USA Today – October 19, 2006

BRAD’S THE MAN – by Donna Freydkin

These days, it’s good to be Brad.

To pay the bills, he stars in and produces films, some artsy (Running With Scissors, which he produced, opens today; Babel, in which he stars, is out Oct. 27) and some slick (Ocean’s Thirteen just wrapped filming).

To give back, he helps with Hurricane Katrina rebuilding efforts and speaks out about global warming and poverty.

And at the end of the day, he goes home to Angelina Jolie and children Maddox, 5, Zahara, 1, and Shiloh, 4 months.

The actor, 42, once dismissed as a hunk with chiseled abs, has emerged as one of Hollywood’s most compelling leading men.

“I saw him go from this gawky kid to this unbelievably very solid, confident guy,” says celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, who shot Pitt years ago and saw him recently during a shoot with Jolie. “I feel like he has an inner life now. Not that the other fellow wasn’t attractive — he was very attractive — but he was a kid. I just think he has grown up.”

Those close to Pitt say he’s riding high, at work and at home.

“I saw Brad two weeks ago,” says pal George Clooney. “He’s in such great spirits. He’s a really smart man who has grown into someone I’m really impressed by all the time. He’s a good friend. And what an amazing dad.”

Though Pitt’s looks still wow the ladies, his appeal now is more than skin deep.

“People love him,” says Entertainment Tonight’s Leonard Maltin. “He’s in a great place and seems to be doing everything right.”

The family man

For Pitt, career comes a distant second to family.

“I still value the work I do, but at the same time I value more getting home to the kids. It somehow makes my work mean more, because I know somewhere
down the road my kids will see it,” Pitt told the London Mirror this month.

The actor doesn’t grant many interviews these days (and declined to be interviewed for this story), largely shuns the Hollywood party circuit and hits the red carpet only to promote his movies or raise awareness of the causes he champions. He has never discussed his split in January 2005 from his wife, Jennifer Aniston, or his relationship with Angelina Jolie. The scandal could have demolished a lesser star.

After playing cat-and-mouse with the media while promoting Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Pitt and Jolie officially emerged as a couple, announcing her pregnancy in January and welcoming daughter Shiloh, now 4 months, in May. Since then, the couple have tried to keep a fairly low profile.

Jolie, says Smith writer Simon Kinberg, is “more internal and reserved,” while Pitt is “ebullient and open. They’re both very smart, curious, generous people.”

Pitt, who is adopting Maddox, 5, and Zahara, 1, spends most of his free time with his multicultural brood. They visited him on the Ocean’s set in the Los Angeles area and hung out in his trailer.

“He’s fantastic with his kids,” producer Jerry Weintraub says. “He’s totally involved. He takes them around; he takes them every place he goes.”

Indeed, if Pitt is seen out in public, chances are he’s holding Zahara, racing toy cars in Paris with Maddox or taking the boy for a motorized rickshaw ride in Pune, India, where the couple is shooting A Mighty Heart. Like other parents, Pitt told Esquire, he grapples with sleepless nights and diaper rash.

His parenting philosophies are simple: “I try not to stifle them. If it’s not hurting anyone, I want them to be able to explore,” he told the magazine. “At night, before they go to bed, I feel it’s really important to have that time to sit and talk to them. I really like that last minute before they fade off.”

He has become an advocate for adoption. “Now that I have two adopted kids, I cannot imagine life without them,” he said in Esquire. “They’re as much of my blood as any natural born, and I’m theirs.”

Because he can’t go out in public without starting a riot, Pitt has found more solitary ways to let off steam. He rides dirtbikes and motorcycles and flies a plane. He reads books about architecture, including Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough, listens to Jack White’s new band, The Raconteurs, and watches Run’s House on MTV.

But that doesn’t mean the scrutiny doesn’t get to him. “The only other artist I’ve been around that had the same affect with the press was Presley, and Elvis, unlike Brad, hid from the press,” Weintraub says. “Brad at least tries to lead as much of a normal life as he can. But he knows that whatever he does is a headline. His best way to deal with it is to put a motorcycle helmet on, so they can’t see his face. Now he’s a pilot, so he can get up in the air and get away from it.”

The philanthropist

One thing Pitt has learned: Superstardom can be used for good.

Pitt, producer Jerry Weintraub says, is “interested in different things now than he was 10 years ago. He’s really giving back now.”

Since getting involved with Jolie, a U.N. goodwill ambassador, he has become a vocal ambassador for Bono’s One campaign, which seeks to eradicate poverty. He also chairs the jury for the Global Green project, which seeks to reduce climate change by constructing environmentally friendly buildings and cities.

Matt Petersen of Global Green jetted on a commercial flight to New Orleans with Pitt to judge the entrants in a competition to rebuild the city with eco-friendly buildings. Petersen and Pitt spent hours discussing finalists and poring over the applications.

“Some people want attention. He’s low-key and interested to talk to people,” Petersen says. “He’s not afraid to walk into the middle of the street in a neighborhood, walk up to people and ask questions. When people meet him and ask him if it’s really Brad Pitt, he’s very gracious. He smiles and says, ‘Yes, it’s really me.’ ”

Pam Dashiell, president of New Orleans’ Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, met Pitt in July. They rode a bus so Pitt could see Katrina’s devastation himself. Sure, he’s charming, she says, but more important, “he’s just a really smart, good person. He has none of the inflated ego you’d think of when you think of movie stars. He’s straightforward.”

When it comes to his philanthropy, Petersen says, Pitt does his homework. While in New Orleans during the architecture competition, Pitt “went to every meeting, met with local politicians and really wanted to learn firsthand what were the challenges.”

His relationship with Jolie has taken the Los Angeles-based actor to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum; Namibia, where Shiloh was born; and now India. Pitt and Jolie have set up a foundation and given money to Doctors Without Borders and Global Action for Children. They also pledged the millions publications paid for photos of Shiloh to charities.

One of Pitt’s new pals is economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

“He’s just wanting to get this right, wanting to be accurate and on target,” Sachs says. “He looks at the evidence and tries to understand the debate. Now I see him as very interested in the environment and the links between poverty and the environment.”

The career man

Pitt is ranked 20th in Forbes’ list of powerful celebrities and earns an estimated $20 million a movie.

But he increasingly has gained respect for being more than just a pretty face. To those in the business, his appeal is as obvious as those piercing baby blues.

“He is arguably one of the biggest stars in the world, if not the biggest. Men want to be him, and women want to be with him,” says Jerry Weintraub, who has produced the Ocean’s movie franchise and has been friends with Pitt for years.

Pitt’s career has never been better. He’s starring in unconventional films that show his grizzled side, such as Babel. And through Plan B, he is producing edgy projects such as Running With Scissors and the current box office hit The Departed. He’s also producing A Mighty Heart, starring girlfriend Jolie, 31, as the widow of murdered reporter Daniel Pearl.

In Babel, Pitt plays a helpless husband who tries to save his wife, who is accidentally shot while on a tense vacation in Morocco. Variety praises Pitt for giving his character “weight and strength,” and the Hollywood Reporter calls his performance “committed.”

Bring up Pitt’s name to anyone associated with him, and you hear stories of personal thank-you notes, congratulatory e-mails and a level of thoughtfulness unusual in a star of his caliber.

“Brad is not pretentious. There’s nothing artsy-fartsy about him,” says Running With Scissors director Ryan Murphy. “Brad is incredibly enthusiastic. I heard he’d liked the script, and I met him at the (production) offices, and here come these handmade Prada shoes with Brad Pitt attached. He said something to me like, ‘You’ve got wicked skills.’ ”

That unaffectedness, says Simon Kinberg, who wrote the 2005 hit Mr. & Mrs. Smith, “is kind of an amazing thing. It’s not a game or strategy with him.”

In particular, Kinberg remembers one long day of shooting when the exhausted cast and crew had worked into the night and saw no end in sight.

“Brad, out of the blue, started doing jumping jacks, calling out to the crew, getting everyone’s spirits up at 4 a.m. at some awful diner in downtown L.A.,” Kinberg says. “He was the guy who would cheerlead for the movie — and he didn’t have to. He’s the top, and the energy flows from the top down.”

Pitt doesn’t mind looking less than perfect. In Babel, he goes gray and has bags under his eyes.

This isn’t a star with blockbuster on the brain. Ever since he stole hearts in 1991’s Thelma & Louise, he has had hits (1995’s serial killer drama Se7en, last year’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith), but just as many misses (1997’s Seven Years in Tibet, 2004’s Troy). He has earned one Oscar nomination, for his supporting turn in 1995’s Twelve Monkeys. These days, Pitt mixes it up. He took a pay cut for 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but he’s also reprising Rusty Ryan in the third Ocean’s installment, due in June.

Film historian Leonard Maltin applauds Pitt’s willingness to “sacrifice some of his movie-star persona for the sake of a really good part. What we’re seeing is his willingness, if not downright eagerness, to challenge himself with more demanding and daring roles.”

And that gets major props from Darren Aronofsky, who was ready to direct Pitt in The Fountain before the actor dropped out because of creative differences.

“Brad’s a great guy, and we’re still friendly. We’re OK with the breakup,” Aronofsky says. “Brad’s a really smart, very talented guy. He’s come to a place in his work where he’s doing interesting stuff. He’s looking great. The pretty-boy thing wasn’t my type of hetero joy. I like the wizened Brad now.”

Others appreciate his taste for the unconventional, such as his decision to executive-produce the documentary God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan. Writer/director Christopher Quinn had run out of money and says that, without Pitt’s help, the movie would likely not have been made. Quinn, introduced through their mutual friends, met Pitt at his home.

The meeting was casual and Pitt was disarming. But, Quinn says, he “has incredible follow-through. When we won (two awards) at Sundance, he sent me a note saying how proud he was to be a part of the movie.”

The times of his life

The life and times of Brad Pitt:

Dec. 18, 1963: Born in Shawnee, Okla.

1986: Drops out of the University of Missouri two credits shy of graduating with a degree in journalism.

May 1991: Breaks out as the back-stabbing, thieving cad in the drama Thelma & Louise.

December 1994: A long-haired Pitt shows up on the big screen again in Legends of the Fall.

January 1995: Crowned People’s Sexiest Man Alive, an honor he earned again in 2000.

September 1995: Plays a cop in Se7en; fiancée Gwyneth Paltrow appears with him in the film.

February 1996: Earns his only Oscar nomination for his supporting turn in Twelve Monkeys.

June 1997: Announces his breakup from Paltrow after 2½ years together.

July 29, 2000: Marries Jennifer Aniston in Malibu, Calif.

January 2001: Earns praise for playing a bare-knuckle boxing gypsy in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch.

Nov. 22, 2001: Guest-stars on Aniston’s hit NBC show, Friends.

May 2004: Plays Achilles in Troy, which was mauled by critics but earned $133 million in the USA.

January 2005: Announces his split from Aniston after four years of marriage.

March 2005: Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s first official joint public appearance is at ShoWest in Las Vegas for Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

June 2005: Plays a charming assassin in the hit comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which co-stars Jolie.

December 2005: Announces his plans to adopt Jolie’s children, Maddox and Zahara.

May 27: Welcomes his first biological child, daughter Shiloh Nouvel, with Jolie.

July: Travels to New Orleans to help launch the Global Green eco-rebuilding competition.