instance, was her presence. “Gwennie 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, a remake of the 1934 Death Takes a Holiday, in which Pitt will update the Fredric March role as an allegorical Death who falls in love. The movie will be shot in New York. “Gwennie 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 sail the seas of cheese forever. He could crank out a formulaic romance picture every year, and folks would be lining up until he was wearing a truss. Instead, when it comes to career choices, he seems to have followed his Inner Agent. His roles have ranged from a delusional psycho killer in Kalifornia to one of the undead in the often ugly Interview With the Vampire to the twitchy, mentally unbalanced rich kid in 12 Monkeys, a role that 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.
Pitt seems to have followed his gut throughout his life. A Springfield, Mo., boy, he had, by all accounts, a happy childhood with a strong, solid family background. (This is something he has in common with his fiancée. “We hit the lotto on that one,” he says.) Pitt is the oldest of three children. His dad, Bill Pitt, is a former manager of a trucking company; his mom, Jane, a high school counselor. His first drink? “I snuck a little taster of Chivas downstairs in the basement.” First concert? “The Doobie Brothers, with Foreigner opening.” He went to the prom in a white tuxedo “and feathered hair. Zipperhead. It was Missouri, come on.” He was a student of advertising at the University of Missouri, although he says he should have been in architecture (his great love, remember?). “But school was about getting out of classes instead of learning,” he jokes. “And the architectural school was tough! They were studying day and night! I mean, I was in college, man!”
Pitt was also a Sigma Chi man and still has a couple of good buddies from that time. “Although one thing bugs the shit out of me,” he says. “These guys will come up and say [he extends his hand], ‘Brother Pitt.’ The secret handshake. It makes me cringe. I don’t know you, all right? That was then! Learn something else now, all right?” He shakes his head. “Oh, God, now I’m going to get in trouble for this.”
Pitt set out for Los Angeles two credits short of graduating. Why? “In my head, I was done with college,” he says. “I was on to the next thing.” That same inner voice told him that he should try his hand at an acting career, even though he had never acted in his life. After a couple of lean years (sitcom auditions, a role on Dallas) and a short-lived stint on the Hollywood club-hopping circuit, he hit pay dirt with his role as a sweet-talking drifter in 1991’s Thelma and Louise. He made that part extraordinarily vivid, giving it the full force of his laconic charm. From that point on, he was a star. What most people forget is that in that film, Pitt was onscreen for barely 10 minutes.
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.”
It’s nighttime, and the crew (about 100 people) has just finished dinner. Now they will drift around. There is not a whole hell of a lot to do. There is a tiny recreation center that has a pool table attached to the cafeteria. Some of the more innovative crew members will play Strip Darts, but the game always kind of dissolves before things get really interesting. There is a guitar around somewhere for the occasional spontaneous sing-along. Or they can get drunk. After five months in Argentina and atleast another month in Canada, most of the crew is just itchin’ to go home.
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 Gwennie and Gwennie’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.”