Brad Pitt Talks Divorce, Quitting Drinking, and Becoming a Better Man
By Michael Paterniti
Photographs by Ryan McGinley
Summer is coming and, in America, that means it’s time to hit the national parks. So we took Brad Pitt and photographer Ryan McGinley tumbling across three of them: The Everglades, White Sands, and Carlsbad Caverns. Then we sat down with Pitt at home in L.A. for a raw conversation about how to move forward after things fall apart.
Brad Pitt is making matcha green tea on a cool morning in his old Craftsman in the Hollywood Hills, where he’s lived since 1994. There have been other properties in other places—including a château in France and homes in New Orleans and New York City—but this has always been his kids’ “childhood home,” he says. And even though they’re not here now, he’s decided it’s important that he is. Today the place is deeply silent, except for the snoring of his bulldog, Jacques.
Pitt wears a flannel shirt and skinny jeans that hang loose on his frame. Invisible to the eye is that sculpted bulk we’ve seen on film for a quarter-century. He looks like an L.A. dad on a juice cleanse, gearing up to do house projects. On the counter sit some plated goodies from Starbucks, which he doesn’t touch, and some coffee, which he does. Pitt, who exudes likability, general decency, and a sense of humor (dark and a little cockeyed), says he’s really gotten into making matcha lately, something a friend introduced him to. He loves the whole ritual of it. He deliberately sprinkles some green powder in a cup with a sifter, then pours in the boiling water, whisking with a bamboo brush, until the liquid is a harlequin froth. “You’re gonna love this,” he says, handing me the cup.
Serenity, balance, order: That’s the vibe, at least. That’s what you think you’re feeling in the kitchen of Brad Pitt’s perfectly constructed, awesomely decorated abode. Outside, children’s bikes are lined up in the rack; a blown-up dragon floatie bobs on the pool through the window. From the sideboard, with its exquisite inlay, to the vase on the mantel, the house exudes care and intention. And it carries its own stories, not just about when the Jolie-Pitts were a happy family, but also from back in the day, when Jimi Hendrix crashed here. It’s said he wrote “May This Be Love” out in the grotto, with its waterfall (Waterfall / Nothing can harm me at all…). “I don’t know if it’s true,” says Pitt, “but a hippie came by and said he used to drop acid with Jim back there, so I run with the story.”
And yet Pitt is the first one to acknowledge that it’s been chaos these past six months, during what he calls a “weird” time. In conversation, he seems absolutely locked in one moment and a little twitchy and forlorn in the next, having been put on a journey he didn’t intend to make but admits was “self-inflicted.” The unfortunate worst of it surfaced in public this past September. When he was on a flight to Los Angeles aboard a private plane, there was a reported altercation between Pitt and one of his six children, 15-year-old Maddox. An anonymous phone call was made to the authorities, which triggered an FBI investigation (ultimately closed with no charges). Five days later, his wife, Angelina Jolie, filed for divorce. By then, everything in Pitt’s world was in free fall. It wasn’t just a public-relations crisis—there was a father suddenly deprived of his kids, a husband without wife. And here he is, alone, a 53-year-old human father/former husband smack in the middle of an unraveled life, figuring out how to mend it back together.
White Sands National Monument | Shirt, $750, by Valentino / Sunglasses, $440, by Eyevan 7285 / Necklace by Miansai
And yet the enterprise known as Brad Pitt inexorably carries on. In November, the movie Allied came out, starring Pitt and Marion Cotillard. At the premiere he was described as “gaunt,” and rumors of an affair with Cotillard, and an on-set encounter between her and Jolie, had been so virulent that Cotillard took to social media to deny them, underscoring her love for her own partner, with whom she was pregnant with their second child. Meanwhile, Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, found itself winning an astonishing third Oscar for Best Picture, with Moonlight. (Pitt spent the Oscars ceremony at a friend’s house.) This month Netflix will release Pitt’s War Machine, a satire based on the incidents surrounding the firing of General Stanley McChrystal. In the film, he plays a gruff, ascetic stand-in for McChrystal, General Glen McMahon, with both big-gestured comic panache and an oblivious unknowingness that seems to be a metaphor for the entire American war effort.
But on this overcast spring morning, catching Pitt at this flexion point, I would say he seems more like one of those stripped-down Samuel Beckett characters, in a blank landscape, asking big questions of a futile world. Even the generalities he employs for protection seem metaphoric. (He mentioned his estranged wife’s name only once, when referencing her Cambodia movie, First They Killed My Father, telling me, “You should see Angie’s film.”) The loneliness of this new life, he said, is mitigated by Jacques, who spent most of the interview beached in a narcoleptic reverie at my feet, snoring and farting. (“Did you ever have the uncle that came over with emphysema, and had to sleep in your room when you were 6?” he says. “That’s Jacques.” And then: “Come here, boy. Friends for life!”)
When I ask Pitt what gives him the most comfort these days, he says, “I get up every morning and I make a fire. When I go to bed, I make a fire, just because—it makes me feel life. I just feel life in this house.”
GQ Style: Let’s go back to the start. What was it like growing up where you grew up?
Brad Pitt: Well, it was Springfield, Missouri, which is a big place now, but we grew up surrounded by cornfields—which is weird because we always had canned vegetables. I never could figure that one out! Anyway, ten minutes outside of town, you start getting into forests and rivers and the Ozark Mountains. Stunning country.
Did you have a Huck Finn boyhood?
Half the time. Half the time, yeah.
I grew up in caves. We had a lot of caves, fantastic caverns. And we grew up First Baptist, which is the cleaner, stricter, by-the-book Christianity. Then, when I was in high school, my folks jumped to a more charismatic movement, which got into speaking in tongues and raising your hands and some goofy-ass shit.
So were you there for speaking in tongues?
Yeah, come on. I’m not even an actor yet, but I know… I mean the people, I know they believe it. I know they’re releasing something. God, we’re complicated. We’re complicated creatures.
So acting came out of what you saw in these revival meetings?
Well, people act out. But as a kid, I was certainly drawn to stories—beyond the stories that we were living and knew, stories with different points of view. And I found those stories in film, especially. Different cultures and lives so foreign to mine. I think that was one of the draws that propelled me into film. I didn’t know how to articulate stories. I’m certainly not a good orator, sitting here telling a story, but I could foster them in film.
I remember going to a few concerts, even though we were told rock shows are the Devil, basically. Our parents let us go, they weren’t neo about it. But I realized that the reverie and the joy and exuberance, even the aggression, I was feeling at the rock show was the same thing at the revival. One is Jimmy Swaggart and one is Jerry Lee Lewis, you know? One’s God and one’s Devil. But it’s the same thing. It felt like we were being manipulated. What was clear to me was “You don’t know what you’re talking about—”
And it didn’t fuck you up?
No, it didn’t fuck me up—it just led to some eating questions at a young age.
The best actors blur into their characters, but given how well the world knows you, it seems you have a much harder time blurring these days?
I have so much attached to this facade. [gestures]
But then, in War Machine, you find the little gesture that makes the Glen McMahon character ours. Like the way he runs, which is hilarious.
The run to me was important because it was about the delusion of your own grandeur, not knowing what you really look like. All pencil legs, you know. Not being able to connect reality to this facade of grandeur.
The other equally distinctive characteristic is Glen’s voice. Where did it come from?
You know, it’s a little bit of a cliché, but I just enjoyed it too much: There’s, you know, of course, Patton in it. But I could not get Sterling Hayden out of my mind. I’m just fascinated with Sterling Hayden, off-camera, between films, and I couldn’t escape that. There’s even a little bit of Chris Farley in mannerisms. And then Kiefer Sutherland in Monsters vs. Aliens, you know, doing the cartoon voice. It just wouldn’t go anywhere else; it kept coming back there.
Have you ever felt the need to be more political?
I can help in other ways. I can help by getting movies out with certain messages. I’ve got to be moved by something—I can’t fake it. I grew up with that Ozarkian mistrust of politics to begin with, so I just do better building a house for someone in New Orleans or getting certain movies to the screen that might not get made otherwise.
You’re good at playing that kind of character, the one that doesn’t have a truly accurate vision of himself.
It makes me laugh. Any of my foibles are born from my own hubris. Always, always. Anytime. I famously step in shit—at least for me it seems pretty epic. I often wind up with a smelly foot in my mouth. I often say the wrong thing, often in the wrong place and time. Often. In my own private Idaho, it’s funny as shit. I don’t have that gift. I’m better speaking in some other art form. I’m trying to get better. I’m really trying to get better.
And the movie really pokes at this, too, right—America’s hubris?
When I get in trouble it’s because of my hubris. When America gets in trouble it’s because of our hubris. We think we know better, and this idea of American exceptionalism—I think we’re exceptional in many ways, I do, but we can’t force it on others. We shouldn’t think we can. How do we show American exceptionalism? By example. It’s the same as being a good father. By exemplifying our tenets and our beliefs, freedom and choice and not closing borders and being protectionists. But that’s another issue. You want me to tell you something really sad? I thought this was so sad. We were looking at—let me say, a certain war film that was looking to promote itself. The European posters had the American flag in the background, and it came back from the marketing department: “Remove the flag. It’s not a good sell here.” I was, like, Man, that’s America. That’s what we’ve done to our brand.
You’ve played characters in pain. What is pain, emotional and physical?
Yeah, I’m kind of done playing those. I think it was more pain tourism. It was still an avoidance in some way. I’ve never heard anyone laugh bigger than an African mother who’s lost nine family members. What is that? I just got R&B for the first time. R&B comes from great pain, but it’s a celebration. To me, it’s embracing what’s left. It’s that African woman being able to laugh much more boisterously than I’ve ever been able to.
“For me this period has been about looking at my weaknesses and failures and owning my side of the street.”
When did you have that revelation? What have you been listening to?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Frank Ocean. I find this young man so special. Talk about getting to the raw truth. He’s painfully honest. He’s very, very special. I can’t find a bad one.
And of great irony to me: Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear [Gaye’s touchstone album about divorce]. And that kind of sent me down a road.
But beautiful—and quite honest…. You know, I just started therapy. I love it, I love it. I went through two therapists to get to the right one.
About These Parks: To choose the locations for this summertime celebration of America’s national parks, Brad Pitt, Ryan McGinley, and GQ Style all collaborated on potential destinations. Pitt requested the lunar dunes of White Sands National Monument. Ryan McGinley had previous experience shooting in the underground labyrinths of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. And we nominated the swamps of Everglades National Park. Then we came together and covered all three over a stretch of eight days in March.
Do you think if the past six months hadn’t happened you’d be in this place eventually? That it would have caught up with you?
I think it would have come knocking, no matter what.
People call it a midlife crisis, but this isn’t the same—
No, this isn’t that. I interpret a midlife crisis as a fear of growing old and fear of dying, you know, going out and buying a Lamborghini. [pause] Actually—they’ve been looking pretty good to me lately! [laughs]
There might be a few Lamborghinis in your future!
“I do have a Ford GT,” he says quietly. [laughs] I do remember a few spots along the road where I’ve become absolutely tired of myself. And this is a big one. These moments have always been a huge generator for change. And I’m quite grateful for it. But me, personally, I can’t remember a day since I got out of college when I wasn’t boozing or had a spliff, or something. Something. And you realize that a lot of it is, um—cigarettes, you know, pacifiers. And I’m running from feelings. I’m really, really happy to be done with all of that. I mean I stopped everything except boozing when I started my family. But even this last year, you know—things I wasn’t dealing with. I was boozing too much. It’s just become a problem. And I’m really happy it’s been half a year now, which is bittersweet, but I’ve got my feelings in my fingertips again. I think that’s part of the human challenge: You either deny them all of your life or you answer them and evolve.
Was it hard to stop smoking pot?
No. Back in my stoner days, I wanted to smoke a joint with Jack and Snoop and Willie. You know, when you’re a stoner, you get these really stupid ideas. Well, I don’t want to indict the others, but I haven’t made it to Willie yet.
I’m sure he’s out there on a bus somewhere waiting for you. How about alcohol—you don’t miss it?
I mean, we have a winery. I enjoy wine very, very much, but I just ran it to the ground. I had to step away for a minute. And truthfully I could drink a Russian under the table with his own vodka. I was a professional. I was good.
So how do you just drop it like that?
Don’t want to live that way anymore.
What do you replace it with?
Cranberry juice and fizzy water. I’ve got the cleanest urinary tract in all of L.A., I guarantee you! But the terrible thing is I tend to run things into the ground. That’s why I’ve got to make something so calamitous. I’ve got to run it off a cliff.
Do you think that’s a thing?
I do it with everything, yeah. I exhaust it, and then I walk away. I’ve always looked at things in seasons, compartmentalized them, I guess, seasons or semesters or tenures or…
Really? So, this is the season of me getting my drink on.…
[laughs] Yeah, it’s that stupid. “This is my Sid and Nancy season.” I remember that one when I first got out to L.A. It got titled afterwards.
So then, you stop yourself, but how do you—I don’t know why this comes to mind but I think of a house—how do you renovate yourself?
Yeah, you start by removing all the decor and decorations, I think. You get down to the structure. Wow, we are in some big metaphor here now.… [laughs]
Metaphors are my life.
You strip down to the foundation and break out the mortar. I don’t know. For me this period has really been about looking at my weaknesses and failures and owning my side of the street. I’m an asshole when it comes to this need for justice. I don’t know where it comes from, this hollow quest for justice for some perceived slight. I can drill on that for days and years. It’s done me no good whatsoever. It’s such a silly idea, the idea that the world is fair. And this is coming from a guy who hit the lottery, I’m well aware of that. I hit the lottery, and I still would waste my time on those hollow pursuits.
That’s the thing about becoming un-numb. You have to stare down everything that matters to you.
That’s it! Sitting with those horrible feelings, and needing to understand them, and putting them into place. In the end, you find: I am those things I don’t like. That is a part of me. I can’t deny that. I have to accept that. And in fact, I have to embrace that. I need to face that and take care of that. Because by denying it, I deny myself. I am those mistakes. For me every misstep has been a step toward epiphany, understanding, some kind of joy. Yeah, the avoidance of pain is a real mistake. It’s the real missing out on life. It’s those very things that shape us, those very things that offer growth, that make the world a better place, oddly enough, ironically. That make us better.
Would there be art without it? Would there be any of this immense beauty that surrounds us?
Yeah—immense beauty, immense beauty. And by the way: There’s no love without loss. It’s a package deal.
Can you describe where you’ve been living—like, have you been in this house since September?
It was too sad to be here at first, so I went and stayed on a friend’s floor, a little bungalow in Santa Monica. I crashed over here a little bit, my friend [David] Fincher lives right here. He’s always going to have an open door for me, and I was doing a lot of stuff on the Westside, so I stayed at my friend’s house on the floor for a month and a half—until I was out there one morning, 5:30, and this surveillance van pulls up. They don’t know that I’m up behind a wall, and they pull up—and it’s a long story—but it was something more than TMZ, because they got into my friend’s computer. The stuff they can do these days…. So I got a little paranoid being there. I decided I had to pick up and come here.
‘If I’m not creating something, putting it out there, then I’ll just be creating scenarios of fiery demise in my mind.
How are your days different now?
This house was always chaotic and crazy, voices and bangs coming from everywhere, and then, as you see, there are days like this: very…very solemn. I don’t know. I think everyone’s creative in some way. If I’m not creating something, doing something, putting it out there, then I’ll just be creating scenarios of fiery demise in my mind. You know, a horrible end. And so I’ve been going to a friend’s sculpting studio, spending a lot of time over there. My friend [Thomas Houseago] is a serious sculptor. They’ve been kind. I’ve literally been squatting in there for a month now. I’m taking a shit on their sanctity.
So you’re making stuff?
Yeah, I’m making stuff. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for ten years.
Like what? What are you working with?
I’m making everything. I’m working with clay, plaster, rebar, wood. Just trying to learn the materials. You know, I surprise myself. But it’s a very, very lonely occupation. There’s a lot of manual labor, which is good for me right now. A lot of lugging clay around, chopping and moving and cleaning up after yourself. But I surprise myself. Yesterday I wasn’t settled. I had a lotta chaotic thoughts—trying to make sense of where we are at this time—and the thing I was doing wasn’t controlled and balanced and perfect. It came out chaotic. I find vernacular in what you can make, rather than giving a speech. I find voice there, that I need.
All the bad stuff: Do you use it to tell your story?
It just keeps knocking. I’m 53 and I’m just getting into it. These are things I thought I was managing very well. I remember literally having this thought a year, a year and a half ago, someone was going through some scandal. Something crossed my path that was a big scandal—and I went, “Thank God I’m never going to have to be a part of one of those again.” I live my life, I have my family, I do my thing, I don’t do anything illegal, I don’t cross anyone’s path. What’s the David Foster Wallace quote? Truth will set you free, but not until it’s done with you first.
Is the sculpting a Sisyphean thing: rolling the rock up the hill, action obliterating all thoughts? [Jacques interrupts, nuzzling]
I know you’ve been lonely. I know you’ve been lonely….
I find it the opposite. Well, I guess so, in that there’s a task at hand. You have to wrap your stuff up at night and bring order back to your chaos for the next day. I find it a great opportunity for the introspection. Now you have to be real careful not to go too far that way and get cut off in that way. I’m really good at cutting myself off, and it’s been a problem. I need to be more accessible, especially to the ones I love.
When you go dark, do you retreat, disconnect?
I don’t know how to answer that. I certainly shield. Shield, shield, shield. Mask, escape. Now I think: That’s just me.
You were talking about the Glen character in War Machine and the idea of delusion, that we have to create our own mythologies, our own stories, to explain the things we’re not proud of.
At a real cost to ourselves.
How do you not delude yourself? I worry about that—
You don’t have to worry about it. [laughs] Delusion is not going to let you go. You’re going to get smacked in the face. We, as humans, construct such mousetrap mind games to get away from it all. You know, we’re almost too smart for ourselves.
Okay. But if you had a slideshow of all your worst moments as a human, you wouldn’t want anyone to see that slideshow. The way you’ve had to live for years, that slideshow has been public.
But so little of it is accurate, and I avoid so much of it. I just let it go. It’s always been a long-run game for me. As far as out there, I hope my intentions and work will speak for themselves. But, yes, at the same time, it is a drag to have certain things drug out in public and misconstrued. I worry about it more for my kids, being subjected to it, and their friends getting ideas from it. And of course it’s not done with any kind of delicacy or insight—it’s done to sell. And so you know the most sensational sells, and that’s what they’ll be subjected to, and that pains me. I worry more in my current situation about the slideshow my kids have. I want to make sure it’s well-balanced.
“People on their deathbeds don’t talk about what they obtained. They talk about their loved ones or their regrets—that seems to be the menu.”
How do you make sense of the past six months and keep going?
Family first. People on their deathbeds don’t talk about what they obtained or were awarded. They talk about their loved ones or their regrets—that seems to be the menu. I say that as someone who’s let the work take me away. Kids are so delicate. They absorb everything. They need to have their hand held and things explained. They need to be listened to. When I get in that busy work mode, I’m not hearing. I want to be better at that.
When you begin making a family, I think you hope to create another family that is some ideal mix of the best of what you had and what you feel you didn’t have—
I try to put these things in front of them, hoping they’ll absorb it and that it will mean something to them later. Even in this place, they won’t give a shit about that little bust over there or that light. They won’t give a shit about that inlay, but somewhere down the road it will mean something—I hope that it will soak in.
It’s a different world, too. We know more, we’re more focused on psychology. I come from a place where, you know, it’s strength if we get a bruise or cut or ailment we don’t discuss it, we just deal with it. We just go on. The downside of that is it’s the same with our emotion. I’m personally very retarded when it comes to taking inventory of my emotions. I’m much better at covering up. I grew up with a Father-knows-best/war mentality—the father is all-powerful, super strong—instead of really knowing the man and his own self-doubt and struggles. And it’s hit me smack in the face with our divorce: I gotta be more. I gotta be more for them. I have to show them. And I haven’t been great at it.
Do you know, specifically, logistically when you have the kids?
Yeah. We’re working at that now.
It must be much harder when visitation is uncertain—
It was all that for a while. I was really on my back and chained to a system when Child Services was called. And you know, after that, we’ve been able to work together to sort this out. We’re both doing our best. I heard one lawyer say, “No one wins in court—it’s just a matter of who gets hurt worse.” And it seems to be true, you spend a year just focused on building a case to prove your point and why you’re right and why they’re wrong, and it’s just an investment in vitriolic hatred. I just refuse. And fortunately my partner in this agrees. It’s just very, very jarring for the kids, to suddenly have their family ripped apart.
That’s what I was going to ask—
If anyone can make sense of it, we have to with great care and delicacy, building everything around that.
How do you tell your kids?
Well, there’s a lot to tell them because there’s understanding the future, there’s understanding the immediate moment and why we’re at this point, and then it brings up a lot of issues from the past that we haven’t talked about. So our focus is that everyone comes out stronger and better people—there is no other outcome.
“I know I’m just in the middle of this thing now—not at the beginning or at the end, just smack-dab in the middle. And I don’t want to dodge any of it.”
And the fact that you guys are pointing toward that—that clearly doesn’t always happen. If you ended up in court, it would be a spectacular nightmare.
Spectacular. I see it everywhere. Such animosity and bitterly dedicating years to destroying each other. You’ll be in court and it’ll be all about affairs and it’ll be everything that doesn’t matter. It’s just awful, it looks awful. One of my favorite movies when it came out was There Will Be Blood, and I couldn’t figure out why I loved this movie, I just loved this movie, besides the obvious talent of Paul T. and, you know, Daniel Day. But the next morning I woke up, and I went, Oh, my God, this whole movie is dedicated to this man and his hatred. It’s so audacious to make a movie about it, and in life I find it just so sickening. I see it happen to friends—I see where the one spouse literally can’t tell their own part in it, and is still competing with the other in some way and wants to destroy them and needs vindication by destruction, and just wasting years on that hatred. I don’t want to live that way.
What in the past week has given you immense joy? Can you feel that right now?
It’s an elusive thing. It’s been a more painful week than normal—just certain things have come up—but I see joy out the window, and I can see the silhouette of palms and an expression on one of my kids’ faces, a parting smile, or finding some, you know, moment of bliss with the clay. You know, it’s everywhere, it’s got to be found. It’s the laughter of the African mother in my experience—it’s got to come from the blues, to get R&B. That’ll be in my book.
Are you going to write a book?
This story appears in the Summer 2017 issue of GQ Style with the title “Monumental.”