Even as he sips a glass of ice water in his suite at the Mayfair Regent Hotel, Brad Pitt smolders.

It has no connection with anger, nothing to do with the August heat outside or even with the smoke lazily rising from his Marlboro Light. Brad Pitt is just a smoldering kind of guy. And it's precisely that slow-burning sensuality, first glimpsed in his steamy appearance as the sexy hitchiker in 1991's `Thelma & Louise,' that has put him on top of Hollywood's list of hunky heartthrobs to watch.

Tall, slim and boyish, with raffishly long, sandy hair and a scrubby beard, Pitt, at 28, combines the seductively scruffy look of a Kurt Russell, the insolent, narrow blue gaze of a Patrick Swayze and the slightly dangerous, contents-under-pressure tension of the late, legendary James Dean.

The mystique appears to be working. `I had the National Enquirer camped outside my house all last week. Some couple was getting divorced and I was supposed to be involved,' Pitt says, in a gravelly drawl. `And I've had people in my trash.'

If he's caught the interest of the tabloid press now, he'll probably become catnip in the months ahead as he appears in four films in quick succession.

The actor stars in this summer's release of the combined live action-animated feature `Cool World,' and in `Johnny Suede,' a small and weirdly compelling dark comedy that opened in New York on Aug. 14 and in L.A. on Aug. 21, and is scheduled to be released to the rest of the country in September.

In addition, Pitt co-stars in the October release of `A River Runs Through It,' a drama directed by Robert Redford, and in `Kalifornia,' a thriller slated to open early next year.

Pitt's range as an actor may get a workout, but his potential as a screen stud won't get much of a boost from `Johnny Suede,' a bizarrely charming film from Miramax Films, written and directed by first-time director Tom DiCillo. In the title role, he plays a cocky, naive loser with a towering pompadour and tiny talent who dreams of becoming a teenage idol, like his rock hero, Ricky Nelson.

Pitt likes the character, who thinks he's found his destiny when a pair of black suede shoes, seemingly heavensent, drop into his life.

`He's trying. Everyone goes through that time, trying to figure out who you're gonna be, who you're gonna be. The life of a dilettante takes over. You see it everywhere in L.A. - have this girl, put this on. I see even 50-year-olds who haven't got to the point Johnny does by the end of the film.'

This quirky and languorous low-budget film, a sort of `Twin Peaks' adrift in an urban wasteland, won the Golden Leopard Award for Best Picture at the 1991 International Film Festival in Locarno, but it seems an odd choice of role for an actor who seared the screen in `Thelma & Louise.'

`It's the kind of film that wanders up and down. It's not really your `Lethal Weapon,' ' concedes Pitt.

`When I first signed on, I figured it would play some of the art houses. But after this summer of garbage,' he says, referring to the current crop of feature films, `and since Miramax picked it up, I think more people will see it.'

He admits it's a rather peculiar role but adds, `You gotta realize that `Cool World' and even up to `A River Runs through It,' that was all gotten even before `Thelma & Louise' came out.'

Pitt previously appeared in a handful of feature films, but none had the impact of his brief but blazing role as J.D., the hitchhiker whose `cute butt' earns him a ride with the title characters and lands him in bed with Geena Davis' Thelma. His performance as the mysterious nomad who introduces Thelma to sexual bliss and then parts her from her money was seen by many as a breakthrough role for Pitt.

But Pitt has already come a long way from the University of Missouri journalism major who dropped out a month short of graduation to head for Hollywood in 1986. Born in Shawnee, Okla., the eldest of three children, Pitt grew up in Springfield, Mo. His father, Bill, worked for a truck company and his mother, Jane, teaches parenting skills to young families.

Although he had never acted during his school years, Pitt says, he knew he wanted to be an actor. Suddenly, in his last month of college, he decided to go for it. He arrived in California with $325, scanned the newspapers and landed work on an industrial training film by the end of his first week.

Parts in feature films such as `Happy Together' and `Cutting Class' followed, as did a role in the ill-fated Fox TV series, `Glory Days.'

He sighs and slaps his head at the mention of `Glory Days.' `I didn't like anything about it, except the people. I met some very good friends there,' he says of his brief stint in TV.

`You sign onto a project and you have no control. A different director comes in every week and tells you who your character is,' he says.

The bureaucracy of big studio productions, experienced during his work on the recently released `Cool World,' also left him cold. Audience reaction to the film, a sort of `Who Framed Roger Rabbit' clone in which Pitt plays a detective in a parallel cartoon universe, has been as tepid as its title.

`I haven't seen it yet, but I'm interested to see where it went wrong,' says Pitt, who is philosophical about the prospect of appearing in a flop.

`I know I'm going to have some that hit and some that don't work. There are just too many elements involved. There's not one of our great actors who hasn't had a weak film,' he muses.

He may have better luck with `A River Runs Through It,' a saga of fly fishing and family, based on the novel about a family in 1920s Montana, written by the late Chicago author Norman MacLean. It is the third film directed by actor Robert Redford.

Playing one of the two brothers around whose relationship the film revolves, Pitt co-stars with a cast including Tom Skerritt and Emily Lloyd. Shooting the film last summer on location in Montana, Pitt says he learned a lot about fly-fishing and even more about acting from Redford.

Working with Redford, a hero to Pitt since he first saw his films at the drive-in movies, amounted to `a rite of passage,' he says.

``You know, when you play tennis with someone better than you, how your game gets better? That's how it became. He's just an all-around good man,'' Pitt says of Redford.

As for the film, he says, ``No matter how this movie comes out, I don't see how it can't be beautiful. I think for anyone who places any kind of importance in family and who maybe has a brother, I don't see how it can't hit you. It's one of these,'' he says, suddenly reaching inside his shirt and twisting it inside-out.

A roguish journalist and gambler in Redford's film, Pitt plays a darker part in `Kalifornia.'

`This guy's real white-trash trailer-park. That's his exterior. That's kind of where he's from,' he says of his character, a `serial killer guy.'

Pitt says he needed the `balance' of a role that was `ugly on the inside,' after his work on Redford's film. `I'm not empathizing,' he says of his role as a murderer. `I just understand it. It's sick, it's twisted. I'm not talking about right or wrong. I'm just talking about a person with no options, trying to create some kind of life for himself, something that gives him some kind of feeling.'

Pitt co-stars in the film with his girlfriend, Juliette Lewis, who made a splash in `Cape Fear.' They met 21/2 years ago on the set of `Too Young To Die,' a critically acclaimed NBC-TV movie-of-the-week in which Pitt played an equally chilling role as a man who corrupts Lewis' character into a prostitute, drug addict and murderess.

The script may not have been conducive to romance, Pitt admits, but he and Lewis have been together ever since and now share a home in Los Angeles.

Pitt has no more firm projects at the moment, he says. At some point, he'd like to try the stage, he muses, but there are other things he'd like to do first, in and out of film.

`I want to edit,' he says, firmly. `I want to put the puzzle together.'

And, he adds, with equal passion, `I want to make furniture.'