James Gray on ‘Ad Astra,’ little green men and firing Brad Pitt into space

“I’m sorry to get sententious on you,” James Gray says around the midpoint of our interview. The director of “Ad Astra” is apologizing for keeping things highbrow, which is no reason to apologize at all.

Gray has been arguing astronauts are bad at talking about the wonders of space travel. His theory is that art gets the metaphysics of space in a way that many who’ve been there cannot express. He’s moved through a decent Neil Armstrong impression, “The Empire Strikes Back” and Vermeer, and now he’d like to stir Japanese printmaker Hokusai into the mix. Gray paraphrases a quote from the artist, about art and age’s ability to distill the vast scope of life with simple expressions, steering himself back on course.

Talking with the director it’s clear each answer starts with its destination way out of sight. Some tie off neatly, others trail off in a semi-rhetorical “Am I making any sense?” Either way, it’s a journey packed with big ideas and lashings of introspection.

Anyone who has watched a Gray movie, which he writes or co-writes as well as directs, will know this extends to his filmmaking. It’s why the American has become known as a director’s director; one who attracts big-name actors looking to him to coax out career-best performances.

Gray’s last movie, 2016’s “The Lost City of Z,” was a reflective character study that sent real-life British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) into deepest Amazonia on a quest which consumed body and soul. Now he has returned to fire Brad Pitt into the cosmos on much the same trajectory.

“Ad Astra,” Gray’s seventh feature, sees the director handed a significantly larger budget than usual to realize his ambitious near-future sci-fi thriller. Pitt, Gray’s friend and producing partner, leads as Roy McBride, an astronaut following in the footsteps of his missing-presumed-dead father (Tommy Lee Jones). After a burst of cosmic rays from deep space threatens life on Earth, Roy must venture to the outer reaches of the solar system to find the source, where clues about his father’s disappearance may also lie.

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