USA Weekend – June 11, 2003

THE ART OF BEING BRAD – by Jay Fernandez

Cartoon voice. Adoring uncle. Architect wannabe. And you thought this perennial Sexiest Man Alive was just Jennifer Aniston’s hunky husband? Read on for these and more surprises.

File this one under "Movie stars are just like you and me." No matter how many millions they collect or red carpets they walk or magazine covers they pose for, they, too, must face the uglier humiliations of life.

In February 2002, Brad Pitt was asked to do a cameo in his friend George Clooney’s directorial debut, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind". Pitt flew straight from Cancun, where he was celebrating wife Jennifer Aniston’s birthday, to Toronto. That night, ensconced in his hotel room, Pitt was struck by a disastrous case of Montezuma’s revenge.

"It was brutal, man," he says with a chuckle. "It was one of those that just leaves you weeping on the cold, hard tiles. And I actually held up [George’s] production for a day, just to do that one little snippet of a shot." It’s a very, um, humanizing self-portrait, and taken together with Pitt’s latest movie project, it points to his desire not to take himself too seriously.

Pitt has just finished work on a film that will display him in a way audiences have never seen before (mainly because they won’t see him at all). In "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas", the new mythic adventure opening July 2, Pitt merely supplies his voice to the title character, a charming thief with a lot to learn about loyalty and women. The animated movie — which also features the talents of recent Academy Award winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert — is a showcase for Pitt’s Missouri-bred insouciance and too-little-used comedic gifts.

The directors, Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore, say they gave Pitt a lot of freedom to improvise. "We discovered early on, as Brad was playing with the dialogue, that when "Sinbad" was the most comically flustered he was also the most endearing," Johnson says. "Brad was trying to come up with words, and he was doing this ‘Uh — aw! I — beh — aw!’ kind of verbal constipation as he tried to express himself. He just invented that as he was playing around with a particular line, and I think that’s definitely one where Patrick and I looked at each other and said, ‘That’s Sinbad!’ The guy’s got bravery beyond anybody’s imagination — he’ll leap off a cliff and figure out halfway down how he’s gonna survive — but when it comes to dealing with a woman, or an old friend who makes a demand, he just doesn’t know how to handle it."

"Sinbad" is the seventh feature from the successful animation arm of DreamWorks, the makers of "Spirit", "Shrek" and "Chicken Run". A family offering, it seems, at first, a strange choice for Pitt, an actor more attracted to the provocative than the popular. From the hedonistic doppelgänger in "Fight Club", to the unintelligible gypsy in "Snatch", to the unbalanced inmate in "12 Monkeys", Pitt has made a career of playing offbeat characters and alluring rebels.

"I’ve always been pushed one way, and it’s been up to me to go after other things," he says. "I’m speaking generally, but in the beginning, they thought I’d be good on sitcoms — really, it’s not what I can do. And then, after "Legends of the Fall", there was this thing about being a leading man, and I knew, ‘OK, that’s available. But I want to try some other options first, round it out a bit, and then we’ll see.’ "

Pitt never set out to be a standard matinee leading man and doesn’t consider himself one now, even if he does earn as much as $20 million per picture and, as people in Hollywood believe, one of every two scripts is written with him in mind. Speaking with Pitt, you get the sense that although he is very serious about his craft, he is careful not to invest too much of his identity in it. He doesn’t want to be a personality, like Tom Cruise or Jim Carrey.

"That was the thing that impressed me the first time I met him," says David Fincher, Pitt’s close friend who directed him in the dark thrillers "Seven" and "Fight Club". "This is not a guy who’s going, ‘How does this slot into my life?’ It’s more like, ‘Look, what do you wanna do? What do you wanna accomplish? And tell me a story that makes me want to give up everything to go do it.’ I love people like that."

In today’s play-it-safe movie marketplace, Pitt’s willingness to explore uncharted territory and find his way out is remarkable. He’s drawn to "gutsy" material he hopes will resonate with today’s audiences, like "Troy", the $100 million Trojan War epic he will star in next for director Wolfgang Petersen. For Pitt, it’s about the journey, not the back-end profits. Take "Snatch": "He’s so funny and so alive" as a bizarre bare-knuckle boxer, Fincher says — but if you asked him how he created such a memorable character, even Pitt couldn’t tell you.

DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg pitched Sinbad to Pitt, and the actor’s response was an instant "I’m game," according to Katzenberg: "He came in, and he has just been as enthusiastic as anybody we’ve ever worked with."

Dressed in jeans, a gray shirt and a brown suede jacket, Pitt works his way through a steak while talking about why he was so quick to jump on board. "I have nieces and nephews that I’m mad for," he says. "I wanted to do something they could actually see, instead of heads in a box [Seven] and breaking into a liposuction clinic ["Fight Club"]."

It’s mid-April, and Pitt is two weeks away from leaving for Malta, where he will spend the next five months shooting "Troy". Pitt has been training rigorously for the role of Achilles, the fearsome Greek hero: weights in the morning, character breakdown for two or three hours, sword fighting and dialect through the afternoon.

"I used to love taking off," he says, rubbing his hands slowly up and down his thighs, like idling twin pistons, as he speaks. "I would do anything to go on some adventure. Now, as I get older, it’s a lot harder to leave. I’ve got a good home, a good wife, good friends."

Pitt spent much of the past year developing scripts for a production company he started with his manager, Brad Grey, and Aniston, whom he wed in July 2000 after breaking off his engagement to Gwyneth Paltrow three years earlier. To hear Pitt tell it, the twice-named "Sexiest Man Alive" and Aniston, co-star of "Bruce Almighty", are just a typical couple. They bicker over household chores and who forgot to turn off the coffee machine. "I believe I’m the one who does it all, and she believes she’s one who does it all," he says, and laughs.

The two are eager to have children, but they’re still "in rehearsals" for that. He says they’re not at all concerned about a baby interfering with their careers: "We just want to have a good time with each other and work out a few kinks first."

The most work he’s had to do lately is a dialogue recording session every few weeks for "Sinbad". Granted, this has been going on for two years, and even today, during a day-long media junket, the directors sneak Pitt away. Johnson and Gilmore have set up a makeshift studio at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena. "I got three lines today they wanna add on," Pitt says. "They’re right up to the wire. While we’re here, there’s still 100 guys in a room drawing madly, trying to put this thing together." He pretends to scribble on the tablecloth like a harried animator desperately trying to complete the film on time.

Animation is not at all like live-action moviemaking, where the camera is king and the art of movement can be an actor’s most potent tool. The process takes years instead of weeks or months, and the actors play out scenes, alone, in a sound booth with a few storyboards. Pitt hadn’t even met Pfeiffer until this afternoon.

"The line readings are a bit larger than I’m used to," Pitt says. He leans back in his chair and makes temporary ponytails with his wavy blond shoulder-length locks. "It was cake compared to live action. Here, you’re just having a laugh, and that’s what shows in the film. It’s more kid stuff."

The idea from the start was for the directors to discover Sinbad with Pitt and incorporate his specific attributes. For instance, the original character drawings were more of a comic-book superhero. Sinbad’s "sharp edge and refinement got a little scruffier and more accessible," Gilmore says. The formality of the character’s dialogue was loosened up to accommodate what Pitt jokingly calls his "Ozarkian hick" inflections. "It was hard to get Brad to do a ‘Ya-hoo!’ because it always seemed to come out ‘Yee-haw!’ and he was real self-conscious about it," Gilmore says.

Between films, Pitt spends a lot of time with his friends. Fincher says they "eat, talk and do stupid chuckleheaded stuff," like ride around on ATVs, or play pinball or PS2. "The last few years have been more about fun," Pitt says. "I noticed a few years back that the best [work] was stuff I didn’t plan for, so I really put a big emphasis on just letting what happens happen."

At times during the interview, Pitt’s polite manner and thoughtfulness seem to hint at an insecurity about his intelligence or his ability to articulate something successfully. When he thinks he can’t do an idea justice, he abandons the attempt altogether. But when he talks about architecture and design, two passions, the guarded brevity dissipates, and he rhapsodizes about individual man’s relationship to nature with all of the elegance and lyricism of a Robert Hass poem.

"It moves me like music," he says. "Done best, I can feel it moving. It has rhythms, harmonies — it’s symphonic."

He’s attracted to cutting-edge designers who work with new materials and shapes to really press the boundaries. Two of his favorites are Daniel Libeskind, winner of the contest to create a new World Trade Center, and Frank Gehry, whose best-known work, the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, Pitt has visited. "I stood across the water at Gehry’s Bilbao and just had absolute shivers," Pitt says. "Just shivers. It’s funny, because I saw an interview where he was standing on that very spot, and he was showing it to his clients. He thought, ‘Oh, my God. What have I done with these people’s money?’ "

Pitt says he has been doing "little experiments" on his own residences in Los Angeles, including a 1911 Craftsman he has restored out of a home workshop, as well as computer renderings for an architectural project in the desert with three partners.

Fincher has seen Pitt’s various models and is thoroughly impressed. "This is not a dilettante. He’s for real. The stuff he’s doing is truly great," says the director, who then makes an incredible prediction about Pitt’s future in architecture: "I think in the end he may be remembered more for what he’ll bring to that than what he’ll bring to movies."

Part of what Pitt likes about architecture is the discovery. "There is that thing I love of an individual in a room finding a line — and by ‘line’ I mean an angle, something that interests them — and following it and seeing where it goes," he says, admitting that the collaborative aspect of filmmaking does not engage his intellect in the same way. "Gehry said one of my favorite quotes that I really adhere to now. He said, ‘If you know where it’s going, it’s not worth doing.’ That spoke volumes to me."