THE CENTER OF A STAR – by Peter Biskind
Brad Pitt shies away from traditional leading-man roles. In the upcoming remake of the Rat Pack movie Ocean’s 11 he’s George Clooney’s sidekick, and in Spy Game, with Robert Redford, he’s often unrecognizable. Yet his indie sensibility hasn’t dimmed his stardom (or lowered his salary). In the fortress like studio where Pitt does architectural design and photography, and where his wife Jennifer Aniston, paints and sculpts, the 37-year old actor talks to Peter Biskind about fighting the celebrity trap and honing the fine art of Hollywood mischief-making.
One day Brad Pitt was standing on line waiting to buy a hot dog at Pink’s, the shabby if venerable fast-food shack on La Brea, in Los Angeles. Suddenly a van pulled up and a guy inside yelled, “Yo, Brad Pitt! Yo, man, gimme your autograph.” Pitt turned away, trying to ignore him, but the dude was not easily discouraged, shouting, “C’mon, man, don’t be like that. Give me your fuckin’ autograph. C’mon, man – is that how it is?” Suddenly, six or so shirtless guys, heads covered by black hoods, leapt from the van and jumped on Pitt, who, bleating like a stuck pig, begged for mercy in piteous tones unbefitting a $20 million-a-picture movie star, especially one who kicked ass in Fight Club and Snatch. But his weeping and wailing fell on deaf years. The assailants threw him into the van and sped off. It was all staged, of course, and filmed for Jackass, the now cancelled cult show on MTV in which the cast, presided over by host Johnny Knoxville, would be set on fire, get hit by cars, and play other stupid pet tricks on themselves. Pitt was the only celebrity to join the fun, and his trick was so realistic that one of Pink’s cooks hurdled the counter and chased the van down the street.
Looking back a few months later, Pitt shakes his head as if he still can’t believe it. “These guys” – the Jackass producers – “are in a league of their own,” he says, grinning. “I laugh my ass off watching the thing. It was outta hand, outta hand.”
How many other movie stars would stage their own abduction? Few have as little reverence for their public profile, few have so disdained the care and feeding of their own stardom, few are as dismissive of their genetic good fortune. Brad Pitt, in other words, is way too cool to be Brad Pitt. People magazine’s obsession with him – naming him the Sexiest Man Alive twice, giving his marriage to Jennifer Aniston the royal-wedding treatment – just embarrasses him. “He was sort of a hormonal neutron bomb in Thelma & Louise,” says David Fincher, a close friend who directed him in Seven and Fight Club, referring to the breakout role that introduced Pitt and his washboard abs to the world’s moviegoers. “He doesn’t want people going, ‘I love you with your shirt off.’ Who wants to hear that? It’s like, ‘You were such a cute baby!’”
In a way, Pitt has become the prisoner of his own image, and he’s doing his damnedest to escape. Just look at the parts he has been choosing. He doesn’t do conventional action pictures, doesn’t do giddy romantic comedies opposite Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock, and hasn’t done any high-toned Oscar-grabbing epics since Meet Joe Black in 1998. At first, he says, his agents “were frustrated with me, but now they know me well enough, it doesn’t surprise them. I enjoy action pictures, a little escape, but I don’t want to spend six months of my life doing one and then come back the next year for dubbing and then push the thing.” He doesn’t even like to play leading men, preferring character roles to feed his inner Dustin Hoffman. He continues, “I certainly felt the pressure, when I was younger, to play the kind of man who gets the girls, has all the answers, never makes mistakes, and defuses the bomb in 10 seconds.” But not anymore. In last year’s Snatch, Guy Ritchie’s remake of his own Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Pitt played sixth, seventh, and eighth fiddle to a gaggle of British actors virtually unknown to American audiences, and in his handful of scenes, when the blue eyes and the impish grin jumped off the screen, it was despite his best efforts to obscure his face with grime and schmutz. In last March’s The Mexican, he contented himself with half a plot (Julia Roberts and James Gandolfini ran off with the rest), playing a none-too-bright small-time loser, Velcro for misfortune, and once again buried himself in dirt. It’s not hard to imagine Pitt as the avatar of the Hollywood branch of Dogma 95, the Danish gun-and-run film collective responsible for The Celebration.
“He doesn’t care what he looks like, doesn’t care what people think about the part,” says Steven Soderbergh, who directed Pitt in the upcoming Ocean’s 11. “I don’t think there’s anybody of that stature who even comes close to taking the risks that he’s taken. He’s absolutely fearless.”
His two new films, though certainly mainstream Hollywood fare, don’t entirely deviate from the recent pattern. Ocean’s 11, due out at Christmas, is another ensemble piece; Pitt plays George Clooney’s sidekick, the Dean Martin role in the Rat Pack original. In Tony Scott’s Spy Game, out in November, he works opposite Robert Redford, but it’s Redford’s movie, and Pitt’s character although closer to classic leading-manhood than he’s allowed himself to get since Meet Joe Black, is angry and disillusioned and, worse, beaten half to death, spending a good swatch of his screen time lying senseless, covered with blood, virtually – again – unrecognizable. What’s going on here?
Actually, you don’t have to be Freud to figure it out. Thelma & Louise was released in 1991, so Pitt, now 37, has had a whole decade to ponder the up and downsides of celebrity. Even though he made his own bed – nobody has to be coaxed into taking his shirt off that many times – he can perhaps be excused for concluding it’s lumpier that he imagined. Not that he’s complaining. Says Julia Roberts, a close friend who is also in Ocean’s 11, “He’s a boy with a dream who became a man living that dream, and isn’t going to bitch about it.” But Matt Damon, another of his Ocean’s 11 co-stars, recalls watching Hard Copy or some such show seven years ago, and at the end of it, along came a segment called “Pitt Stop.” “They said, ‘Today Brad Pitt, like, went and bought a gallon of ice-cream. And a pizza,’ and I remember thinking, What the fuck? Do they do that everyday? Say what this fucking poor guy did? He had nothing to do with it. Brad got caught in this thing where it was way beyond his control. You see a lot of people desperately trying to get press, and you see him desperately trying not to.” Since his marriage to Aniston – which he refers to as “the merger” – the scrutiny has only gotten worse. People, which is to Pitt what Boswell was to Dr. Johnson, logged every detail of the ceremony in its “luminaries in love” spread. He’s become a celebrity nova with his own personal stalker and a wolf pack of “razzis,” as he calls them, snapping at his heels. A Google search turns up almost 320,000 Pitt references. (Tom Hanks, by way of comparison, notches only 184,000.)
Pitt’s celebrity has a kind of purity to it, which is a polite way of saying that it has not always been backed up by big numbers at the box office the way you see with Hanks or Tom Cruise, whose presence alone guarantees that virtually anything not directed by Stanley Kubrick will make money. Pitt has never had a hit where he’s had to carry the picture, and when his films have scored he’s had plenty of help, as was the case with Seven (1995, opposite Morgan Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow), Interview with a Vampire (1994, opposite Cruise), and 12 Monkeys (for which Pitt received a 1995 Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, opposite Bruce Willis). Several of Pitt’s films have even been notorious flops, like the trifecta of Seven Years in Tibet (1997), Meet Joe Black, and The Mexican. Not that he hasn’t made a lot of good movies or turned in a string of fine performances, such as his chillingly convincing serial killer in Kalifornia (1993) or his unsettling portrayal of Edward Norton’s Nietzschean alter ego in Fight Club (1999). But usually a star of Pitt’s wattage starts to flicker if he doesn’t light up the box office. Not in this case. His just-shy-of-Harrison-Ford-size salary seems immune to financial downturns, the way the stock market used to be.
Moreover, there are others whose DNA has been similarly blessed who have much less to show for it. So what is the source of his appeal? Soderbergh compares Pitt to Steve McQueen, and that seems right: on top of Pitt’s looks, it’s the McQueen air of not-so-studied negligence that’s so attractive, the what-me-worry nonchalance, the centeredness, the at-homeness in his own skin. “I don’t think he gets credit for being as good as he is,” says Soderbergh. “In terms of movie-star performances, I thought he was as good in Snatch as McQueen ever was. It was a really star performance in the best sense of the word, absolutely riveting and charismatic, funny. If another actor had given that performance who didn’t look like Brad, it would have been talked about much more. I found him in Ocean’s 11 to be a really terrific actor, with really good instincts, a really good sense of timing, and an ease that I don’t think you can fake.
He’s a very secure person,” Soderbergh adds. “He would be exactly the same person whether stardom had happened to him or not. He just is who he is, just one of the coolest people on the planet.”
On a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles at the end of August, Pitt is wearing jeans, a faded red long-sleeved T-shirt, and a color-stippled knit cap that comes down over his ears and conceals his signature spiky blond hair. He is tall and lean, and not nearly so pumped up as he was, say, in Fight Club; he has the build more of a rangy tight end than of a middleweight. He also looks tired and needs a shave. He’s been doing pictures back-to-back for months on end, and just two nights ago was in Canada doing reshoots for Spy Game. Yesterday, back in L.A., he was finishing last-minute shots for Ocean’s 11. “I’ve been overextended lately,” he sighs. “I’ve lost that quality of life, as they say.”
The man who abducted himself sits chain-smoking Marlboro Lights in his sparsely furnished studio, a workplace he designed and renovated in the Hollywood Hills. The back of his hand is covered with an abstractly enigmatic tattoo left over from Ocean’s 11 (“I have no idea what it’s suppose to be”), and he looks like he’d rather be anywhere but here. He’s a good sport, though, and gropes for an explanation of why he agreed to appear on Jackass: “The thing I love about Jackass is these guys just throw themselves out there and let the videotape run, and what will be, will be. You can get so controlled in this business. Once you get to a certain plateau, you feel like there’s something to protect, or at least that’s the sickness. I’ll tell you what – in the last few years I’ve just kind of given up all control. And it’s such a relief, such a relief.” He pauses. “That’s a lie, actually, I was joking.” He hasn’t really given up control. He can’t afford to.
Pitt sees a lot of movies, thinks about them, and has an educated and – given his position at the top of the A-actor heap – surprisingly dark, subversive taste. He’s a big Todd Solondz fan, and is high on Gummo, a little-seen, but highly original, corrosive Polaroid of small-town American life by Harmony Korine, best known as the writer of Kids, and someone from whom we will undoubtedly hear more. Pitt talks about how much he’d like to work with Alexander Payne, who made Election, and Wes Anderson, the director of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.
His instincts are right, but the question is: Is it too late? Is he too big, too famous, too much the creation of his fans, who won’t be happy if he doesn’t take off his shirt? Look what happened to The Mexican, which was a low budget indie film until Pitt got hold of it. Aware of the risk, he was reluctant to sign on, because he knew a star of his magnitude might capsize the picture, but when Roberts came on board he thought she could deflect the glare, and he overcame his doubts. During the production, they tried to remain true to the project’s roots. “Our approach to the thing was run and gun, gonzo, raw and loose, stick up a light and go, killing everything precious about making a film,” he explains. He wanted to give it the casual feel of Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket. In fact, The Mexican had a lot of promise – a good script, a talented director, and an all-star cast – but that’s often a recipe for trouble. The premise proved to be way too ambitious, a shotgun wedding of Rashomon and one of those never-funny-enough caper films such as Beat the Devil, and the finished film was far too long at 123 minutes. But the coup de grace was delivered by the pairing of Pitt and Roberts, which set up expectations that the film could never satisfy. “My and Julia’s baggage threw it off somehow,” Pitt reflects. “It’s not an indie anymore, it’s not pushed like a small movie. I don’t know how to get around that.”
For Pitt, the problem now is that there may be no way to get around it. He recognizes that however much he admires Solondz, for example, his “baggage” may just be too cumbersome for him to ever work with the director. And the same may be true for the other filmmakers on his list. “I know that this image, the world’s definition of Brad Pitt, is just an image, because I just feel like a normal guy,” he says. But to the world he’s still a cover boy for People, the Sexiest Man Alive.
Sipping a Starbucks coffee that has materialized out of nowhere, delivered by one of several shadowy assistants who appear and disappear, Pitt continues: “My week consists …five days out of the seven I’ve got at least three cars of paparazzi on me that I’ve got to either lose or whatever.” His voice is soft, barely audible. “The thing with our marriage is that there was an opening in the Hollywood-couple slot, and unfortunately we’ve fallen into it. Which I don’t like very much. I don’t like throwing us in this box. It doesn’t leave us room to be human, to make our mistakes and have our struggles, because that will just be another story, a whole new other life for the rags.” The media microscope has become so oppressive, he sometimes feels as if he were under house arrest, a virtual prisoner in his own home. “That’s why we all end up hiding and creating communes or compounds, because it’s work when you go out there in public. You can’t just go to the doctor, sit in a waiting room, and read a magazine. You can’t go to the airport and wait for your flight, because you get mauled. So there are these little shortcuts. Which on one hand are a necessity because there’s such an intensive focus on what you’re trying to create that you cannot go out and get your Mennen Speed Stick or your toothpaste.”
“But on the other hand,” he goes on, “it’s just a huge trap. We are treated as special. We get away with things that other people can’t. And you start to believe the lie that you are special, that you’re better than other people. You start demanding that kind of treatment. Most of the time I fight it because I know I’m going to get older and it’s going to go away, but at times I succumb to it. I’ve got a couple of friends that might as well be family, and I’ve caught myself just ordering one of them to do something because you get accustomed to people doing things for you…It’s the money and the power, it just crushes everything.”
Virtually everything that Pitt says, does, or shows me in the hours we spend together is a gloss on the themes of freedom and confinement. He has a real talent for architectural design, and talking about the studio in which we are sitting, where he draws, makes models, and dabbles in one of his other interests, photography (and which he shares with Aniston, who paints and sculpts), Pitt comes to life, his weariness vanishing. He’s up on his feet, animated, and enthusiastic, a fountain of information. “This place speaks for me better probably than I can speak for myself,” he says, and that could be true. With what must have been a considerable investment of time, energy, and God knows how much money, he has erected a monument to his preoccupation. Pitt’s place is situated in one of those gated communities in L.A., the ones you drive by without a second glance. To enter, you punch in the correct combination and maneuver under a gate that rises like the blade of a guillotine in reverse. At the house, you need to go through another gate, or rather an outside door made of vertical bars as big around as baseball bats – it would be right at home in HBO’s prison drama Oz. Once you get to Pitt’s studio, however, you find an airy, open space, full of light, notwithstanding the fact that it is built into the side of a hill and seems half buried, a riot of Southern California desert flora above window level in the back. On the downhill side, rows of tall, narrow, rectangular glass windows framed in stainless steel rotate on their axes, opening to the sweet air outside at the touch of a switch, but closing too, revealing that the glass is coated with security film (Matico Protekt CL400XSR, if you want to know). The studio shows a real feel for materials, all of which are unfamiliar or unexpected. From a distance, the walls seem to be made of plaster, but as I get closer, I see they’re streaked and textured, and turn out to be a composite of plaster and travertine dust. The studio is an extension of an old stone potter’s shed, so Pitt has also used stone throughout. Combined with some sinister-looking contraptions in Aniston’s painting space that suggest something out of Kalifornia or Laurence Olivier’s dental office in Marathon Man, the rock and expanses of white wall remind me a little of those futuristic bunkers occupied by James Bond villains, Blofeld or Dr. No. The fortress feel is exacerbated by Pitt’s predilection for institutional hardware. With some exceptions, he has furnished the place out of hospital, military, and correctional catalogues. The toilets are stainless steel. Outside, on the deck, are oval, stainless-steel planters that look like modernist urinals or elongated bidets. In the kitchen area there’s a wonderful industrial refectory table made of some heavy-duty metal. Instead of benched or chairs, it features small, round seats like mushrooms that swing outward on stalks attached to the underside. It’s military in provenance; stylistically it falls somewhere between Rikers Island and Alice in Wonderland.
Pitt is taken with the ways lines, planes, and angles intersect. “I always want to see some kind of freedom,” he says, looking across the bog room. Following his gaze, I realize that wherever I turn there’s a line of perspective extending through doorways and windows to the outside. As he puts it, “You’ve got to be a line junkie to really appreciate the perspective of the place. Because there’s always perspective, there’s always freedom.” He’s right: the building consists of a play of freedom and confinement. One demands the other. Pitt himself broke loose from his small-town roots in Springfield, Missouri, or as he corrects me, “Missoura.” He was raised as a Baptist, although not happily. He used to sit in the South Haven Baptist Church longing to let out a whoop or a fart, then stand up and yell, “It was me!”
“I came from a very white-bread Christian community,” he says. “There were 1,800 students in my high school. Four were black.” He recalls that Saturday Night Fever made a big impression on him when he was a kid. “Not the dancing or the clothes, but seeing these other cultures and these guys with their accents and the way they handled themselves and talked. It blew my mind and it got me on this quest for travel and other cultures.”
He left home to go to college at the University of Missouri at Columbia, studied journalism with a nod at marketing and advertising. “It’s just as important to find out what you don’t want to do as what you do want to do,” he says. He had always loved movies and what he did want to do was act in them. In 1986, at the age of 22, two credits short of graduation, he lit out for L.A. and never looked back. While pursuing roles he also delivered refrigerators, advertised El Pollo Loco restaurants dressed in a chicken costume, and drove strip-o-gram girls around town. Although he performed some in high school and college, Pitt had very little formal training as an actor. “I guess there’s a kind of attitude that I grew up with, that you can learn anything,” he says. He got his first shot with a bit part on Dallas, then hopscotched through small guest spots on TV and in forgettable movies until Thelma & Louise launched his career.
Pitt’s love life has long received the full-court press from the tabs. Until Aniston, he’d shown a predilection for his co-stars: he went out with Robin Givens, the former Mrs. Mike Tyson, whom he had met on the set of her sitcom, Head of the Class, in 1998. He had a three-year romance with Kalifornia co-star Juliette Lewis, then moved on to Gwyneth Paltrow, whom he had met on the set of Seven in 1994. This time it looked serious, with Pitt calling her “my angel, the love of my life.” He even got to the point of designing her an engagement ring, but the couple eventually called it off, throwing the tabs into a frenzy of speculation comparable to, say, the tizzy over Area 51. He and Aniston began dating in 1998, fixed up by their respective reps. At first they kept things quiet, but the news gradually came out, climaxing in the July 29, 2000, nuptial extravaganza.
Although Pitt conveys the artless, what-you-see-is-what-you-get forthrightness that we rightly or wrongly associate with small towns, in many ways he’s rejected the values he grew up with. It’s hard to be a Baptist in Hollywood, and although he remains fascinated by religion and affairs of the soul – which may have seduced him into choosing the soupy spirituality of some not very good New Agey projects such as Seven Years in Tibet and Meet Joe Black – he confesses, “I left Christianity pretty much behind when I left Missouri,” and he has a fairly low opinion of organized religions in general. “Islam freaked me out a bit, too,” he says, recalling the four weeks he spent in Morocco filming Spy Game. “I was just surprised to see, in a culture so steeped in religion, the ferocity with which they attacked each other, the fighting in the street over the most petty things. I could see the fanaticism…To me, it’s live and let live. I don’t care if you’re sucking a horse’s cock in a dress. I do…not…care. Do what you like as long as you do it yourself and you don’t push it on me, me and mine. Have at it.”
He’s flirted with therapy, spent a year and a half in treatment, although he won’t say precisely why. “I crashed and burned, so I wanted to understand how I operate,” he says. “I came from a place where you had to be crazy to go to a crazy doctor, and my background is very few words – actions speak for the words. It’s just as important what’s not said as what is said. We don’t talk about our feelings that way…I’ve though about pulling a Mariah Carey, but I know too much now.” And what exactly does he mean by that? “I was joking,” he says.
Pitt has an antic disposition, a nose-thumbing attitude that’s part of his charm. He likes to make mischief, and he has a lot of company in Hollywood, where practical joking has been developed into a fine art by people with the time, money, and motive to do so. Pitt and his pals, for example, once arranged for a friend to be “arrested” by faux Mexican police while on a trip somewhere south of Puerto Vallarta (ringing yet another variation on the theme of imprisonment). David Fincher is a similarly committed prankster, and when he learned that part of Spy Game was supposed to be shot in Israel, he arranged for Pitt to be pulled aside by the “authorities” at the airport and thrown into a back room, where every piece of his luggage was going to be torn apart in a quest for drugs. The piece de resistance was going to be a full cavity search, complete with a “deep probing kit,” something that makes Pitt cringe, even in the retelling: “It’s safe to say a fight would have ensued. I got an exit only clause. No entry allowed.” But, alas, Fincher’s elaborate scheme came to naught, because when fighting broke out between the Palestinians and Israelis in the fall of last year, the production moved to Morocco, where the director had no ins.
Although shot and finished well before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Spy Game interacts eerily with our recent history: the C.I.A., terrorists – there’s even a building blown up (by the C.I.A) and a scene where Pitt makes his way through the rubble. What is most striking in light of the September 11 disaster is the film’s portrait of the C.I.A. as an inept, bumbling bureaucracy. Redford plays a grizzled C.I.A. veteran who, on his last day of work before retirement, is called upon to rescue a rogue operative, played by Pitt, from a Chinese prison. Redford’s character has mentored and, after a fashion, come to love Pitt’s; in saving the younger man he is forced to re-examine his ruthless Cold War pragmatism.
Pitt says Spy Game is “really a father-son piece, although saying that makes me uncomfortable, and I’m sure it’d make Bob even more uncomfortable.” I wonder what Pitt is alluding to, but when I ask, Pitt shrugs it off with yet another “I was joking.” Then he reflects: “I do think there’s an older school where you don’t show your feelings as much, or your flaws – I see that with my father – but I also have to turn around and say Redford can be very sweet at times.” Redford had directed Pitt previously, in A River Runs Through It. Nine years later, Pitt says, “It was a thrill to get on the same side of the camera with Bob, but I actually found it difficult acting opposite him. There was a lot of conflict between our characters, we didn’t see eye to eye, and what I figured out in retrospect was, watching his films growing up, watching him portray the guy who had the answers, when I had to disagree with him in our scenes, I would just shut down, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find my argument. I couldn’t believe in it, because I kept believing what he was saying. He would tell me, ‘No,’ and I’d want to go, ‘O.K., got it!’”
In a sense, both actors were typecast. Redford is a very cerebral performer. “Bob knows exactly where his character is every millisecond of every beat of every scene,” says Tony Scott, the director. “Brad acts from his instincts. He doesn’t articulate them, he just says, ‘I want to pull my character more this way.’ He wants to leave himself enough room to move and let the character shift or change with the environment, with the guy opposite him.” Redford led, Pitt followed, but that created problems for Pitt. As he says of Edward Norton, a former co-star with an approach similar to Redford’s, “He has such insight into the geometry of the film. What you get is an overall journey for his character that is pretty flawless. But me, I kinda like the flaws. I like it a little sloppier. I like to take a chance, to see what’s going to happen. Now, the downside to my approach is that when it’s not working, it’s not working – it’s really not working. And I don’t have anything else to fall back on.”
But if Pitt found acting against Redford problematic, you’d never know it from his performance. In one scene, the two men confront each other on top of a building in Berlin. In the script, the confrontation between the two men is a moment of high drama, and the set was similarly charged. For his part, Redford wanted to know why Scott, who is known for spectacles such as Top Gun, was using a helicopter to film a two-character scene with dialogue. Pitt too was uncomfortable. Recalls Scott, “Brad didn’t quite have a handle on how his character should be feeling, but by the time we got rolling, I watched him build off what was actually happening between the two off them, the frustration of not quite getting the grasp. Brad was able to transfer that into anger. And it was great.” Indeed, as the camera circles the two men like a bird of prey, Pitt, gray-faced with Eastern European pallor, his blue eyes flashing and his hair flying in the wind, berates his mentor with conviction, punctuating his argument by throwing a chair off the rooftop while Redford fixes him with a cold look.
Pitt has admired Steven Soderbergh since he saw Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, and can speak quite eloquently about why he thinks Soderbergh had changed the language of film. The two of them had been talking about working together for a couple of years. They finally came together for Ocean’s 11, a remake of the 1960 caper film, starring Frank Sinatra and friends, about a heist in Las Vegas. The original wasn’t very good. In Pitt’s charitable words, “It had great moments, but to me it was more about watching the Rat Pack. This one has been completely reworked. It has a really sharp story laid out kind of in the fashion of The Sting.” Indeed, if the script, which fairly thrums with electricity, is any indication, Ocean’s 11 should be a hit. Almost every line is a zinger. From all accounts, it’s Pitt and George Clooney’s movie, but it’s got showy parts of Roberts, Damon, and the rest of Soderbergh’s troupe as well.
For the most part, Soderbergh has done character-driven pictures, and the far more elaborate and action-oriented Ocean’s 11 was no picnic. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s a movie about absolutely nothing, and I found it just brain crushing. Every day I felt I was hanging on by my fingernails. I would take two hours setting up a shot that I would abandon before we even shot it.”
For the actors, on the other hand, the shoot was pure fun, at least in part because of the pranks. Says Roberts, “It was like being the only girl in a family with 10 boys. At some point, you just go, O.K., yeah, my door has shaving cream all over it? O.K. My phone has Neosporin is the earpiece? O.K. ‘Hello?’ Squish – you just surrender.”
Even in this crowd, Clooney stood out – a prankster’s prankster. “George’s practical jokes border on the divine,” says Matt Damon. “They’re beautiful, and he rolls them out over the course of years. He meets somebody and he tries to figure out what their worst fear would be, what would really get them.” Pitt was especially worried about Clooney’s prowess, as Damon discovered. He and Pitt were staying next door to each other at the Bellagio while on location in Las Vegas. Damon had some friends visiting for the weekend, and Pitt was leaving, so Pitt – nice guy – offered to let them stay in his room. Back on the set Monday, he mentioned, in an offhand way, “Hey, man, can I have my room key back?”
The fact of the matter was that the keys – plastic cards – all looked the same and had gotten mixed up. Damon didn’t know which one was Pitt’s, but promised to return it later. Tuesday they had the same conversation. And Wednesday. By Thursday, Damon noticed that Pitt looked a little peaked, dragging on the set, bags under his eyes. And when Pitt once again asked about the key, trying hard to be casual, Damon detected a note of desperation. On Friday, Pitt finally sat Damon down and explained, “I can’t get any sleep, man.” He was convinced that Damon and Clooney were holding his key because they were going to prank his room. Pitt, who knows every conceivable trick, confessed, “I get home from the set, it takes me two hours, I rip my room apart like fuckin’ Harry Caul, man” – a reference to the Gene Hackman character in The Conversation. Pitt went on: “I check the closet, check the toilet, that it isn’t Saran Wrapped. I pick the phone up to check for Vaseline.” Damon ran off to tell Clooney, who said, “Don’t give him the key – this is better than any prank.”
But Damon finally told Pitt the truth: “Brad, I don’t know where the fuck your key is, just get your room rekeyed.” But Pitt still didn’t believe him: “No, man, you’re bullshittin’ me – you guys have something planned.” Says Damon, “He was convinced George had a prank running on him, and he was probably right.”
Now that he’s got Ocean’s 11 behind him, Pitt plans to return to following his more indie-oriented muse. “I mean to really make some good films in the next few years,” he says. “And how do I know that? I don’t know how I know that, but I do know that.” He has a project in development with the Coen brothers, and another in the works with Darren Aronofsky, who directed Pi and Requiem for a Dream. The Aronofsky film is a science-fiction picture called The Last Man, which deals with, among other things, the quest for immortality and the fear of death – an appropriate enough subject these days. “I never thought about death,” Pitt says. “I didn’t grow up in Belfast or Israel, so I never had to think about it, I guess, haven’t had to really deal with it – yet.” He is, however, phobic about sharks. “Being on the losing end of the food chain, that terrifies me.” But, he continues, “I’m afraid that I’m going to be the last one to go. On the other hand, I have had the thought lately that if it were to be my time, I’m O.K. with that – I think. I don’t think I’m snowing myself. This is a new thing for me, this is a new feeling.”
Maybe Pitt’s mood had been provoked by his marriage, or perhaps by the rapid approach of his 40s, but something has made him stand back and take stock. “I figure I’ve got about five strong years, seven tops,” he says, talking about his own place on top of the Hollywood food chain. “I am still at a viable age, but I’m not hitting the cusp. There’s something changing. Funnily enough, for the first time I find myself not listening to music. I used to scour the bins for new artists and spend hours in the record stores and loved the finds. And now I just leave it for the younger kids. I’m not sure I want to be relevant anymore. The fingers on the pulse – that comes with the youth. All I know is I just wish someone would get Destiny’s Child off my television. Drives me crazy.”
“On one hand,” he continues, “I’m hitting my own stride now. On the other hand, I’ll tell you truthfully, I’m completely bored with myself in films. It’s time for me to try either a new direction or new horizons. I have other interests that I want to pursue that mean more to me. I think there’s room to go away from it for a while and then you can come back and re-invent. We’ll see where it goes…I find myself looking forward to a family. It’s not that I’m self-absorbed. Anything that’s going to take the focus off myself, I welcome.”
Author’s Comments Contributing editor Peter Biskind believes that such films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11, starring Brad Pitt, are “exactly the kinds of movies people want to see in today’s climate. You don’t want to watch CNN all day, and Ocean’s 11 is perfect escapism.” The author of Easy Rider, Raging Bulls, about Hollywood in the 70s, and the former executive editor of Premiere magazine, Biskind has interviewed countless celebrities in his career. Meeting Pitt, he says, was a highlight. “Celebrities, like everybody else, are different from one another,” Biskind says. “There are celebrities who are dickheads and celebrities who are and smart and informed and charming and self-deprecating. I would put Pitt in the latter category.”