THE INTERVIEW – by Greg Williams
One recent morning on the Charles Bridge, which spans the Vltava river in Prague, a middle-aged portrait artist with a gray ponytail was sketching the tourist who come here to experience a european destination that’s billed as the City of a Hundred Spires. To advertise his skills, he has displayed a selection of his drawings of celebrities. The portraits are recognizable, but each is oddly off-kilter: A bloated Johnny Depp is pinne next to an entoxicated-looking Cameron Diaz, which is above a J.Lo who appears to need radical intervention from an orthodontist. In the place of honor–positioned next to the artist himself, no less–is a portraits of Angelina Jolie and her partner, Brad Pitt.
The unfortunate sketches are a reminder that for the past few weeks Prague has been home to Pitt and Jolie, whose presence has made this capital–so pretty it could have been concocted by a patissier–the red-hot center of the celebrity universe. The couple’s effect on the city is not lost on Pitt, who, playing the role of Mr. Mom while Angelina films the thriller Wanted, faces the same paparazzi assault he would in LA, as he drops Maddox off at the Elysee school and shepherds his other three kids around. (In case, like Brad Pitt, you’re not a reader of US Weekly, the roll call is: Maddox Chivan, 6; Pax Thien, 3; Zahara Marley,2; and Shiloh, 1.)
Brad Pitt enters the room at a clip. Like he’d better not stop moving, like there might be something following him.
“Hi, I’m Brad.” The handshake is firm, the forearm wiry. He wears a Khaki-colored long-sleeved T-shirt with another, short-sleeved T-shirt over the top, corduroys, and suede ankle boots. There’s a cream-colored felt fedora on his head. During our conversation he will shift the hat to several different places on his crown: Sometimes it will be perched on the back, like he’s a Thompson Twin; other times it will sit in the middle, hiding his precisely cut hair. He will lift it occassionaly and run his hand through a mane that has been dyed the color of a Hershey’s Kiss.
Pitt slings a messenger bag that’s packed with stuff–it could be the bag of an eight-grade boy who hasn’t cleaned it out for a couple of semesters–on the couch.
“I’m just about to fall over,” he says. He has the humming energy of a guy who has just got to eat. “I’ve got a mad metabolism.”
He scans the menu. “You can go to any country in the world, and you order a club sandwich, and universally it’s always a safe bet. It will not fail you,” he says, hunching over the black binder. He orders spaghetti Bolognese anyways, apologizing for sticking me with the will despite the fact that, he admits, he has a pocketful of Czech crowns. When the food arrives, after slicing it into small pieces, he devours most of the spaghetti standing up (“I’m a father, I rarely get to sit down and eat”). Occassionaly he will sit on the floor, his legs extended under a glass coffee table. Other times he will squat, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Here he is, Brad Pitt, a hungry American eating Italian food in the Czech Republic while plotting to save the world.
There was a rainbow over Prague the evening before we talked, one part of the sky was leaden, the other suggested just a hazy early-summer dusk: Light drizzle fell through the dreamy, golden light, the colors arcing over the citizens of Prague–the medieval Bohemian city that cradled Franz kafka, Ivan Klima, Vaclav Havel, and Antonin Dvorak. After the week, or two weeks, or however long they’re here in Prague (the Pitt-Jolie family schedule is so arcane that even Pitt is unsure of it), the family will decamp somewhere else. (“It’s a secret,”) Pitt says when I ask him where. “We’re taking two weeks with the family.”) Such a peripatetic life comes with its fair share of complications. Brad’s securitty guy, a goateed Brit named Billy, foreshadowed Pitt’s arrival by visiting the venue for our
meeting–a windows-sealed-for-your-own-inconvenience hotel suite–before his arrival, talking about “getting him in here.”
“It’s not going to keep our kids caged in,” Pitt insists, talking about the cameras and the tight security. “The only thing that frightens me today is something happening to my kids, or something happening to Angie, or something happening to Angie and I. That happens when they follow you, right.”
We have not been talking about the paparazzi, but it is clear that this is what he means by “they.”
“It is the defining annoyance of my life,” he says, emitting a deep, frustrated sigh. “I just think how strange it is for my kids. Mad, Z, Pax–they really believe that every time you go outside there is a herd of people with cameras snapping flashes in your face (who) are going to kind of block your way when you’re trying to get somewhere.
“That is their vision of the world outside. Very strange, isn’t it? It’s an everyday thing for them. They don’t really see it as bad or good. Z will point and go, ‘Cameras!’ Pax will point and say, ‘People.’ Maddox is keen to where his parents are coming from. I don’t want them to be tensing up, and I don’t want them to see or feel any kind of threat. But man, when (photographers) cross the line, you know–if it happened to one your kids, it’s hard not to want to take them down.”
Imagine for a minute that you are Brad Pitt a few years back. After sexing up Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise and sparking America’s most persistent schoolgirl crush, you are married to Jennifer Aniston, one of America’s Sexiest People. You are one of America’s Sexiest People, receiving millions of dollars per movie. What leads you to transform your life in the ways that Pitt has done over the past couple of years? Why be a slave to preschool timetables and disappear on fact-finding missions to Cambodia when you could be sitting poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel sipping Krug?
Maybe it was an age thing. Pitt may be freshly shaved, his green-gray eyes set deep in a face that is suspiciously dewy for a father of four, but he is 43 years old. He’s no longer a twentysomething heartthrob trading on his boyish good looks.
“I liked it, man,” he says of turning 40. “Maybe I had a crisis earlier or something. Maybe I had it in my thirties. You know, it’s…” Long pause. “One thing sucks, your face kind of goes. Your body’s not quite working the same. But you earned that, things falling apart.”
Or maybe it wasn’t a midlife crisis. Maybe it was a crisis of conscience?
“I carried the standard cynicism,” Pitt says. “But it was also feeling like, I can’t sit on my couch anymore, I’m going crazy. Thing thing I’m doing with my life, it’s very nice.. But it’s not doing it for me.. I’m watching the news and I see what’s going on in the world, and I see, like, Bono, getting in there, rolling up his sleeves and getting dirty. And taking shots for it. But, man, he’s doing something. And I see an old documentary of John Lennon railing about. At least they’re in the ring. I seem to be in this ring. It’s something that brought Angie and I together certainly–she’s absolute evidence for me of something facilitating change for the better.”
Now, in his life with Angelina, Pitt is as likely to find himself somewhere like Davos for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (“Angie has been there several times and has actually spoken there”) or the Clinton Global Initiative (“Clinton in a room is as impressive as they come. He is truly extraordinary”) or teamng up with co-stars Matt Damon, George Clooney, and Don Cheadle to form Not on Our Watch, a humanitarian group working in Darfur (“What I had was a will to understand. This is the most important thing: generating a will to understand for ourselves that really goes beyond what news we see on television”).
There is an inescapable irony that one who is so blessed, whose life has been such a procession of gilt-edged ascendancy and Centurion Card privilege, should be talking about social justice. The establishment of the Hollywood star system doesn’t exactly rank alongside Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 as a glittering day for parity. Pitt is self-aware enough to know that there are those who see his interest in worthy causes such as third-world poverty as self-consciously pious.
“Oh, I don’t give a shit about that,” he says briskly. “People have been saying crap about me for 15 years.”
In July 2006 Pitt visited New Orleans with the International environmental group Global Green, which has established an ongoing initiative to rebuild the city. He dedicated himself to what his philanthropic adviser, Trevor Neilsen–who was part of the Clinton administration before working for Bill Gates and Bill Clinton and has been consulting for Angelina for some time–describes as “part social-justice project an part climate-change project.”
“The people of New Orleans have been failed on the federal level, and the state level, and the local level,” Pitt says with a tinge of frustration.
Working with Global Green, Pitt sponsored and chaired a competition to design sustainable, energy-efficient, and carbon-neutral homes for the Lower Ninth Ward. The group is hoping to break ground later this year. And there are many other concerns both national and international in which the Pitt-Jolies have immersed themselves. According to The Giving Back 30 (a list of the largest public charitable donations by celebrities), the couple gave away $2,415,000 in 2006. Of course they’re making more money as quickly as they give it away.
This fall sees the release of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Aside from having one of the best titles in some time, the movie features powerful performances from pitt as James, Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, and sam Rockwell as Ford’s brother. Set in the last year of James’ life, it tells the story of how Ford’s infatuation with the notorious outlaw turned to betrayal.
“These doomed characters who don’t know how to right themselves,” Pitt says. “There’s a big lack of understanding of consequence. especially with the Robert Ford character. This isn’t so much a Western. It plays more like a psychological study of these guys. I probably just killed the ticket sales right there. I’ve never been a good salesman.”
And while Pitt is known more for his acting than for his behind-the-scenes work, his production company, Plan B, has quietly been building up an impressive roster of projects, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Departed, Running with Scissors, and A Mighty Heart. He had purchased the rights to James Frey’s discredited memoir A Million Little Pieces, but the option has expired.
Around this point in the conversation Pitt seems to have lost his initial energy. His answers have become shorter, the pauses loooonger. He has run out of of steam. This may well be due to his having devoured the Big Bowl of Spaghetti. But it could also be the subject matter. Pitt is most animated when he’s talking about anything but what he does for a living.
“This Paris Hilton quest for fame,” he says, perking up. “She’s blissfully oblivious.” Here he breaks into a snigger worthy of a sixth-grader who has just hit a classmate with a killer spitball. “Oh, my god, we’ve been away for.. Where were we? we hadn’t seen television for.. like a month. I’m probably exaggerating. And we just got back to the States. And we turned on CNN. And I was so happy to sit down with some CNN. And on comes Paris Hilton, going to jail. And so we just turned it off again.”
it’s time for Pitt to go home to a mate who is as regal as a hood ornament and children who could keep Benetton in advertising campaigns for years. He has the wide-eyed incredulity of the newly anointed dad, breaking out in a broad smile whenever the topic is raised.
I wonder how it was going from having no kids to four kids..”
But in a short period of time.
“Two and a half years or so.”
that’s a quick way to do it.
“Listen, I’ve always embraced extremes, so it doesn’t feel odd to me. There’s a couple weeks of finding your balance, and then it’s in stone.”
And there’s nothing you can do about it from that point on.
“Nothing I’d want to do about it, either. We’re not done.”
“You just look at them and go, my daughter’s from Ethiopia, two sons from asia, a daughter who’s born in namibia–and they are brother and sister. They have the same dynamics I had growing up, and I..” Pause. “It pleases me so much. I get so warm. I don’t even see in that, anymore, what their lives could have been. I have to intellectually think about that. They are a bond, they are a family. And I want to see those bonds and that family grow. And that right there, sitting in our kitchen, is how I want to see the world. It’s how I want the world to be.”