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
"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