Not heat nor hurricanes nor tabloid gossip could deter Brad Pitt from playing the toughest role of his life. Will the epic Troy, costarring fellow hotties Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana, finally catapult Pitt into the realm of Oscar? Andrew Goldman braves the elements on set in Malta.

There is exactly one dry person in Malta today. It is a 110-degree July afternoon in the tiny island nation, and all over matrons are wiping their brows at bus stops, cabbies are wringing drenched handkerchiefs, and tourists are climbing off cruise ships wishing they’d taken the Gunard to Alaska instead of the Mediterranean during the hottest summer in years. Though it’s just a couple of dozen yards from the ocean, it’s no cooler on the set of Troy, where cameraman are wilting, craft-service guys are glistening, and cast and crew alike sport damp Rorschach blots on the backs of their shirts. But the 39-year-old actor who steps from his chauffeur-driven Mercedes into his trailer looks like a poster boy for Arrid Extra Dry. Brad Pitt has made a career of being the coolest guy in any room. Why shouldn’t he be the coolest guy in the country? There are, after all, only 400,000 other people here.

For the last eight weeks—on this country the size of Martha’s Vineyard, 60 miles south of Sicily—Warner bros. has been shooting Troy, a sprawling overview of the 24 books of Homer’s Iliad and the studio’s contribution to the recent historic-epic bonanza, ignited three and a half years ago by Gladiator and continued by the upcoming Master and Commander, King Arthur, and two Alexander the Great projects. The cast that The Perfect Storm and Air Force One director Wolfgang Petersen has assembled is a testosterone dream team: the sweet young Brit Orlando Bloom portraying Paris, the lovesick puppy who plunges Troy into war when he steals away with a certain married Greek named Helen; the Australian actor-comic Eric Bana, as Paris’ duty-bound warrior brother Hector, who must tidy up the war Paris starts; and the great and grumpy Peter O’Toole, who flies in and out from London to play their father, King Priam. O’Toole, as the set’s eminence grise, would certainly never get cut by anybody in a chow line. And owing to last summer’s star turns in The Hulk and Pirates of the Caribbean, respectively, Bana and Bloom will soon be the alpha males on any film they choose, delivering, if they’re inclined, mile-long contract riders stipulating the brand of face cream they’d like in their bathrooms.

But let’s get real: Troy won’t be a Bana, Bloom or O’Toole vehicle. There is, after all, only one actor on this set taking home an alledged $17.5 million paycheck. One actor whose presence was responsible for a near-riot outside a Malta restaurant when he joined the rest of the cast for dinner. And on this dirt lot 100 feet from the massive plaster reproduction of the streets of ancient Troy, there is one trailer that appears to be a little longer, a bit fatter, and slightly closer to the set than the rest. Behind its door, with a laser-printed sign reading ACHILLES, are the shoulders on which this virtual city of thousands rests—the guy whose performance Warner Bros. is betting a rumoured $150 million-plus will have grandmothers and schoolboys and everyone in between sprinting to the local multiplex. For Pitt, Troy not only marks a return to the screen—when the film is released in May, it will have been two and a half years since his last role, in Ocean’s 11—it might, just might, catapult him into the stratosphere of great film icons. If it works as planned—and Warner bros. is praying to Apollo that it does—he may finally be able to shed the cuddly mantle of the Sexiest Man Alive, the owner of the dreamy blue eyes and xylophone abs who frequently receives only reluctant respect from critics. Instead, Pitt could be defined as Achilles from Troy in the same way that O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, and Al Pacino were identified by the epics Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, and The Godfather trilogy, respectively. Barely halfway through the shoot, there is already some on-set prophesying of gold-plated statuettes. Period costumes and grand sets have always been Oscar built for Academy members, and Warner Bros. is spending more on all that stuff—armor, horses, boats—for Troy than it cost to make Seven Years in Tibet, Interview With the Vampire, and Legends of the Fall combined. “I’ve no doubt this is the role of Brad’s career,” says director Petersen. “I don’t even hesitate to say that”

The trailer door opens, and Pitt ambles out. “Hey,” he says sleepily, smiling and extending a hand. Just then, the generator powering his air conditioned conks out. He doesn’t flinch. “AC doesn’t really coincide with Homer,” he says in his Missouri drawl. “The heat is all right because it’s the period.” Since he’s not shooting today, Pitt is skirtless, wearing instead long ouflage shorts, Nikes, and a pair of WHAT WOULD JESUS DO? Athletic socks. These, together with his backward Body Glove cap, which makes his chin-length blond hair stick out at all sides, endow him with a look that could be described only as So Cal skate punk meets Teutonic scarecrow.

Pitt is brawny from daily sessions with his trainer, Duffy Gaver, the same guy who helped Tobey Maguire fill out his Spider-Man costume. For Troy, Gaver helped transform Pitt from his natural lean state into the embodiment of Achilles, the most lethal battlefield killer in literary history. Even at rest, Pitt’s biceps test the fabric of his short-sleeve shirt. Absent from his lips is his trademark cigarette; Pitt had to quit in preparation for the role, which apparently made him a little crabby in the company of his bride of three years, Jennifer Aniston. (“My poor wife,” Pitt sighs. “Fortunately, we got through it.”)

Inside the trailer, Pitt plops down on a brown sofa and apologizes for the Brady Bunch-era cheap red oak veneer. “Usually I go into a decorative mode and wallpaper the place,” he says. “But it’s too f---in’ hot here, man.” Despite the heat, he fidgets like a fourth-grader waiting for recess: His foot pumps, he scratches his wrists and rubs his nose with his palm. And though there’s something undeniably easygoing and genial about the way he peppers his speech with such study hall stoner favorites as “Dude” and “man” and “smokin’,” his shorts, deadpan answers give you the feeling that maybe he really is one of those laconic Midwesterners who don’t say more than is necessary—or he’s a canny celebrity who’s learned that a little goes a long way with the press. So have you shot the scene where Achilles is killed? “Yeah,” Pitt says. How did that go? “Well, he’s dead.”

Then again, Pitt may just be going a little Method. In The Iliad, Achilles was too busy lopping off heads to discourse on decapitation methodology. And Pitt, in order to summon the fury of Achilles, whom he calls “the angriest character in literature,” has been leaving the keg stands to the other guys. “I haven’t been as fun as this one as I have on some others,” he says. My life here is pretty monastic. I needed to not be very social just to get into it.” The process of finding his inner half-God warrior has bled into his daily habits. “The thing I like about this role is the juxtaposition of violence with gentleness, these contradicting characteristics,” he says. “My job is to make Achilles like me, in a way. I never quite know where the dividing line is. I changed my life for this thing. You have to break your habits, adapt to a new life that fits this.”

Petersen later adds: “In the movie, Achilles is somewhat secluded and a bit of a loner. So Brad has been something of an Achilles-type character on set—very private and a little bit isolated. It’s all on purpose. He’s been living the part. Is that Method acting? Yeah.” Some on the production have questioned whether Pitt is even in the movie. “I’ve been on this film nine months, and I’ve never seen Brad Pitt,” says Peter Young, Troys two-time Oscar-winning set decorator. “I don’t believe this creature exists.”

The crew may not be able to spot him, but the paparazzi still manages. “The hunt,” as Pitt calss the daily stalking that’s a given in his life, continues, even on the outer reaches of Europe. Producers weren’t thrilled when an early glimpse of their epic came in the form of a photo reproduced around the world of Pitt in full Achilles armor yapping on a cell phone. And during a slow news summer, a gossip mill churned concerning issues below Pitt’s belt. Yes, historical accuracy be damned, he is indeed wearing underwear under his tunic. “Apparently the original guys didn’t But we have an R-rated film, so we won’t be doing that,” Pitt says. “I don’t know how these guys fought in these things. It must have been incredibly dangerous. Talk about a kill shot.” As if that weren’t enough, a British tabloid reported that producers, judging Pitt’s gams spindly, hired a beefy leg double for certain scenes, which Pitt dismisses. “How would you even do a leg double?” he asks.

If only gossips and shutterbugs were the worst thing the Troy cast had to deal with, There were minor annoyances, like bad pickup lines delivered in broken English, Rose Byrne, the Australian actress who plays Briseis, Achilles’ love interest, stopped going out alone because she found some Maltese men aggressive and “a bit too leering.” They just stare at you and step really close.” She says, wrinkling her nose. And the weather…well, hell would have been more temperate this time of year. In the breezeless heat, and under an 18,000-watt light, O’Toole, Bana, Bloom, and Diane Kruger, the German model turned actress who plays Helen, have been shooting and reshooting the scene in which Paris introduces his father to the beautiful surprise he’s brought from Sparta.

The Maltese extras dressed as palace guards ready to keel over, and their fake beards keep slipping off from sweat. Filming schedules were rearranged when the sea proved too choppy for shooting a nautical scene—Petersen hadn’t planned on puking extras. Tragically, one died as a result of complications from surgery after he broke his leg when jumping from a boat during one scene.

Between takes, Bloom holds a battery-operated fan close to his face, then wearily passes it to Bana. Kruger aims hers at her armpits, Bana says he credits his presence on the film in large parts to Pitt, who contacted Bana after admiring his performance as the gregarious Australian serial killer in 2000’s chopper. Pitt did his damnedest to get Bana on the project; now Pitt gets to kill him on-screen. Bloom, whose Pirates role has made him a bona fide heartthrob, elicited from Pitt a bit of career advice. “Find good scripts and go with your gut” is the polite way Bloom remembers the answer. Pitt remembers it differently: “I just told him to keep his pants on.” Pitt heeded his own advice but did manage to wear the proverbial lamp shade when he called a temporary moratorium on his solitude to play the Richard Harris role in a vintage O’Toole bender. “We started at about five in the afternoon and finished at five in the morning.” Pitt says. “He’s a professional, man. A professional.”

“F---ing climate,” O’Toole growls, to no one in particular. He is perched in the shade, with a huge electric fan blowing directly on his face—that is, until he calls out to an aide who pivots it down towards his knees. Unlike the rest of the cast, O’Toole does not remain in his heavy Trojan garb between scenes; he wears only a white terry bathrobe. On cue, he rises and drops the robe and, naked but for his white skivvies, outstretches his arms. A wardrobe assistant quickly replaces his gown. Having made more than 50 films, O’Toole is a professional, man.

Everywhere on set cast and crew talk dreamily of shipping out to cool Pacific winds of Los Cabos, Mexico, where they’ll spend two and a half months shooting Lord of the rings-scale battle scenes. But once the production relocated to Mexico. The gods had some fun with this request and sent a breeze in the form of Hurricane Ignacio, which, in late August, was headed straight for the Los Cabos set. As studio executives bit their fingernails, the Greek boats were fastened high on the beach, and Petersen tore out his hair envisioning months—and millions of dollars—delays. Meanwhile Pitt, the calm eye of Troy’s storm, kicked back with a few others from the cast, hoping to watch some of God’s fireworks. “We didn’t want anything to get knocked over. We wanted jus a little taste of it (but the storm) completely ignored us in the end,” Pitt says from Mexico, sounding palpably disappointed. He has just finished anther rehearsal for his big battle with Bana, and he’s only three weeks from wrapping Try and being back home with the missus for a spell before reporting to work on his next project, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, with Angelina Jolie. “I’m going to be having a few pizzas after this one,” he says.

Even in light of the spirit-sapping pitfalls and near disasters during the making of Troy, Pitt offers a bit of guarded optimism. “This one feels like the planets aligned a bit,” he says. But he has also been around long enough not to make predictions. “You just don’t know,” he says. “There’s still questions.” Try this one: Could Troy be his big Oscar moment, the role that finally blows him over that elusive Hollywood hurdle?

“Aw, dude, that’s such a dangerous thing to talk about,” he says uncomfortably. “Dangerous, dangerous topic.” It’s hard to tell, but Brad Pitt may finally be sweating.