DON'T LOOK DOWN - by Garth Pearce

Literal or figurative, Brad Pitt is at the top of the mountain. And with the climbing epic Seven Years In Tibet the elusive young star may have just have reached the summit. Yet, he still seemed so troubled. Gart Pearce is granted a rare audience with the James Dean of his generation...

Brad Pitt arrives by helicopter. He has been filming all day along sheer blue ice on a mountain omniously called Razorback. Blond hair flops forward,his face pinched against the cold and a look of fear in his eyes. Spending relentless hour pretending to fall over the edge of a cliff has proved a shattering experience. "I am scared shitless of heights," he announces succintly. "It is one thing to look over the edge of a mountain, but then I have these thought and think a whole stream of things that might happen. I have good days and bad days. One day, I was going up to one of the highest peaks and thought about it for too long. I was so scared that day, I just wanted to get down. Today has been good. But it is still frightening."

Frankly, that's just too symbolic. For at 33, Brad Pitt has rapidly climbed to the unparalleled height of Hollywood. He has been voted the world's biggest sex symbol.He has earned fortunes and an Oscar nomination, for Twelve monkeys. Now he's attempting to scale a mountain in more literal sense, on Seven Years in Tibet, with French director Jean Jaques Annaud and a script about Austrian climber heinrich Harrer who, in 1939, escaped from the british, crossed the Himalayas into Tibet and became an adviser to the young Dalai Lama. It's a prestige story, dripping with the possibilities of awards. It's also potentially obscure and could tip him to the biggest free fall of his career, after the sizeable disappointment of The Devil's Own.

Yet, Brad Pitt feels a kind of safety amid the danger on snow-capped Canadian Peaks of 10,000 feet. For once on his life, he's far from prying eyes in snowy white seclusion where there are more moose than people and the nearest town is an hour's precarious drive along icy roads. There are a part of him that doesn't want this experience to end. In marked contrast, the film crew are going stir-crazy. They've been holed up near Bluff Lake, British columbia in giant Portacabins, nicknamed Cell Block A, B and C, with an incongruous thread of Christmas fairy lights to lighten the gloom. There is one telephone between 120 people, a pool table and shared videoroom, surrounded by an ocean of mud and congealed ice and snow.

Mountains ranges with such forbidding names as Chaos and Scimitar stretch from Vancouver and one hell of a road journey is required to get this far."Great isn't it?" enthuses Pitt. "The film is over-running, but I could not care. It gives me more time out here. If I don't think about the heights,then there's nothing to do but relax and enjoy the whole experience." Pitt's luxurious trailer sits next to a wooden chipboard patrition in what amounts to a private backyard, streching to the trailer of his underemployed English minders, Paul and Dave. They have stopped worrying about fanatical girls and the paparazzi, which they faced in abundance for weeks while filming in Argentina, and are reduced instead to discussing yesterday's sight of a cougar. "There is nothing to do but to work and eat," continues the ecstatic Pitt. "if only it could always be like this." If only.

But Pitt is currently going through the sort of attention that plagued mel Gibson a decade ago. Gibson subsequently bought a huge ranch in Australia as a refuge from the limelight. With Pitt, though, it is more complex. He put his head into the jaws of Hollywood, with full knowledge that he might never get his brain, body or life back again. This despite his Midwest sensibilities.

In Springfield, Missouri, where he was brought up, it was considered rude to talk about yourself. Alcoholism, drugs and bad behaviour were signs of weakness. He is said to be ineasy, about a couple of relationships that have sprung up among the crew, all of whom are married to someone else. In other words, Brad Pitt is big on morals. He is surprisingly old-fashioned, almost chivalrous., about women. Indeed, he gives an involuntary shudder -and this long after he has thawed from the chills of the day's mountaineering- as he reflects on what he did to earn a living at 22 upon arriving in Los Angeles. "I drove strippers around" he recalls reluctantly over dinner and a solitary beer."I was employed by an office which hired them for private parties. I would do the driving, play the music, try and make the deal and get the strippers out with their clothes at the end of the night. I sometimes had to take them to 3 shows a night. The girls where all actresses - supposedly. They were not the kind of girls you would take home to your mom, that's for sure, but I felt sorry for them in some ways. They were small town girls in a big city, in the same way I was a small town guy."He remembers a feeling of wanting succes so badly he could hardly eat with the expectation. Either that or he couldn't afford to.

"I had always wanted to be in the movies," he starts with a precision cliche."I was in my fourth year of college an a week before graduation, and I thought if only I went to California, maybe I could get a shot. I felt I had to get over there. I was majoring in a subject I didn't like and knew I wasn't cut out for. So I did not hand in my paper, did not graduate, scraped every bit of money I had and just left.

Brad's story has, like himself, a streak of morality and open-eyed wonder. He expected to suffer and he did. He expected fame and fortune just like any other 22 year old who has hitched from Hicksville to Hollywood. But unlike the other hundreds of thousands in LA who are still waiting tables, serving petrol and cleaning pools, he actually made the dream work. And he quite can't believe it. There is a sense that, aside from getting the big roles, part of him wonders whether he's got too much and if it's worth all the incessant clamour. "I slept on the floor for the first year and a half in LA," he says as if to prove he has served his dues. "I had a friend in Missouri who said his father had a place in Burbank and I could stay there. It was run by a woman who didn't speak English and I didn't know what to expect. There were 8 guys in one room, no furniture, each with our own pile of clothes stacked up and a seperate sheet for all of us on the floor. I did not mind going through that at the time. It was part of the gig."

The first acting job he was paid for was 30 seconds in an episode of Dallas. It was at that time that Empire magazine first met the young Pitt, on the set of the now long forgotten horror schlocker "Phantom of the Opera" in Budpest, Hungary, when he had arrived to the set to visit his then girlfriend of nine months, actress Jill Schoelen. " I never did spend that night in Budapest," he remembers. "Jill calls me up in LA, tells me she's lonely, cries on the phone and says she's having problems on the film. There is this huge drama. I have $800 to my name and spend $600 to get a ticket to go and see her. I do this, overnight via London, go straight to the set and that night went out to dinner. She tells me, after all the crying on the phone, that she thinks she's in love with the director (Dwight H.Little). The director! We all have to learn - right? I should have seen this coming a mile away. So I say, "I am done with this, I'm outta here." She starts crying and talking, but I am gone. I'd done a small part in a little film in Yugoslavia after "Dallas," had made a couple of friends and decided to go there instead. I am loyal, right? I spend three quarters of my money going to see my girlfriend and this is what I get.... Hold on. I need a cigarette." Pitt gets up and brings back a pack, as if the very thought of the incident had shattered his calm. He is loyal - and he is likeable. You can imagine much soul searching since the much publicised collapse of his engagement to actress Gwyneth Paltrow (after this interview),allegedly by mutual consents because of their booming careers.

A few hours before our dinner, sitting under pine trees, listening to the click of pool balls in the recreation room, the growl of four-wheel drives crawling their way through snow and mud, and the tuneless, manic whistle from one of the crew, Empire had been regaled with stories from those who can't speak enough of Pitt's enormous kindness. In Argentina, he had adopted 14 starving stray dogs and found them all new good homes. And to prove that he considers people even more than animals, he helped his housekeeper buy a new $40,000 home in Argentina. He paid $5,000 toward a heart operation for a crew member, bought flight upgrades for his voice coach, forked out for wives to visit lonely technicians, and had a new Ford Mustang convertible waiting in LA for his long serving make-up lady (Jean Black). The list goes on.

Fractious crew members, as a rule, can hardly wait to rubbish egomaniac, pain-in-the-arse, overpaid and overinflated stars, particularly when their salary is a cool $12 million. Brad Pitt, it turns out, is genuinely popular with those he works with. Even on the tough subject of fame and being photographed in private moments, he is philosophical. "I try not to think about it too much. First of all, I thought, 'Man, what do I have here. I went and hid for a time, but realised I can't always do that. It means a lot to me if people say that I have just given a great performance on screen or that they've seen something that has moved them. I like that, I can't pretend that I don't. As for the paparazzi and intrusions, I just have to grit my teeth and do the best to avoid them."

One solution has been the purchase of one of the oldest houses, built in 1911, within view of the Hollywood sign and boasting "the first swimming pool built for private use in LA" and is known for its seclusion and security. "I may get to spend some time there one day," he laughs. "I searched for a year and a half to find it and now it's empty. I'm not missing much though, apart from my dogs and family." Brad Pitt has found an inner peace which works remarkably well for Seven Years in Tibet. But he knows, probably more than most in his position, that should he slip along the way, there is a long fall...