To Brad Pitt, sexy is a four-letter word. Since being tagged 'The Sexiest Man Alive' last January -- in large part because of his swoon-inducing performance in Legends of the Fall -- the 31-year-old actor has discovered the down side of celebrity firsthand. Overzealous fans have sent him suggestive pictures in the mail; photos of Pitt and his girlfriend, Gwyneth Paltrow, sunbathing in the nude led to an ugly legal scuffle with an overseas tabloid; and, much to his horror, a mundane trip to the barber turned into headline news. With this sort of fame, no wonder Pitt is taking aim at what he's recently dubbed 'the Tristan Ludlow Syndrome' (after his Legends character) with two edgy new roles.

Trailers for Seven, out Sept. 22, and 12 Monkeys, out in December, are onscreen proof that we're about to see a less than picture-perfect Pitt. In the taut psychological drama Seven, he plays a young detective who teams with grizzled veteran Morgan Freeman to investigate serial killings patterned on the Seven Deadly Sins (see sidebar). Choosing Seven over more wholesome roles afforded him three opportunities: (1) It's the closest thing to an action adventure he's done; (2) It's bound to attract an audience other than hormonally hyperactive teens; (3) He gets to spend most of his screen time smothered in scratches and Band-Aids.

It was for this film that Pitt chopped off his tresses -- an act viewed by fans as the Eighth Deadly Sin. The shearing, however, was suggested by the film's consultants. 'They insisted a homicide detective would not have long hair,' says producer Arnold Kopelson.

At least that haircut was done by a trained professional. To play a wealthy eccentric activist in Monkeys, a time-travel tale, Pitt took scissors in hand. 'It was very funny. He was determined that he wouldn't appear to be the sexiest guy,'' says director Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King). ''He worked hard at making himself as unattractive as possible....He's [got] a home haircut and he doesn't have blue eyes in this film.'

Vidal Sassoon's loss is Hollywood's gain. According to sources, Pitt hopes to surprise audiences with his altered states. They're certainly in for a shock when they see him in Sleepers, currently filming in Manhattan. Based on the controversial book by former journalist Lorenzo Carcaterra (whose assertions that his story is nonfiction have drawn pro tests from critics), it follows four friends whose lives take different paths after their brutal experience as juvenile delinquents. Featuring Pitt as a district attorney who throws a case to protect his old pals, Sleepers may be his most serious movie to date. Says a source on the film, 'You've never seen him so shrewd.'

But how shrewd a move is it for Pitt to gently back away from the romantic roles that turned him from Thelma & Louise boy-toy to multimillion-dollar leading man? Given how eager audiences are to see Pitt, most in Hollywood think he can't go wrong no matter what role he chooses -- heroic or otherwise. Pitt, says an enthusiastic Kopelson, is a celebrity 'of the magnitude not seen since the movie stars of the '40s -- bigger than life. And what's interesting about Brad is that he is very discerning about the type of material he's doing.' A spokeswoman for the actor would only say, 'He's interested in stretching. It's the roles, not the image, he's concerned with.'

Still, if his sex symbol image haunts and taunts him, what's an actor to do? "Poor Brad. Poor Brad," chuckles his Monkeys costar Bruce Willis. "He has a great sense of humor about it. This is just his cross to bear for a while."