JOHNNY SUAVE - by James Ryan

After stripping off in a Levi’s ad and Thelma & Louise, Brad Pitt has been hailed as the new James Dean, a sex symbol for the Nineties.
With his new film, Johnny Suede, he’s out to prove he’s more than just a pretty face.

I’m greeted at the gate to Brad Pitt’ ageing West Hollywood bungalow by his melancholic red coonhound Deacon. Brad, I find out, can’t greet me himself because he’s busy cleaning up the mess Deacon made the night before in his living room. Mess is perhaps an understatement. The place looks like it was ransacked by LAPD squadron looking for drugs or a trash metal band who found them.

House plants are overturned – the green parts mysteriously missing- mauled pillows are strewn about and couch cushions have been systematically shredded. Something resembling hard wood floors is just visible beneath a veil of potting soil and foam rubber confetti.
Anybody else would have put the mutt to sleep. But Brad seems to find Deacon’s talent for domestic sabotage endearing. “He’s going to have to go to boot camp”, says Pitt in his soft Missouri draw! “Usually it’s just shoes, so we tie the shoe of shame around his neck. He gets real humiliated and has to leave. I wouldn’t recommend a coonhound. They’re a lot to deal with. He’s all instincts.”

Brad disappears to change clothes, and, when he returns, a grey T-shirt hanging out over green satin pyjama bottoms “for maximum comfort”, offers me a cup of coffee. “This is Hills Brothers 50-50, 50 per cent caffeine, for people who can’t make up their minds,” he says, rising out a couple fo mugs.

“Strawberry milk or regular milk? I tell you, there’s nothing better than Nestlé’s strawberry, and so good for you. I’m just a regular host aren’t I? Are you impressed?”
When the coffee is served, he pops a Dire Straits CD- from a loose pile that includes the Platters, Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin – into a CD ghetto blaster sitting on a shelf by the kitchen table. His other dog, Maggie, a black labrador, trots in to chec me out. Brad fires up a Camel Light and we continue.

The 28-years-old actor has been taking some time off to get his life back in order after filming three movies dues out this year. First up, the low-budget surrealistic comedy Johnny Suede, then Ralph Bakshi’s morality tale of humans adrift in a cartoon universe Cool World, and finally Robert Redford’s country period drama The River Runs Through It. Does he find his new celebrity intruding on his life?

“More responsibility comes with it, of course,” he responds, “But you got to be ready for it. First you’re like, arghh, arrgghh! Then you’re like more responsibility? OK. Do I keep doing this? I got to take care of this too.
That was kind of abstract, wasn’t it?”
Yea, can we get more specific? “There’s just more things to be taken care of, it seems to me,”, he says, spitting a mouthful of sunflower shells into a cup. “More people are paying attention, so you’ve got to be more on the ball if you want to keep doing what you’re doing. It’s too easy for them to find another kid.”

Pitt stands up and asks if I want a full tour of the house. Deacon’s escapades aside, housekeeping doesn’t appear to be the actor’s strong suit. The floor is littered with cigarette butts. Dirty coffee cups, overflowing ashtrys and junk food wrappers adorn most of the other flat surfaces. Thre’s also an odd assortment of drums and stringed instruments – a couple of electric guitars, a bass, a mandolin – lying about. His bedroom, however, in revealing contrast, is utterly tidy, fitted out in industrial black. A small framed photo of girlfriend Juliette Lewis – who shot to fame as the sexually awakening daughter, Danielle, in Cape Fear – sits atop a bookcase.

IT MAY BE A trite aphorism to say people resemble their dogs. But When I interview Johnny Suede writer-director Tom DiCillo a couple of weeks later, “instinctive” is the first adjective out his mouth to describe Pitt’s performance as a huge-quiffed, suede-shoes-loving Ricky Nelson wannabe.

DiCillo, who adapted Johnny Suede from a monologue he used to perform at downtown New York clubs, says casting the lead was the most depressing experience of his life – until Pitt showed up. He was looking for something along the lines of Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, an American from nowhere, and all the actors coming in were doing an Andrew Dice Clay or Billy Idol number.

“They did this thing where they thought Johnny Suede’s problems were cool and funny,” recalls DiCillo. “They came in and were real anuses. I’d say, “Do you guys realise this guy is a complte wreck emotionally? Who doesn’t have the fainest clue who he is?” They didn’t get it. It was just something very magical about it. He took off his boots and did this monologue about suede. I really believe he did love this suede. I was immediately convinced that this way the guy. He was not afraid to show that Johnny is this guy with all of these problems on his sleeves.”

“The trap with Johnny was very simple,” explains Pitt. “You play the outside of a guy who wants to be hip and happening. To me, he had to be pretty unsettled inside to have to put on all this and that. He’s looking to all these outside things to make him a man, make him happy.
The end of the movie is really the biginning of Johnny. He wakes up one morning and realises he’s been an idiot. He didn’t need the hair.”

DiCillo fondly recalls two other examples of Pitt’s instinc for the character. The first was a scene where Johnny has cheated on his girlfriend Yvonne, and a tell-tale pair of panties falls out on to the floor. They were having trouble with the close-up, until DiCillo finally asked Brad to give him “a deer caught in a car’s headlights”.
“He said, “Oh, OK,” recalls DiCillo. “Boom! And that worked. I love that moment in the film. It’s quiet beautiful. It’s Brad’s moment. He understood the part and was willing to explore it.”

But the scene where Pitt really won DiCillo over was the one where Johnny walks around alone in his tiny flat farting and scratching in his ratty underwear. It’s the epitone of uncool, but Pitt embraced it. “The underwear came and he didn’t think it was ratty enough. So he took it and tore the shit out of it, and made it as ratty as possible,” says DiCillo.

It’s impossible, of course, not to draw comparisions between this decidly unsexy image and Pitt’s infamous Levi’s spot, whigh also invoved parading around in his underwear, albeit a slightly more glamourous pair of boxers. Brad’s publicist had warned he wouldn’t want to discuss that lucrative little foray into the world of commerce, but Pitt doesn’t flinch when the subject comes up.

“I did it for an introduction before the films came out in Europe,” he says. “Thelma was going to open up there and then all these others were going to be out there later. I don’t regret it. I had fun. It was simple. It was light. People were great. A little vacation. I don’t want to be called the 501 guy by any means, but it was fun. So yeah, it was alright.”
Still, Pitt’s not particularly comfortable with his pin-up image. His sexy performance as a criminal cowboy JD in Thelma & Louise, the guy who gives Geena Davis her first orgasm and then robs her blind hasn’t help much.

“Another sex symbol. How boring,” he says. “That’s just what the world needs. Somebody who symbolises sex.”

But isn’t that what people are paying for you for ? “I guess so. But that’s not what you go after. You go after an honnest character. Because of Thelma, that’s what they noticed. The guy came off sexy. I don’t know.”

He may profess not to enjoy it, but Pitt has an instinctive understanding that playing up the teen idol image will help him get where he wants to go as an actor. That pandering side of the business has taken its psychological toll, thouhg. Recently, he confesses, he has been plagued by a recurring dream in wich all these Hollywood types he barely knows are asking to borrow his toothbrush. Doesn’t take an expert in Jungian analysis to figure that one out.

Curiously, after dodging a lot of personal questions, the actor opens up when talking about his relationship with Lewis, whom he met two-and-a-half years ago filming a lurid NBC movie of the week Too Young To Die? The precocious actress, who was 16 at this time, played a young runaway whom Pitt’s character beats up, turns into a junkie and sells for sex. Love at first slap?

“It started out with conversations. And then, when we finished it, we decided to play ball,” he says, adding later, “I don’t feel like we deserve (to live together) just yet. Not that anything’s wrong, it’s just that there’s time for that, that’s all I’m saying. There’s time.”

Although the couple are rarely seen in public together – Lewis went solo to the Golden Globes awards, though Brad accompanied her to the Oscars – Pitt says it’s not a conscious choice to avoid the paparazzi, they just never go out. Period. “We’ve only been to two movies in two-a-half years,” he says. “One was my premiere, one was hers. You try to avoid those types of events, but you have to be courteous. You don’t have to be an idiot. And you don’t have to be the rebel guy. You can get by, you can have fun. But if I don’t have a reason to go, no I won’t go.”

When Pitt wants to have a goog time he invites his “little grou of buddies”, including actor Dermot Mulroney – a whiz on the cello – over for an old-fashioned “hootinanny” jam session. “A bunch of people come over and play tunes, odd instruments, accordians and flutes and drums. Anything anymore can grab, “ he explains. “We had one of those nights recently when everybody got on bongos and played to ( Peter Gabriel’s) ‘Passion Source’.”

When I press him for more names he suddenly gets the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look, and, deciding he’s already revealed too much, replies, “Ah, just people.” He gets up, pulls out the “Passion Sources” CD and pops it into his ghetto blaster. The kitchen is soon everberating with eeri Arabic wailing. After a few minutes he replaces it with something more conductive to conversation, the Neville Brothers “Yellow Moon”.

PITT, THE PRODUCT of a strict Southern Baptist upbringing in Springfield, Missouri, was once headed for a career in journalism. A few credits shy of his degree at the University of Missouri, however, he took off for Los Angeles, ostensibly to attend art school, which he never did. On his arrival, he knew instead that his destiny lay with the movie.

Waiting for his break, he supprted himself whith a series of odd jobs: driving limos, handing out cigarette samples and even dressing up in a giant chicken costume to promote a fast-food franchise. He has fond memries of those early struggles. “I was just so excited to be here. Everything was fun.”
His family is supportive of his career. And though he’s no longer particulary religious himself – although he does believe in God – Pitt says he admires them for their dedication to their beliefs. Religion just isn’t his thing, too much “like rival high schools”.

Pitt remembers that as a little boy attending church he’d sit cowering in the pew, afraid the preacher would ask him to come up and give the benediction. “At the end of the service they always called petrified they were going to call me. I’d have this little prayer in my head: ‘Don’t be me.’ I found a lot of guilt and a lot of fear that I don’t agree with.”

That upbringing served him well for Robert Redford’s Thirties drama The river runs through It, adapted from a novel by Norman MacLean about family conflict and fly fishing. “It’s about a family who can’t communicate. I know that sounds odd,” he says. “They’re very set in Christian beliefs and their ways. And my character feels differently, and he kind of goes on his own path – but it ends up a distinctive path because he’s gotta live one way with his family and then he has this other life going on. It’s about his brother trying to get to him. It’s fantastic. It’ll rip your heart out.”

Pitt, who camped out in a tent roasting hot dogs whith Deacon for a week at a time during filming, has since taken the sport of fly fishing to heart. He and his room-mate Buck Simmons occasionally practise their casting on the street in front of his house and are planning a fishing trip together.

The actor shows a very different side in Bakshi’s Cool World, a part-live, part-animated project about a young man who escapes into a parallel cartoon universe when reality gets too real. “All these bad things happen to this kid and he check out,” says Pitt. “The cartoon character can’t have sex with the humans. But the humans come over and they want to. My job is to keep them from doing it. But at the same time I’ve got a cartoon girl I’m dying to get it on with. It’s an unusual film.”

Pitt goes back into action this summer when he will shoot a “very poetic script” with John Malkovich entitled Forget Me Not. “The Malk’s character is a complete cynic on life, not just a cynic, we’re talking complete apathy,” he says. “My guy’s an impulsive-obsessive and through a chain of events gets amnesia. He gets a new start on life because he dosn’t remember. See it sounds hokey, I can’t do it justice. It’s really well-written.”

He and Lewis are also set to work together again this year in California, in which he plays a serial killer. Pitt is obviously a big fan of his girlfriend’s talent and says he hopes to work with her a lot: “Genious isn’t a good word, because it’s been so abused, but...”

Now that’s she’s been nominated for an Oscar, it would be natural for there to be competition between them. “I’ll answer that question. No,” he says. “That’s why we’re still together I think. It’s something we got to watch out for. You have egos, honestly speaking. But it hasn’t been a problem. I’m completely proud of her. If I’m going to be associated with someone, it’s got to be somebody I’m proud of.

“First (our careers) were very separate, and lately we have been able to help each other. It just becomes more fun. You have someone else on your home team. What we have goes beyond the acting, you know? The work is not the basis of our relationship. It’s what we do. It’s what we have fun doing, but what drives us crazy also.”

The real barrier has been the time spent apart, he says. Lewis also had to content with tabloid reports about an off-screen romance between her boyfriend and Geena Davis during the shooting of Thelma & Louise. Did that cause problems on the home front? “Well, see, we know what’s at home. We had one split on the way up, couple of months. It’s hard when you’re away doing films, of course...

“You hear about people having sex, you know, actually doing the act while they’re filming. It goes on. But see, what it comes down to, and it’s universal for all relationships, is communication. You know? Because if one of those feelings starts coming up, you have to make it known and then get around it. Egos get in the way man. Egos are monsters. You got to get around the ego.”

At some point during this soliloquy I look down and notice man’s best friend humbly licking my shoe.