Detour – April, 1997


Anyone who’s ever met a movie star in person will most likely agree: They generally look much better on screen. Brad Pitt is an exception. He’s more striking in person than he is on celluloid. It’s a rare combination that comes around once every 50 years-that much beauty and talent. Brad Pitt, and the audience, are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

But with this much success, you also get fame. And fame he’s got. Because he’s so well known, he’s almost living the life of a recluse-not by choice-just in order to live a life. He can’t walk down the street shopping with fiancée Gwyneth Paltrow, can’t go to concerts, can’t do many of the things the rest of us take for granted. But don’t feel sorry for Pitt, he wouldn’t change a thing. He loves making movies.

Over the last decade, Pitt has been paired with the industry’s top stars and directors stepping into his characters like a pair of comfortable shoe. In a scant 15 minutes of screen time, he managed to grab our attention-as well as that of Geena Davis-as J.D., the dangerously charming hitchhiker in Thelma and Louise. In Robert Redford’s A River runs Through It, he played a hooch-guzzling son who falls for his brother’s wife. In Kalifornia, he became Early Grayce, a psycho cross-country killer, and in Interview With the Vampire, the suicidally depressed Louis to tom Cruise’s Lestat. He traded in his fangs for spurs to portray Tristan Ludlow, the wildest of Anthony Hopkins’s three sons in Legends Of The Fall. He was a cocky cop on the trail of a serial killer with Morgan Freeman in David Fincher’s Seven. And from there, Pitt snared an Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe for his performance as a twitching mental patient/animal-rights activist in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, with Bruce Willis. And that’s just some of his films. Now, at 33, he’s commanding a pay scale that rivals veteran actors old enough to his father. And he’s getting it. Later this year, Pitt will begin work on a new film-Meet Joe Black, a remake of the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday-in which he’ll reportedly make $17.5 million, a 75 percent increase over his last deal.

Pitt next appears alongside Harrison Ford in the political action thriller The Devil’s Own, directed by Alan J. Pakula. This fall, he’ll star in director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s epic, Seven Years in Tibet. Somewhere in between, he’ll begin filming Duets, with his Seven costar and wife-to-be Gwyneth Paltrow, directed by her father, Bruce Paltrow.

At the end of a winding mud road, teetering above the banks of a frozen lake on one side, and hugging snow-covered boulders on the other, sits a small cluster of trailers. The primitive road was recently carved out of the hillside to transport a miniature mobile city which temporarily serves as the crew’s base for the movie Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt and David Thewlis, and directed by Oscar-winner Jean Jacques Annaud.

Here, in the mountains three hours north of Vancouver, British Columbia, the 30-degree temperature, unseasonably warm by local standards, has sparked a flurry of activity. A battalion of uniformed Communist Chinese soldiers intersects a gaggle of sherpas dressed in rags, their heads wrapped in tattered scarves, while a man in a bright-yellow and black nylon ski suit holds onto a rope attached to a yak in one hand, and a cellular phone in the other.

Down a muddy gravel path sit three motor homes, their windshields covered for privacy. The steel door to the center unit swings open and a hand blackened with dirt extends, waving me inside. In the darkened trailer stands Pitt, who has just arrived from a short day’s shooting on the mountain. The dirt on his hand, which matches that on his face and his clothing, is real, although, cosmetically applied. The flustered actor begins picking through the piles of parkas, clothes hangers, and boots, clearing off a place for us to sit. “Sorry about the mess,” he says, tossing clothes into the air. “Every night it’s the ritual of cleaning, wondering what gear you’re going to need tomorrow. The weather changes all the time.”

In Seven Years in Tibet, based on a true story, Pitt is Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian Olympic ski champion and noted mountaineer, who, along with a partner (David Thewlis), attempted to climb Nanga Parbat, one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas in 1939. At the onset of World War II, the duo was trapped in India and imprisoned by the British. They eventually escaped, crossing the Himalayas, and found refuge in Tibet, where Harrer became tutor and surrogate father to the young Dalai Lama.

Pitt settles into the warm confines of his home-away-from-home on wheels. The generator hums along in the background. He seems content, his suffocating celebritydom a million miles away. I assume he’d rather be outside without a coat that inside with a writer. He smiles. “Well, at least we know why you’re here, what the rules of the game are,” he says, fumbling for a pack of cigarettes in the pile of clothes. “Otherwise, I’d be like, ‘Who the hell is this guy that keeps asking me all these questions?’” He laughs. “’And why is he following me around?’”

This cold weather and remote wooded region is not altogether new to Pitt. His wonder years were spent in the Ozarks region of southwestern Missouri, where lakes, rivers and wilderness are commonplace. I surprise him by telling his I grew up in the same area.

“I hear the accent,” he says, his mimicking mine. “No shit. Excellent. I get back there maybe three times a year. We live out in the woods, on the river. Ahh, it’s peaceful there. My dad says, ‘Springfield’s
getting’ too crowded for me.’ I love that. And I can appreciate the life there, now that I’ve left it.”

“This is quite a set-up here,” I say looking out the window at our surroundings.

“Yeah, this film is such an event,” says Pitt. “I mean, just pulling it all off-all the locations, all the different periods. I love this stuff; it’s fantastic. It’s time to go home, though. I’ve been away from my home for a year and a half, pretty much. I miss my girl,” he says, mentioning Paltrow for the first of many times. “My girl starts something pretty soon after I finish this, so I’ll go with her. Then, I start something after that, so she’ll go with me. We’ve got a whole thing going-we’re hopscotching.”

I wonder if there is anything he’d like to discuss that no one ever asks him about. He smiles.

“I don’t want to talk about anything,” he says, laughing. “No, if I had my choice, I’d just not do interviews. I just don’t care for seeing the stuff that’s written. Every now and then, there’s something nice, but there’s such a bombardment weekly. Even when I don’t say anything. I’m in a magazine for saying something-or the tabloids.”

“What do you say to your parents the first time you’re in the tabloids?” I ask.

“You explain,” he replies, “and they say, ‘I just can’t believe someone would do that!’ And they really can’t believe anyone would say something that’s not true. They really can’t.”

We’re interrupted by an unnerving knock on the door. There has been a favourable break in the weather, and Pitt is needed for a scene. Annaud, no stranger to difficult production environments after directing Quest for Fire, The Name of the Rose, and The Bear, has rigged a camera into the top of a tall spruce three in order to catch the actor climbing from the ground up.

I leave the trailer and retreat to the recreation room a few yards away. Housed in a doublewide trailer, it joins with the crew dining room, which is dimly lit with candles atop cloth-covered tables, with large silk Birds of paradise as centrepieces. Shortly afterwards, Annaud blows into the room like a gusty winter wind. His riot of curly white hair is laced with pinesap from the last shot, and post-filming adrenaline spikes his voice.

He wants to sit down and talk about his choice of a leading man, but his motor home has just spilled what he thinks might be possibly be sewage beneath it.

“Well, would you like to take care of your leak first?” I ask with a crooked smile.

“I guess I should,” he replies, laughing. He returns within minutes and sits opposite me at one of the tables. He removes his sap-dotted parka and sighs. From the very beginning, he says Brad Pitt was the choice for Heinrich Harrer.

“I was absolutely charmed by the reasons Brad liked the screenplay,” he says, resting his elbows on the table. “I felt that it was comforting that he not only understood what it was about, but it was also about something that he wanted to sort out for his own life: Fame and success versus respect and self-respect. I was thrilled to see that he had so many common grounds with the real Heinrich Harrer, who, by the way, was an extremely appealing man. He was very physical, and at the same time, became a writer. I didn’t look any further, Brad became Harrer to me, and that was the beginning of it and the end of it.”

Before arriving in Southwestern Canada, the crew spent four months filming near Mendoza, Argentina. From the beginning, stories surfaced in the media about problems with the production-reports that it was next to impossible to get any work done with a leading man like Brad Pitt. His fans wouldn’t allow it.

“One of the first times I invited him to go out with me was in this tiny place where we were shooting,” recalls Annaud with a smile. “There were 250 inhabitants. There was a small restaurant on the corner of these two roads. The owners liked Brad and liked me, so I invited Brad to dinner for his arrival. Well, that day it was known as ‘Brad Pitt’s Arrival,’ and there were about 1,000 young girls waiting and climbing on top of the building. All the while I was reinstating to Brad the world of serenity-that the movie is about a man in love with his inner self. It was hilarious and frightening at the same time.”

Again and again, Pitt’s staggering popularity necessitated unusual production measures. “We had to built a wall above the wall of his private villa-this is absolutely true,” says Annaud. “We even had problems with the budget, because we exploded it for the reasons of security-and we had to do it! It was madness.”

Some stars bask in their celebrity, others run from it. Pitt, at times, is all but held hostage by it. “My conception of Brad is he’s flattered by this kind of recognition,” Annaud says fondly, “but what the man is about is that he’s happy with Gwyneth, he’s happy with his makeup artist, he’s happy with his body guards. With them, he has normal conversations. Understand, he’s deprived of this kind of normal contact. It’s funny because every time we’d go to a new city, he’d say, ‘Oh, this is great. I’ll be able to go shopping with Gwyneth!’ Then. He’d open the window to throw out his cigarette and we’d hear, ‘Aaaeeehhhh!’ The shrieking would begin again.” Annaud laughs heartily.

This anecdote goes a long way toward explaining why my interview with Pitt is a little off-beat-why it is more a conversation. The casual exchange is a relief for both parties. For me, just getting here was a test of stamina-three different flights on three different airlines, followed by a long, bumpy offroad drive-before finally landing at a lone mountainside lodge owned by a German fraulein named Gazelle, who obviously hadn’t had the opportunity to talk to anyone in a long time. And for Pitt, someone who doesn’t really get to sit and casually chat with another guy around the same age who’s been raised in the same part of the country-and with someone who is not out to get him-it’s a much-needed breather.

Annaud and I walk out of the lunchroom and into the crowded recreation room. Authentic-looking soldiers in Communist uniforms are playing pool and smoking cigarettes. “It’s because they are real.” Annaud explains before I even ask. “They’re trained military soldiers.” At one end of the room is a cut-out window under a sign that reads, “North, North Hollywood-wine, ten dollars; beer, six dollars.” At the opposite end of the room, Pitt, who has showered, changed clothes, and donned a fur cap, stands quietly, observing the antics of the soldiers. He catches my eye, smiles, and suggests heading back to his trailer to continue talking.

On the short walk through the brisk mountain air, we’re lightly dusted with snow sprinkling from the dark sky. “Oh, it’s snowing,” I observe. “Duhhh,” he responds with his eyes, not uttering a word. We crunch through the frozen mud, and into his warm abode. “This place is a mess,” he reiterates. “Clothes everywhere.”

“I found out why you got the role in this film,” I begin, stumbling over a pile of coats and dirty boots.

He smiles, and lights a cigarette, tossing an armload of clothing onto a chair. “And why is that?” he asks, eyebrow raised.

“Jean-Jacques says you’re sorting out your own life. You know, fame and success versus respect and self-respect.”

He shifts nervously and cracks a smile, which grows into laughter. “Maybe,” he says. “I don’t analyze it as deeply. It’s just a gut reaction. I know what he’s talking about. He’s sweet. I’ve never seen him get in a panic-directors are notorious for that, you know.”

“Did you think of anything you wanted to talk about while showering?” I ask.

“No,” he says, laughing. “I don’t mind this, I really don’t. I don’t mind it at all. It’s just, if I had my choice…but it’s all part of it.”

“Well, if you had the choice of dong this or sleeping…” I ask.

“Aaah, sleep is great,” he says, stretching. “Sleeping is great up here. But my sheets were crunchy. I had to take off the pillowcases and put my T-shirts on the pillows. It works great.”

“You know, you can buy sheets made out of T-shirt material,” I inform him.

He leans forward. “Ahhh, really? Fill me in! My pillowcases look kind of funny-they’ve got little armholes on each side.”

The conversation shifts to how great it feels to sleep in the mountain chill, which segues to how long it’s been since Pitt has slept at home in Los Angeles, a city he loves. He loves it so much, in fact, that he recently bought two additional properties adjoining the Arts and Crafts-style house he already owned, completing the original lavishly landscaped grounds of an old, secluded Hollywood estate. “Aaah, it’s nice there,” he says, reflecting on L.A., “I like it ‘cause so much has happened for me there. That’s why I went there, and that’s where I discovered a lot of things. I love it so much.”

“Is there ever a time when you think this job isn’t worth the hassles?” I ask.

“Nahh,” he says. “Truly not. I like my choice. It seems relentless at times, but then I get fired up and decide I can deal with it. That’s life, no matter what corner you’re in. I want to keep doing this as long as I can. I absolutely love movies-I really do-ever since I was a kid. I’ve got a million favorite movies.”

As a fellow product of the Bible Belt, and given the spiritual nature of Seven Days, I’m curious whether religion ever influenced his decision to make a film.

“No,” he says without hesitation. “What I got most from church was going to a place once a week, sitting this wooden bench, and then my mind would go to bigger things of the day or the next week-girlfriends and school and things. It was an important time, and I like that-that you always take that time out in the week to do that. I don’t agree with everything-and I don’t want to knock anyone’s religion-life’s tough enough. But I did value that. Now, are you going to ask me if I turned Buddhist?”

“Did you?”

“No,” he says with a sly grin. “I think that once you give up religion, you’ve got to give up all religions. That’s the way it seems for me. Everyone has their own religious code, and that’s what I respect. It’s a beautiful thing-actually, it’s huge. But, I just couldn’t keep it from what I saw along the road.”

After some 12 films, Pitt has his favorites, each for its own reasons. It is 1995’s Seven, during which he began his relationship with Paltrow, that stands out at the moment.

“Looove Seven,” he says genuinely. “I had such a good time on that film. That was probably one I had the most fun on and the most sick one of them all, right? I had a gut feeling. Things were just falling into place; it just felt right.”

Seven’s director, David Fincher, knew immediately that Pitt was right for the role of detective David Mills. “When I met with Brad for the first time,” recalls Fincher, “I knew he was really good-looking, I knew he was talented, and I knew he had the youth going for him. He seemed so honest and truthful that no matter what he said, you never held it against him. He could get away with murder. I thought to myself, Wow, this guy can say anything. There was a certain fascist quality to Mills that I always wondered whether or not people would buy in the 90’s-that he might have a too 70’s, Dirty Harry kind of quality. But Brad seemed to be able to pull all that off. The truly amazing thing about Brad Pitt is that he manages to work in movies in spite of his looks,” laughs Fincher.

Pitt picks up a book I’ve brought to read on the flight, simply titled Brad Pitt. “Lavishly illustrated with more than 75 photographs,” he reads aloud from the cover with a laugh. “This stuff doesn’t phase me anymore,” he says with a shrug, tossing the book aside. “I’m not crazy about it, and I wish this wasn’t there, but if you can make a buck, make a buck, right? When I saw one of the first books come out, I tried to do something about it, but we’re all public domain. It’s the lengths that people go that offends me, not this stuff. I really don’t even look at this stuff.”

But fans worldwide do look at movie-star paraphernalia like this book, and purchase it-along with posters, T-shirts, and buttons. Whether Pitt likes it or not, he was touted as the Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine. Fortunately for Pitt, his pin-up looks haven’t smothered his talent.

“He says he’s a character actor,” says Alan J. Pakula, director of Pitt’s latest film, The Devil’s Own, “and I know exactly what he means. Unlike many comparable big stars, especially of his generation, he takes chances. He does not just play a star persona. He tries to develop characters that are not obviously related to him, and in that way he’s just a very serious, committed actor. At the same time there is something about Brad that is deeply sympathetic, aside from the fact that he’s obviously so attractive.”

In a move to show that there was more to him than just a pretty face, Pitt intentionally made himself unattractive as the deranged activist with a wandering eye in 12 Monkeys. The strategy worked: He snared an Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe. As much as he was grateful for the recognition, however, he admits that the attention made him uncomfortable.

“See, if I could avoid those things, I would,” he says of award ceremonies. “I mean, we had a great time that night-Gwynney and I were together. The award was at the beginning of the evening, so we got it over with early, and we could relax and have fun. We had a great time, but if I had my choices. I just feel like there’s better people at it than me…”

If this modesty is genuine, then Pitt had to been devastated last year when he and Paltrow took off to St. Barts to spend some time alone-or so they thought. But somewhere in the distance, a photographer with a long-range lens snapped the two in some revealing photos and printed them in a rag called Celebrity Sleuth. Inevitably, the images ended up on the internet.

“It’s got to be tough to have a relationship in this business,” I say.

“It’s OK on the relationship because we back each other up,” Pitt sighs, his smile fading. “But it’s the shittiest feeling to have spent a day together and had a great time, and realize someone’s been following you the whole time. Stalking you. It’s shitty, because it’s private. It feels like a violation. It is a violation.”

Though long since inured to the violation of the tabloids, Pitt took his lumps from the mainstream press while making his latest movie, The Devil’s Own. Shot in New York and Northern Ireland, it’s the story of a New York police officer (Harrison Ford) who takes an Irish émigré (Pitt) into his home and makes him part of his family. The production was fraught with rumors and allegations of chaos on the set and arbitrary script overhauls initiated by the two leads.

“What’s funny to me is that the tabloids started all the problems,” he says. “People ran with it from the tabloids. The movie was going along normally, like a normal movie. I mean, we’d get there at night-it was a 24-hour kind of thing-because after the shooting day was done, they’d want to get together: ‘We’re going to shoot this tomorrow, We’re shooting this stuff this week,’ keep constantly working scenes. It was a night-and-day thing. And long-six months.”

Director Pakula is politic about the experience, suggesting that rumors of script tinkering and other trangressions were greatly exaggerated. “Brad was already interested in the script, and I knew it when I read it,” says Pakula. “He’s an intense, passionate young man, and committed. He’s a man of sensitivity who also is capable of very strong actions. And somebody who has a sympathetic humanity about him, no matter what he may do. All of these qualities, really, very much serve his character in the movie.”

Last July, Premiere magazine reported on The Devil’s Own’s skyrocketing budget, its late production schedule, weak scripts, and numerous ego clashes between the two stars. Six months later, the subject was still ripe for speculation. In February, when Newsweek interviewed Pitt on the set of Seven Days in Tibet, the actor said, “it was some of the most irresponsible filmmaking I’d ever seen,” a statement which caused a bit of a stir at Columbia, the studio relaeasing the movie. Pitt made a quick public clarification that same day.

“Man, that got stinky didn’t it?” says Pitt. “I was surprised how many people listened to (the Newsweek interview). And it was old news to me; Premiere magazine had already done (a story about) it. It got awfully smelly. Also, I didn’t clarify-it was my fault-I was talking about preproduction time, which was chaos to me. Once we got in, we fought for the movie. I’m very happy with it, and I’ve clarified all that.”

“Your character is described as a guy with a ‘hidden past and a bloody purpose,’” I say.

Pitt laughs. “A hidden past? I love these guys with their little pens-gotta scram it all in there. His hidden past was that he was an IRA operative. What’s his bloody purpose?” He laughs again. “His bloody purpose is that he’s on a mission of smuggling guns. The goal of the movie was to have two good men who come from relatively the same place and thinking. They become tight along the way as they get to know each other. But eventually their beliefs cause a clash and they have to address it.”

“Let’s address the film you and Gwyneth are doing together called Duets,” I suggest.

“We have separate parts where we don’t actually meet in the movie,” he says, “It’s an ensemble piece with several characters. Her father’s directing, and it’s more like a family fun project. It’s an excellent

“What is your idea of an excellent day?” I ask.

“Oh, too tough for me,” he says with a smile.

“What if you had tomorrow off, what would you do?” I counter.

“Ahhh, I’d just hang out here and relax,” he says, stretching. “I miss my girl. I never used to miss her-just didn’t miss her, you know?”

“So, if you had tomorrow off, you’d fly home for the day and spend it together,” I suggest.

“I’ve done it before,” he admits, grinning, “’cause I’m completely addicted. Completely.”

As I’m driving away, I look back and catch Brad Pitt standing alone in the cold night on the dirt road. He turns and begins walking back to his home-away-from-home in this remote wooded region miles away from his home, away from his girl. And for a second, I feel sorry for him. But only for a second.