HE'S SOMEBODY NOW - by Stephen Rea

Brad Pitt was nobody in Hollywood when he tested for "Johnny Suede." yet he snagged that plum role even before "Thelma & Louise" made him a big-screen name.

In Johnny Suede, Brad Pitt wears a hip '50s wardrobe and a pompadour that's literally and figuratively over the top. Although his character exudes cool, he's a rebel without a cause - or a clue.

In A River Runs Through It, the actor is in '20s threads, wears a rascally grin and goes fishing for trout with his brother and their preacher dad. Knee- deep in a Montana river, the three men can hardly distinguish between fly- fishing and religion.

In the staid Mayfair Regent Hotel, Pitt - wearing a scruffy beard and longish, slicked-back hair wet from the shower - resembles neither the woozy hipster of Tom DiCillo's offbeat Johnny Suede nor the hell-bent, hard-drinking young man of Robert Redford's diligently poetic River. Of course that's what acting is about, but it still comes as a shock to encounter someone on screen one day, then face him across a table the next, altogether different.

"Acting," grins Pitt knowingly, shaking off some early-morning sleepiness with a cigarette and coffee.

Pitt, 28, has only been in the thespian game for six years now - his first speaking part came in an episode of TV's Dallas. "It was like about 30 seconds of TV time," he remembers. "I played the boyfriend of Priscilla Presley's daughter."

Then came roles in low-grade sci-fi movies and vampire-horror fare - the kind of pics that turn up on USA's Up All Night with comedian Gilbert Gottfried's croaky commentary interjected into the action. ("I love that show," Pitt says.)

And then, in 1990, he was cast as the hitchhiker in Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise - the hitchhiker who teaches Geena Davis a thing or two about making love.

"When I read it, I figured it would be an important part to get my start," says Pitt. "You could feel it, and you could see it at the reading. I knew that was it. Then I was disappointed because I didn't hear anything for a month, because they were looking at some other guys. And then they decided to give me the chance - Ridley gave it to me."

What Pitt didn't anticipate was the media maelstrom over the Geena Davis- Susan Sarandon road movie - a movie in which no male character (with the possible exception of Harvey Keitel) was cast in a sympathetic light. Was Thelma & Louise advocating that women take up arms to battle male chauvinism? Was it a landmark for feminism or just another violent buddy picture with the gun-toting buddies, for once, portrayed by women?


"I didn't have any sense, when we were making the film, that it would cause such an uproar," allows Pitt. " ... Then again, it definitely tapped into something. I thought it was all in good fun. I didn't take it personally."

Shortly after Pitt completed work on Thelma - but well before its release in the spring of 1991 - the actor walked into an audition for Johnny Suede, a deadpan fable about a young rockabilly musician who affects a cool, self- possessed air when, in fact, he's riddled with doubt.

"He was nobody," recalls writer-director DiCillo of the day Pitt walked into the Johnny Suede casting office. "He was one of about 300 guys I had seen, and he was very much toward the end of my casting process, which lasted about two months...

"I was really depressed. I was angry and really dejected about what was being submitted to me in terms of 'hot, new, talented actors,' " says DiCillo. "I mean, these people were terrible and they didn't even know it. They would come in and do this ridiculous imitation of Andrew 'Dice' Clay thinking that this was Johnny Suede... Finally, I saw Brad's picture at the bottom of a bunch of resumes, my casting director knew him, he came in and read...


"I'm telling you," continues the director, "I didn't have to say a word to him. He walked in, he understood immediately that underneath the facade was a man who was actually quite insecure, afraid, and he showed that. I said, 'This is the guy.'

"A lot of people told me not to cast him. They said, 'He's a nobody; put Timothy Hutton in that part,' because he was interested... But I said forget it, this is the guy, and I postponed shooting for two months so he could finish a movie he was doing."

For Pitt, the character of Johnny "made perfect sense to me," especially, he says, having spent a half-dozen years in Los Angeles, "the land of dilettantes," where attitude rules.

He also saw the role as an opportunity to break out of the young-hunk stereotype, to try something weirder, goofier."

As for that exaggerated pile of hair atop Johnny's head - a gravity-defying do if ever there was one - Pitt calls the coif a "nightmare."


"It would have been easier if it wasn't all my own (hair)," he says, wincing in mock pain. "It was two hours of teasing and spraying every day. I hate that - someone tugging on your head for two hours... It's worth it now, but at the time it was very annoying. Very annoying."

Pitt, born in Shawnee, Okla., grew up in Springfield, Mo., where his brother, sister and parents still live. As a boy, he spent a lot of time in the local movie houses.

"Planet of the Apes was my favorite," he recalls. "And Fantastic Voyage. Remember when the people shrink, and they're injected into the body? And then my parents took me to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I remember a lot of Clint Eastwood, High Plains Drifter. . . . And I remember Dog Day Afternoon, and Cool Hand Luke I remember vividly."

As much as he loved movies, though, Pitt didn't harbor childhood, or even teenhood, fantasies of a life in show biz.

"It's not a reasonable possibility growing up in Missouri," he explains. ''It's something that you read about, but not something you'd think about doing... Then one day I just decided to do it. Don't know why. Don't really care why."

That day came toward the end of Pitt's last year at the Univeristy of Missouri, where he was studying graphic design. "I wanted to give this a shot. I was one class short of graduating but I don't know, it was just (over) for me."

So Pitt moved to L.A., ostensibly to pursue a career in graphic design.

"That was my story anyway, so I could go and people who cared about me wouldn't worry." Once in L.A. "I was doing extra work by the end of the first week, and I was thrilled to death."

In 1989, cast in a fact-based telemovie called Too Young to Die, Pitt met Juliette Lewis (she starred as a teenage girl tried for murder as an adult). Last year, the actress, nine years younger than Pitt, had her own big-deal ''breakthrough" film: Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, for which she came away with a supporting-actress Oscar nomination.

Since they met, Pitt and Lewis have been an item. And they also recently completed work in their first big-screen collaboration: Kalifornia.

The film, directed by Tim Metcalf, is due early next year. "It's about two couples," reports Pitt. "One's real white trash, from a trailer park. That's Juliette and me." The other couple (David Ducovney and Michelle Forbes) are quintessential yupsters, and this mismatched foursome share a car ride up the California coastline. Pitt and Lewis are, in effect, the ride-sharers from Hell.

"It's a lot funnier than I thought it would be. It's a thriller, but with a lot of dark, comedic edges. More tragic, too. It's pretty odd, very odd."

Pitt also has a smaller part in True Romance, an on-the-lam-from-the-mob love story directed by Ridley Scott's brother, Tony. After that, who knows? Pitt and his agents are weighing offers and reading books. The coffee table in his hotel room is stacked with novels by Cormac McCarthy, including his most recent, the much-lauded All the Pretty Horses.

Pitt is reading the other McCarthy books for pleasure, but has one eye - a professional eye - on Pretty Horses. "I just know they're going to make it, and I thought I'd read it. (Mike Nichols is developing the book at Columbia Pictures.) It's a way to stay on top of things. That's the way River happened. We heard about River a year before they started casting, and we just stayed on top of it."

Whatever comes next for the actor - whose third '92 entry was the failed Ralph Bakshi cartoon-meets-live-action fantasy, Cool World - it's likely to be different from what he has done to date.

"You have to mix it up," he says earnestly. "The main reason is so you don't get bored. It keeps it fun.

"But also," he adds, "in the beginning of a career, you've just got to prove you can do different things, you know. You just got to show them what you can do."