The setting is Rhode Island. Having photographed Brad Pitt just recently, I'm now sitting with him on the porch of a Victorian property whose lawn slopes down to the Atlantic Ocean. Except for the distant hum of Soundgarden or Fiona Apple, it's a serene spot - which befits Pitt's mood on this Saturday afternoon in early fall. He answers my questions thoughtfully, or not at all if he's got nothing to say. It could be a scene from an Edward Hopper painting, perhaps Sea Watchers or Cottages at Wellfleet; and not surprisingly, Hopper is a touchstone for our conversation.

BRAD PITT: Looking at your pictures, I wondered if any photographer has ever tried to re-create Edward Hopper's paintings.

STEVEN KLEIN: I've thought about it. You mean with those kind of warm colors he used, and pastel-like yellows and stuff like that?

BP: Yeah, but it wasn't pastel like Easter eggs; it was pastel like nature - like when you look through a wheat field or something. Those kinds of hues.

SK: I know what you mean. He'd do these paintings of people just sitting in rooms, and there'd be this strange color and light coming in.

BP: Filtered light coming in through the window. I'd guess you call that natural light.

SK: Yeah. So you like his paintings?

BP: Very, very much. But I don't know much about painters. I know a little more about architects.

SK: But you boy art, right?

BP: Yeah.

SK: What kind of stuff do you buy?

BP: Metal pieces, things like that.

SK: Sculpture?

BP: Not so much sculpture, but functional pieces.

SK: Do you buy furniture as well?

BP: Yeah, I go a little insane with that. But it's my thing. [laughs]

SK: Do you buy photographs at all?

BP: Not too many of those.

SK: Well, that's my thing. I buy a lot of them.

BP: You like Diane Arbus, don't you?

SK: Yeah. When I first started photographing, I idolized her. I loved her work. She was the first photographer I really noticed growing up and really got into.

When I went to see your new movie [Seven Years in Tibet], I read this little bio of you. It said you studied graphics and advertising at school. Did you like it?

BP: Yeah, man. I was heading that way. But the structure at school was geared to, like, Tide commercials and things of that nature. And I quickly decided, Let's go get an acting shot. It's like when you're a kid, you've got to stand for the family picture and pose, and you've got to smile - but it's not until you see things like Diane Arbus's photographs that you realize there's a whole different way of looking at things.

SK: The funny thing about Arbus is that her photos look like really easy pictures to take, but they're not. No one has ever come close to doing what she did. I think it had to do with the empathy she had for the people she photographed. I think a lot of people who photograph freaks or unusual people are going -

BP: "Look how odd they are."

SK: Yes. But Arbus had a real interest In those people, and she found them really beautiful.

BP: She had an understanding of the outcast.

SK: The interview I've prepared is also a little bit like taking pictures. I thought it should be a portrait of you that we get to through something almost like snapshots. Should we go to the questions?

BP: Yeah, go.

SK: All right. The first one is: Brad, who are you?

BP: [laughs] Oh no! Pass. We've got to come back to that one.

SK: The second one is: How are you?

BP: How about if I give a nice, general "fine"?

SK: Where are you going?

BP: To the left.

SK: OK, good. What do you like?

BP: Perspective.

SK: What did you do yesterday?

BP: I thought.

SK: And this morning?

BP: Pinball. Took a break from thinking.

SK: What are the names of your animals?

BP: Purdy. Saudi. Blanco. C.C. Rider. And Todd Potter.

SK: Where do they sleep?

BP: [laughs] Anywhere they want. Usually on my legs.

SK: Do you paint, write poetry, or take pictures?

BP: I don't paint.

SK: Do you write poetry?

BP: Yeah. I screw around with that stuff. I sure wouldn't want to tell anyone.

SK: All right. Take pictures?

BP: Yeah. but I can't tell you that.

SK: What was the last photograph that made you furious?

BP: [laughs] One word's all we got to say: Playgirl, Photos of my piece.

SK: Was it a life-changing experience doing Seven Years in Tibet?

BP: I'd say yes. Sure. All movies are. For an audience it's two hours, but for me it's a half year of living. And this one particularly. Being in a different culture for so long, you couldn't help but walk out of there with something.

SK: What was it like re-creating a Tibetan world in the South American Andes?

BP: Well, we didn't know what we were walking into. There was nothing there but tundra.

SK: But did the atmosphere feel different than you had imagined for Tibet?

BP: I didn't know anything about Tibet, really, and the first images in my head were of Shangri-la, and that's not it at all. You just get these notions of an oasis in the middle of this violent world, but it's the people who make it a Shangri-la, not the land. The land is very tough: it's hard country.

SK: So it's more dependent upon the people and how they live and what's in their minds?

BP: Yes, in their hearts.

SK: One part of the movie I really liked was when you talked about the great simplicity of being on top of a mountain.

BP: I didn't think that line was specific enough at the time, but once I saw the film I realized i was completely wrong. Because it was the only time my character [Heinrich Harrer] was honest with anyone, you know? I have a definite simplicity clause. When things get a little scattered, simplify.

SK: Don't you find there's so much shit around that interferes?

BP: Well, I think most of what you do is cleaning up the messes. And every now and then, you get to act a little bit. I mean, most of it's about getting to that next perfect moment, right? And they're few and far between.

SK: Who do you think is sincere?

BP: Soundgarden [which can be heard on the CD player in the background].

SK: What de you need?

BP: A colonic. A spiritual colonic - how's that?

SK: What's a dumb question you get asked a lot?

BP: I tend to tune them out now. It's such a common thing. The way I grew up, you don't talk about yourself. You just do. Your actions define everything lot you.

SK: Well, here's an tricky one: What's a fairy-tale romance?

BP: [laughs] I shouldn't answer.

SK: What's privacy about?

BP: Privacy is about being able to sit on your porch by yourself, and it's about clearing all the junk away - because it piles up, you know?

SK: What's invasion of privacy about?

BP: Not allowing an individual those moments.

SK: How can the public have their stars and the stars have their public in a hotter way?

BP: That's a big gray area. All I see is gray.

SK: What is success?

BP: Success is being able to find something you enjoy doing and taking it to its fullest.

SK: What has been the happiest moment of your life?

BP: [laughs] Oh my God . . . the happiest?

SK: That's a yearbook question.

BP: I don't know, buddy.

SK: OK. Are you competitive?

BP: Yeah. More with myself than with anyone else.

SK: Can you describe the scene in a movie that affected you most?

BP: God, that's endless. I don't know. . . . I just saw Angel Heart, right? At the end there, Mickey Rourke is looking in the mirror saying, "I know who I am," But he knows he's been fooling himself all this time.

SK: We all have relationships that don't work out - you too. . . .

BP: [laughs] No shit! Just letting that one sit, like a turd.

SK: Where de you feel unsafe?

BP: I'm not much for safety.

SK: You enjoy danger.

BP: I've never analyzed that one, but probably. To a certain extent, because I certainly seem to be tumbling around in it.

SK: You've been making films back-to-back, right?

BP: It's been two and a half years, and I'd been planning to take some big lime off when this latest one, Meet Joe Black, came up.

SK: When you've finished that, are you going to take a break?

BP: The thing about art is that you can't keep churning it out - at least I can't. I find it hard not to get lost. Then there are times you may not want to do a project, but you do because it's your responsibility, and then you find yourself pulling some move you didn't know you had in you and surprising yourself. So it works both ways. Sometimes you have to push yourself just to get up. That's what I found doing the climbing on Seven Years' in Tibet. Like, the day came when I knew we had to do the climbs - he big one - the next day. I was looking and staring at it all week. I didn't want to do it. I couldn't sleep.

SK: Really?

BP: Yeah. I was trying to sleep in the bunk bed. thinking about falling off.

SK: But when you did it, I bet you felt great. As you say, it's when you have no choice and you've got to go do something that you often succeed.

BP: When you got a rope hanging above your head.

SK: Have you experienced that Rind of fear in the acting part of making films?

BP: It depends on the scene. I get anxious a lot. You have to manipulate your moods all the time. The thing is, you wake up feeling one way, or you're in one kind of mood and you're feeling something, and all of a sudden you have to be believably feeling and acting some other way. So you get good at punching your own buttons, and that sends you off in this direction or spinning off on that one. I've found that the best things always happen when you throw yourself into a situation and you don't know what you're doing. If you take too much control over it, it can become dank and moldy - no bubbles. Then when I make mistakes, I know I've got to step back, and instead of pounding myself for it, I just go. Listen, man, I'm in it - I'm in the ring. Sometimes you've just got to run with your mistakes.

As I said, I trust actions. I don't put much trust in words.