A sure sign of success - tabloid reporters sifting through his garbage - and an interesting new movie (along with a prestigious role in A River Runs Through It) shows Brad Pitt as the Next Big Thing in American movies.

Fame works in a funny way. Sometimes it comes in a rush of high-profile myth-making, one single brilliant stroke witnessed by all the global village. And sometimes it insinuates itself almost invisibly, over time, onto its subject. And so it is with Brad Pitt who, last year at this time, didn't have writers from supermarket tabloids rifling through his garbage.

A year ago, if you wanted to talk to anyone about Brad Pitt, you had to say, "Brad Pitt - you know the guy who seduced Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise?"

Pitt didn't have any career breakthroughs in the first nine months of 1992. No scandals. No major roles, just a part in the little-seen live action/animated misadventure Cool World. Still, by the time his two new films arrived on screens this fall, Pitt's popularity had already reached critical mass. Word had spread. You say Brad Pitt now, and men nod. Women just smile.

Nobody did more with less screen time last year than the 28-year-old Pitt. His arresting 10 minutes as a chivalrous piece of slyly ingratiating white trash in Thelma & Louise launched countless crushes, in movie theaters and later on video.

It also set the stage for his one-two punch this fall. He did his best work yet as the splendidly irresponsible younger brother Paul in Robert Redford's adaptation of the Norman Maclean novel A River Runs Through It. Now comes his performance as the title character in Tom DiCillo's quirky, surreal Johnny Suede. The film (which opens today in Austin) shows a Pitt willing - unlike so many other actors pegged for heartthrob status - to stretch his craft, challenging preconceived notions about himself in the process.

The character of J.D. that Pitt played in Thelma & Louise seemed naive, but he was a consummate operator. In Johnny Suede, Pitt goes the other way. The character he plays tries to project an image of hip smoothness, but he's simple-minded, almost untouched by human interaction.

When I interviewed Pitt in January at the Sundance Film Festival, he was weary, exhilarated and just a little sunburned, having spent much of the day on the slopes of Park City, Utah. His slack, easy demeanor belies a casualness that could only be Midwestern (he was born in Oklahoma, raised in Springfield, Mo.). In person, Pitt is someone who seems smarter than he is articulate. In the hour in which we talked about everything from fortune cookies to John Wayne movies to men's attitudes about fidelity, he maintained a flat, unassuming air of casual, friendly inquisitiveness. No star trips here.

For Pitt, the appeal to the Suede character that director DiCillo had concocted was his manifest uncoolness, his desperate attempt to project a persona and the struggle for female companionship, all qualities at odds with the character of J.D. (and the dozens of similar roles offered to Pitt in the wake of Thelma's success).

"Here's a guy basically living a lie," said Pitt. "But I believe that Johnny feels like, `This is how I'm going to be successful, this is how I'm going to be a man. This is how I'm gonna be with the ladies. This is how people are going to want me.' With all the exterior. And it's all meant to cover up his own vulnerability about being so inexperienced. You know that's every man's fear at some point in his life: `Am I doing it right?' "

DiCillo also wrote the screenplay. For him, the film documented not only fears of inadequacy, but what he sees as a central truth about the male animal: "They can be with the person that they love more than anything in the world," he said. "They can be in the middle of a sentence expressing their love about that. Then some woman walks by with beautiful set of breasts, and they just stop. I don't know what it is."

The challenge for Pitt's character is to remain sympathetic even while he's exhibiting that type behavior. The danger of the character is that he would become an overblown cartoon with big hair and no sense, a rebel without a clue destined to remain wrapped in his own cocoon throughout the picture.

"There's a difference in dumb vs. naive, you know?," Pitt said. "I mean if someone's just dumb, that gets old real fast. That was something Tom really kept the reins on. There's a certain purity, an innocence to Johnny. I think this part came less naturally (than J.D in Thelma & Louise). But despite the fact that it was such a surreal setting, it's been the most honest film - personally - to me."

About the funny, touching love scenes that DiCillo has captured here, the confines of a family newspaper prevent me from saying much. Suffice to say that the film elicited one of the biggest laughs of the festival with romantic lead Catherine Keener's bedroom line, "That's not it."

"This was a very tricky character," DiCillo said at Sundance. "How do you play a guy who has to be, 1) kind of obnoxious, 2) kind of naive, and yet still sympathetic? Most people, in books and movies these days, they want to show guys who are either all good or all bad. It was in my interests to show a guy who had both. And Brad was completely up to that."

Before Thelma & Louise vaulted him to A-lists throughout Hollywood, Pitt had already secured his breakthrough role, as Paul in A River Runs Through It. Pitt has compared working with Redford to playing tennis against someone much better than you. It improves your game, but you've got to concentrate to keep up. It is indicative of the young actor's charisma that in Redford's mind, Pitt was all wrong for the part. Yet he cast him for it anyway.

"What you have to realize is that when I cast this film, Thelma & Louise hadn't come out yet," Redford said. "He didn't look like he did in this film. I hired Brad because of the quality he had underneath. His whole body language was completely different then. When I met him in the office, he was laid-back, very quiet, very rural; he had more of a physical-slouching type of presence. Anything but those qualities that are bursting forth with an energy to this character of Paul. Yet what was down in there with Brad, I felt, was really right. He was totally willing to commit as an actor to crafting that performance."

Pitt bulked up some 20 pounds for the shoot, spent months mastering the art of fly-fishing, and toned down his acting style into the more modulated range of naturalistic performance that Redford was seeking.

"There was a lot of work that went into his physical appearance for this film, including weight lifting, things having to do with his coloring," Redford said. "The character in the book is a very physical presence of derring-do and health, almost to the point of being mystical. And it was a kind of extremeley sunlit nature that puts him constantly on the edge. Though he doesn't see that he's drawn to the edge because of his own attitude about life. And when he goes off, when he turns, when it goes dark, it would have far more meaning if this character had been this sort of healthy fellow, very attractive to people."

Mission accomplished. With the critical acclaim that has greeted A River Runs Through It, Pitt's name will be prominent during Oscar speculation over the coming months. In the spring, he will play his darkest role yet, as a serial killer in the drama Kalifornia. In the film, he plays opposite longtime girlfriend Juliette Lewis. It's the first time the two have acted together since they met on the set of the 1990 made-for-television movie Too Young to Die.

Meanwhile, Pitt's growing fandom will be able to enjoy his against-the-grain performance in Johnny Suede. Predicting stardom for a young actor is a business fraught with danger (recall, please, that Molly Ringwald was once on the cover of Time magazine). But Pitt seems as though he's got the staying power, and the willingness to challenge himself. Partly because he isn't scared to take chances.

Of the many questions I asked him during our interview, the one that he answered the most quickly was whether he felt being the hottest actor of the moment makes it any more difficult to do his job.

"No, I don't feel pressure in that territory at all," he said. " 'Cause, that's not a goal for me, that's just one of the empty things that goes along with being able to do what you want to do. Johnny was great for me, because he was so far removed from the stuff that the industry wants to stick `my type' in."