Brad Pitt Opens Up His Dream World
We know him as a legendary leading man, a Hollywood power broker, maybe the greatest heartthrob of all time. But Brad Pitt isn’t attached to any of those old conceptions. And, as Ottessa Moshfegh discovers, his ambitions for the rest of his life are more mystical than we ever could have imagined.
BY OTTESSA MOSHFEGH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELIZAVETA PORODINA
June 22, 2022
Brad Pitt tries to remember his dreams. He keeps pen and paper on his bedside table and records everything he can recall when he wakes up in the morning. “I’ve found that to be really helpful,” he says. “I’m curious what’s going on in there when I’m not at the helm.” He tells me this one recent afternoon in the brightness of his living room, at his Craftsman home in the Hollywood Hills. For a long while, his sleep had been haunted by a particularly persistent and violent dream—the particulars of which he later describes for me in an email exchange. He writes:
For a solid four or five years there, the most predominant dream I would experience would be getting jumped and stabbed. It would always be at night, in the dark, and I would be walking down a sidewalk in a park or along a boardwalk and as I’d pass under an Exorcist-like street lamp, someone would jump out of the abyss and stab me in the ribs. Or I’d notice I was being followed and then another flanked me and I realized I was trapped, and they meant me grave harm. Or being chased through a house with a kid I’d help escape but got pinned in on the deck—and stabbed. Always stabbed. And I would awake in a terror. I didn’t understand why it/they would want to hurt me. This stopped a year or two ago only when I started going straight back into the dream and asking simply why?
One might be tempted to psychoanalyze a dream like that. Brad Pitt—the golden boy from Missouri who moved to California on a lark at 22 and became the biggest movie star in the world, who reportedly makes up to $20 million a film, who was twice part of perhaps the most famous relationship on the planet—cannot go anywhere without being stalked by the paparazzi. It’s easy to see how this man might feel hunted and haunted. What’s perhaps surprising is how the bad dream eventually went away: Only by studying this nightmare—by taking careful note of it and trying to pin down its meaning—did it begin to have less of a hold on him.
He’s 58 now, nearly six years on from a difficult divorce from Angelina Jolie, with whom he has six children. We see less of him than we once did. Having receded from his position as a perennial leading man, he appears onscreen a bit more sporadically these days, playing characters who feel increasingly unexpected and playfully subvert our assumptions of the kind of movie star that he’s been for 30 years. He focuses a good deal of his attention on his role as a film producer, through which he’s happily supporting rising auteurs and helping to shepherd the work of great authors to the screen. When we meet, he seems to me more ruminative, more intentional, more of an artist than I perhaps expected. He tells me he’s trying to think carefully about what’s ahead, about the path that he wants to chart for the final stages of an abundantly creative career. “I consider myself on my last leg,” he says to me, “this last semester or trimester. What is this section gonna be? And how do I wanna design that?”
Mining his dreams for what meaning they might contain, he says, is a part of that process. As is plumbing his own past for the wisdom that comes from his challenges. “Out here in California,” he says, “there’s a lot of talk about ‘being your authentic self.’ It would plague me, what does ‘authentic’ mean? [For me] it was getting to a place of acknowledging those deep scars that we carry.”
Pitt has a number of properties in and outside of L.A.—a beach house near Santa Barbara, a modernist glass-and-steel residence also in the Hollywood Hills—but it’s this Craftsman home, which has been a fixture in his life throughout his tenure as a movie star, where he’s been holed up for much of the pandemic. Inside, the walls are a caramel shade of cedar, and the ground floor rooms are appointed with vintage furniture and tasteful art. There are no obvious family photos on display, and no flourishes of luxury to the place, apart from the simple fineness of the home, perfect in its adherence to its early-20th-century aesthetic.
When he welcomes me in, Pitt is wearing neutral tones, draped khaki trousers and a loose white T-shirt, like a man trying to camouflage himself in a wheat field. The colors call to mind the Midwest, big skies. Pitt grew up in the Ozarks, a place he speaks about with reverie. A scented candle perfumes the kitchen where he cheerfully offers me a beverage: tea, coffee, water, juice, booze. I’m sober, like Pitt, who hasn’t had a drink in almost six years. I take water, as does he.
“Cold or room temp?” he asks.
I choose cold because I want to see into his fridge: barely anything in there, just the cool bluish glare of the electric light. “All my friends have gone to room temp,” he says. Room temp. That seems appropriate. The vibe here is gentle and calm.
“Is there anyone else in this house?” I ask him.
“Nah,” he says quickly. He has a friendly but acerbic way of answering the yes-or-no questions that, I assume, he might prefer that I not pursue. Nope. Yep.
In the fireplace, there’s a barely smoldering log, and Pitt pulls up a chair as though to bask in its warmth. His eyes are clear and pale blue and they catch the light as he turns to me.
“This was the first place I bought when I made some money in ’94,” he says. Pitt purchased the property from Cassandra Peterson, best known for her roles on TV and in film as the campy horror host Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. She’s told stories of the house being haunted when she lived here, claiming that she once heard the sound of footsteps coming from the uninhabited third floor, saw the ghost of a nurse, and of a man in period clothing sitting near the fireplace. She also claims Mark Hamill told her he lived in the house in the 1960s until his roommate hanged himself in a bedroom closet. “It was really run-down and dilapidated,” Pitt tells me of his arrival. “I lived here for a few years, then I bounced around everywhere, just let friends crash here, and then somewhere in the aughts I fixed it up. Been pretty much hiding out here.”
Lately, he’s been rising early to play his guitar, a pursuit he took up toward the beginning of the pandemic. He’ll come down to the living room, where he’ll light a fire and strum a bit. He feels at ease here, he says, but is also happy to get out of town, often taking drives up the coast to his beach house—a trip just long enough to seem like an escape. “I drive out and I just feel like I’m taking off a cloak or something,” he says. When he’s heading back into town, he says he can feel the weight of the place. “As soon as you turn in past Santa Barbara, I feel it coming. The shoulders start getting a little higher, and I feel it. I’m not quite sure what that is and how to contend with it just yet. Other than getting out and traveling a lot.”
Of course, it’s work that often keeps him anchored to L.A., and his friends tell me that he’s happiest when he’s got his head down in a project. One close confidant, Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist, explains, “When Brad’s lost in the process of creating, there’s something magical about that. It’s like this thing that lights something inside a human being that gives them power and opens them up.”
“He’s one of the last remaining big-screen movie stars. It’s just a different breed of man. And frankly, I don’t think you can describe exactly what that is because it’s like describing starshine.”
Indeed, the work Pitt is doing today is gratifying in new and different ways. This year, Plan B Entertainment, his production company, is putting out Women Talking, an adaptation of Miriam Toews’s novel about a group of Mennonite women who unite against their rapists, directed by Sarah Polley. “It’s as profound a film as anything made this decade,” Pitt tells me. And there’s also the forthcoming film version of Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, a fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe’s interior life, directed by Andrew Dominik. Add those to a slate of other acclaimed novels Plan B has adapted or optioned—Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time—and a portrait emerges of Pitt as a kind of literary kingmaker.
And yet, for all his high-mindedness as a producer and his increasing selectivity as an actor, Pitt is glad to lend his talents to the odd blockbuster when the timing is right, especially when there’s a personal connection. That includes this summer’s Bullet Train, directed by David Leitch, whose relationship with Pitt goes back to 1999’s Fight Club, when Leitch served as the star’s stunt double, a role Leitch would reprise in a number of films, including Troy and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Their filmmaking relationship took on a remarkable new vector when the pair began talking about Bullet Train, yet Leitch says their collaboration was as natural as ever. “In the conversations I had with Brad,” he says, “the number one goal was to make a movie that’s entertaining and escapist and fresh and original, that will make people want to come back to the theater.”
Bullet Train may be a feel-good summer blockbuster, but it was filmed in part on a soundstage in L.A. in the middle of the pandemic. “It was heavy outside those studio gates,” costar Brian Tyree Henry recalls. “What I remember mostly is the laughter. Brad’s laugh is really infectious. He brings this kind of ease to set where there’s nothing overworked. You’re sitting across from a master class of cool.”
“I’m one of those creatures that speaks through art. I just want to always make. If I’m not making, I’m dying in some way.”
In the film, Pitt plays Ladybug, an assassin on a train from Tokyo to Kyoto who’s just recovered from a case of burnout, returning to his high-stakes job with a somewhat misguided sense of confidence about his fitness for duty. “You know, you do a month of therapy,” Pitt says about his character, “you have one epiphany, and you think you’ve got it all figured out, and you’re never going to be forlorn ever again. That was that. I got this, I’m good to go!”
The character is a familiar type for Pitt—likable, flawed, a little eccentric—and he plays the part with an easy charm and self-effacing humor that evokes some of his other recent roles, like Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. To Quentin Tarantino, who directed Pitt in that role, as well as in Inglourious Basterds, Pitt’s shape-shifting as an actor is evidence of a kind of screen presence we just don’t see much anymore. “He suggests an older-style movie star,” Tarantino tells me over the phone. “He’s really good-looking. He’s also really masculine and he’s also really hip; he gets the joke.… But the thing that only the directors that work with Brad and the actors that act opposite him really know, what he’s so incredibly talented at, is his ability to really understand the scene. He might not be able to articulate it, but he has an instinctive understanding about it.”
What Pitt exudes, Tarantino says, is a rare timelessness. “He’s one of the last remaining big-screen movie stars,” the director tells me, equating his star quality with that of Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Steve McQueen. “It’s just a different breed of man. And frankly, I don’t think you can describe exactly what that is because it’s like describing starshine. I noticed it when we were doing Inglourious Basterds. When Brad was in the shot, I didn’t feel like I was looking through the viewfinder of the camera. I felt like I was watching a movie. Just his presence in the four walls of the frame created that impression.”
His Hollywood origin story is famous: He arrived in town in his Datsun, having left the University of Missouri two credits short of his degree. He’d been studying journalism, hoping to one day become an art director, and though those vague aspirations quickly faded, certain proclivities remained. He’s always loved to make things, hold things, feel their quality and texture. It’s a passion he first developed in his junior high shop class, and, he tells me, one that defines him still.
“I’m one of those creatures that speaks through art,” Pitt explains. “I just want to always make. If I’m not making, I’m dying in some way.” Of course, Pitt has also made more than merely movies: sculpture, furniture, homes. As his friend Spike Jonze, the filmmaker, recalls, sometimes Pitt makes music too: “The other day he came over obsessing over the song ‘Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)’ that Arcade Fire released two days earlier, and we sat and listened to it and played guitar and sang along to it a dozen times just to get to experience it inside out. I could feel the song spilling out of him.”
As we’re talking in his living room, Pitt slips away for a moment and then reappears, looming over the couch on which I sit. He slaps two incredibly heavy candlesticks into my open palms. I understand that these are his creations. Over the pandemic, he learned ceramics. The candlesticks are painted black and gold and are very handsome. “That’s porcelain,” he says. “Everything I read, porcelain’s about being thin so that light penetrates, the thinner you get. It’s a cardinal sin to make it thick.” And yet that’s what Pitt has done, and he’s succeeded. “What I love is the heft, like a Leica camera or a quality watch. You could dump this in the dirt and someone could dig it up 2,000 years later, because it’s been under a volcanic reaction.”
Perhaps the most renowned of Pitt’s creative sidelines is the wine that he’s been producing at his estate in Provence, Château Miraval. In 2008, he and Jolie bought the thousand–acre property, which produces a world-class rosé that has become a multimillion–dollar business; in 2014 the two were married there. More recently, the estate popped up in the press when Jolie sold her stake in the business. Before the legal wrangling that has since ensued, Pitt received an interesting bit of information about the property.
He tells me that he was approached a few years ago by a man who explained to him that the château was supposedly home to another fortune: millions of dollars’ worth of gold that one of the estate’s medieval owners had taken from the Levant during the Crusades and buried on the grounds. “I got obsessed,” Pitt says. “Like for a year, this was all I could think about, just the excitement of it all.” He bought radar equipment and scoured his property. “Maybe it has something to do with where I grew up, because in the Ozark Mountains there were always stories of hidden caches of gold.”
Of course, no treasure was unearthed. Pitt says the man who’d approached him was ultimately seeking money for some kind of radar company; an investment opportunity, he was told. The whole thing went nowhere and Pitt was left feeling a little surprised that he’d let himself believe in the idea. The entire experience was, he says, “pretty foolish in the end. It was just the hunt that was exciting.”
As he finishes this story, Pitt offers me a nicotine mint. He chews them mindlessly. He explains that he quit smoking during the pandemic after realizing that simply cutting back on cigarettes wasn’t going to suffice—he had to cut them out. “I don’t have that ability to do just one or two a day,” he says. “It’s not in my makeup. I’m all in. And I’m going to drive into the ground. I’ve lost my privileges.”
It’s one of several radical changes he’s made to his health over the past few years. After Jolie filed for divorce, in 2016, he got sober and spent a year and a half attending Alcoholics Anonymous. “I had a really cool men’s group here that was really private and selective, so it was safe,” he says. “Because I’d seen things of other people who had been recorded while they were spilling their guts, and that’s just atrocious to me.”
When Pitt talks about the past, he’s got a Buddhist style of detachment, a calm kind of self-inquiry. He’s also very willing to admit the appeal of his old vices, thinking back to the days when he’d have a cigarette “in the morning, with the coffee—just delicious.” In Pitt’s mind there are certain people who can do that all their life and get away with it. Indestructible types like David Hockney, the British painter. Pitt has met him on a couple of occasions. “He’s still chaining, the hard-core English way. It looks great.” Pitt smiles ruefully. “I don’t think I have that. I’m just at that age when nothing good comes from it.”
Pitt has talked in the past about a curious problem he has in social settings, especially at parties. He struggles to remember new people, to recognize their faces, and he fears it’s led to a certain impression of him: that he’s remote and aloof, inaccessible, self-absorbed. But the truth is, he wants to remember the people he meets and he’s ashamed that he can’t. He’s never been officially diagnosed but thinks he may suffer from a specific condition: prosopagnosia, an inability to recognize people’s faces that’s otherwise known as face blindness.
When I tell him that my husband seems to suffer from this as well, Pitt goes wild. “Nobody believes me!” he cries. “I wanna meet another.” He’s making uncannily good eye contact as he says this, and it’s at this point that I realize that Brad Pitt is definitely not aloof or reserved. The truth is, sitting with him is an altogether different experience. He’s affable and charming in all the ways you might hope, but his charisma goes deeper: This is a man who seems deeply committed to forging meaningful connections, to probing life’s existential quandaries and hearing your personal stories. He’s the opposite of a guy who’d snub you at a party. He’s the guy who wants to see your soul.
He’s also a guy who, hidden under his shirt, has a line from a Rumi poem inked across his right bicep: “There exists a field, beyond all notions of right and wrong. I will meet you there.” It’s a deeply romantic idea, but does it also hint at a certain solitude? “I always felt very alone in my life,” he explains, “alone growing up as a kid, alone even out here, and it’s really not till recently that I have had a greater embrace of my friends and family. What’s that line, it was either Rilke or Einstein, believe it or not, but it was something about when you can walk with the paradox, when you carry real pain and real joy simultaneously, this is maturity, this is growth.”
Then he turns his lens on me. “I wanted to ask you,” he says, “why the fuck are we here? What’s beyond? Because I gather that you believe in something beyond.… Do you feel trapped here, in this body and in this environment?”
In response, I recite another Rumi poem: “I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.… I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.”
Insane to think I am quoting a 13th-century Persian poet to a movie star in L.A. in 2022, but I think it goes over well. I tell him that my so-called aviary isn’t too bad; I’m lucky. “But while I’m here on earth,” I say, “I’m a bit hypersensitive to things. Like music.”
“What is that about?” Pitt asks. “Because music fills me with so much joy. I think joy’s been a newer discovery, later in life. I was always moving with the currents, drifting in a way, and onto the next. I think I spent years with a low-grade depression, and it’s not until coming to terms with that, trying to embrace all sides of self—the beauty and the ugly—that I’ve been able to catch those moments of joy.”
“My heart just might be broken,” I tell him. “So when I feel things, when my heart is activated, it hurts.”
“I think all our hearts are broken,” he says. There’s a bit of dad in his voice. It sounds like sincere care and wisdom, as if I’m talking to a guy on a long-distance train ride who is curious and kind and has all the time in the world to let me try to say what I mean.
He’s always on a quest for meaning, he tells me. By way of explanation, he brings up a poem by Rilke. “He’s describing this bust of Apollo, and he’s talking about the craftsmanship, and then suddenly out of nowhere is this line, ‘You must change your life.’ You know it? Oh, it gives me chills.”
Pitt polishes off his bottle of water and looks past me, seemingly lost in thought. Silence is especially dramatic when Brad Pitt is creating it.
Suddenly, he’s scrolling through photos on his iPhone. The bust of Apollo made him think about the L.A.-based artist Charles Ray, perhaps the most influential sculptor working today and, it turns out, a mutual acquaintance of ours. Pitt tells me he recently saw an exhibition of Ray’s work at the Pinault Collection in Paris. “He made this Christ out of paper,” Pitt says, showing me a photo on his phone. “And the way the light catches it is something unbelievable. Also, it’s not on the wall and it’s not on the cross, although he’s crucified. He’s floating, it’s like he’s free of it, it’s just so stunning. See how it floats, and the shadow on the wall?”
The paper Christ that Pitt is talking about is a study after 17th-century Italian sculptor Alessandro Algardi’s Corpus Christi, which was originally cast in silver for Pope Innocent X. Ray created the Christ form by molding wet paper pulp, and considers the piece to be a kind of drawing rather than a sculpture. Pitt zooms in on details to show me the beauty of the work. “See the way the light bounces off it? It’s still got the movement of the wind, and the nail holes are there. Just beautiful…”
Later, Ray explains to me his ambitions for the sculpture: “I thought that if I extended the structure of what paper could actually do and push its material structure and scale to a limit where it could barely hold together, then I might find divinity in my endeavor.” Like Ray, Pitt seems interested in finding something sacred in the making of things. But he hesitates to call himself an artist. His personal pursuit of ceramics isn’t an art form, he tells me, but a “solo, very quiet, very tactile kind of sport.” I think this is his Ozarkian humility coming through. He’s obviously an artist—he lives like one, works like one, ruminates like one, suffers and aspires like one—and thinks deeply about what it means to be one. “Art is something inexplicable,” he says. “Art is something that gives you goose bumps, that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, that brings a tear to the eye. Maybe it’s because someone understood before you, you’re not alone.”
A few days after we meet at his house, Pitt sends me an email—composed, he tells me, just after a six-hour oral surgery—in which he elaborates on the answers he gave in our interview. The email is broken down into three categories: Summation, Clarification, Rumination. And he explains, as if to a friend, something he has learned about effective communication in a relationship, emphasizing that a healthy self begins with taking “radical accountability.”
Is Brad Pitt psychic, I wonder, or is it obvious that I need advice in this area? Earlier in the day, my husband confronted me about this very issue of accountability, claiming that I deflect critical feedback as though I’m made of glass. I’m afraid to see myself clearly sometimes, it’s true. Then I remember Pitt’s comforting half-smile. “All our hearts are broken,” he said.
I also think back to Pitt’s dreams about stalkers coming out of the darkness to stab him, and about how he learned to control those dreams by simply asking “Why?” That inquisitive side of him has come into clearer focus now, his need to excavate life’s most complex truths. I write back, asking what he interprets these dreams to mean. A few days later, he offers this explanation:
My interpretation of the stabbing dreams were on the surface about fears, feeling unsafe, completely alone—but beneath it all they mostly seemed to be about buried needs—those aspects of self that weren’t allowed to bloom as a child—like healthy anger, individuality, or especially a voice.
It takes courage to foray back into a nightmare and unearth the pains of one’s childhood, and to name them. And it takes skill to simultaneously stand in the place of both your ghost and your killer in order to play out the drama between them. There’s something useful in Pitt’s example here—his ability to be two things at once, his willingness to carry the paradox of being human.
When Pitt and I were sitting together by the fire, he said something profound: “I am a murderer. I’m a lover. I have the capacity for great empathy and I can devolve into pettiness.” One might say that in dreams we can be anyone, feel anything, go anywhere. We are like actors in a movie of our own making, and we watch the film alone at night, in the dark. If we truly want to understand ourselves, we ought to take notes.