SMH – July, 2003

TROY BOY – by Stephanie Bunbury

Brad Pitt may be turning 40 but he still looks good in a short skirt. He talks to Stephanie Bunbury about his Achilles hemline and the midpoint of his career.

It is hard to believe that Hollywood’s resident spunk to at least two generations of female cinema audiences is officially middle-aged, but there you go: the years tick by for king and pauper alike. Mind you, Brad Pitt’s 40 doesn’t look much like yours or mine. The perfect chin is firm, the brow as smooth as a teenager’s, the laugh lines vestigial. That boyish charm is good for a while yet.

And right now, Brad is groomed for Achilles, his starring role in Wolfgang Petersen’s film Troy, now filming in Malta, which has required him to grow his surfer-blond hair to his shoulders and spend a lot of time in the gym. I’d say there’s not much wrong with any of this; the one disappointment is that the Greeks fought on foot rather than horseback. Remember Legends of the Fall? Not the best film of all time, admittedly, but Pitt looks very, very good on a horse.

Ah yes, 40. A couple of years ago, Pitt says in that breezy, lazy voice that places him midway between his Missouri truckin’ past and Californian dude present, he and his wife were arguing about how old he was. This is hard to believe, but he said it.

“I thought I was older than I was; I had already missed a year. We had to call my mum because, even with math and knowing the year I was born, I could not figure it out.”

Which makes him relaxed about the 40 landmark, because in his head he’s already there. “Certainly, it’s not like when I saw my mum go four-oh and I’m like, ‘Damn! You’re old!’ But you don’t feel any older, do you?” Except for the wisdom, he says, with only the faintest glint of irony. He does feel better about himself than he used to do. Don’t we all? Surely we do.

Pitt believes he is midway through his career. He hopes so, anyway; hopes that the choices will keep getting better as he gets older. “The direction gets clearer because new guys come along and there is not that frenzy or that heat any more,” he says. “It’s like the haze clears and you can focus. And I guess I focus on the work, not the game.”

His initial upswing, he says, happened with 1991’s Thelma & Louise, in which he came in as third choice – well after William Baldwin, incredibly
enough, who left to play the lead in Backdraft – to be the hunky drifter who gives Geena Davis a taste of sex and robbery. “Getting into it, I knew it was quality,” says Pitt. “It was being let in the door.”

His filmography since, however, has been a motley assortment. Just before he made Thelma & Louise he starred in Johnny Suede as the eponymous hero, an amiable but dopey style stud with a fondness for suede, alongside the then unknown Catherine Keener.

“Then I did a garbage film called Cool World,” he says, “which was a half-animation thing. Then I went into A River Runs through It, which was another nice break.”

It was, but as he worked across the genres – from Contact to True Romance, from Twelve Monkeys to Sleepers – he rarely cracked films with the edginess those first performances suggested. For every Fight Club there has been a Snatch.

As for Troy, he thought he had better leap in while he could still do a bit of credible swordplay, not to mention cut it as a demigod. “I do start thinking that way. And say, ‘Fair enough, so let’s go all the way out on it and have some fun.'” Fun means learning to fence; fun also, more surprisingly, means reading The Iliad.

It seems terrible to say this should be surprising in anyone, but Pitt seems such a midnight cowboy, such an aw-shucks kid come to the big smoke, that you might forget – if ever you knew – that he majored in journalism at college.

It is great, says Pitt, having such top-notch material to work on the character’s back story.

“I did tons of reading, not only investing in The Iliad but everyone’s dissection of the characters,” he says. “Ours is not a direct interpretation, but you have it to mind. The work has been done for me in a way.”

In those times between shoots, his big enthusiasm is architecture. It has been his recreational study for more than a decade.

“I’m a bit nutty with it,” he says. “It’s a little preliminary to really get into it, but I have what you might call a little Bauhaus group of guys and we’re taking on some projects.” It isn’t that he wants to stop acting, more that he doesn’t want to take up golf, “the sport of the religious right”, as he once put it. You have to set limits on the Hollywood craziness somehow.

All this, however, is by the bye. Pitt is here to publicise Dreamworks’ latest animation, Sinbad, Legend of the Seven Seas, in which he gives voice to the flawed hero. That is one hell of an expensive voice, given that his quoted salary as Achilles is $US17.5 million ($26 million). It is also risky. Pitt admits he has never had that kind of training.

“Certainly, voice is not my strong point,” he says, comparing himself unfavourably to Joseph Fiennes, who voices Sinbad’s long-lost childhood friend. “People who have worked in theatre, where there is a lot of emphasis on the voice, have worked out the kinks. I haven’t had that, so I was surprised when I was asked but I thought, ‘What the hell, I’ll give it a shot.'”

Why? Because he sees that animation is where the technical innovation is happening and, as a result, good actors are signing up. Because he would love his nieces and nephews to be able to see something by Uncle Brad. That’s why.

Anyway, as Pitt says, there is room for everything. His next film will be Doug Liman’s Mr and Mrs Smith, in which he co-stars with Nicole Kidman, back in the action genre.

Really, he says frankly, doing Sinbad was more like reading aloud than acting. “It’s right there in front of you. We take several cracks at it, they throw in ideas and you really just make it up as you go along.” It’s the animators – 400 of them on this film – who do the real work. “I’m sure a more respectable actor would put a lot into it,” he says, shuffling boyishly in his chair as if he can’t keep schtum any longer. “But seriously! Me, I thought we were all just having a laugh, really.”

Pitt’s words are all modesty, says Dreamworks supremo Jeffrey Katzenberg. “He doesn’t understand how gifted and talented he is and how big a contribution he was capable of making. Brad Pitt was the dream persona and personality and acting quality for that part. There wasn’t a second choice.”

But does an animated Sinbad need a megastar behind him? “I ask you to step back and think for a moment,” says Katzenberg. “The reason why stars have become such big names is because they’re the best.”

Goodness me, there is a lot of nonsense spoken in Hollywood. And there is a special sort of nonsense reserved for the likes of Brad Pitt, mostly to do with being a demigod in life as well as art. He has been named one of the top 100 movie stars ever (Empire magazine), one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world and the sexiest man alive (People). Yet, somehow, he doesn’t seem half as nuts as you’d expect.

OK, there was the million-dollar wedding to Jennifer Aniston and the subsequent dispute with the jewellery firm that made the rings to Brad’s design (and then started flogging replica Brad ‘n’ Jen rings to punters), stories that are very much the stuff of Planet Movie Star.

On the other side of things, though, he describes himself as a homebody. He and Aniston are planning to go to cooking classes together “because we’re both crap in the kitchen” and he does, he admits, have a bad habit of resorting to snacking on cereals.

And it isn’t so remarkable that he is so settled, he says now, because he was never the rambler people assumed. “I’ve never been that guy. I have a great base, with great friends and a great wife.”

Before he met Aniston he had a few long-term high-profile relationships with colleagues. He and Juliette Lewis, his co-star in the TV movie Too Young to Die? and Kalifornia, were an item for a few years; in 1996, he was engaged to Gwyneth Paltrow, whom he met on Se7en. After they split the following year, any question about him could reduce her immediately to tears, but she never said a word against him. If he played the cad, nobody is saying so.

Troy is the first film he has made, apart from Sinbad, in two years. He is finding the business of uprooting to a location tough. “I like my home. I used to love to travel and explore; I’m in Malta now and there are 5000 years of history there and it’s fantastic, but it gets harder as you get older. And I’m sure, with kids, I’ll come home more.”

Both he and Aniston have said how keen they are to have children, so presumably they have their shoulders to the wheel.

There are rumours, of course, that Pitt has spent good money on prolonging those youthful looks. He doesn’t quite deny it. Given they are his living, it would be strange if he hadn’t. “There are people in this business who run from age,” he says, absent-mindedly stroking his smooth cheek, “and you see the detritus left over from that. The denial, I guess. I don’t know yet, but there is that time when you gotta let go, man. Mick, come on! You know?”

In the meantime, though, there is Brad fighting the Trojans in a tunic. He isn’t letting go yet. “Those Greeks, they liked the mini,” he says, grinning that sheepish Thelma & Louise grin. “Not only that, but apparently they fought with all the tackle hanging out. They didn’t mind it a bit.”

So did the costume department make his underwear decisions? “This is not Caligula,” he says, “So they got it strapped down.” What he just can’t understand, he goes on with mock thoughtfulness, is how the Trojans got to wear much longer tunics than he did. He fought his case – “when we’re debating the old hemlines, I’m throwing everything in, man” – but those designers pulled rank.

How and why that should be is, of course, the business of magazines – such as People and Empire – that number their stars from one to 100. For the rest of us, let’s content ourselves with saying that even if Brad Pitt won’t be on a horse this time, there is clearly some compensation on offer. The Greeks, as usual, come bearing gifts.