Mumbai Mid-Day – May 16, 2004


Come summer. New York’s Central Park is zestful with doughnut-plump joggers, French fry-thin bicyclists and cherry-flavoured blondes-redheads-the-works darting smiles more dazzling than the neon-flash of Times Square.

So what am I doing, sitting monk-like on the edge of an oak park bench? Obviously, surveying the global glut of local weight watchers, Nikon toting Japanese tourists and the occasional languorous Patelbhai with Patel biwi-‘n’-bachas, bustling ked-footed through the park.

Not so obviously, I’m killing a sun-dried morning, awaiting my turn to confabulate with the star-flecked cast and crew of the blockbuster, Troy, adapted by the German-born thrillmeister Wolfgang Petersen from the godpapa of all classics, namely Homer’s Iliad.

I’m scheduled to meet the top-of-the-line thespian Peter O’Toole, the golden haired Diana Kruger who enacts the beauteous Helen (a role incarnated way back in the 1950s by the Italian signorina Rosanna Podesta), and writer David Benioff who woofed out the Troy script after working nights unlimited in a New York loft. Note, with only his cocker spaniel for company.

Yeah great, but the heart and dare I say, the mind, beat far more rapidly for the will-you-have-tea-or-coffee? (Black? Cream? Sugar?) meeting with William Bradley Pitt, aka Brad Pitt the golden boy star, the emotively searching actor, who portrays the near-invincible warrior Achilles in the US $180-million fuelled project.

The appointment is for 1600 hours. I’ve been advised to reach a be-curtained lime green suite of the Essex Hotel half-an-hour before appointed time, which I do. The hotel is part of the upper crust St Regis Club, the staff is surprisingly welcoming, never mind my outmoded, fraying-at-the-collar Calvin Klein blazer.

The security guard at the elevator flags me off, as if I were an express train on a mission, booming in a Brooklyn patois, “Hey maan, you meet Brad…cool mean cool….have a good one….hot diggety dog wish I was in yer shoes.” Quite.

I’ve resolved not to ask BP about his 1991 debut as the sexy hitchhiker of Thelma & Louise or about his kaleidoscopic roles right from Twelve Monkeys and Seven to The Fight Club and The Spy Game.

Or about his bio-data nuggets about the Oklahoma-born who studied journalism and advertising at the University of Missouri but skedaddled before graduation to Los Angles to become the champagne-caviar toast of Hollywood. That we know already.

Like I know his Altantic oceanic blue eyes, G I-style crew-cut and fluorescent smile will be all there and some more, at the precise dot of the interview minute.

“Indiaaa?” he intones from ruby red lips the moment I’m ushered into a cushy armchair.” You’ve come all the way? Must have been some long flight. Do people know me there?” I nod my head vigorously, immediately snag a couple of autographs for Brad fans in the Mumbai bylanes. He then sips freshly squeezed orange juice, I ignore the latte in the Starbucks mug, and advance my first question.

Q – Ever heard of Bollywood?

A – Sure I have. But I’ve never been to Bombay, not even to India though my friends keep telling me it’s my kind of place, somewhere I could melt in the crowds, be myself.

When I was doing Seven Years in Tibet, I boned up on some eastern philosophy and spiritualism. I’m no expert on spiritualism but I do believe that Asia has something very valuable to offer all of us here caught in the everyday grind of living, our lifestyles are overwhelmingly goal driven and materialistic which is a pity.

Bollywood sounds fascinating, but Monsoon Wedding is the only film I’ve seen from India. I’m told it isn’t a typical Bollywood film which is conventionally packed with songs, dances, passion and high drama.

(Laughs) Actually, I’d love to do a Bollywood movie, dance like crazy, fight, cry and laugh. But I’m a limited actor, I wouldn’t be able to sing my own songs.

Q – You wouldn’t have to. We have playback singers standing in for the heroes. Really? Still, I’d feel terribly awkward with a ghost voice singing my number while I try to move my lips… presumably in sync. Amazing! I don’t know how your actors can carry that off, sounds incredibly difficult. A while ago, Shekhar Kapur did talk to me about doing an international film, more Hollywood than Bollywood, but nothing fructified. He’s an interesting guy, full of ideas.

A – From what I understand, Bollywood heroes are larger-than-life, fiercely protective about their principles and ideals, which is pretty close to the character of Achilles in Troy.

Q – For over a decade, you’ve chosen the more character driven parts instead of playing the super-hero of the blockbusters. Why the shift?

A – Because it was time to take on the iconic. Achilles is a demi-god. At the same time, he’s unusual, stubborn and fatalistic. He may have a tough, exterior shell but he’s wracked by inner turmoil. I had taken a break from acting for nearly two years, I was hungry to take on something that went against what’s normally expected from me. The tendency has been to associate me with roles that are dark, scruffy and psychologically tangled like the guys I played in 12 Monkeys, Kalifornia and The Fight Club.

Frankly, I did mull for days and months. Should I take on a huge blockbuster or not? Then I told myself, so what if I’m wrong? At least my instincts tell me that I’m right, go for it. It involved much more preparation and grounding than I’ve gone through for any role before. I had to grasp the dialect, do a sufficient amount of research…after all, we’re dealing here with one of the world’s most cherished classics.

The initial training was tough. I had to get my body in shape, go on a special diet which would allow me to put on the correct amount of weight. I’d spend half-a-day working out in the punishingly hot climate of Malta where the film was shot. I quit smoking, which was a major challenge for a chain-smoker. Sure, I do feel like a smoke now and then but haven’t returned to cigarettes, touch wood. I hope all that work has paid off. Like Achilles says, “I want what all men want….and more.”

Q – What would that be?

A – All of us want to do the right thing while we’re living. And of course, all of us hope that we will be remembered for having done something substantial with our lives. No one can aspire for immortality but all actors do have one common binding factor — they long for glory. In various degrees, actors have this compulsive desire to be respected and remembered for at least some of their performances.

Q – Which would you term as your most accomplished performances?

A – That’s not for me to say. We make more bad movies than good ones, which is because there are more bad intentions than good ones. If cash earnings are the primary intention, then chances are that the movie will turn out to be plain lousy. I’ve been fortunate to be in films that were made with the intention of telling stories of substance rather than making big bucks.

Which is why I absolutely loved my walk-on parts in Full Frontal and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I’ve been guided and influenced constantly by my directors, so I cannot select any performance as my best…or for that matter as my worst.

All I can say right off the bat is that there’s a scene in Troy with Peter O’Toole which I love. The scene was shot on an extremely rainy day, the set had to be covered with plastic sheets and there we were trying to get into the intimate, tragic mood required of both of us. I talk to him with might and force, while he disarms me with words that are the weapon of peace. It was a personal honour to do that scene with Mr O’Toole. It’s easily the best stretch of acting I’ve ever been involved in.

Q – What about the lovemaking scenes in Troy in which you’re almost in the buff? Are you cool about body display?

A – I’ve done lovemaking scenes long enough not to get embarrassed by them. It’s nothing like what you see on screen. There you are feeling hot, sweaty and dirty under the lights, the guys with the boom mike are hovering over your face and the camera’s travelling all around your bum as if it were the Grand Canyon.

In any case, the sex scenes in Troy were pretty easy, especially when you remember that the ancient Greeks were half-naked all the time. So why be puritanical?

Q – Do you think your good looks have hindered your career since quite often aren’t taken seriously?

A – Thanks. Much has been made about my looks though I’m not the sort who feels great on seeing his mug in the mirror. Like it or not, a lot of emphasis is placed on good looks in films. I’d be a liar if I were to say that this factor hasn’t helped me. On the contrary, it has opened many doors for me.

As for being taken seriously, an actor has to deal his pack of cards right. He cannot keep throwing the card of the joker at the audience. I think I’ve dealt the right cards, I feel immensely gratified that I’ve been accepted and also regarded with a sufficient amount of seriousness….(laughs uproariously) or gravitas.

Q – Recently, your wife Jennifer Aniston and you were polled the Sexiest Couple by an American magazine.

A – (Laughs) Oh! We got a title together, did we? Usually, we’re given these ‘sexiest’ titles separately. Such titles are fine by me, as long as I don’t actually start believing that they’re true.

Q – Recently, there were some steamy rumours from the sets of Mr & Mrs Smith, which you’ve been shooting with Angelina Jolie. Wassup?

A – Boy, rumours do get around, don’t they? See, the truth comes out in the wash. Neither Jen (Jennifer) nor I take rumours seriously or we’d go nuts. The thing is to just enjoy your life, take the gossip as it comes, and move on. Jennifer and I will never go out of our way to do any form of damage control because there’s been no damage to start with. We’re not here to advertise that we’re the most perfect couple in the world just as we’re not here to say that the rumours have even the remotest basis in fact.

Q – You’ve formed a film production company Plan-B with Jennifer Aniston. Since her TV series Friends has ended, will the company initiate star vehicles for her?

A – Jennifer and I are making Willy Wonka but we aren’t in it. It’s to be directed by Tim Burton, we’ve got Johnny Depp on board too. Plan-B is also co-producing a remake of the Chinese film Infernal Affairs. We liked its story but it isn’t right for me. Similarly we’ve got the rights for filming the story of the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl, again it isn’t a vehicle for either Jen or me. We’ve set up the company to make films, not to be in them. For the Daniel Pearl film, we’re hoping to get Martin Scorsese to direct.

Q – You turned 40 last December 18…any anxieties about ageing?

A – You must be kidding. I’m really enjoying my age. I see it as a badge of honour. I’ve made it so far without losing my sanity. I’d also like to believe that wisdom comes with age and I have no hesitations in trading off youthful experiences for wisdom.

Q – Any agenda to start a family?

A – I wouldn’t call it an agenda. I’ll become a father when I’m ordained too. I would love to have half-a-dozen kids, and would be thrilled if all of them were girls.

Q – Do you have any prime influences?

A – Influences? Influences? Don’t think so… but there are some people I admire tremendously. Like Chris Rock (musician-comedian) who kills me with his humour. And Frank Gehry, the architect whose buildings like the California Aerospace Museum and an art museum in Bilbao, Spain, are wondrous, truly wondrous.

Q – Which would be the three films you’d take to a desert island?

A – Apocalypse Now, a Marx Brothers comedy….and..

Q – And?

A – You don’t want to know.

Q – I do.

A – It would have to be a porn film.

Q – Oh. And who would be the three women you’d take to a desert island?

A – You know the answer to that.

Q – Guess I do. But I want to hear it from you.

A – (Atlantic eyes flashing) Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer.