It's not only volatile French footballers who have a jaded view of our national newspapers. There are Hollywood stars too who arrive to publicize their films with a mixture of apprehension and doubt. But don't expect Brad Pitt to go feet first into the collective throng of hacks who gather to hang on his every word, in the vain hope that he will hang himself with one of them.
For Pitt, 29-year-old and a hunky, handsome star guaranteed to make red blooded women the world over swoon, is more than just a pretty face. He graduated from the University of Missouri after majoring in journalism, so he is well aware of the tricks of the trade, but still trod warily into a recent press conference to promote his latest film, LEGENDS OF THE FALL.

With a wide selection of the great and good of entertainment journalists from all over the country, and most especially from each of the national tabloids, the questions ranged from the pertinent to the impertinent. Such as the reports of his romance with actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

"I've never been happier," grinned the actor. But what did *she* think about the steamy love scenes he shared with co-star Julia Ormond? "I've never been happier," the grin remains. A change of tactics is called for. "How about your haircut, why is it now so short?" someone asks. "I've never been happier," he jokes. "The reason for my short hair? Money," he laughs, and when someone else suggests he sold his hair, Pitt appreciates the gag: "How's that for a story!"

In reality his short, cropped hair and beard are the requisite accoutrements for his role as a cop on the trail of a serial killer in his next movie, "Se7en." Light relief compared to his two most recent films, the gruelling "Legends" and the equally exhausting "Interview with the Vampire."

"Any time you do films back to back it's a drain on your energies," he explains, serious for a few moments. "When I started IWTV I was really tired, and it wasn't the most uplifting of pieces to be doing under those circumstances. Did you see my character? He never smiled once."

With Neil Jordan graciously pushing back the start date of Pitt's role in IWTV in order for him to finish his duties on LOTF, the actor's only obligation was to keep his blond hair long -- "that was in the contract, 'don't mess with the boy's hair' " -- but in spite of all it took out of him, and the rumours that he rarely saw eye-to-eye with co-star Tom Cruise, Pitt professes to be happy enough with the idea of doing a sequel.

"That would be fine, Neil Jordan's a wonderful man, and besides Louis only comes in for five minutes, then all the other vampires rag on him and he leaves."

Whatever might happen in the future, a sequel to LOTF is highly unlikely, as all the story there is to tell has been told in a rambling, epic tale of love, passion and brotherly discord set against the backdrop of social change from the dying days of the Old West to the middle years of the Twentieth Century. Adapted from an 81-page novella by Jim Harrison, Ed Zwick's rolling, rollicking yarn casts Pitt as the prodigal middle son to former cavalry officer Anthony Hopkins, and brother of Samuel (Henry Thomas) and Alfred (Aidan Quinn).

While the boys differ greatly in personality, Tristan (Pitt) is the enigmatic focus of their father's attention, the most spiritual and the closest to his father's Indian former scout, One Stab. Yet they are bound by a strong love that is tested by the arrival of Samuel's beautiful bride-to-be, Susannah (played by rising British star Julia Ormond), who inspires bitter rivalries that threaten to tear them apart.

With the spirit of optimism that met the beginning of a new century growing overcast under the clouds of the Great War, history begins to overtake the boys whose paths occasionally cross and meet in adult life, but whose innocence is lost forever on the battlefields of Europe. These are impressive, quite astonishing scenes, as tricky for the director to get right as they were for his young star to perform without the risk of serious injury -- and various stories did emerge at the time suggesting that Pitt had come close to real harm.

"I didn't have any of those injuries you might have read about," he laughs, "but it sounds good. I lost an arm! It's not like I did any of that Stallone stuff, it was just good physical fun, the sort of thing that gets you up in the morning."

As a story, LOTF has all the right juicy, melodramatic ingredients but it was a long time in getting made, and through much of that time a test of director Zwich's resolve. Only when he discussed the project with Pitt, hailed as the coming thing in Hollywood after strong performances in the disappointing "Cool World", the hilarious "Johnny Suede" and an eye-catching cameo in "Thelma & Louise," did it all begin to come together.

"I have to say that this is the only role I've ever done where I felt like I was the best person for it," Pitt explains. "Without wishing to sound cocky, that was how I felt. Maybe I am cocky, I don't know, but I really felt that strongly about it. I'd been a fan of Jim Harrison's books since my college days, and when I heard that Ed was doing this movie I met with him several times over the years to tell him how much I wanted to play Tristan.

"That character and what his family goes through always seemed very accurate to me, it just rang true. Along with the wildness he has within him, Tristan has this huge love for everyone around him. While I was doing it I didn't know how the rest of the film would turn out, but I always felt I had an understanding of where this guy was going."

Given his experience in Hollywood so far, it seems fairly clear that Pitt is drawn more to stories set in the great outdoors rather than more internal, suburban tales. Many have drawn comparisons between this film and what many would see as his breakthrough role, in Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It."

"I am very comfortable with shooting films outdoors," Pitt nods thoughtfully. "I much prefer it to being on a soundstage. But I don't agree that LOTF is like ARRTI -- I play a much more active character here, and I get to wear a gun."

Where Redford's film took Pitt to the idyllic Montana countryside, "Legends" was shot in the even more remote area near Calgary, in Canada, requiring cast and crew to relocate and spend lonely nights together around the campfire during filming.

"We didn't have much choice but to bond together after that," he smiles. "We were out in the foothills of the Rockies with not a whole lot to do out there, except hang out with each other. We did a lot of riding, and had a great bunch of wranglers who helped us out with that. They took us on cattle drives and called us 'the Hollywood boys.'

"Pretty soon the log cabins we shared became the meeting ground for everyone on the weekends. People would sing when the crew came out. Henry would play guitar, Aidan would fart -- he became known as 'Wind in the Pants.' But being there on location all the time made it very easy to get into character. We had an amazing set, and when we had down time we'd take the horses out in those wide open spaces."

In spite of Aidan Quinn's more anti-social tendencies, it is clear that a bond of friendship did exist between the actors, born out of the isolation of this particular film and the respect that is inevitably built during a long and gruelling shoot.

"I feel so loyal to those guys," adds Pitt. "Maybe because we were up there in that camp. I mean, Alfred is the toughest role in the whole thing because on paper it actually reads as very pathetic. The role needed someone who could bring this grace to it, and that was Aidan.

"Samuel also needed to be played by someone very special. I think Henry brings this pureness and sweetness to the role. And then there's Julia, this classic beauty, but with beauty coming from the inside as well. Ed had seen her in this HBO film about Stalin, and just off one conversation with her felt she was right for the role.

"He and I flew out to New York, she Concorded in from London -- it was like this big studio production -- but we all made it happen in like twelve hours. We did one reading and there it was, she was cast."

Asked about working with the ubiquitous Anthony Hopkins who obviously enjoys his role as the grizzled and increasingly sickly patriarch of this turbulent family, Pitt is enthusiastic in his praise.

"He's the king," he says, with a note of admiration in his voice. "You know how a Great Dane can bark, or a lion roar, and you'd feel the force of it as it parts your hair? It was kind of the same thing with Tony, when he yelled the whole room would stop. He was great to watch because he was so simple and yet so penetrating."

And yet, in spite of such illustrious company, the production rested on Pitt's shoulders, not only because of the size and importance of his role but because when things got sticky with the studio he agreed to defer part of his fee in order for the film to be shot as Zwick wanted.

"It looks like being a shrewd decision on his part now the film's doing well," Ed Zwick adds. "The money is so secondary," sighs Pitt, "it's not why you do what you do. It doesn't make you sleep any better at night."

That said, Pitt remains one of the most sought after actors in Hollywood, his star is still rising and his asking price -- measured in millions of dollars for each role -- is rising with it. But he has some problems with the whole subject of huge star salaries, an ethical issue that he candidly puts into perspective.

"I've gone back and forth on this issue of salaries and truthfully they are a little high. But at the same time it's a business, and compared to what movies bring in and the part you played in that, who knows what's fair. It gets so crazy out there, people have no concept of money and the figures they offer can be crazy. I don't really know how I feel about it. Bottom line, are actors worth it? No, they're not.

But if someone offers it to you, are you gonna say no? I know I'm not.... There should always be a balance in salaries, they go up, they go down, but to me the important thing is the characters you're offered, whether that sounds like crap or not."

Down to earth and engagingly honest, Pitt has known what it is to dream of the sort of salaries that he is being paid now.

"You always do what you can to put food on the table," he continues. "There was a time when I dressed up as a chicken and had to stand on a corner in 100 degree weather, having cars drive by and flip me off. But I got paid seven bucks an hour so what did I care?"

For all his easy going charm and earnest midwestern manners, Brad Pitt has been working hard to reconcile his current success in his chosen profession with the huge media profile it creates and the public adulation that goes with it.

"I haven't quite made my peace with that yet," he agrees. "I don't understand all the media stuff and why it's there. I don't know if this is the way it's always been, but when it starts to get into personalities then it seems less about movies and more about interpretation and images. I don't understand that. It's become a phenomenon in itself."

In Quentin Falk's acclaimed biography of Anthony Hopkins, the fiery Welsh star is reported to have made his views clear on the LOTF set: "We're only making a film, not finding a cure for cancer." It's an attitude that echoes the wisdom of Hopkins' own hard-learned experience, and if Brad Pitt has learned nothing else this advice will stand him in good stead in the years, and movies, to come.

And if he truly is as self-assured and natural as he comes across in the, admittedly slightly artificial, atmosphere of a press conference then he should have little to worry about from the usual pitfalls and distractions that tend to engulf less prudent Hollywood stars. He is, it seems, an actor who has his priorities right and his head screwed on.

"You know, all this attention comes from some really dirty corners, and it doesn't mean much in itself. It's not the focus of your work, it's just something uou have to put up with. It's a compliment, it's very nice, but it's not what the work is about. All I'm after is finding things to do which are interesting and that I haven't done. It's as simple as that."