Toledo Blade – January 14, 2007

BABEL ROLE WAS CHANGE OF PACE – by Christopher Borrelli

TORONTO — In a recent piece for the British newspaper the Guardian, the irrepressible critic David Thomson (author of the irrepressible Biographical Dictionary of Film) wonders in characteristically brusque style whether Brad Pitt, already 43, will be remembered as a smooth Gary Cooper or a crinkly Harry Dean Stanton — his point being, I think, if an actor takes too many films in which he refuses to smile, his face will stay like that.

Fat luck.

Brad Pitt smiles plenty in person. You would too if you were Brad Pitt. I met him last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. He was with Babel, accompanying director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. (Tomorrow, Pitt is up for a best supporting actor Golden Globe for the role, and next week, expected to land an Oscar nomination.) I will not pretend that we are best friends. It was easily the shortest interview I’ve done with a major star. And I will not say the Mexican filmmaker draws an unnaturally natural performance out of him — Pitt is that rare tabloid mainstay with talent. (As with Justin Timberlake, our reflexive snarkiness at the very name blinds us.)

What struck me about Pitt in person was his ability (evident in every 50th celebrity) to appear both self-effacing and satiated by the buzz of attention around him. And oh, the attention. He is shuttled room to room, down hallways, up concrete stairwells, at a brisk, huddled pace, like a visiting dignitary with a price on his head, swarmed by assistants. (If you want to get close, don’t carry a pen for autographs. Clutch a clipboard — look busy.)

It was very different during production on Babel, said Inarritu. Pitt (whose scenes amount to less than half an hour of fi lm time) was driven to a remote village in Morocco that had few amenities — “that is, zero distractions,” the filmmaker said. “Nobody knew Brad was Brad.”

“It was very freeing,” the actor said — and it’s a sentiment that’s evident on screen. Thomson is right: Pitt’s roles tend to call for Cooper-ish nonchalance or Stanton-like grime. Both require an actor who is aware of the effect he has on the audience. (For glaring evidence, look no further than the Ocean’s movies.) Babel is perhaps the first film Pitt has made in which he doesn’t seem conscious of himself or his ability to summon a kick of charm.

He cries a lot. It’s the kind of role you get noticed for. But the look you remember is the fury on Pitt’s face when the tour bus decides to pull away. He plays an American traveling with his wife (Cate Blanchett). She is randomly shot. Frantically, he looks for a doctor, but settles for a drip of empathy, which he doesn’t get from fellow members of the tour group — he spends the film in seclusion, trying to comprehend a veterinarian (his only hope), who speaks no English and actually was the village veterinarian.

I ask, being part of an ensemble, one that unfolds on multiple continents in which most of the characters never see each other, was seeing the movie a surprise?

“Yeah, it was. Seldom reading a script, reading what’s on that paper, does it end up being the final result. But the movie is exactly what we talked about. I understood my piece of the puzzle. The real joy was knowing I could go off and concentrate on my corner of the film. It’s more fun when you don’t carry a film, when you know it’s more about the cumulative effect than you.”

When you finally saw it?

“Put together? It was an excitement I don’t usually get because by the time you see the film you know it inside and out, you know everything — way too

And working with people who have never acted? Your section of the picture is particularly full of nonactors — people thrown in.

“I learned we’re not that good. You have to credit Alejandro with casting, but it’s surprising how fast they picked it up, even with language barriers. It took me down a notch. It’s a credit to the film it’s hard distinguishing so-called seasoned actors from first-timers. Gives me a laugh.”

You’ve been to Africa, I hear.

He laughs.

Did the film shade your trips there — to fairly remote areas?

“Sure. The great thing about the film is how it shows that we’re so used to great service and having multiple choices at our fingertips, we go to another place and get predisposed to think we’ll get that kind of service. I love that set-up. But being a father — how to protect your children becomes your worry. So we make preparations. We know the areas we’re going into. Not everyone has luxurious health care. Not every place can assist.”

When you’re shooting in such a remote location, and the film is as intense as Babel, is it hard to leave the role off screen, to not be reminded by the role?

“It’s getting back into it that’s difficult. I could not understand going in how difficult maintaining that level of anxiety would be at the start of every day. But to answer the question: No. When they say ‘Wrap,’ baby, I’m done.”