YOU HAVE TO GO OFF THE BEATEN PATH – by Dotson Rader
On Growing Up
“I was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma,” he says. “My dad ran a trucking company. When I was a little kid we moved to Tulsa, then to St. Louis and, by the time I was in kindergarten, we lived in Springfield, Missouri. There I basically grew up. My father came from a very poor background, but I was very fortunate in the sense that we were never in need. My dad was determined to make sure that we didn’t want for things. He wanted to give us more opportunity than he had, a better shot at a better life. He did that for
Brad Pitt has seen much of the world since leaving small-town Missouri for Los Angeles two decades ago, yet he seems to miss the boy he was and the place he left behind. Brad speaks with unusual warmth about his family and the region where he was raised.
“I had a very supportive family environment that gave me room to explore and discover things about myself,” he says. “When I was a boy I would ask about my family history, about my blood lines. We really didn’t know that much. We had a little Indian in us from the Oklahoma Trail of Tears. We were situated in southern Missouri, right along the Mason-Dixon Line, between the North and the South, where you have this confluence of different cultures—Texas and Oklahoma from the south, the hillbilly from the Appalachian range to the east, the Midwestern coming down from above. There was all these different influences and ideas and accents coming into this place.”
Brad begins to use various regional dialects to illustrate for me the variety of influences. “As I look around now I hear different accents, like Arkansas’, that are much more colorful,” he says in a soft, Clintonian drawl. “Then there’s Texas. You know Texas,” he twangs. “Then you get into Kentucky, and it sounds more like this…and then in St. Louis, where it’s a cleaner, more Midwestern accent. But where we were, southern Missouri, our accent is more flat-lined, it’s kind of like this… I find it very interesting now, but I didn’t realize how interesting the place I come from is until I left home and saw how other cultures handled things differently.”
On Leaving Home
I ask Brad about the pivotal influences on his 1986 decision to abruptly leave the University of Missouri before his graduation Surprisingly, he mentions a girlfriend but asks me not to use her name.
“You made me think about this girlfriend I had in senior year,” he recalls. “She was a Methodist preacher’s kid. She wasn’t that into me, truthfully, although we were together for a semester. ”
When I tell him I am the son of a preacher, too, he smiles and nods.
“Well,” he continues, “she was tough, man, although really cool. She had an older brother who was killed in a four-by-four accident, which was not uncommon out there.” He refers to a four-wheel drive crash. “She was a hardcore realist. She called me on so much bull—about any romantic ideas that I had grown up with about life. It was my first year in college.”
Brad studied journalism at the University of Missouri at Columbia, hoping for a career as an art director in advertising.
“She helped me more than anyone else as far as setting off in my own direction,” he explains. “It was my first year in college and I was pushing back against the religion thing. In my eyes it was a mechanism of guilt , this engrained system, used to keep the flock in servitude.” Brad was raised a conservative Southern Baptist. “Guilt is the thing I find most evil about it. It’s the thing I rail against the most. She helped me in defining what I believed.
“Religion works,” he goes on. “I know there’s comfort there, a crash pad. It’s something to explain the world and tell you there is something bigger than you, and it is going to be alright in the end. It works because it’s comforting. I grew up believing in it, and it worked for me in whatever my little personal high school crisis was, but it didn’t last for me. I didn’t understand this idea of a God who says, ‘You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I’m the best, and then I’ll give you eternal happiness. If you won’t, then you don’t get it!’ It seemed to be about ego. I can’t see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.
“When I left Missouri I wasn’t ready to call it quits as far as getting out into the world,” he goes on. “It wasn’t leaving something behind, it was heading for something that was nascent and ill-defined. I did not know what it would be when I got to L.A., and to me not knowing that has always been the most exciting thing about making a trip.
On Seeing the World
“Seeing the world is the best education you can get,” Brad asserts. “You see sorrow, and you also see great spirit and will to survive. But you have to go off the beaten path of St. Bart’s Island, Rome, Paris, wander off the path and go beyond that. It is where you meet people and hear personal stories. It is a huge eye-opener. The extent of the numbers of people dying. You know, we forget this very simple truth: we’re basically all the same. There is so much focus on our differences. Again, this thing of ego—my high school is better than your high school! We forget that we all have the same feelings on any side of the world. Why can’t we find common ground instead of this obsession with our hatreds? I don’t want to be part of that hatred.”
” Saturday Night Fever was a big influence on me,” he admits, grinning. “I snuck in to see it when I was underage. It wasn’t the dancing and the music I’m referring to, it was this culture of families who argued at the dinner table and popped each other in the face! It was this whole other way of people relating to each other that I found really interesting.”
Brad’s family was white-bread, straight-laced—undemonstrative, calm, private. He still has something of the nice, winsome, small town Southern boy to his character—he is polite, attentive, reluctant to brag on himself, with an easy, though not overly-familiar, charm. In person, he has the qualities of a popular high school heartthrob—handsome, friendly, correct, even sweet, yet out of reach.
“Films were a portal into different worlds for me,” he continues, “cultures I had never seen before and was absolutely taken with. I was also taken with the power of films to define things for me that I’d not been able to define for myself. So I became an actor.”