“Seven Years in Tibet,” like many other facets of his recent life, holds a hint of controversy.

You have to go a long way to hide from stardom if your name is Brad Pitt.

Even Uspallata, a remote area of Argentina, isn’t far enough, as Pitt found out when he was there filming “Seven Years in Tibet,” which opened last week.

“There were only a few local restaurants, and I thought it was safe to wander off from the set to soak up some of the local flavors,” the actor recalls.

Alas, before he’d even started eating, a crowd of local girls gathered outside, bashing their fists on the glass window so hard that Pitt had to leave for the girls’ own safety.

“I remember them screaming, ‘Ole, Ole, Brad Peeet!’” he says. “Every once in a while, I look at my life and think, ‘Brad, this is just a little bit out of control, yeah?’”


Even by Hollywood standards, Pitt has had a rough year.

There was the furor over “The Devil’s Own,” the Alan Pakula movie co-starring Pitt and Harrison Ford, which the younger actor denounced before its spring release, only to back off and say he’d been criticizing the process of making the film, not the film itself.

Then there was his lawsuit to stop Playgirl from publishing nude photographs of him, taken surreptitiously while he and then-fiancee Gwyneth Paltrow were sunbathing.

And, oh yes, the breakup with Paltrow, which sundered everyone’s favorite young-Hollywood couple.

For all of that, Pitt doesn’t show any signs that the pressure is getting to him. He doesn’t look weary, drawn, distraught or even distracted.

In fact, as he arrives for an interview at Toronto’s Four Seasons hotel, he looks luminous. The light-blond hair that shadows his face practically shimmers. The bluer-than-blue eyes light up. He wears tight black jeans and a black-silk shirt, unbuttoned halfway down.

The outfit may be sexier than thou, but Pitt’s mood is utterly serious. He has to head off yet another bump in his year — reports that Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountain climber whose autobiography is the source for “Seven Years” and whom Pitt plays in the film, is a former Nazi.

Trouble hit the $70 million production in June, when the German magazine Stern revealed that Harrer had volunteered to become a Nazi storm trooper in 1933 and was a sergeant in Hitler’s elite SS five years later.

This presented a problem for a movie whose message is one of enlightenment, peace and understanding.

Pitt insists that the Third Reich link “will just enhance the story, because the film is about coming to terms with your own demons.”

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who says he had always suspected Harrer of having Nazi ties, added a Pitt monologue to the movie in which Harrer compares the Nazis to the Chinese generals who invade peaceful Tibet.

Pitt says his attitude toward the role and the 85-year-old Harrer hasn’t changed.

“You say ‘Nazi’ and all these connotations like concentration camps come up,” he says. “That was not the case with this man. He was an athlete who spent the entire war in Tibet.

“I think this is a film about a man who learns to take responsibility for his transgressions,” the actor adds. “It’s about redemption.” Pitt can’t say exactly what it was that drew him to Harrer and “Seven Years,” particularly given his longstanding fear of heights.

“I can’t completely articulate why I take a role,” he admits. “To me, it’s about the experience. I approach each new movie experience from a complete emotional level: Is my heart in it?

“I think it had a lot to do with living in Hollywood, where people get so rich and famous, but they are still very unhappy,” he adds. “Meanwhile, you have a Buddhist monk standing on a hill of dirt all day, without a complaint on his tongue, and with a smile on his lips.

“I guess I’m questioning what is happiness,” the actor says. “And this movie seemed to have some nice answers. I think the message is one of tolerance and that you make your own day.”

Next up for Pitt is a remake of the 1934 classic “Death Takes a Holiday,” called “Meet Joe Black,” co-starring Anthony Hopkins and due out next year. Pitt plays the title role, no less than Death himself.

In a separate interview, Hopkins seconds the notion that Pitt isn’t letting his troubles get him down.

“We walk around the set doing Three Stooges impressions,” Sir Anthony says, a tad embarrassed. “He’s Curly.”

“The hardest part of playing Death is the research,” Pitt jokes. “I mean, I’m not Al Pacino. How far am I supposed to go for a role? I don’t think dying is an option.”

More seriously, the actor admits that playing a darker role appeals to him.

“I just think this pretty-boy thing of mine had gotten out of hand,” he says. “I was hitting a brick wall. I wanted to kill the myth and play someone with flaws.”

As to his own flaws, Pitt is cagey. He’ll admit only to profligate buying of bicycles.

“I buy bikes,” Pitt admits. “I have bicycles locked up all over the world. When I leave a place, I find a good hiding place and lock it up. I figure when I go back, maybe it’ll be there. I have bikes in Amsterdam, Canada, Oregon, New York and Vegas — I have all the lock keys on my key chain.”

Otherwise, Pitt says, he’s not one to revel in the wealth that stardom has brought him. He isn’t a party animal, he says, and since his split with Paltrow has spent most of his nights at home, alone.

“All I do is sit at home,” he says. “I’m the solitary type.”

Despite his big-screen success, Pitt adds, he still doesn’t feel comfortable in Hollywood.

“It’s really a snake-pit forum,” he say. “The good people really stand out. But there are so few.”

As he learned in Argentina, Pitt himself stands out these days, but that wasn’t always the case. Born William Bradley Pitt in Shawnee, Okla., he grew up here in Springfield, “leading a normal life — you know, picking on my brothers, getting into fights, doing well in school.”

At 22, two credits shy of an art-direction degree, he packed his bags, quit college and hit Hollywood, armed with only $350 and his good looks.

“My first job was on the corner of LaBrea Boulevard. and Sunset,” he recalls. “I stood there wearing a chicken costume to advertise for this fast-food place.”

Big birds aside, Pitt counts as his first show-business job a stint driving strippers around in a limo.

“I’d catch their clothes, so the guys wouldn’t steal them,” he says. “It wasn’t a bad job.”

His first bit of exposure was in a few episodes of the television series “Dallas.” Clearly, it wasn’t a favorite project for Pitt, who rolls his eyes at the mention of it.

“Spandex pants and feathered hair,” he says with a sigh.

But from there, his career skyrocketed. His 1989 big-screen debut, the forgettable slasher flick “Cutting Class,” led to his memorable role as a charming drifter in “Thelma and Louise” (1991), which in turn triggered a string of hits including “A River Runs Through It” (1992), “Interview with a Vampire” (1994), “Legends of the Fall” (1994), “Seven” (1995) and “The Devil’s Own.”

“I’ve been lucky,” Pitt says. “I believe in fate. Once you think you have it figured out, fate usually steps in and throws you a curve. So who knows where I’ll end up?

“In a few years, they’ll say, ‘Whatever happened to Brad Pitt?”

If they do, the actor adds, he doesn’t think it will bother him.

“If I’ve learned one lesson from the Tibet film,” he says, “it’s that it’s not about the trappings of vanity. The journey is the big goal.”