A COMMANDING LEAD – by Cathy Horyn
Between this month’s Meet Joe Black and the upcoming Fight Club, Brad Pitt covers
both poles of his career, swinging from romance to visceral drama. But at the
34-year-old actor’s Los Angeles home, Cathy Horyn finds Pitt firmly charting
his own midwestern course, combining the courtly derring-do required of a $17
million sex symbol with the tasteful domesticity necessary to design an engagement
ring or plan a monet garden, and mixing reticence with a patient candor about
his matinee-idol looks and Hollywood’s long running mystery – his breakup with
So what is he like? surprisingly, irresistbly ….true – a man, a midwesterner
to his marrow, whose openess and unspoiled sense of decency are precisely the
reasons why he is able to come across to millions of moviegoers as "the
real thing"; a straight shooter who looks you in the eye even when he’s
being evasive; a star who won me over the moment I met him, not with his gorgeousness
but by simply calling out my name.
"Hey Cathy Horyn"
Delighted, I could only laugh and reply: "Hey Brad Pitt."
That is how the 34-year-old actor first appeared to me on a hot summer afternoon
in the Hollywood Hills as he ambled across his lawn – taller than I had imagined,
with a tapering torso and a roughneck’s stance, feet slightly apart, hips loose,
as if to signal his general readiness for fun. He had just been up the night
before, shooting exterior scenes in San Pedro for a visceral drama called Fight
Club, which is being directed by David Fincher, the man who made Pitt’s hit
Seven, and which co-stars Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter. The film is
scheduled to wrap this month, just as, just as Pitt shows up in theaters as
a be-suited incarnation of Death in director Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black.
Inspired by the 1934 classic Death Takes A Holiday, the romantic drama also
stars Anthony Hopkins, Marcia Gay Harden, and the English actress Claire Forlani,
as Pitt’s flesh-and-blood love interest. Meet Joe Black is an extravagant mediation
on happiness, with wealth as it’s shimmering backdrop. And in his first romantic
role since he took on the part of Tristan in Legends Of The Fall, Pitt is all
East Coast savior faire with no buckskin.
Less happily, it was while he was preparing to film Meet Joe Black in Rhode
Island, in the summer of 1997, that real life intruded and Pitt and his girlfriend
of two and a half years, Gwyneth Paltrow, broke off their engagement. Just what
caused Pitt to split from the cool-eyed Paltrow – whom only a year earlier,
at the Golden Globe Awards, he called "my angel, the love of my life’ –
has never been publicly made clear, but speculation continues. Since then, Paltrow
has taken up with actor Ben Affleck, while Pitt is said to be involved with
Jennifer Aniston, the star of TV’s Friends and this summers sleeper The Object
Of My Affection.
Pitt’s many terraced Craftsman home is set amid several rustic acres. When
I arrived, it was after four, and he had just woken up. He was wearing a strap-style
undershirt and blue nylon pants, with fuzzy brown slip-ons and white socks.
His straw-blonde hair stood in short, stiff points, like a cornfield after a
frost, and he was sucking on what appeared to be a cigarette – which, at closer
range, turned out to be a toothbrush. It swirled into the corner of his mouth
as he grinned his Brad Pitt grin.
Rock music poured from the dark wood house as he led the way up a stone path.
Below us stretched an enormous lawn, and beyond that a boundry of trees and
hedge, so that the city seemed no more than a murmuring haze. The lawn ran around
the house, skipping over a pool – or what will be an elaborate, mulit-tiered
pool when it’s finished – and ended near a spot where he intends to establish
a Monet garden. Pitt, who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, is fairly knowledgeable
about design and is also, I gather, a good draftsman himself. Alan Pakula, who
directed him in the 1997 Irish drama The Devil’s Own, told me that Pitt liked
to hole up in his trailer with architectural plans during long production delays.
But seeing the actor’s retreat, it occured to me that these ambitious improvements
also betrayed a quality in his character – a scrupulousness, even an obsessiveness
– that wasn’t limited to flower beds. And that Pitt, who makes such an art of
effortlessness, he will probably wish I hadn’t seen. He may act like a slow-talking
country boy, but underneath all that nonchalance he’s really much more passionate
– an idealist. And the house is just the most obvious example of that. "It
will never be finished," producer Paul Feldsher, a close friend, told me
"Can I just tell you the most offensive thing about Pitt?" Feldsher
added. "He’s got all this money, he’s really well paid, and he’s got really
good taste. That’s fucked. It’s so much easier to take when someone with money
spends it on really hideous things, but Pitt has an unbelievable eye. We can
walk into a store together and he’ll see the tiniest thing that anyone might
have missed, and he’ll nail it right away. That’s something you would not expect
of a macho, vapid movie star."
So the house, with it’s many old leather sofas and fine Arts and Crafts furnishings,
offers Pitt another way of expressing himself. It also revealed a surprising
degree of respect for the softer side of his nature. I hesitate to use the word
"feminine," because people will get the wrong idea, but something
in the way Pitt padded around the house in his slip-ons, turning on the lamps
at dusk, made me think he’s exactly the kind of guy a girl could go to in a
crise and discuss fabric swatches with. Or maybe her rotten love life. Intimacy
doesn’t seem to be a problem for Pitt. He’s a listener. I ran this idea past
Feldsher and he thought there was alot of truth to it. "Yeah," he
agreed, mulling over his friend’s qualities, "but it’s the kind of femininity
that Hadrian had. It’s not like he’s knitting tea cozies."
Pitt had gone into the modest kitchen to fix some coffee, and we were sitting
in a couple of green rockers on the front porch. Like most big stars, Pitt employs
people to do things for him, and can obviously afford such perks as bodyguards
and personal trainers, if reports are accurate that he made $17 million for
Meet Joe Black. But that day, there was no sign of staff, not even a housekeeper.
Before I got to L.A., I had heard a story that I think says a great deal about
how he treats his celebrity. According to a stylist who works for Vanity Fair,
Pitt had gone to Cooperstown, New York, in May to be photographed. A freak storm
blew up – actually one of the area’s most devastating storms in 50 years – and
Pitt and the crew were caught in the middle, their driver paralyzed by fear.
Pitt took the wheel and, his banter unsubdued, drove the van, dodging falling
trees, safely back to the hotel. He actually seemed to enjoy the ordeal, the
stylist said, and later calmly retired to his room to strum his guitar. What
really got to her was the fact that he had journeyed on his way – without entourage
– to the upstate location. It was just Brad Pitt in a beautiful summer suit.
To Pitt, sitting on his porch, the idea that he had done something novel by
traveling solo struck him as faintly ludicrous. He looked at me hard and laughed.
"Well," he said, "we were going to Cooperstown. How dangerous
Although Pitt is a straight-forward person, he is not a conventionally satisfying
interview. Journalists used to celebrities who emote on demand often come away
from an encounter thinking the fellow’s evasive…..What a knucklehead! "Well,
he’s a knucklehead, but he’s very smart," said his great buddy Catherine
Keener, an actress who is currently starring in Your Friends & Neighbors.
Alan Pakula, who got on well with Pitt, despite their initial problems over
the script for The Devil’s Own, said "I think what Brad’s saying is ‘I’m
not all fucked up and neurotic.’ Complexity to the press can sometimes mean
Pitt speaks in a southern style, dropping vowels and using a lot of "whoof"s,
"nah"s, and terse country expression – such as you might expect from
someone who grew up in the pine hills of southern Missouri, with a davensport,
shotguns, teenage rituals involving cars, and girls, and parents, Jane and Bill,
who expected him to be at the Baptist church on Sunday. Yet his riffs of unschooled
lingo can create conversational difficulties with journalists used to sound
"Also, Brad never tries to make other people understand that he’s smart,"said
For instance, Pitt and I were talking about various literary styles when Cormac
McCarthy’s name came up. "Whoof, he’s one of the all – stars," Pitt
said admiringly. He went on to discuss McCarthy’s lyricism, referring to passages
in the Border trilogy books and the author’s earlier novel Blood Meridian. We
must have spent 30 or 40 minutes on the subject. In fact, when Pitt mentioned
that he had read the border novels on tape, it didn’t immediately hit me that
he meant he had narrated the trilogy for Random House’s audio version. He let
this detail slip out unobtrusively, as he does almost every detail.
"It’s more about what’s not said in the South," Pitt said. "You
know, we’re not Woody allen talk-talkies – talkin’ about every bit of pain.
It’s a different vibe. It’s what’s between the lines." Obviously Pitt,
who went to the University of Missouri but left two credits shy of graduation,
was talking about himslef, but indirectly.
" It’s true that Brad is very sweet, but people shouldn’t be misled,"
said Aidan Quinn, his Legends Of The Fall co-star. "This is a warrior you’re
dealing with. He’ll sometimes play a dumb country boy, but he’s one of the most
well-read actors I’ve worked with." Pakula said, "To be a wonderful
actor you have to have a great sense of observation, and your way of expressing
that is in playing the character, not talking about it. And I think that’s very
much true of Brad.
"Of course" Pakula continued, "he gave me the most literate
gift I’ve ever recieved at the end of a picture – a first edition of Finnegans
Wake. I’ve never gotten a gift like that from an actor in my life. I was stunned."
Pitt, then, turns out to be that most surprising of celebrities – a modest
man. It’s not what he says that makes you pay attention; it’s what he doesn’t
say. And who he turns out to be. "Pitt’s got a code," said Feldsher.
"He grew up with a code that’s sort of born out of his bread-basket Christianity.
In termsof morality and ethics, he’s not negotiable. He has a life and an understanding
og how he’s meant to live that life. And all this movie star stuff is not going
to deter him."
"Here’s the revelation about Brad – and it’s a big clue about who he is,"director
Marty Brest told me. "We were sitting in a room alone, talking about the
script for Meet Joe Black, and the door was closed and I was smoking a cigar,
stinking up the place. Brad lit a cigarette and went over to a window and opened
it. He was talking to me and holding the cigarette out the open window. I said
‘Brad, what are you doing? I’m smoking a cigar!’ There was something so courtly
and deeply decent and polite about that. And even when I pointed it out, he
said ‘No, it’s alright.’ That small gesture was the key to a whole area of his
character that never ceased to amaze me."
Pitt stood up now and left the porch to stand on the grass in front of me.
He massaged the pack of muscle on his shoulder, and I remembered that he had
been up the night before, trading mock punches with Ed Norton down on the Fight
Club set. Through everything Pitt said, even the fractured sentences and aborted
thoughts, he had kept his eyes on me. It made me think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
famous line about personality being "an unbroken series of successful gestures."
Well, in PittI had a bunch of them – beginning with the "Hey" on the
front lawn. Still, there is something hard to articulate at the center of Pitt.
Whether his friends were talking about his personality, or the power of his
screen presence, they invariably described an evasiveness that was both baffling
and entrancing. I heard this first from Tom Skerrit, who played Pitt’s father
in A River runs Through It – the Robert Redford film that more or less made
Pitt in Hollywood.
Skerrit said, "You could see that he was going to be one of those that
they would choose – and the Powers That Be always seem to choose who’s going
to be the heit apparent. Redford was that. Cruise was that. Now Pitt. It has
been seven years since we made A River runs Through It, and Brad was still somewhat
green and insecure. But it was the first time you could see this…..mystique.
Like Steve McQueen. You want more from this guy than he is willing to give you."
At the outset, Pitt had doubts about doing Meet Joe Black, not at least because
it relies on the audience’s willingness to believe a 65 media mogul (Hopkins)
can commune with the spirit of Death. "When I first sat down with Marty,
he was doing his best to describe it," Pitt recalled, "but he said
there was no way he could, because it sounded like a Whoopi goldberg concept
movie." ("I kept apologizing to him," Brest told me. "I
know this sounds dumb, but it’s not that, it’s not…") Pitt continued,
"I thought Marty’s made some good movies, but there is no way I’m doin’
this picture. And then I got the script. It’s actually quite beautiful."
Meet Joe Black is sharply written by Hollywood veteran Bo Goldman, among others,
but I can see why Brest had a time explaining it. The movie, which reportedly
ran over budget to $90 million, ismore than two and a half hours long, and juggles
at least four major plotlines. The film covers every big, end-of-life issue
with the exception, I believe, of taxes. It’s the story of Hopkin’s character
– rich, contented Bill Parrish, a man beloved by his daughters Susan (Forlani),
who is his favorite, and Allison (Harden), a sort of Uber-hostess seemingly
bent on annoying her dad with the details of his upcoming birthday soiree. It’s
also the story of Joe Black. Death incarnate, an all-knowing, but awkward soul
who, in exchange for an instructive holiday in Bill’s world of money and corporate
intrigue, postpones the old man’s impending demise. It’s funny, exhausting,
I cried my eyes out, but don’t ask me to encapsulate everything this movie is
trying to say.
Pitt doesn’t even try. His summary of the major themes is terse: "Time’s
The film is slowed by Brest’s old fashioned pace, but the acting is consistantly
wonderful, and there’s enough heat in the love scenes between Pitt and Forlani
to make you forget those 100 years in Tibet. Pitt gives an elegantly restrained
performance, and it’s a bonus to see him paired again with Hopkins, his Legends
Of The Fall co-star. Their fellow actors found them easy to be with on-camera
and at other times.
Said Claire Forlani, "There was a moment when Tony and Brad were off camera,
in my eyeline, and they were sitting on boxes, reading magazines. In fact, Marcia
and I were standing next to each other, and I think she said something like
"That’s $30 million sitting right there.’ It was a really sweet inage,
though, just seeing Tony and Brad on apple boxes, reading magazines."
Pitt is happy with the film, and his performance, but when I innocently mention
his romantic appeal, the gorgeous shoulders slumped, the soft pool-bleu eyes
clouded, and he muttered, "Rotten conversation"
"I think he suffers – or feelsor feels that he suffers – for his great
good looks," Laura Ziskin, president of Fox 2000, which is making Fight
Club. "Someone described him as ice cream on the screen. You can’t resist
him. But I think his good looks become a motivation for him to do something
That would be Fight Club, all right. Based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk,
it depicts a netherworld of urban chaos in which two young men hold secret,
after hours boxing matches in the basements of bars. It’s violent and subversely
funny (particularly a part in the book where the protaganist, employed as a
waiter, dips his penis in a tureen of soup "like an elephant drinking soup
through it’s little trunk"). I could see how the story would appeal to
Pitt’s love of brutal realism. "Usually, the next project is the answer
to the last," he said. "This one really gets me going."
"So your happy with the script?" I asked."Yeah." His eyes
twinkled with mischeif. "A lot of people won’t be."
He looked at me incredulously. "C’mon! You read the book!"
Already it was twilight on the lawn. Pitt, who had gone inside for a fresh
supply of drinks and cigarettes, returned now to the porch as an old Stone Temple
Pilots song came floating through the living-room windows. Pitt leaned against
the wall – I was struck again by his calm, that eternal reserve of patience.
Questions about his career choices seemed to boomerang off that attitude of
reserve. Since he played a drifter in Thelma and Louise, his stature has kept
rising as he’s moved through Legends Of The Fall, Interview With The Vampire,
and Twelve Monkeys, for which he won the Golden Globe. But his last two pictures,
The Devil’s Own and Seven Years In Tibet, were duds, and there’s talk in Hollywood
that Brad Pitt needs a hit.
"Yeah, I’ve heard that," he said. "And it goes in one ear and
out the other. If you start making choices out of fear, you’re already fucked."
And it may just be that Pitt, a star who makes actorly choices, hasn’t yet
found the role that perfectly satisfies both his darker impulses and the audience’s
constant romantic cravings. I mentioned a book I’d been reading, about a Brittish
soldier who straddles all the divides, and after jotting down it’s title, Pitt
started talking about the advantages of being able to create one’s own material.
"That’s what’s great about giving Damon and Affleck credit," he said,
referring to the fact that Matt and Ben had written the hit Good Will Hunting.
"Those guys made the material. that’s huge."
"Are you jealous at all?"
He shook his head firmly. "Absolutely not. That’s something to inspire
you. That just tells you if your sitting around complaining, your a piece of
Pitt stretched his arms and folded them over his chest. He looked at me intently.
"It’s all experiments right now. A realtionship with a woman is an experiment.
It’s all an experiment."
"I hadn’t quite realized what an all American guy Brad is," said
Marcia Gay Harden. "When his mum, a lovely woman, came to the Rhode Island
set, I remember her saying ‘Well gee, I just don’t understand it – all the girls
seem to love Brad. They just come up to the house.’ I was smiling to think that
all this has occurred to this young guy, and he seems to handle it beautifully.
He’s been brought up well."
Though understandably protective of his parents, whom he flew to Ireland at
the end of The Devil’s Own shoot, Pitt told me he’ll show them scripts from
time to time – but more than that. "I’m at that stage where your parents
become your friends instead of your nurturers."
In the dozen or so years since he packed his car and headed west, Pitt has
formed a tight circle of non-parental friends, people such as Feldsher, who
actually lives in New York, and Keener and her husband, Dermot Mulroney, whom
he calls his other family. These people offer "wisdom, decency. funny shit."
It’s hard, then, to escape the impression that Pitt, for all his glorious sex
appeal, is essentially a domestic guy. "Homesteader is the word for it,"
said Feldsher. He’s fun-loving, to be sure, "the king of of flatulence,"
said Aidan Quinn. But he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to throw a girl over
"When he’s in a ‘relationship’ relationship, he’s very committed,"
said Feldsher. "And he believes deeply in the joy and singular possibilities
that can come out of sharing your life with someone."
Pitt told me as much himself when our subject inevitably shifted to love and
marriage. "It’s fantastic," he said. "What’s a bigger high? Spending
your life with another – I feel I’d be quite good at it. If I find it, I find
it. If I don’t, I don’t. But I think with another person in your life you have
the opportunity to get further, to grow more."
So I wondered about his breakup with Paltrow. They had seemed so devoted –
"madly in love" wouldn’t be an exaggeration. Paltrow, 25, is the daughter
of actress Blythe Danner and the producer Bruce Paltrow. she spent her teenage
years in Manhattan, in an East Side town house, and went to Spence, the exclusive
girls’ school. When I interviewed her last summer she seemed sophisticated and
bright, and may be a little hard on people – not mean, just competitive in the
way of popular, pretty girls.
I told Pitt I had talked to Paltrow.
"Oh really?" he said, looking surprised. I was about to continue,
but Pitt cut me off. "I don’t want to know what she said."
There are alot of rumors going around Los Angeles and New York about what happened,
some of them suggesting that Paltrow may have wavered in her commitment, and
that is was Pitt who called off the engagement. "Obviously there’s curiosity
about [the breakup], because there wasn’t alot said about it," said Keener,
keeping tight-lipped. "Everyone only has a piece of the puzzle except the
two of them."
"So what happened?" I asked Pitt.
"Well, I mean, you know what happened," he said mildly.
He laughed. "Ahh, no." then he said, "Isn’t it true of a lot
of people? Since you started dating, there’s always been that period until you
find the one you want to go the distance with?"
"But you thought you had found the one."
He looked away. "But I was wrong. You figure it out."
Feldsher told me, "I thank God for his relationship with Gwyneth. I think
it was a great thing. First of all, they were really happy for a long time.
Gwyneth is much more savvy than Brad about the business, having grown up with
her mom, Blythe, and her dad, Bruce, in the Hollywood milieu. She was very helpful
to Brad in that way. And when the relationship ended, O.K., maybe it was painful
and they both found out it wasn’t for them, but he’s certainly much better for
it, and I hope she is as well.
"I think she taught Brad a lot about existing in the klieg lights, and
I think he has taught her a lot about it being O.K. to live out of them – that
doesn’t mean you don’t exist…..Brad is incredibly sophisticated in the truest
sense of the word, but in terms of the language of sophistication, Gwyneth’s
got that down…..She’s very familiar with the topography of a sophisticated
international life. And Pitt’s not. So in sound bites, she’s able to convey
Pitt didn’t appear to be in a hurry to change the subject and said "Listen,
there are painkillers for this and bandaids for that, but the bottom line is
there are tough times and good times. One of the scenes I love in Meet Joe Black
is when my character says, ‘You do the best you can, and if your lucky, you
take some perfect pictures with you.’ And I wouldn’t trade any of the rotten
times. They’re vital to defining who you are, what you want, how you want to
live – all those grand little topics."
I asked him if he thought he had rushed into his engagement to Paltrow.
He smiled at my persistance. "No," he said emphatically. "I
"Have you talked to her since?"
He laughed. "It’s done."
For the past several months, Pitt has been going out with Jennifer Aniston.
"Oh God, I don’t know," he said when I mentioned her. "I have
no idea what to tell you. No idea." He wrapped his arms around his chest
and looked at me sweetly, but said no more. People who know Aniston describe
her as warm, down-to-earth, uncomplicated – "an angel."
"I think Pitt will always believe he’s compromising as long as he’s just
acting." Feldsher told me a few weeks after I’d left L.A. And it is probable
that Brad Pitt himself, now in his middle 30s, does not think he has come close
to giving audiences all that they want from him. As Pakula succinctly remarked,
"There’s something about Brad that still seems like it’s being formed."
But that evening, as nearly as could be made out from his voice, Brad Pitt’s
big, idealistic heart was at peace. With his arms still wrapped around him,
he said, "I’m not in a hurry. Listen, if it’s not right, I don’t want it.
I’m telling you straight: it’s a damned good time of my life."