NEW YORK - A woman actually slugged me when she heard I'd be interviewing Brad Pitt. She was that envious.

Her identity isn't important. Her reaction is. It's the one that millions of women have at the mere mention of his name.

They want to be with the guy who drove his beat-up Datsun to Hollywood nine years ago with $325 in his pocket and this year was named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive. The guy who has bared his chest for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair covers. The guy whose box-office bang has boosted his salary to $8 million a picture.

Pitt stole the 1991 movie Thelma & Louise when he gave Geena Davis her first orgasm. While follow-ups Johnny Suede, Cool World and Kalifornia were less memorable, he has since wooed audiences with A River Runs Through It, Interview With the Vampire, Legends of the Fall and Seven.

As a waiter once told Details magazine, "Everybody I know wants to be in Brad Pitt's shoes or in Brad Pitt's pants."

But how is it just to be Brad Pitt?

The 32-year-old actor looks like any cute young guy off the New York street. He's wearing a fuzzy cap backward on his head. His face has that sexy bad-boy stubble. His hair is short. He's wearing jeans and a dark sweater over a white T-shirt.

"Have you been waiting long?" he asks politely, arriving punctually in the Carlyle Hotel lobby. Through the next hour, he'll ask as many questions as he answers.

As we enter the bar, Pitt searches for a quiet table and asks which seat I want. Then he asks what drink I want and orders, as a man leaps up from the next table seeking an autograph for "Trish" at his office.

People do sly double takes to see if it's really Pitt. But while they may recognize him in real life, they'll have a hard time spotting him in his new movie, 12 Monkeys, opening today in New York and Los Angeles and wider in January.

Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe are the stars. Pitt plays a mentally ill animal-rights activist. His famous blue eyes are covered by odd brown contacts, and the gentle manner of his previous roles is turned into nervous tics and twitches.

It's a different part for Pitt, and he's eager for feedback.

"Did you seriously like it? Did you get into it?" he asks.

His fans will be surprised. That must have had some appeal.

"Well, that's a small part of it," he says. He thought the screenplay and Terry Gilliam's direction were "really smart. You gotta go back and put the pieces together. It holds you right up to the end."

That's how many would describe his onscreen persona: He holds you and not only when he's playing sexy (Thelma) or romantic (Legends). It has worked when he's menacing (Kalifornia), campy (Johnny Suede) or earnest (A River Runs Through It).

Success like that often comes from knowing early, even as a child, exactly what you want to do in life. Did he always have a burning ambition to be in movies?

"I wouldn't call it burning," he says. "I'd call it smoldering, maybe." He grins. "I've always loved movies."

He went to the University of Missouri Journalism School but left just short of graduating with a degree in advertising. He admits he never saw himself going into that line of work.

"School was more about getting out of classes," he says. He regrets that he didn't pay more attention to learning, "but no one can tell you otherwise."

Acting, he says, just felt right. He started out portraying a chicken outside the fast-food joint El Pollo Loco. Then he studied with Roy London and landed various TV roles, including ones on Dallas and the short-lived Fox series Glory Days.

In Thelma & Louise, "I had no idea what the hell I was doing," he says. "You've got to feel your way through it. . . . It's not a calculated thing."

Seven was No. 1 at the box office for four weeks this year. But Pitt professes to have "no idea" whether or how that affected his Hollywood clout. "It meant more to the studios, I think. Let me clarify that. I had so much fun on that film with (director) David Fincher and (co-star) Morgan (Freeman). I know the people who put up the money were very happy. That's their job - to pay attention to that."

He doesn't pay attention?

"Well, it's not that. Everyone's calling you up and congratulating you. But not for the film, for the box office. . . . You grow up with this belief you're not going to have to worry about bills (if you're famous). But when you don't have to worry about bills anymore, then you're really stuck with yourself. You can't say, `If I only had money.' It's all about you, you know?"

He adds, "You're more liked, but you're also more disliked."

Women walk up on the street and ask him for kisses. That's how disliked he is.

"Yeah, yeah. Then I become the topic of a conversation about that. And the other girls say, `I don't see what's so great about him.' "

This reminds him of how some Rolling Stone photos of him shirtless - taken as he played soccer with some kids - ticked him off. "It shows no respect," he says.

"Coming from a creative background, you want to do something creative. It's cheap, you know?"

So what does he see when he looks in the mirror?

"I say to myself, `You shoulda got more sleep last night.' `You should floss more.' "

12 Monkeys will help change his handsome-guy image. "I'm not complaining, believe me," he says. "You just can't live off it, you know? You can't eat off it. If it looks good, I'm happy."

His girlfriend, actress Gwyneth Paltrow (she played his wife in Seven), is on the phone. "Gwynny" reminds him they have a dinner date. He doesn't talk much about her and won't discuss past loves Juliette Lewis (his Kalifornia co-star) and a model named Jitka. Although he sees himself in 10 years "married with bambinos and at home," he shrugs off any further inquiry with the answer, "classified information."

I tell him the line about everybody wanting to be in Brad's shoes or Brad's pants. "Oh, you little journalists and your little pens," he says, laughing. "But it's not true, is it?"