The Telegraph – November 28, 2015

FAMILY GUY – by Mick Brown

Brad Pitt’s new film sees him play out the disintegration of a marriage opposite his real-life wide, Angelina Jolie–also the winter and director. He talks to Mick Brown about evolving relationships, being a partner to six children, and merging life and art. Photographs by Peter Lindbergh.

From Fight Club to family man, Brad Pitt tells Mick Brown how being a father of six has changed him as a man and as an actor

There was a time when Brad Pitt, like most people, would enter a hotel through the front door, but that hasn’t happened for the best part of 20 years. ‘I’m usually carted up the ass end,’ as he puts it. And so it is that here, as everywhere else, he has been denied the pleasures of a hotel lobby thronged with the svelte and the affluent – for this is a very swanky hotel indeed – and too the pleasures of taking a stroll on a sunny autumn morning unmolested, lending his fourth-floor room, luxurious as it is, a curious air of confinement.

It is an air somewhat exaggerated by the fact that, in his downbeat sweatshirt and tracksuit trousers, the Kangol cap pulled down low over his forehead, the straggly half-beard, Pitt looks less like you expect him to look and more like a man attempting to disguise himself as his own minder.

In fact, Pitt’s minder is outside in the corridor, an imposing presence, standing quietly beside the gaggle of clipboard-wielding publicists. He is perhaps less a precautionary measure for Pitt – who with his muscled 6ft frame appears perfectly capable of looking after himself – than for his wife, Angelina Jolie, who is in an adjacent room being interrogated by a handful of European journalists.Being the most recognised show-business couple in the world has its own perils and disadvantages.

Pitt walks over to turn off the air conditioning and reaches for two bottles of water. He is a courteous man, his manner attentive and earnest. Very earnest. He is in London for discussions about his latest project as a producer, ‘a satire about the war in Afghanistan’ (he does not elaborate), but mostly to talk about his role in By the Sea, a new film written by, directed by and co-starring Jolie.

By the Sea is not quite the film that one might have expected from Jolie – whose two projects so far as a director, In the Land of Blood and Honey (set against the backdrop of the Bosnian War) and Unbroken (about the American runner and airman Louis Zamperini), take place in war zones – and Pitt, a versatile actor, but one who has most recently been seen fighting zombies in World War Z and as the hard-bitten commander of a Sherman tank in Fury.

A study in the three ages of marriage, set in the 1970s, it tells the story of a middle-aged American couple who arrive in a secluded holiday resort in France. Roland (Pitt) is a novelist suffering from writer’s block, in search of inspiration for his next book; Vanessa (Jolie) is a former dancer carrying the burden of a past trauma, which it would be giving away too much to reveal.

While she sinks deeper into a well of depression – listlessly turning the pages of Vogue and staring out to sea – his growing frustration leads to long drinking bouts at the local boîte, where the elderly proprietor is mourning the loss of his wife after a long and happy marriage (a beautifully understated performance by the French actor Niels Arestrup).

The disintegration of Roland and Vanessa’s marriage is thrown into even sharper relief when a honeymooning couple move into the next room in their hotel. The two couples strike up an uneasy friendship, which takes an unsettling turn when Vanessa discovers a peephole through which to observe the young honeymooners.

The mood is studied and languorous. It is a film in which everything, not least the two stars, is beautiful: the distressed splendour of the hotel, the lingering shots of sunlight playing on the ocean, the immaculate Citroën DS convertible in which they arrive at the hotel, the numerous pieces of luggage they are seen carrying into their room (more, it seems, than could feasibly fit in the boot of the Citroën, but necessary to accommodate Vanessa’s endlessly changing wardrobe). Half of the film is in French, with subtitles.

‘It’s very subtle and European in its cadence, and its palette,’ Pitt says. ‘Which is really surprising, because neither one of us is well versed in that. There are no explosions, no earth-shifting events, no big, shocking tales. The whole movie takes place in a cafe, a hotel room and a car. That’s it. I mean, it doesn’t get much more sparse. It’s very quiet, but elegant – it’s such an elegant film.

‘It’s really about a couple,’ he continues, ‘who are in that stage in life that the old fairy-tale books don’t explain – when the romance has dulled, the banality of the everyday has become the constant and, as all people do in their life, they’re facing grief.’

A middle-aged husband and wife, playing a middle-aged husband and wife at a critical moment in their marriage – it does not take long for Pitt to make the leap, as if he has not only been anticipating the discussion but can’t wait for it.

‘Certainly the attrition rate of Hollywood couples looms large.’ He swigs from his bottle of water. ‘And I’m surprised how much our history – Angie’s and mine – means to me. That we have this story together. That we know each other. That we watch each other getting older, through amazing moments, joys, pains.’

He repeats the phrase with a sense almost of wonderment in his voice. ‘That we know each other. It means so much to me. ‘I don’t know. I’m just surprised, because you hear people talking about the old ball and chain, and people trying to recapture youth, as if that’s the impulse – but it’s not the impulse, it’s not the impulse at all.’

But isn’t that what you enter into a relationship expecting – or at the very least hoping for? ‘It is. But again, there are no books to tell you what year 12 is supposed to be like, and year 14 and year 23 – no guidebooks. What I’m saying is, I’m surprised how much it means to me, how much value I place in it. I’d equate it to having kids.

Everyone talks about the joy of having kids – blah, blah, blah. But I never knew how much I could love something until I looked in the faces of my children.’ Pitt, 51, and Jolie, 40, are parents to six children, three biological – Shiloh, nine, and seven-year-old twins Knox and Vivienne – and three who are adopted: Maddox, 14, Pax, 11, and Zahara, 10.

It is a family unit that he describes as ‘a lot of love, a lot of fighting, a lot of refereeing; a lot of teeth-brushing and spilling… Chaos, total chaos. But so much fun.’

It was always his dream to have a big family, he says. At college he had a friend with whom he would sometimes stay who had five brothers and two sisters. ‘It was absolute mayhem on the weekends, and so much fun. His mom would be making breakfast for everyone, throwing eggs and pancakes around, and I thought, that’s the way I want to do it.’

He laughs. ‘Listen, Angie and I were aiming for a dozen, but we crapped out after six.’ His own upbringing, he says, was ‘never that raucous’. Pitt has a younger brother and sister. He grew up in Springfield, Missouri, where his father ran a trucking company – a Baptist upbringing, ‘with all the Christian guilt about what you can and cannot, should and shouldn’t do’. (He now describes himself as an atheist.)

His father was ‘very, very tough’, but not, he says, in the ‘father knows best’ way. ‘He could be a softie. But one thing my folks always stressed was being capable, doing things for yourself. He was really big on integrity – and that informed a lot of what [we] try to do now.’

Is Pitt the disciplinarian in the family? ‘I am with the boys.’ He smiles. ‘Girls do no wrong so I don’t have to be. I feel like my job is to show ’em around, help them find what they want to do with their life, put as many things in front of them, and pull them back when they get out of line, so they know who they are.’

The peripatetic nature of Pitt and Jolie’s lives – working on location (he as an actor; she as a director, having cut back on acting), her travels on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and her own Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative – means the family is frequently on the move; the children are homeschooled.

It must be hard, I suggest, to impress on them what constitutes a normal life. ‘Well, our life is their normal. Because we’re migratory workers in a sense, they have this wonderful thing where they get to be students of the world. They have memories of being in Vietnam, or that time in Paris, or over in Calgary. The downside is friends, sleepovers, team sports – these have been the challenges that we’ve had to work out.

‘We do those things, but we really have to go out of our way. And Mom is a matador about it all – she’s fantastic. We get their friends to us a lot. And then when we set up in one place for any length of time I get on the team sports, because I really want them to have that understanding of being on the team.’

He and Jolie do their best to ‘hopscotch’ projects, as he puts it, so that only one of them is away at any given time, while the other looks after the children.

For years, he says, they had talked about working together – ‘but we weren’t going to do a Mr & Mrs Smith Two [a follow-up to the film on which they first met, in 2004, when Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston]. Done that – although there were some funny ideas for a sequel.’

What they wanted, he says, was a ‘Cassavetes, John and Gen experience’ – a reference to the actor and director John Cassavetes, who, with his actress wife Gena Rowlands, made a series of intense chamber pieces in the 1970s including A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night.’We wanted to have that kind of autonomy, of making something together that was small and intimate, and at the same time make it a family affair where our kids could be running around on set.’

Ostensibly set in France, By the Sea was filmed on the island of Gozo, off Malta, where the production took over a secluded cove, renting houses on the hill above to accommodate Pitt, Jolie and the family. Their eldest son, Maddox, worked as a produc-tion assistant. ‘It was just that experience we were looking for.’

The ‘John and Gen experience’ worked in reverse, with Jolie directing her husband for the first time – a process that Jolie has described as ‘challenging’, but that elicits a paean of praise from Pitt. ‘I’ve worked with some really great directors, and I’m really choosy about them, because they’re telling the story at the end of the day. I need to know I’m in good hands, and I trust Angie with my life. I love her instincts. She’s ferocious with a story and she’s really decisive at her post – in command.

‘And the second thing would be, she’s my wife. There’s no dividing line when the camera’s rolling or when it’s not. We’re having the same conversation when we’re making breakfast, when we’re setting the shot, when we’re in the scene or out of the scene. Of course we have our own shorthand: I know immediately if she thought a take smelled. But it’s the same as any good director I’ve worked with in that it’s a matter of trust. I know I’m in good hands. Just don’t be late.’ He laughs. ‘She hates it when you’re late.’

It was Anthony Hopkins, with whom he starred in Legends of the Fall in 1994, who described Pitt as ‘a character actor in a matinee idol’s body’ – ‘and it was the greatest compliment I ever received’, Pitt says.

His earlier roles in such films as Thelma & Louise and Interview with the Vampire emphasised the matinee idol – or at least the beefcake charmer. He would later complain of feeling ‘used and completely misunderstood and misread’. But he was able to parlay his box-office appeal into more diverse, thoughtful and complex roles in such films as Fight Club, Babel and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as well as flexing his muscle with his production company, Plan B, which has a mandate to ‘get difficult material that might otherwise not get made to the screen’, and which has been responsible for films including Selma, 12 Years a Slave and The Tree of Life.

The most valuable word in an actor’s vocabulary, he says, is ‘no’. ‘I tell all the young guys, don’t make choices because somebody else is telling you it’s good from a career-maintenance perspective.’ A lot of actors alternate between one for the studio (and the bank) and one for their artistic integrity. ‘But I don’t see it that way. I see ’em all for me. Because if I’m interested in a script, I trust that others will be interested in it too.’

Pitt has confessed to a period in the late 1990s when he suffered from a certain slacker lassitude, spending more time than was good for him ‘smoking things I shouldn’t have been’. It was a period he snapped out of, rediscovering his passion for architecture and design, which had been ignited while he was a student at the University of Missouri, when, ‘looking for a lazy two-point credit to get out of French’, he came upon the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

It is an interest that has in recent years led to him studying computer-led design at the offices of Frank Gehry and, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, founding the Make It Right foundation to design and provide low-cost housing for those who had lost their homes. The foundation recently installed the 109th family into one of its New Orleans homes, and has expanded to take on other projects elsewhere in America, building 280 homes so far.

Pitt is not personally involved in designing the homes, but he designs furniture – ‘to me it’s a little building’ – a pastime that he talks about with almost the same passion, but not quite, as his family life. When I ask how his relationship with Jolie changed him there is a long exhalation, as if to say, where to begin?

‘I think you can see it in my work,’ he says at last. ‘I was a pretty good actor before, but definitely hit and miss. I think I became a really good actor. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with age and wisdom too. But I see an absolute shift from the day I started my family. ‘And I think it’s because family – and certainly kids and a stable relationship – is something bigger than yourself. They need you to sit down with them, be there for them when they wake up in the middle of the night.’

He emphasises this. ‘They need you. So I think that made me less tense about things, less stressed. And very clear that if I’m going to be doing something that’s going to take me away from my family, it better be something that I believe in, and that they’re going to see and be proud of their dad.

‘And also I’m more efficient with it, because it’s taking me away from them. I don’t f— about. I get in there, I get the job done, and I go home.’ He shakes his head. ‘You know, nowadays I really can’t wait to get home. More than at any time in my life, I’ve got purpose – real purpose. It feels like I’ve found my place.’