GQ – November, 2014


Like all superstars, Brad Pitt has taken his hits: from the press, from the studios and, while making his latest film, Fury, even fellow actors took a swing. In this exclusive and candid interview, Hollywood’s strong, silent type breaks cover to talk family life past and present, the perils of living in a tank for four months and the power of the word ‘no’

Story by Stuart McGurk. Photography by John Balsom. Styling by Julie Ragiola

Brad Pitt is clear about the film that affected him the most. He was 13, living in Springfield, Missouri, which he’ll later freely describe as “Hillbilly country”. He remembers his childhood fondly, but it was notable for its sterness. His parents were strict Baptists – he remembers days sitting in church dreaming of letting loose a yelp to break the suffocating solemnity. He remembers imagining himself suddenly standing up in front of everyone and screaming, “It was me! It was me! It was me!”

Needless to say, he never did. The film he went to see was R-rated, “and cinemas were very strict back then”. So, ever the innovator, he bought a ticket for a PG, acted like he needed to go to the loo, then, when the ticket guy turned his back, snuch in.

The film would never quite be regarded as a cinematic masterpiece – this isn’t that story – but what struck him was the life it portrayed.

It was Saturday Night Fever, and he was mesmerised. Look at this family, he thought – a big, boisterous, gregarious New York brood, forever hitting each other and yelling the house down. Chaos, sure, but what fun chaos. Ferocious, you bet, but what vital ferocity. And more, what love. What heart-on-sleeve love they all had for each other.

Partly, it was so different from what he knew – “I was taught from one book [the bible] and one book only,” he’s said. “It didn’t sit right.” – but also, he knew, all the way back then, it was the life he wanted for himself. A big family. Semi-chaos. And the kind of outsize love that often comes with bruises.

Years ago, when he was still single, Pitt used to have a recurring dream that someone else was forever using his toothbrush. He thinks, he’s said, it wasn’t that complicated: it was a dream about fame. He had a few of those. Fame didn’t always sit right with him in the early years.

Now, he tells me, most of his dreams are about fatherhood – and his fears regarding the rambunctious brood he has with Angelina Jolie, from twins Knox and Vivienne (both six) to adopted son Maddoc (12), six kids in all, a “cacophony” when they’re all at home, and one he misses dearly when he’s away.

“Yeah,” he says, simply “It’s always about the safely of my kids.”

For his latest film, Fury – in which Pitt plays the leader of a weary tank crew at the end of the Second World War, who find themselves, over 24 hours, forced into one last battle – it was especially tough. Pitt was shooting in the UK, Jolie was in Australia about to direct Unbroken (about former Olympic trach star Louis Zamperini and the two-and-a-half years he spent in a Japanese prisoner of war camp) and they couldn’t get together.

“We always hopscotch, but this was the first time we couldn’t make it work. Angie had to start her film in Australia, and I was starting here in England, so the kids would come back and forth. Some would be there, and some would be with me. And we’d be flying back to see each other, for, you know, just a day – 24 hours R&R. We really felt it.”

They began writing each other letters, “because, you know, that was the way to communicate, and because w were on different time zones, on the opposite ends of the world, those letters turned into a beautiful way to communicate – to be more open, in some ways, than ever before.”

But still, he felt it keenly. To be deprived, for months on end, of that loving chaos he had built for himself; the life he had always wanted, ever since sneaking into that cinema 37 years before.

The day before GQ meets Pitt, it is announced that he and Jolie, after an engagement that lasted nine years – and a decade to the day since they met on Mr and Mrs Smith – finally married, in a private ceremony at the Chateau Miraval in the village of Correns, in the south of France. All their children were in attendance.

“I wouldn’t say [marriage is] just a title,” he says. “There’s more to it than that.”

Yet what the gossip mags won’t know – what the wedding cover story of People couldn’t guess at – is the seven months of torture he’d go through making Fury before he got there. The boot camp that broke him. The on-set fights he would have to split up. The days and nights eating, shitting and sleeping in the tank for the sake of authenticity. A director who made them literally fight each other, who waged psychological war, who made them as close as brothers so they could hurt each other as only brothers can. The small matter of Shia LaBeouf pulling his own teeth out.

But also, the remarkable film they ended up making. And the genuine bond that came from it.

Pitt both is and isn’t the movie star you expect to meet.

His clothes, when GQ meets him, have that careful air of designer scruffy, suggesting a studied rejection of all but the most essential suit-and-tie occassions. Over a dark-grey V-neck tee, he sports an open grey shirt, the undone cuffs of which spill out from under his casual grey jacket, which, like most of his clothes, seems transatlantically crumpled. The only concession to his A-lister status: an orange trilby so bright it could land planes.

We meet in the rather unglamorous locale of the Tank Museum in Dorset, sitting at a table in front of the Sherman tank used in Fury. Just GQ, the biggest film star on the planet and 30 tonnes of metal killing machine.

In person, Pitt is engaging, endlessly polite, but fidgety. As he talks, his eyes sometimes dart around the hanger where we sit: but when he listens the eye contact is direct – they widen and absorb, both vulnerable and intrigued.

“There is almost a shyness to him,” Fury director David Ayer tells me over the phone. “He’s a bit of a contradiction. He has a lot of presence, and can be a very strong-willed individual, but there’s a quietness about him.”

“Somebody in his position might cause people to be inhibited around him,” adds Bennett Miller, who directed him in 2011’s Moneyball, for which Pitt would receive his third Oscar nomination, “but actually the opposite is true. He’s very asy-going. You’re your best self around him.”

Put another way: he may not have the patter of George Clooney – that reservoir of easy, pre-spun charm – but, in many ways, it only makes him more likable, because one thing is clear: Pitt is not putting on an act for anyone.

Clooeny – a good close friend – recently called Pitt “unreachable” in a ways that he himself is not. What does he think Clooney meant by that?

“Huh.” He thinks for a second. “Well, you know, George is extremely accessible. He’s one of our best representatives. He’s funny as shit. He’s a joy to be around. I guess maybe I’m more of a miserable bastard.” He laughs. “I’m a bit of a loner, you know? I’m more quiet by nature. And coming from, you know, hillbilly country, I’m probably more reserved.”

You can call it fame. Or power. But to Brad Pitt, it’s “juice”. The phrase isn’t an accident. Rather, it’s what you get when you squeeze your fame and power for al they’re worth. Some film stars use their fame to get bigger cheques. But the enduring appeal of Pitt perhaps comes down to this: he uses his to make better films.

It’s why he is, in many ways, an anomaly. He’s unmistakably a leading man, but look at his roles, and – he has the CV of a Philip Seymour Hoffman-esque character actor.

The roster runs from cult classics (True Romance, Fight Club, Twelve Monkeys) to indie triumphs (Snatch, Killing Them Softly); from auteur passion projects (The Tree Of Life, Burn After Reading, Inglourious Basterds) to Oscar-bait biopics (The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Moneyball). It’s a career – taking in directors from Quentin Tarantino to Terrence Malick; David Fincher to the Coen brothers – that defies, in many ways, the laws of Hollywood gravity.

For Pitt, none of the typical “one-for-me, one-for-them” trade-off between quieter, intelligent fare and multiplex pleasers, all designed to maintain an A-list status. For Pitt, they’re all for him.

“I’m actually very snobbish about directors,” he says. “I have to say no all the time. No is the most powerful word in our business. You’ve got to protect yourself.”

But most importantly, he adds, “To leave home, it’s got to be worth leaving. It’s got to be worth it.”

Bennett Miller remembers meeting Pitt when they were discussing Moneyball. It was a tough sell – a film about baseball sabermetrics that had already fallen apart under a different director.

“I pitched him my version of the movie, and he just said, ‘OK, let’s do that.’ I remember saying, you know, it’s not exactly a studio treatment, and I know this thing had trouble before, so what makes you think we can do this at a studio?”

Pitt’s answer was simple. “because I’m here to protect the process. Any time you run into any interference, I’ll be here to make sure we make the movie that we’re talking about making.”

“You can imagine,” adds Miller, “somebody in that position abusing that power, or being reckless, or being short-sghted about it. But he was a protector. There is a real elegance to how he wields his power.”

It was a lesson the actor learnt early on. Pitt still remembers on Legends of the Fall (1994) the producers cut his favourite scene, as it was voted “most-hated” after a test-screening. He demanded to see the marketing report, only to realise the scene was also the second “most-liked”.

“Guys,” he said, “this is exactly why we’re here. We want to evoke emotion – not agreement.”

For Se7en, his next film he finally had “juice”, so requested two conditions written into his contract – that the severed head stayed in the box at the end, and that his character shot the killer; a red-blooded crime of passion rather thn the heroism of restraint. And he’s been using his juice ever since.

“I safeguard a lot,” he says. “Whether it’s making sure The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford stays the full title, or something more serious about the cut. With test screenings, and scenes that are polarising or uncomfortable, you’re asking people to analyse as soon as the lights come on. It’s impossible! Impossible! I mean, it took me weeks to be able to tell you why There Will Be Blood is one of the movies of the decade.”

He even uses his juice for films he doesn’t star in. His production company, Plan B Entertainment, has a mandate to “get difficult material that might not otherwise get made to the screen”, and is responsible for Oscar winners ranging from The Departed to 12 Years A Slave (in which he had a bit part), along with the vast majority of films in which he takes the lead. Just last month, Pitt won a producing Emmy for TV movie The Normal Heart. Not that you’d know it – he didn’t set foot near the stage to collect the award.

When Pitt signed up to Fury, he knew what the was letting himself in for. To be ble to fully embody the semi-broken men at the tail-end of a long war, director David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch) planned to genuinely put them through hell. For starters, he sent them to a boot camp, run by Navy Seals.

“They were succesful in getting every one of us to break down,” says Jon Bernthal, who plays the tank’s loader. “To reach the limit, physically and emotionally, where we wanted to quit. When you have a group of people who have cracked psychologically, it’s amazing where you can go. They got us to do things that we can’t talk about. And I’m not sure I’m proud of some of those things.”

Pitt, says Bernthal, threw himself in. “Look, he’s Brad Pitt, he doesn’t have to do the shit we have to do. But the thing I’ll take away is that the colder it got, the wetter it got, the more miserable it got, the happier he was. I mean, we were pissing and shitting right in front of each other.”

Next, Ayer made them fight each other.

“On the first day, I had to stap him [Pitt], and it was like, it’s Brad, so what do you do?” says Bernthal. Pitt ended up kicking him in the nuts three times. “And so I had to tell him not to after the third time. Then I have him one in the stomach, and he said it was the hardest he’d ever been hit. But again: the fact he was willing to jump in there speaks volumes.”

Finally, Ayer made them live in the tank. To live, eat, and, well, everything, in the tank. “I remember Brad said, this is going to start smelling very bad in here very fast.”

By the time they started shooting – after four long months of preparation – Ayer had them where he wanted them. Which is to say, broken. But, also, bonded – for better or worse, as a family.

They talked a lot, says Pitt, about their “tank family”. And everything – for btter and for worse – that comes with that.

“David had this sick idea,” says Bernthal, “that the more we learnt about each other, the more we could hurt each other. There would be times where the camera would be on and he would just say [of another cast member], ‘Go after him.’ And this was not to say, ‘I f***ing hate you’, or something, but really go for the jugular, to point out the things that only you know they’re the most insecure about, that hurts them the most.”

“It was,” Pitt says, “very intense.”

Later, I ask the 22-year-old Logan Lerman, who plays the green new recruit the seasoned tank crew must swiftly train, about this process.

“God,” Lerman says softly. “I wish I could share some of the things I regretfully said to these guys I respect… But it was some f***ed-up shit.”

Sometimes, Ayer would whisper something in someone’s ear to set them off. For Bernthal, who had recently left two young babies at home, Ayer said something tragic had happened to them.

“I don’t know if I should say this, but yeah, I had talked about being away from my wife and kids. And in the first scene, David came over and started whispering in my ear, saying something terrible had happened… And, look, there’s willingness on my part to go to this place,” But, he adds, “I don’t look back on it as being fun. It was not a fun movie to work on. It took an emotional toll on all of us.”

“I am ruthless as a director,” says Ayer when I speak to him later. “I will do whatever I think it necessary to get what I want. There are hurt feelings and bruises sometimes. But I think a director’s mistake is to be passive and let the same thing unfold again and again and afain.”

He would even do it to Pitt.

“You know,” says Pitt. “When the bell rings, we were in the ring. And we wanted to be pushed off our balance in a way, so you’re constantly thinking of new scenarios to make it personal to yourself.”

What did he whisper in his ear? “Many things,” he says. “But none I would like to mention.”

Even among this controlled madness, Shia LaBeouf, who plays the tank’s gunner, stood out alone. For starters, for authenticity’s sake, he decided to pull out a tooth.

“Well, I mean, he didn’t do it himself,” clarifies co-star Lerman. “He did go to a dentist and asked them to pull his tooth out, but, yeah, what an odd request…”

Then, dissatisfied with the cuts on his face by the make-up department, LaBeouf again decided to take matters into his own hands.

“We were in make-up,” remembers Lerman, “and they were putting cuts on Shia, and I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, it looks good’, and Shia was like ‘No, it doesn’t look real.’ Then he walks out into the hallway, and says, ‘Hey man, wanna see something fun? Check this out…’ And he takes out a knife and cuts his face. And for the whole movie he kept opening these cuts on his face. That’s all real.”

Didn’t Lerman freak out? “No, I f***ing loved it!”

Then there was the matter of Shia not washing for the entire time.

“But the story being told in the press that there was any problem on our part,” says Bernthal, referencing a Daily Mail story that suggested the rest of the cast forced him to move to a different hotel due to the stench, “is completely false.”

In fact, so committed was LaBeouf – and, it must be said, all the cast praise him unreservedly – that not only did genuinely learn his role as turret operator to expert levels, but operated it at all times, even for long-shots.

“He really spent every moment on that set,” says Lerma. “He’s the guy operating the turret in every shot, even when you don’t need to be in there as an actor. You know, you can have somebody else inside! But he was there very day, for every shot.”

LaBeouf was certainly committed, I later say to Pitt.

“Oh, I love this boy,” he says. “He’s one of the best actors I’ve ever seen. He’s full-on commitment, man. He’s living it like no one else, let me tell you. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great actors. He’s one of the best I’ve seen.”

Others, however, were not so enamoured. When I speak to Scott Eastwood, the 28-year-old son of Clint, who has a minor role as a soldier, he remembers LaBeouf as a “complete pain in the ass”. Indeed, they almost came to blows.

“I was in the middle of a scene with Brad Pitt, and I was chewing tobacco,” says Eastwood. “He didn’t like what I was doing, so he said I couldn’t be spitting tobacco on his tank, and he told me to clean it up. I pretty much told him to f*** off, and Brad had to break it up.”

When I later ask Pitt about this, he remembers it differently.

“Well,” he says, “it requires a setup.”

They were all sparring every day, says Pitt. They’d bonded by this point – and not just with each other, but with the tank, too.”And something happened – it becomes very personal. You know, that’s MY tank.”

Pitt says he was actually the first to tell Eastwood not to spit tobacco on the tank.

“Yeah, that came from me. We were driving down the road, I’m in the turret, Shia is at the other turret, and Scott is on the back, spitting juice. And I’m starting to get pissed off, I’m starting to get hot, because this is our home, he’s disrespecting our home, you know? So I said, in the scene with the cameras rolling, ‘You’re going to clean that shit up.’ Shia clocks it, and you have to understand, we’ve been through severe boot camp already, we’ve been through a lot in this tank. Shia saw it and felt the same – he’s disrespecting our home. So shia had the same reaction I did, and started having some words.” But it soon got out of hand, “then I had to get in after the cameras were rolling, and explain it to Scotty, you know…”

Put another way: he had to act dad and seperate the kids.

Besides, Pitt adds, “The funny thing is, when we got home at the end of the day and read the script, it said Scotty’s character is ‘chewing tobacco and spitting it on the back of the tank’. He was just doing as instruced in the script! So we were knobs in the end…”

Extreme filming aside, says Pitt, the story of Fury is a simple one.

It’s one of an estblished family having to adapt to Logan Lerman’s new arrival. Or, as Pitt himself puts it, “It’s raising a son. Raising a son in one day. And that is very painful for a father.”

It is perhaps coincedence that Fury is about family. Look at Pitt’s recent films, and it’s a recurring theme, from the authoritarian father in The Tree Of Life, to the father just trying to save his family in World War Z, to the father who, at the very end of Moneyball, gives up the job of a lifetime in order to be closer to his daughter. It’s also, perhaps, no coincedence that he chose to go to these extremes in Fury now, while he still can. After all, Pitt is now 50. He’s married. And, he says, he wants to enjoy his children growing up. He is, he says, purposefully slowing down in his acting career.

“Absolutely. I’ve been slowing down a while now. And slowly transitioning to other things. And, truthfully, I do want to spend more time with my kids before they’re grown up and gone. So, yes, absolutely.”

He’s considered TV – he was “in discussion”, he says, for the second series of True Detective, but it didn’t go any further than that – and he certainly wouldn’t rule out a TV role in the future.

“They’re doing great stuff on television. And we [Plan B] have a few television ideas ourselves. So, yes, I’d love to do one.”

He’s never been on Twitter, and now, he says, doesn’t feel the need.

“Listen, I see a benefit in it. You could, you know, combat the misconceptions or the misquotes immediately. And if I’d have that in my younger days, I’d have used it.”

Why in his younger days?

“Because I felt quite used. and completely misunderstood, and misread, and not given the benefit of the doubt. You know, I felt that a lot in my first years. I would have brought some logic to the table, and brought it immediately. But now, at this point, I don’t want to bother with it.”

It is, he says, one of his worries about younger actors: the pressure they face.

“I worry for the younger guys. There are so many demands on them outside the craft. The business tends to suck ’em up, chew ’em up very quickly and spit them out before they’ve even had time to hone their craft. And they have a bigger challenge, for making a long-run game out of this.”

Again, this is Pitt as father-figure, worrying for the new generation. And again, this is the guy who has a recurring dream, which is almost always about the safety of his kids.

For now, there’s a plane to catch. And, from there, to Angelina and his joyously noisy rabble of kids. Back in 2011, lamenting the time he has to spend away from his family, Pitt said of Jolie, “We should be doing films together – that’s what we should be doing. We should be doing everything together, and then we could work less.”

He’s just about to start a film with his new wife on the Maltese coast.

Called By The Sea, it is, he says, “something that doesn’t normally come our way – it’s very interesting, an almost European-flavoured film”. And also, “It basically takes place in a hotel room and a cafe.”

He’s finally put his plan into action.

“Yup. That’s part of that plan.”

I ask if he’s happy. He thinks for a second.

“I’ve always believed happiness is overrated, you know? It’s those difficult times that inform the next wonderful time, and it’s a series of trade-offs, of events, of wins and losses.”

Of the love that comes with bruises.