Filmink – 2007

LUCKY THIRTEEN – by Philip Berk

He might be one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and a man constantly pursued by the paparazzi, but Ocean’s Thirteen star Brad Pitt is right where he wants to be.

Is thirteen a lucky number? For Brad Pitt, maybe it is. It’s been thirteen years since he
became a superstar with Legends of the Fall. And his new movie is Ocean’s Thirteen.

On the heels of the film’s opening, Brad is nowhere in sight when it comes to press duties, but he and the rest of the high profile cast made a big splash at The Cannes Film Festival, along with his partner Angelina Jolie, whose film A Mighty Heart (directed by Michael Winterbottom) was also playing in competition.

Able to stay on top for thirteen years now, Brad Pitt is the most ingenious of movie stars, though that very term itself probably sticks in his craw. If ever there was a sweet guy, it’s Brad. I remember his first press conference for Thelma and Louise and how he blushed when Scandinavian members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association told him that his name was Swedish for, ah, penis. Despite various conditions being laid out before he can be interviewed, Brad usually throws them out of the window as soon as he sits down.

‘Have at it,’ is his usual welcoming response. In fact, brad is essentially the same sweet, innocent guy who nervously seduced Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise. Richer certainly, and more famous of course, but at heart, he’s the same guy who would rather play unorthodox roles in films like Kalifornia, True Romance, Fight Club and Snatch than traditional matinee idol parts.

When People Magazine named him The Sexiest Man in the World, I asked Pitt if doing a movie like Guy Ritchie’s low budget British gangster flick Snatch was his attempt to distance himself from that dubious honour. ‘It wasn’t an active move to distance myself from anything,’ he replied. ‘It was an active move to explore other facets. I personally don’t see myself in that one corner. Quite frankly, I’d be pretty bored being in one corner. I want to do other things, and when I find those opportunities, I do them. I always check out new directors. I’m interested in seeing what people are doing.’

As well as scouting for new talent, Pitt is also an actor not afraid to take a massive pay cut if the role is right. As well as the cut-rate Snatch, he’s also tightened his purse strings for the likes of Twelve Monkeys and Babel, and did cameos for friends in films like George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal. ‘I come from a very humble background,’ Pitt says. ‘I lived that way longer than I lived the Hollywood life, so I’m not expecting big trailers and those kinds of things, which personally I don’t need.’

Among many who have vouched for Brad Pitt’s down to earth status, Australian actress Rose
Byrne – who co-starred with him in Troy – is probably one of the most credible sources. ‘I’ve had really bad experiences (with famous actors) where they just dismiss you and are really rude,’ Byrne told Filmink. ‘They can have a real quality like that, but I’ve also met plenty who are really nice, genuine guys, like Brad Pitt. Maybe you need attitude to make it, but it’s nice to meet someone not like that.’

For Pitt, there are things that he needs to accomplish as an actor that have nothing to do with the aforementioned trailers and pay cheques. ‘Maybe there’s no such thing as a flawless performance, but it’s something you strive for – to go a little deeper, to be more truthful,’ he says. ‘To realise the same level of performance as those roles that affected me as a kid, the films and roles that changed my life in a sense. I’m talking about films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon. There were universal truths there. I’ve fallen into a lot of traps along the way, and I’d like to do that less and less on the acting front.’

Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve and now Ocean’s Thirteen- all helmed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh – have been the exact opposite of what Pitt may consider to be the traps of his career. The films offer the best of both worlds: slick, commercial storytelling, with an undeniable sense of perfectly maintained cool. Director Steven Soderbergh plays the films like a maestro, mixing his experiemental cinematic techniques with the series’ trademark straight-up heist plotting. ‘he’s sharp as a knife,’ Pitt enthuses of his director. ‘He’s pushing things forward. He’s an innovator, and that’s why I’d wanted to work with him for the longest time. he starts a scene in the conventional way and then he turns it on its head. He’s grat. I have a love affair with all the directors I’ve worked with. This is a director’s medium. It’s the director who should be on the cover of magazines. They’re the most interesting people in the forum.’

With Ocean’s Thirteen, director Steven Soderbergh flips the formula back to its beginnings after the slightly snide, highly self-reflexive second installment, which played a little too hard and fast with notions of what’s real and what’s not, and the excess baggage that the big name cast brings to the films. Ocean’s Thirteen, however, brings it all back home. After pulling a heist in Europe in Ocean’s Twelve, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his gang are back in Las Vegas. And this time, they’re after revenge. When ruthless casino owner Willy Bank (Al Pacino) double-crosses Danny Ocean’s friend and mentor Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) – putting him in the hospital in the process – he immediatly puts himself on the wrong side of Ocean’s crew. Danny, Rusty (Pitt), Linus (Damon), Basher (Cheadle), Frank (Bernie Mac) and the gang set out to ‘break the Bank’ on the night of what should be the gambling mogul’s greatest triumph: the grand opening of his new casino.

‘The message here is that if someone screws over one of them’ Pitt says of the Ocean’s
Thirteen, ‘he screws over all of them.’ While Clooney’s Danny Ocean is the ideas man, his most trust ally is Pitt’s Rusty Ryan, the tactician of the group and the man who knows how to turn plans into actions. An inveterate thief, Rusty is right in the middle of another delicate score when he gets the call from Danny about their fallen buddy Reuben. In a dash, he dumps the prize and jets to Las Vegas.

It could almost be a description of the film itself, with a host of in-demand, big name actors practically dropping what they were doing to get on board the Ocean’s bandwagon again. ‘We were just finishing the second film, and I though it would be fun to go back to Las Vegas for the next one,’ says Steven Soderbergh. ‘In large part, the film was motivated by everyone wanting to work together again. But it was always with the understanding that it had to be ‘all in’ or we were not doing it – everybody comes back or nobody comes back.’

The film found Brad Pitt back in Las Vegas, and he’s not backward in coming forward about his skills with a deck of cards. I’m very good at the blackjack table,’ he smiles. “I have no qualms about saying that. I enjoy it. I’m a gut player, as opposed to Matt Damon, who plays by the book and always breaks even. Then there’s George Clooney, who couldn’t win a hand to save his life. He’s awful!’

The talk of gambling, Las Vegas and winning big leads to a topic that most actors scrupulously shy away from: money. ‘I suppose in some way it’s indecent, since we’re not curing cancer or saving lives, but it’s a huge industry,’ Pitt says of his astronomical pay days. ‘They make tons and tons of money, and they lose tons and tons of money; it’s like betting on horses, but I’m glad they’re giving me some.’ When asked what he does with his money, Pitt simply replies that he ‘kind of gives it away.’

A lot of that money has gone to various projects and charities, and Pitt has been a high
profile supporter of unconventional architect Frank Gehry, the subject of Sydney Pollack’s film The Sketches of Frank Gehry and the designer of the famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Pitt helped Gehry design a controverial $525 million housing and sports complex for the town of Hove in the UK, and has supported him on other projects as well. ‘I’m an architectural nut,’ says the actor. ‘It’s always been a love of mine. And Frank Gehry is on eof the guys that really blew the lid off the box, and opened the door for the future. LA is a funny place. Despite its reputation for fostering the arts, there’s no art that goes into the planning of the city. SO now there are thirteen acres around Disney Hall (Which Gehry designed), and there’s a chance to build on what was started there. But without out intervention, it could mean that the project would be hijacked by developers; Frank invited me to sit in on the inner circle, but I’m more on the periphery.’

In terms of architecture, Pitt also allowed his home’s garden to be featured in Home and
Garden magazine. ‘I did that because I find it a very spiritual place,’ he says. ‘If I have a religion, it’s nature. There’s a lot to learn from the way nature operates, the way it turns, and how the ugliest plant will have the prettiest bloom, but for the shortest time. It’s quite miraculous.’

For an actor famously hounded by both legitimate photographers and the paparazzi, it was a surprisingly candid and open move by Pitt, as was his decision to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair stripped to his waist. Instead of becoming angry, Pitt responds gregariously when I bring up the subject. ‘I want to work with great photographers, and I’ve been fortunate to do so,’ he says of the shoot, which was created by the legendary Herb Ritts. ‘As a photographer myself, I want to learn from the experience, so a lot of it is exploration. Ultimately I know they’re going to take the shirtless photos. I’m not going to fight that anymore. I don’t care. You want me to take my pants off? I’ll take my pants off! I don’t care. It’s alright. If people get something out of it, fine. If people look down on it, fine. It’s too tiring to worry about.’

A photographer like Herb Ritts and the paparazzi, however, are totally different beasts. Is he still hounded by the paparazzi snappers? ‘Let me give you an illustration,’ he replies. ‘I’ll tell you how my day started because it’s kind of interesting. I get up and dress, have coffee, and get in the car to wherever I’ve got to go. I come down the hill, I know the locations. I spot them (the paparazzi). It’s either a van or an SUV. They’ve removed the front license plates, and you can pick them up. They’re on the phone and they cat like they’re not following you, and they they turn off, and another picks you up. They’re actually quite obvious, but I just drag with them, and they go with me, and that’s how it works. Some days I lose them because I don’t feel like being the subject matter for the day.’

Can he recall the craziest thing he ever read about himself in the tabloids? ‘I was called ‘the most frightened man in America’ when I had a few dates with Robin Givens after she split with Mike Tyson. There was this big picture of Mike Tyson and little me in front. I got a kick out of that.’

A canny and highly underrated actor, Pitt’sprivate life (from his high profile relationships with actresses Juliette Lewis, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, and his current partnership with activist, actress and public icon Angelina Jolie) has often overshadowed his on-screen work.’There’s really only a small handful of people in the world who are really famous, and fortunately for Brad, he’s one of them,’ remarked his Troy co-star Eric Bana.

Despite Pitt’s vivid, emotionally on-song turns in the likes of the powerful Babel which saw him receive career-best reviews) and the trippy Twelve Monkeys, it’s always the off-screen side of his life that seems to get the most play. How does he avoid the pitfalls of celebrity? ‘Buying into that image can be dangerous,’ Pitt replies. ‘It can be a minefield. Being catered to is dangerous. We can be put on this kind pedestal. The danger is thinking that you’re
special. It may work for a career, but it’s a dead end on a personal level. But at times, the whole image things has worked in my favour because it’s allowed me to surprise people, which is great.’

Though he’s given a firstful of wholly surprising performances (with the likes of Fight Club and Snatch the standouts), Pitt is yet to infuse any of his films with his strong political sensibility. The likes of Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s wide-ranging international polemic Babel and the topical Spy Game may have been lit with social commentary, but Pitt has been far more vocal on political issues off the screen than he has on. After September 11, when asked how we should deal with Osama Bin Laden, the actor didn’t mince his words. ‘Speaking on behalf of myself, I say that firstly, we’ve got to stop them. If we were to forgive those responsible, I don’t think it would stop. Secondly, we’ve got to educate ourselves to learn where this is coming from. I learned from making The Devil’s Own that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,’ and thirdly, we have to remove ourselves from our dependency on oil. We have the technology. It would be an expensive crossoever, but I’m willing to do my share. It would be better for the world anyway.’

On the set of 1997’s The Devil’s Own – a hard edged thriller where he played an IRA terrorist opposite Harrison Ford’s New York cop – Pitt had threatened to walk off the picture, but when asked to explain what happened, he made light of it. ‘That was completely my error,’ he said. ‘Having gone to Ireland, I felt a responsibility to the people I had met there. I’d seen their hardships and their pain, and I didn’t want to trivialise it by making an action film. But after talking to (director) Alan (Pakula) and Harrison, they relieved me of that fear and assured me that there was no way they would allow that to happen.’

Today, Pitt is appalled by the way that America is perceived by the rest of the world, and offers a striking example. ‘It was when we were shooting Ocean’s Twelve in Amsterdam,’ Pitt explains. ‘I get a bike wherever I go, and I went for a midnight ride around Amsterdam. There were guys coming out of a bar having a good time. I said, ‘Excuse me’, and swerved out of the way and they started screaming, ‘You fucking American! We’ll fucking kill you! I’d never come face to face with that before. It seems to me that all conflicts are about perception. If you can understand yourself and how and why you perceive things, you can start to understand how other people perceive things. If people operated that way, there would be far less conflict in the world.’

Another controversy that Pitt has found himself in the middle of is one that swirled around the film The Fountain, which he was to have made in Australia with director Darren Aranofsky. The film collapsed when Pitt pulled out, and was lated made on a smaller scale with Hugh Jackman in the leading role. ‘Brad (Pitt) and I had worked together for two-and-a-half years – it was like a relationship,’ Darren Aranofsky told Filmink last year of the initial stages of The Fountain. ‘When we broke up, he even said that it felt like he was breaking up with a girlfriend. It’s never one thing that breaks up a relationship. It was probably because I was in Australia for siz months prepping the film, and he was in LA, and creatively we just grew apart. It was tragic for a lot of people. I felt really bad for all the crews and stuff. It all just collapsed.’

Though painted by various parties as the villain of the piece, it was no easier for Pitt
to pull the plug on The Fountain. ‘Darren is one of the greatest visualists and a unique
storyteller,’ the actor says. ‘He’d been on it for four years. I worked with him for a year and a half. Everything needed to be thought through, and it needed more time to incubate. There were still major holes that needed to be worked out, and I thought that we were heading for a Hindenberg. That was a painful decision because he’s a friend of mine and I like him very much. I really wanted to do the project, but I had to put the brakes on it.’

On the flipside, the Ocean’s franchise has never been fraught with any kind of difficulty, though producer Jerry Weintraub – seen by many as the driving force behind the films – could have been talking specifically about Brad Pitt when describing the logistics of getting the third film off the ground. ‘In the six years since we did the first film people’s lives have changed,’ he said. ‘Not only are these actors all in demand, they have families and babies and new interests that had to be taken into consideration. You can’t get this large a production together unless everybody is willing to throw his hat into the ring.’

Pitt is the most high profile of the crew with new ‘families and babies’. He legally adopted Angelina Jolie’s three children – Maddox, Zahara and Pax – and on May 27, 2006, Jolie gave birth to a daughter that they named Shilog Nouvel Jolie-Pitt. At his press conference for
Babel last years, Pitt saw this as ‘a fulfillment of his life’s dream.’ Has fatherhood
enhanced his life? ‘No question about it,’ he replies. ‘It makes you more efficient, because you do everything faster. There’s no time for messing around. You value what you’re doing. It somehow makes my work more important, because I know that somewhere down the road my kids will see it. That’s the way I approach everything now. I get the things done that I like to get done, whereas before I meandered and drifted a little more.’

For Pitt – the son of a trucking firm manager father and a guidance counsellor mother – family is just about everything and, not surprisingly, it stems back to his childhood. ‘My mother was really the glue,’ he says of his upbringing. ‘She was the one who kept the family together. She would come to our room as we were going to sleep and stayed there and talked with us as long as we wanted to talk. I see family from a kid’s point of view; as a safe place where you can be yourself, and where you can work on your faults. It’s a place for healing. When we become parents, I see it as a big responsibility where you prepare kids to go out on their own, and where you can prepare them for the world.’

For someone with so many high profile relationships to his name, Pitt is not surprisingly a big fan of the best four-letter-word of them all. ‘Love is everything,’ he enthuses. ‘I have a friend who works with the terminally ill, and he’s told me that with people on their death beds, all that they talk about is their loves or their regret for loves that they let go or that they hid themselves from. I try to remember that, and value those connections that we all make with other souls.’

Would he say that he’s matured over the past few years? ‘If you mean finally graduating from school, I kind of hope that school is always ongoing,’ Pitt replies. ‘It’s what makes life interesting, and if the accumulation of all that is what we call maturity, then I can say I feel more mature. We can always learn more about ourselves and become more informed; there’s always room for that. I’ve been blessed and I appreciate it.’ But is he happier? ‘I suppose I am, especially these last few ears. But I don’t want to see the headline; Brad Pitt – Happier Than He’s Ever Been.’

Right now, Pitt is at his ever-busy best. He has a long line of projects on the boil,
including the western The Assassination of Jesse James for Australian filmmaker and Chopper director Andrew Dominik (‘It’s a deep psychological study, and a statement on infamy,’ Pitt says of the troubled film which has seen numerou cuts – the director’s, Pitt’s, the studio’s – all of which have tested poorly, leading to a cloudy release date); The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where he stars opposite Cate Blanchett (with whom he was originally to appear in the aborted version of The Fountain), for his Fight Club director David Fincher; and The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, which will see Pitt reunite with George Clooney alongside Frances McDormand and John Malkovich. There are also a handful of films in the more distant future that indicate an even more thoughtful direction for Pitt. He is attached to star in a trio of bold films: an Amercanised version of the acclaimed British political thriller
TV mini-series State of Play; Dirty Tricks (alongside Meryl Streep and Annette bening), which looks at aspects of Richard Nixon’s presidency; and Dallas Buyer’s Club, about a man with AIDS who delves into the world of underground pharmacies that supply non-approved HIV drugs in an attempt to prolong his life and, ultimately, the lives of thousands of others. ‘I started in this business wanting to make heavier films,’ Pitt says of his choices. ‘Films like Ordinary People and Midnight Cowboy – the films that made me want to be an actor. That’s my goal.’

Looking back on his journey, does Brad Pitt – who is maybe, ahem, the happiest he’s ever been – have any regrets? ‘I try not to have any,’ he replies. ‘If I do start to regret something, I always look for some purpose in what I’ve done. There’s always something bigger to it, and you can always learn from it.’