This story originally appeared in the December 25, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.
Brad Pitt is having technical difficulties.
“I normally need my kids to do this,” he mutters, as he attempts to connect my iPod into his stereo. They’re so beyond me in technology, it’s hard to keep up. Our seven-year-old was searching the word ‘weapons’ on Google the other day and ended up on some white-supremacist site. I’m sure now we’re on all kinds of watch lists.”
Eventually, Pitt gives up and summons an assistant, and soon enough we’re listening to Townes Van Zandt. Pitt has never heard the late, great singer-songwriter before, but he says he digs it. He’s been feeling out of the loop when it comes to music these days. “Last new thing I got into was the Black Keys,” he says. We’re at the legendary Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, just outside Berlin, sitting in Pitt’s large, heavily guarded trailer. Metropolis, Nosferatu and The Blue Angel were all shot here, along with, more recently, Tom Cruise’s World War II drama, Valkyrie. Pitt has been here since September to film Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s own WWII epic, years in the making and loosely based on a Seventies grindhouse knock-off of The Dirty Dozen. In it, Pitt plays a lieutenant from Tennessee who, according to a leaked version of the script, leads a black-ops unit assigned to terrorize the enemy by scalping Nazis. Gleefully, Pitt snatches a prop from the coffee table and shows it to me. It’s an ornate invitation to a movie screening from “Der Minister Propaganda – Dr. Joseph Goebbels.” “All the big guys show up in this movie,” he says with a grin.
Pitt, who is 44, has grown a thin mustache for his role, and his hair has been styled in a period frontal swoop. He’s wearing a wide gray scarf over a gray zip-up sweater and rough-looking khaki Army pants. For the duration of the shoot, set to wrap sometime in January, Pitt and his family – Angelina Jolie, his partner of three years, and their six children – have rented a massive compound in nearby Wannsee. (It’s in the same upscale neighborhood where, in a villa in 1942, senior Nazi officials came up with the plan for the Final Solution.) The property is surrounded by a wall and has three large houses, its own helicopter-landing pad and, when I visit, at least six guards. Pitt also owns a 6,500-square-foot apartment in central Berlin; a longtime architecture enthusiast (and apprentice), he’s been visiting the city for years, primarily to work with the avant-garde architecture firm Graft. Their current project together, in which Pitt will be a design consultant, is a planned green, sustainable hotel in Dubai.
Despite the rarefied level of celebrity he’s achieved, Pitt, as an actor, has starred in surprisingly few massive hits. There’s the Ocean’s Eleven series, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and then you probably have to go all the way back to Se7en, his first film with director David Fincher, in 1995. In the late Nineties, beginning with The Devil’s Own and ending with the abysmally reviewed Meet Joe Black, Pitt admits this had to do with poor choices. “I got lost in the wilderness of fame a bit,” he says. “There are all of these opportunities you’re supposed to be taking. And I got really discombobulated.” More often, though, his instinct has very deliberately pulled him in the direction of eccentric, less commercial roles, from small, scene-stealing turns in 12 Monkeys and Snatch to his quieter work in more recent films like Babel and last year’s brooding, wildly underrated Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. His latest film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is his third collaboration with Fincher, after Se7en and Fight Club. Based on a deeply weird short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Benjamin Button is a fable about mortality in which the title character, played by Pitt, is born old and ages backward. The script, by Erie Roth (Forrest Gump), has little of the original story’s black humor, and fans of the earlier Pitt-Fincher collaborations will likely find the film sentimental. But Oscar voters will almost certainly disagree. There’s already talk of a Best Actor nomination for Pitt, who turns in a subtle, impressive performance, and the visual effects are something to behold.
In person, Pitt is warm and funny, but is also, at least while he’s being interviewed, an extremely fidgety guy. He paces. He musses his hair. He tears little pieces of dried apricot into smaller pieces before popping them into his mouth. He rubs his knee so intensely it brings to mind Lennie from Of Mice and Men petting a rabbit. All of this might have to do with the fact that, despite his repeatedly proven talents as an actor, Pitt remains, for a large number of people, a creature primarily of tabloid fascination. Did he cheat on his ex-wife with his current partner? Will they have another biological child? What war-ravaged destination might they visit next? Does the mustache make him look hot or porn-y? (I can only speak to the final question, and the answer is clearly porn-y.) The day before my first interview with Pitt, even The New York Times had figured out a way to put Jolie’s picture on the front page: by running a story about how masterfully she manipulates the press.
Our interview takes place over two days, first on the set and then at Pitt’s compound in Wannsee, in a nondescript house where some of his security guys live. Pitt says he’s been enjoying Berlin. Tarantino stages a weekly movie night, and the other night, Pitt took his oldest son, Maddox, to see The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Maddox loved it. “I have this fantasy of my older days, painting or sculpting or making things,” Pitt says. “I have this fantasy of a bike trip to Chile. I have this fantasy of flying into Morocco. But right now, more and more, it’s about getting the work done and getting home to family. I have an adventure every morning, getting up.”
“Benjamin Button” is your third film with Fincher. Going back to “Fight Club,” though, I found a quote where he talks about how you’re actually sort of similar to your character, Tyler Durden.
In that I don’t bathe?
He didn’t mention that specifically. He said, “It’s probably a character closer to Brad in real life than most people would be comfortable knowing.”
“There it a childlike sense of anarchy. . . . He is kind of a shit-stirrer and one of those people who is ‘Huh? Is that the current thinking? I don’t really buy that.'”
Well, that probably comes from growing up in a religious community. I just found it so stifling, my religion. I know it’s very comforting for other people.
Did you go to church every Sunday?
Yeah. And it was too much of what you shouldn’t be doing instead of what you could be doing. I get enraged when people start telling other people how to live their lives. It drives me mental. This Prop. 8 thing just drives me mental.
Where were you on election night?
Chicago. I went down to Grant Park, because I was doing Oprah the next day. I walked home from the park to the hotel, which was a half-hour walk. And I could walk freely – no one was interested in me at that point. People were weeping and hugging. The sense of elation in the streets – it was great. That was such a turnaround for us. We captured the original definition of America again.
Do you think “Fight Club” could have been made after September 11th?
No. Certainly not that ending. We debated it then. There’s a line we stuck in, about the buildings being evacuated.
Some critics just didn’t get that film.
Did you see the DVD that Fincher put out? He put all the negative reviews in the booklet. Some London critic said, “Not only is it anti-capitalistic, but it’s anti-society and anti-God.” We were like, “We didn’t realize it was that good!”
“Benjamin Button” and “Fight Club” actually deal with similar themes: having a finite amount of time in life, and what we should do with it. But they come to such radically different conclusions. In “Fight Club,” the response to mortality is nihilism, anarchy –
[Laughs] That was a Nineties conclusion. Now we have an Aughts conclusion. I actually never thought of what you just said. But it’s probably true.
It’s just, “Benjamin Button” feels very positive, but you could easily come away from that story feeling very bleak.
Yeah, I think it’s open to…it’s your choice. I find Benjamin is about those universal things we all share – that 95 percent that makes us all the same, wherever we are in the world. Our loves, our hopes, but also the loss that we all walk around with and hide very well, and the ultimate notion that we’re all expendable. To me, it’s a counterstatement to this divisive period we’ve been in, where we focused on the two, three, four, five percent of ways in which we’re different.
Had you read Fitzgerald’s short story?
No, I still haven’t read it. I was told it had nothing to do with the movie, really. I was moving full-steam on Eric’s version, which he based on that saying “Youth is wasted on the young.”
Were you concerned at all about the technical side of things? Other than “Interview With the Vampire,” I can’t think of many movies where you even had to wear serious makeup.
Man, I swore I would never do prosthetics. I’ve done some glue-on beards, and they’re not fun. Then Fincher came with this one and I said, “I’m in.” One of his other great talents is subverting and perverting whatever existing technology there is to his own evil devices. So there was never a question, for me, about whether it would work. He did something very smart. He said, “We’re not going to develop new technology. We’re going to take the technology that’s there for gaming and for special-effects, blow-up-the-world movies, and use that technology for small details – pupils dilating, aging.” And the makeup guys were so good; wearing this stuff all day was surprisingly comfortable. [Pause] But, no, I won’t do it again.
Did making this movie make you think about your own mortality?
Well, yeah. And I’m scared to death of it. But, you know, it made me think of things like…[Pause] Angie and I do not fight anymore. What occurred to me on this film, and also with the passing of her mother, is that there’s going to come a time when I’m not going to get to be with this person anymore. I’m not going to get to be with my children anymore. Or friends, people I love and respect. And so, if we have a flare-up, it evaporates now.
Would that have been different two years ago?
Well, I think it must have been heading this way. But something crystallized for me. I don’t want to waste time being angry at someone I love much more than, than…not. And again, there’s going to be a time. This thing is fragile, and there’s a ticking clock on it, and whether it be death or what, there’s just going to come that time. So this movie changed that for me.
Aside from Tyler Durden, the other character everyone said was basically you, at least when the film came out, was your character in “Thelma & Louise,” your first big role, where you played this sort of lovable rogue.
I don’t know what a lovable rogue is. [Laughs, then long pause] I don’t know how to answer that. I’ll just say that, when I first read the part, I knew I could whip it. So I understood the character, whatever that means. And that film was certainly the break you’re always looking for.
You’d been out in Hollywood for a while at that point. Did you have moments of losing hope as an actor?
I’m sure I did. I got this agent, where they agreed to try me out in this thing called a side pocket. That means they’re not signing you to anything. They’re going to try it out for a month or two and see if it pays off. It was a fairly reputable agency, but they wanted me to do sitcoms. But I kept pushing: “Please send me out on some movies.” They sent me out for two. One was The Accused. Then I called up. The agent wouldn’t get on the phone with me, but the assistant did. I said, “How did it go?” She said, “Have you ever thought about acting classes?”
It was the best thing I heard, though, because it put me in a tailspin for about a half hour. Then it made me more determined to figure out what I had to learn.
Do you know what’s become of that assistant?
[Laughs] Yes! Doing quite well, actually.
Did you see “Pineapple Express”?
Yeah. Laughed my ass off.
James Franco said he was inspired by your small role as Floyd the stoner in “True Romance.”
For that one, I did a lot of studying. Everyone’s met a Floyd. Or been a Floyd. It’s either the roommate you were trying to get rid of, or you were that roommate.
But originally, Floyd wasn’t going to be a stoner.
No. I called up [director] Tony Scott a couple of days before, because I couldn’t figure out why the character talked so much and gave everyone up. I said, “Can he never get off the couch?” “OK.” “Can he be a stoner?” “Yeah.” And that was it.
Did the idea come to you when you were high?
[Laughs] Of course not! It was in acting class, doing a character breakdown. Tony’s the one who came up with the honey-bear bong. That was a great touch – not mine. They are creative, though, stoners. But only when it comes to smoking – one purpose. [Assuming hoarse stoner voice, looks around trailer] “We could turn this Winnebago into a bong.”
One of your next big films was “Interview With the Vampire,” which, like “Benjamin Button,” was shot in part in New Orleans.
Yeah, that was my first time in New Orleans. Vampire was a tough shoot. I finished Legends of the Fall and went straight into that. First of all, the whole thing was in the dark. In New Orleans, we shot for three months in the dark – we shot all nights. There’s an opening scene in the movie that’s daylight, and that’s it. The whole movie is in the dark. And it really started to mess with my psyche.
Did you start feeling like a vampire?
No, but it just got to me, man. And that movie, I was disappointed with it. At least for my character. Because in the book, it was a guy trying to figure out who he was – if he’s a god or if he’s of the devil. The film focused more on the sensational antics of Lestat, which were done really well, but my character ended up getting dragged place to place and set up for the sensational moments. And it just became a little bit more whiny than a real search. That frustrated me.
I read an interview, written around that time, where you talk about working with Tom Cruise and the strangeness of this person who has a whole machine around him. I wonder if, where your career has taken you now, you feel like you’ve shifted –
Into the machine? Well, I certainly have a bit of a machine. I don’t know how to compare it. He’s really good at the business, man. One of the best I’ve ever seen.
Back then, did you envision yourself ever reaching that level of fame?
There’s no way to prepare for fame, or think about it. It’s a strange beast, and it takes a lot of negotiation. I learned some things, watching Tom, about what you need to protect yourself from. But he issues control over the whole process. And that’s not my way. Again, for better or for worse. [Pause] I hope – I think my method’s less machine. But I don’t know. [Pause] Tom and I are friends, by the way, and we have a good laugh when our paths cross.
I wanted to ask you about the story in “The New York Times” recently about Angelina.
What was it about?
Oh, you didn’t see it? Really?
Dude…we are…anyway. Go ahead.
The gist of the story is how good she is at controlling the press, and the coverage of your family. And it covers, specifically, a deal she supposedly struck with “People” magazine, to sell them exclusive photos of you guys and the twins in exchange for positive coverage.
That reporter was trying to do this story three months ago. It sounded to me like the story made Angie out to be manipulative in some way. And he’s totally missing the point. She is savvy. But one of the things I’m most proud of is that not only did these guys who follow us and make our lives miserable and get in my kids’ faces and follow my parents in their hometown, not only did they not get the money, but it went to people who really need it. [People and Hello! paid $14 million for the photographs, which Pitt and Jolie donated to charity.] It doesn’t sound like this guy understands that when it came to the birth of our children, a huge bounty was placed on their heads. And people were going to go to incredible lengths to get it.
So you know it’s inevitable.
It’s gonna happen. One guy bought out a hospital room above us, in France, and was trying to poke through the ceiling. That’s illegal, of course, but he paid. There was so much money to be made, life-changing money, that people were doing terrible things. Another guy got on the roof because he thought we were going to do a helicopter landing. Instead, we did such a low-fi exit. A van pulled up, we walked outside in the middle of the night, at three in the morning, and that was it. We were gone.
Did it give you any pause, though, to cooperate with the magazines who are funding these guys?
When I say we’ve cut ourselves off from all of that, we’ve really cut ourselves off. We don’t have that stuff in the house. We don’t read it. I just find it toxic and unhealthy. But we can ask around and find out which magazines have been really trashy with us. So we still have our self-respect, and we’re not going to support this entity that’s been sensationalistic and nasty. In our mind, People magazine does more things about the positive spirit of people, so that’s how we came to our decision.
Honestly, I didn’t feel like the “Times” story was a slam. It talked about how Angelina doesn’t use a publicist, just a manager, and handles everything herself.
She’s completely original in that decision, that’s true. But it wasn’t an accurate report. I get defensive. [They’re] talking about not only the woman I love, but one of the people on this planet who I have the greatest respect for. I think she’s as honorable as anyone I’ve ever met.
For you, as someone who is deeply interested in photography and taken photos yourself, does staging a cover like that, just on an aesthetic level, bother you?
It wasn’t “staged.” We got a Getty war photographer who does serious exposés, no fashion. He came in our room and we just ripped off the shots in 20, 30 minutes. We had no setup, no nothing. And that was really important to us. So, yeah, it’s a gross feeling in the sense of “Dear God, we’re dealing pictures of our family.” But the harsh reality is that it’s inevitable, that those pictures are going to get out there. And not only that, but these people are going to be chasing us. So we can kill that bounty and kill all the nonsense that’s going on. I can’t begin to make someone understand, unless they’ve been in the car with us, and can see the 12 cars and seven motorbikes we’re being chased by. You’re never going to understand. There’s no way to fully explain it. I ran into a lady in L.A., when we were trick-or-treating. I had my daughter, and she said, “Every time I see her picture, you’re always carrying her – you need to put her down!” I said, “Every time you see me is in the magazines, and I’m being chased by 20 people, so you really don’t know what you’re talking about!”
So you guys spend most of your time in the South of France these days?
We’re very nomadic. But we certainly have made a base there.
Is that where you like to be the best?
Well, we get run out of every major city. It’s what I’ve been bitching about. These photographers are chasing the kids and calling their names. And the kids don’t know what to make of that stuff. In France, they’re much cooler. Also, we found a spot that’s big enough. So if they get to you, it’s illegal.
And I presume you like the French lifestyle?
They do it well. So do the Italians and the Spanish. I mean, we’re still waiting on satellite television.
You can’t rush these things in that part of Europe.
I look out our window in France and I see the gardener, and he’s literally doing this. [Pitt stands up, walks over to a vase of flowers and, excruciatingly slowly, plucks one flower at a time, using one of his hands to mime gardening shears] And these are grounds the size of Beverly Hills in my mind! But it’s nice, and exciting for us, because we both fly, and we like being able to fly over to Italy or Spain or Morocco.
She flies too?
She got me into it. She’s definitely more experienced. Yeah, she’s badass.
Who’s the more cautious pilot?
We just have different styles.
How would you classify hers?
Well, I like the details. [Pause] And she likes getting there.
When you’re working, do you guys give each other feedback on performances?
I guess at times, we’ll talk about set climates – more about funny things that happen than anything.
So not technical actor-y things?
I think we’re both pretty sure of what we’re after. We’ll run lines occasionally. I’m going to have to have her help me with lines tonight, because I want to make sure I’m crisp. Quentin’s lines are like the Coens’. There’s no fat, and there’s a rhythm to it. You don’t want to wander. Whereas with other ones, you’re more free to drift a bit.
Back to your earlier films…after “Vampire,” you were nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for your role as a mental patient in “12 Monkeys.”
We shot that film in Philadelphia. I went out there two weeks early and just stayed in my apartment, until I was bouncing off the walls, just to get that manic energy.
So you barely left the apartment that whole time?
I didn’t leave. I was a shut-in.
No human contact?
No. Windows drawn. Just shut in. I couldn’t do that now. I have shortcuts now, where I can find characters much easier. But that role, especially, was territory I’d never been close to.
“Snatch” was another great small role for you.
I love Snatch. One of my all-time favorites.
How did you prepare for that role? Did you meet any actual Irish pikeys?
No, but I met some English gypsies. They all went by Billy Joel, because they didn’t want you to know their real names. But the day before we started shooting, I still didn’t have the accent. It sounded too technical. So I called [director] Guy [Ritchie] and said, “You should play this part yourself. You’re a fighter, you know the accent. I’m going to fuck up your movie.” He just laughed. But I was really sweating it. And it was about 10:00 that night, and I was in a bit of a panic. I’m supposed to be on set at seven in the morning. I was staying in this flat in North London, and I just started walking the streets. The thing that kept sticking in my head was, people kept telling me, “You can never understand what the fuck they’re saying.” So I took a cue from Benicio [Del Toro], from Usual Suspects, and started blabbing to myself. I must have looked like a crazy person. And it just rolled out. I got back and called Guy and said, “Do you care if your dialogue is intelligible?” He didn’t care at all. It was a half-court toss-up with three seconds on the clock.
How about “Ocean’s Eleven,” and the two sequels? Did you know George Clooney before making those films?
No, we’d never met before.
You guys have such an easy rapport.
I think at our first meeting, I said, “I should play Danny.” He said, “OK, you play Danny.” I said, “Shut up, you dick.”
It seems to be playing with the idea of how actors, or people in show business, period, are con artists, in a way – always getting away with something.
I’m not going to argue that. Fair enough. And we certainly were getting away with something on that one.
You and Clooney both became famous when you were slightly older.
He’s got some smelly-ass Eighties shit. That’s a lexicon you need to peruse. That is some funny-ass shit. But, yeah, now it’s instant stardom. Some young guys are doing some great stuff. But they’re calling their career shots themselves, and they see the dead ends.
You and Clooney also co-starred in the most recent Coen brothers movie, “Burn After Reading,” where you play Chad Feldheimer, a dopey personal trainer who’s always wearing gym shorts.
Angie was really intrigued by Chad. She hasn’t seen it yet. But she saw me in the gym gear and said, “This is the first time I can honestly say I’m not attracted to you whatsoever.” She brings him up a lot. She doesn’t see a lot of movies, and she keeps bringing this one up. She’s really curious about Chad Feldheimer.
Have you been keeping it from her?
No, just scheduling and logistics and six kids. We just got the DVD screener, so I’m sure she’ll be seeing it soon.
Do you have a favorite film of hers?
Yeah, Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
Can you watch that and have happy memories?
No, we’ve never seen it. I just mean because, you know…six kids. Because I fell in love.
OK, one last film: “Babel.”
That, to me, was all about the very last moment, when he’s on the phone with his kids. You know, [Sean] Penn passed on this role, and he’s given me shit about it since. We shot probably six weeks on that one, and five weeks of that shoot is literally that 24-hour period of total anxiety. “Is she going to make it? Is she not? Will she get help?” Panic. That’s not fun to maintain for five weeks. So Penn stuck me with that. But it was all about that ending for me.
Did you have kids at that point?
Angie and I were together. It was forming. . . . But, yeah. When my character hears his kid’s voice, it’s the realization that he almost lost everything. That was the whole movie for my character.
Were you nervous about fatherhood?
You’d be surprised at how automatic things are, how things are already intuitive, things that you have in yourself. At times, you hear yourself sounding like an idiot, and you know you’re not helping them whatsoever. But there are other times when you really surprise yourself.
Going from no kids to six kids in a relatively short amount of time seems so daunting.
It seems extreme. But it felt like a long time coming, and it’s felt completely organic. Any time a new child comes in, it’s discombobulating for a brief period, and then it settles in.
Do you feel like you’ve shifted into a new phase of life?
Of course. I wouldn’t say more “adult.” You still get to be as silly as you want – you’re probably more silly. Man, they just zap your coolness. There’s a saying our friend from Liverpool uses: “Dad’s pants.” It means all things dorky. You just become Dad’s pants.
And you’re OK with that?
There’s actually a joy in it.