Celebrating his most successful year yet, the Oscar-winning actor and producer reflects on his remarkable career: and how he went from Hollywood heartthrob to the film industry’s MVP
By Lucy Allen
When Brad Pitt landed his break- out role in 1991’s Thelma & Louise, it would have been easy for the charismatic young star to cash in on his leading- man good looks. Instead, Pitt has defied any attempt to pigeonhole in order to forge a career centred on character-driven roles and challenging expectations.
His critical and commercial successes show this best. Pitt’s credits span sci-fi flick 12 Monkeys, crime thriller Se7en, cult hit Fight Club, comedy caper Ocean’s 11, action-romance Mr & Mrs Smith to sports biopic Moneyball. He is a multi-award-winning actor, landing two Golden Globes and an Academy Award for his acting – including winning this year’s supporting actor Oscar for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – as well as multiple Academy Awards and an Emmy as a producer.
If the price of fame for the 56-year-old is the fascination that surrounds his personal life, behind the scenes it’s Pitt’s business acumen that has made him one of the most influential figures in the American entertainment industry. His production company, Plan B, has developed a slew of award-winning films – including Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which have all won the best picture Oscar.
Away from the silver screen, Pitt has a keen interest in photography, architecture – his humanitarian efforts include the Make It Right Foundation, which constructed sustainable housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina – and US politics, while lending his star power to brands he authentically loves – including Breitling (he is part of the watchmaker’s Cinema Squad) and menswear label Brioni.
Celebrating his most successful year, Pitt looks back at his career highlights and shares how it all began… »
What inspired you to set up your production company, Plan B?
I’m not a big control guy. In fact, I’d just as soon say: ‘You guys do it.’ But there was this time around 2001 to 2009 where the interesting, ’70s-style films were not getting made. Films that were big, big tentpole budgets were emerging, and studios were able to bet on them, or cheaper films that were maybe $10-$18million. There was this huge gap in between, where really interesting stories with interesting filmmakers couldn’t get their shit done because it was such a gamble [ for the studios]. So, I started getting in to push the kinds of stories that I was still interested in, and that the artists I had great respect for were doing. That was really the impetus for the beginning of it.
You’ve had incredible success this year with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. How’s the experience been?
It’s really fun when your number comes up. It’s so nice to see your friends go through this and then it’s nice to be here myself. I have a lot to be grateful for.
What is Tarantino like to work with?
He has such a verve for the filmmaking process. He has such reverence for filming and for film that he makes a party out of it. And he loves a story: if we’re in the middle of a good story, the take is going to wait. We’ll get to the take and it’s going to be good, but we’re gonna finish the story.
[Tarantino] writes everything by hand, and once he has a script he gives it to you with his famous cover page, which is handwritten. Inglourious Basterds is misspelled because that’s the way he originally wrote it, so that’s the way it went on the marquee. His writing is so specific that I could hear the character from the first reading, and I don’t normally have that [experience]. Also, I got to the part where he kills Hitler and I was like, ‘Can you kill Hitler? I guess so.’ Quentin can. It was funny.
He rewrote history again in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Why do you think viewers enjoy this?
[With Quentin,] I see this kid who grew up on film and television where the good guys won and things worked out all right. I really think
he’s coming from a beautiful place of, ‘If only the world could be this way.’ He talked about when he wrote the scene about killing Hitler, he wrote it on a Post-It and he put it by his bedside, and he woke up in the morning and it still felt like it was a good idea. He’s playing on our collective wish that the world could be this way. I see innocence and a purity in that.
Looking back at your career, do you see any common themes in your work?
I’m noticing a theme of hubris. In Se7en, my character sees the world very black and white, doesn’t see what’s coming and doesn’t understand. I see it in Burn After Reading. There’s an idiocy, but I see hubris. And in Babel, it’s that everything’s always going to be all right, and not valuing the ones around him. I think that’s a theme. Hubris has always gotten me in trouble. I think it’s the thing that gets our nation in trouble. It’s something I’ve been rather fascinated with, along the way.
You originally studied journalism at the University of Missouri. What made you pursue acting?
I had a friend, not even a close friend, who talked about going out to LA[…] I’d always lamented that there wasn’t an avenue for film in Southern Missouri but then it occurred to me that I could just go. I didn’t graduate. All I had to do was hand in a term paper but, in my head, I was done; I was going west. Within a week, I was a film extra and I was really, really happy.
How long did it take to progress?
I did extra work for maybe two years. I actually got a job, but went back [to extra work] because it was Less Than Zero, with Robert Downey Jr. I was like, ‘I gotta do this.’
There was this catch-22 where, to get your SAG card, you had to have a line, but to have a line you had to have a SAG card. In one movie they pulled me out to be a waiter. I was supposed to pour champagne and I thought: ‘I’m gonna try it.’ So, I poured Charlie Sheen’s glass of champagne, I poured the next actor’s glass… and then I went: ‘Would you like anything else?’ I heard the 1st AD yell: ‘Cut! Cut!’ He came over to me and said: ‘If you do that again, you’re outta here.’ So, I didn’t get it then. »
Did you take acting classes?
I did. I found a brilliant guy named Roy London, who’s no longer with us. He shaped a lot of careers, like Hank Azaria, Geena Davis and Sharon Stone. I was really lucky to land there, and he pointed me in a nice direction. Just really about learning to make it personal, and not to bullshit or to present someone else’s idea. No mimicry. He was harsh. He would call you out and embarrass you. I’m really grateful for working with him.
Was there a point where you could say: ‘I’ve made it’?
A couple of weeks ago! I’ve had some different junctures, along the way, where I would actually call myself a professional actor. After Thelma & Louise, one of the big pinnacles for me was meeting [director] David Fincher. I’d had a couple of experiences on films where it wasn’t what I expected, and then I met my dear friend David, who was talking about film in a way that was much more articulate; he understood so much more than I did and I found direction, that way. That was a big moment.
You worked with Fincher on Se7en, Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. What made those experiences so special for you?
When you’re on a Fincher film, you know that you’re in good hands. It’s well-oiled and he has a vision. The thing that became clear to me, besides that good directors talk with sound effects, is they have a very distinct point of view about the story they’re telling. That was the first time I heard it, talking to Finch, and that really stood out to me. [Benjamin Button] was pushing technology and pushing boundaries, and my man was all over it.
Then there was Robert Redford, who directed A River Runs Through It. What was it like working with him?
Oh man. He doesn’t understand a call time; he often shows up very late. But Redford was one of my heroes, growing up. I certainly feel he’s very underrated as an actor. There’s this naturalism that he started, the way he can move the plot along in Condor is just mesmerising.
He was a great director. I was doing something in the scene, and he just came up and said: ‘You’re sighing.’ and I said: ‘Yeah.’ And he said: ‘Don’t do that. When you do that, you let the power out. You let the water out of the scene.’ That’s always stuck with me. That’s one of those little Redford-isms, like the double take, that he’s mastered and passed on to me.
Are there any movies that you regret not making?
If we were doing a show on the great movies I’ve passed on, we’d need two nights… Okay, I’ll give you one, only because I really believe it was never mine. It’s someone else’s and they make it. I really do believe in that. But I did pass on The Matrix. I took the red pill.