ON TOP OF THE WORLD IN TIBET - by Christopher Spines
LOST HORIZON Seven Years In TIbet may mark a new dramatic peak for Brad Pitt,
but fame has its price,. "I've been in five lawsuits in five months,"he
tells Christopher Spines.
The peaks of the Andes pierce a fluffy strand of cloud high above northern Argentina.
The mountaintops are barren of all green life, and the deep, dark grooves that
spill down the slopes are the scars of many eons of erosion.
A few miles beneath those peaks, Brad Pitt is having a heck of a time working
himself into something that resembles true anguish. One, two, three, turn. Pitt’s
green canvas army boots pace a World War Two-era prison yard in quick, tight
loops. He keeps looking up at the barbed-wire fence that encircles the compound,
then glances back down at his shoes.
Pitt is about three months into shooting Seven Years in Tibet, the true story
of Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who was on a Himalayan climbing expedition
when World War Two broke out in 1939, and was imprisoned by the British. Harrer’s
celebrated autobiographical account of how he escaped and fled to Tibet, where
he eventually became the Dalai Lama’s tutor, introduced many in the West
to the plight of the Tibetan people. Seven Years In Tibet is a hystorical epic
of the highest pedigree, but one that also needs Pitt’s A-list Hollywood
glamour if it is to succeed commercially. It’s a tricky proposition, even
in the hands of director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who has done everything from animal
adventure (The Bear) to period mystery (The Name of the Rose). And it’s
scenes like this one, in which Harrer lashes out in agony after receiving a
letter containing divorce papers from his wife in Austria, that can make the
difference between Oscar nomination and The Scarlet Letter.
Pitt struggles for a way into the heartache, then suddenly he stops. He fixes
his gaze on the string of steel barbs and is struck with a realisation: he can’t
do the scene unless he really, honestly feels the pain, and the only way he
can do that is by hurting himself.
He calls for Annaud, a strapping Frenchman whose daily uniform of crisp white
shirt and Khakis make him look as if he’s ready to colonise Africa. The
two talk for a couple of minutes, and then Annaud, looking a bit worried, rejoins
his crew. It seems that his $10 million star has decided that he wants to hurl
himself at the wall of barbed-wire. The scene calls for run-of-the-mill sadness,
but if Pitt wants to go for biblical despair, so be it.
The crew, however, is less than thrilled. When it’s announced that dinner
may be delayed another hour, the international assemblage of grips and electrician
mutters its annoyance in some 32 different languages. Pitt’s inspiration
will require a flurry of preparation: his torso will have to be wrapped in gauze,
the fence reinforced and the lights reconfigured.
As the plan is set into motion, Pitt retires to his trailer. He rolls up the
window and cranks up some hardcore speed metal. The Argentinian extras, dressed
in turbans to play Indian guards, stare blankly at one another as Pitt’s
vehicle convulses with the noise. The sun is starting to set. Te scene, which
is supposed to be shot in the pouring rain, is taking up more time than daylight
will allow. The crew has hooked up a couple of gigantic water tanks, and the
water has begun flowing. Pitt emerges and drenches himself in the artificial
downpour. His make-up artist, Jean Black, fills his hands with pools of fake
“This is an emotional scene!” yells the assistant director, stating
the obvious. “Only key crew members are authorised to stay on set.”
Pitt eyes the fence one last time, then ducks his head like a charging bull.
When Annaud calls “Action”, Pitt takes a running leap. He falls
off, the lurches at the fence again. On his final try, he hangs onto the fence,
shaking it until the strands of wire begin to fall, off their wooden posts and
he falls to the ground in a heap.
Annaud indicates “Cut” silently, making a scissors motion with his
hands. Pitt gets up, soaked from head to toe. A few reluctant claps from the
crew acknowledge that maybe this guy works as hard as they do.
Maybe even harder. Still shivering and sopping wet, Pitt races over to the
video playback. There he sees that when he fell into the fence, he fell out
of the frame. A shadow of disappointment washes over his face. He’d like
to reshoot. But it’s too dark, and everyone’s starving.
Strangely, Pitt’s head of steam evaporates in an instant. He is not an
actor who likes to take his characters’ angst back to the trailer. Back
at his trailer, he mellows out, cranking up the Bob Marley. He says he’s
homesick for his family and fiancée, Gwyneth Paltrow, but he has surrounded
himself with the comforts of home-Camel cigarettes, gourmet coffee-courtesy
of care packages from “Gwynnie”. “This country is beautiful,
but everything’s just a cheaper grade here,” he says. “Not
like the things you buy in the States. Everything: aluminium foil, toothpicks,
matches-the matches break every time you use them.”
Pitt’s aura of contentment isn’t entirely the product of American
cigarettes, however. Not only is he in love, he’s relishing the opportunity
to dig into a challenging role. “I think this movie mean a lot for Brad,”
Annaud says later. “People still perceive him as a good-looking teenager.
I think he’s fighting for self-respect. It’s about his professional
“Loss is one step behind death.” Five months after wrapping Seven
Years in Tibet, Brad Pitt is free-associating about the nature of pain and human
suffering. It’s a subject with which he’s recently become intimate.
Pitt hasn’t slept much lately. His eyes are glassed over and carry the
faintest trace of circles under them. He’s been working a 14-hour night
shift on the Rhode Island set of Meet Joe Black, in which he plays the grim
Dressed all in black cotton, Pitt has shown up with two packs of Camels, a thermos
of coffee and a granola bar-supplies to buffer what promises to be an uncomfortable
journey. It’s clear he’s in no mood to talk. What he does express,
as he curls up in an old, ratty armchair in an Gatsby-esque boathouse, are quick
abstractions and shots of undiluted emotion.
“I think everyone’s haunted,” he says, putting out a cigarette
in a half-drunk cup of coffee. “Here I am, chain-smoking while my dad’s
in a hospital bed.” Three days ago, while Pitt’s parents were here
visiting from Missouri, his father started getting chest pains and was rushed
to Boston. Bill Pitt has been undergoing extensive testing after since for what
the doctors are calling a “heart irregularity”.
A scary prospect-especially to the younger Pitt, whose own heart has never strayed
far from his family. That is, until December 1996, when he asked Paltrow to
marry him. It was that simple: you don’t leave home in spirit until you
build one of your own.
The came his “summer of Job”, a period of about three months during
which all that common-sense idealism came crashing down around him. It began
with reports in June that Seven Years author Harrer had voluntarily joined the
SS in 1938. Then there was the sudden break-up with Paltrow, followed by an
avalanche of media speculation that Pitt has been unfaithful. Shortly after
news of the spilt broke, Playgirl published two-year-old paparazzi shots of
Pitt and Paltrow, lounging nude on their beachfront hotel balcony.
“My job lately has been predominantly troubleshooting,” Pitt says.
“Cleaning this mess up, cleaning that mess up, and then acting for five
minutes. I’ve been in five lawsuits in the past five months,”
Pitt’s strict code of ethic is a part of his onscreen appeal, and it
has also been his greatest protection from the self-destruction and narcissism
that so often infects those in the public eye. He came to Hollywood with the
naïve belief that anything was possible for him if he worked hard enough.
And for the most part, his plan went off without a hitch. Now, as a 33-year-old
superstar, Pitt is finally grappling with all the aches and pains of adulthood-facing
the fact that relationships are messy, and that at a certain point you have
to say goodbye to your family. And when you’re a movie star of his magnitude,
that means being thrown straight into deep, dark waters where you never know
what’s swimming below.
When Pitt was a child, nature was a refuge. He would escape into imaginary
worlds in the woods behind his house, at the edge of Springfield, Missouri.
His parents-mother a school counsellor, father a trucking-company executive-were
able to provide Pitt and his brother and sister with everything they needed.
He still talks about Missouri as if it were the promised land, but bristles
at the suggestion that he is romanticizing it.
Pitt grew up doing the right thing: he sang in a Baptist church choir; he sat
on his high-school student council; and he went on to the University of Missouri,
where he majored in journalism. But he never found anything in school that excited
him the way movies did when he was a kid. “I liked going by myself,”
he says. “I remember going to an Ape-athon: all five Planet of the Apes
movies, all day long. My mom packed me a lunch. It was a great day.”
At college Pitt was a promising graphic designer, an unremarkable student-and
a lost person. Two weeks before graduation, he packed his car and drove to L.A.
It was a radical step; “Acting wasn’t a possibility where I grew
up,” he says. “But I could do that because I had a base. In the
back of my head, I knew I had I had a family I could fall back on. My folks
always said, ‘Do what you gotta do, we’ll be here when you get back.’
It wasn’t until I got older that I realised that I was blessed with these
“Brad took all these stupid jobs, like selling cigarettes and assisting
a soap-opera writer, to support his acting,” recalls Ivana Chubbock, an
associate of the late acting coach Roy London, with whom Pitt studied for six
years. His very first day in class he was given a seduction scene and ended
up blowing the roof off the classroom with his lack of inhibition. “He
had these two champagne glasses placed on his breasts while he was manipulating
the made up for in just not caring if people thought he looked stupid. Brad
doesn’t see the possibility of rejection as a bad thing, but as a challenge.”
Once Pitt started getting cast in bit parts on TV, it soon became apparent
that his matinee-idol looks could become a trap, and he learned to be wary.
“He would make himself as unattractive as possible,” recalls Robert
Markowitz, who directed Pitt in one of his first films, Too Young to Die, a
1990 white trash-couple-on-the-run TV movie on which Pitt met Juliette Lewis
and began a three-year relationship. “Juliette was driven to be a movie
star, but Brad’s passion was acting. I’ve never worked with someone
like Brad, who just couldn’t wait to access his emotions. It was like
an Olympic athlete waiting for the gun to go off.”
Finally, as Geena Davis’s boy toy in Thelma & Louise, he let loose
his sexual charisma. All of a sudden, he was the $6,000-orgasm man, a reputation
that didn’t sit comfortably. It is hard to be considered an actor on the
level of a Sean Penn, whom Pitt greatly admires, when you’re People magazine’s
Sexiest Man Alive.
“It’s not that I’m opposed to romantic roles,” Pitt
says, nervously flicking his yellow Bic lighter as he speaks. But his c.v. is
indeed notable for its shortage of conventional leading-man material. He laughs.
“In all my movies I always seem to be losing the babe, giving up the babe.
The fact that Brad Pitt can’t get the girl is an irony he relishes: even
if he can’t stop the public from invading his bedroom, he can control
how he enters their living room. But it’s also about something deeper-an
obsession with taking the road most difficult.
Sometimes the roles that appear most intriguing in scripts form turn out to
be cheesier on film-witness Legends of the Fall and Interview with the Vampire.
Which is not to say that Pitt didn’t have his moments. In Legends, when
he wasn’t busy being an Adonis-on-horseback, he pulled off a complex combination
of jealousy and brotherly love towards Henry Thomas’s character in a scene
containing few lines of dialogue. “Silence has got weight to it,”
he says, thinking back over that scene. “We (as a culture) have diarrhoea
of the mouth. What’s not said is just as important. He only says what’s
needed. Everybody would be going on and on, and he’d just drop in a word
of wisdom, shooting straight through the conversation. He’s good that
It was in David Fincher’s Seven that Pitt finally found his artistic
breakthrough. Subtly subverting his golden-boy image, he combined fear and cockiness,
love and rage, to devastating effect. “Brad was like nothing I’ve
ever seen before,” says Darius Khondji, Seven’s cinematographer.
“I felt the character was inside him like paper in the developer, and
he came with the light. Very true, special emotion.”
In the film’s climactic scene, in which the head of Pitt’s pregnant
wife is delivered to him in a box, the trajectory of the emotions, from despair
to confusion, that flicker across his face made it impossible to leave the cinema
without thinking about what it might feel like to have such an experience. “That
scene was the one where I was, like, Oh man, can we get him to this?”
recalls Fincher, who was caught off guard once they started shooting and Pitt
could not hold back his sobs. “He really lost it emotionally. He’d
be over smoking a cigarette between takes, and then we’d roll, and it
was, like, Oh my God, we gotta stop! This poor guy.”
“I would love to do that scene again,” Pitt says. “To be
truer. I remember thinking about this courtroom scene at the end of At Close
Range, with Sean Penn. What I got from watching that scene is that life could
never be the same. This was one of those moments when you can’t go back.
Here it starts anew.”
It was during the making of Seven that Pitt met and fell in love with his 22-year-old
costar, Gwyneth Paltrow. Their romance soon took the shape of Hollywood myth.
Like two beautiful orbs, they seemed to float above the scrum of screwed-up
Pitt and Paltrow certainly did their part to enhance that image. Paltrow stated
that she would give up acting to be Pitt’s wife and raise their children.
When Pitt accepted the Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actor in Twelve
Monkeys, he couldn’t hold back the love-struck goo, thanking “my
angel, the love of my life”, then exchanging lovey-dovey looks with the
“He spent months designing Gwyneth’s engagement ring,” recalls
The Devil’s Own script doctor Robert Mark Kamen. “He designed it,
and he would sit there and draw it, draw it, draw it. He was in love, and I
thought for sure it was going through, because he had this whole Midwestern-values
Forty-seven years after China invaded Tibet, driving the Dalai Lama and many
of his followers into exile, Hollywood is finally addressing the issue in two
films, Martin Scorcese’s Kundun, which uses non-actors to tell the Dalai
Lama’s story from the Tibetan point of view, Years was forced to move
to the Andes when India refused to grant filming permits because of pressure
from neighbouring China. But the change in locale didn’t stop more than
a hundred Tibetans from trekking to South America to live in barracks and provide
the film with verisimilitude. The Tibetans see the movie as a way of informing
the world about the brutality of Chinese rule. (Initially, Kundun was the only
film sanctioned by the Dalai Lama, but His Holiness soon gave his blessing to
Seven Years as well.)
The big hurdle, however, came after the film had wrapped. Last June the German
magazine Stern published a story in which Harrer admitted to having been a member
of the SS. (Evidence also indicates that he may have joined a Nazi group as
early as 1933, when it was illegal in Austria.) The issue wasn’t so much
what Harrer did as a Nazi-by all accounts his involvement was minimal-but that
the celebrated autobiographer had ommited this fact from his story of personal
redemption, and refused to take an apologetic stance: “My conscience is
clear,” he said in a recent press release.
“He hasn’t even used this high-profile, very painful opportunity
to say, ‘You know what? I’m 85 years old, but this is such a crucial
issue to me, I’m gonna take a hard look at it,’” says Rabbi
Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “A war criminal he is not.
But he has failed because he’s decided to take a public role in Tibet,
one of the most sensitive and important human-rights issues, and arrogantly
(has written of his Nazi past) by saying, ‘Oh no, no. That stuff’s
Once the American press picked up the story, the filmmakers’ focus was
forced to shift from finishing the movie to damage control. Annaud and company
quickly made revisions, including a five-second voiceover alluding to Harrer’s
Pitt’s misgivings about playing a guy who had joined the SS were not
so easily resolved. “I would have preferred knowing at the time,”
he says when asked if the revelation gave him second thoughts about taking the
role. “It depends on how much was made clear to me. Surely when you first
hear, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, Harrer was a Nazi,’ you repel (sic),
you go, ‘Wrong answer. No, thank you. See ya.’ I had heard it was
a movie about redemption, and that always made sense to me.”
Annaud, however, suspected Harrer’s Nazi ties early on, when he found
an old picture of Harrer wearing a backpack with a swastika patch. “After
the Stern article came out, (Harrer and I) talked on the phone,” recalls
Annaud. “I said, ‘Heinrich, I want you to know that Brad has been
playing you as a Nazi.’ For me it was no revelation of surprise.”
Annaud has said that he has always been making a movie about a man’s
moral redemption and that Harrer’s Nazi past only gives the film more
powerful resonance. “Before the takes, I would say (to Pitt), ‘Give
me your Nazi look here,’” the director recalls. Pitt disagrees.
“Jean-Jacques said, ‘I wonder (if Harrer was a Nazi)?’ I remember
him saying it once,’” Pitt says. “But ‘Play it like
a Nazi’? No, I wouldn’t know what that meant.” Then came the
knockout punch. Three months after Pitt returned from Argentina, his publicist
announced that his engagement to Paltrow had been called off. The break-up led
off six o’clock newscasts in the States and made the cover of the New
York Post. Everybody had a theory. Some asserted that the break-up was merely
a red herring, to keep from crashing the wedding. Observers dreamed up scenarios
in which Pitt was the guilty party: he got cold feet: he was having an affair
with his Meet Joe Black love interest, Claire Forlani. Two months later, sitting
in the Rhode Island boathouse, Pitt will only speak about relationships in general.
“You have to know yourself and know what’s important to you,”
he whispers. “And the other person’s gotta be the same. Otherwise,
it’s doomed.” He catches himself and sits back and takes a breath.
“I believe in family,” he says. “Family encompasses friends,
loves, all that. You never disrespect the family.”
Black, his longtime makeup artist and a close friend, is less reticent: “When
Brad’s in love, his loyalty and commitment are above reproach,”
she says. “Despite what the press says about him stepping out or whatever,
in the eight years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen that side of
him.” The fiery Texan acknowledges that Pitt might prefer to have her
speak on his behalf. “I think maybe he was hoping deep down that I would
say something,” she says. “I think there were a lot of things that
made Brad feel as if Gwyneth probably wasn’t ready for marriage.”
But Pitt is quick to deflect the sympathy vote. “This is just the real
world and I’m growing up,” he says. “Life is tough and it’s
crooked, but it’s pretty fantastic. I’m starting to be, like, Disappointed
Guy, and that’s not the case either. Moments like this go in cycles, and
it’s just when you get comfortable that something’s going to mess
Though this interview takes place several weeks before Princess Diana’s
death makes tabloid tactics a subject of world debate, the issue is already
a sore one with Pitt. “I’d settle for truth,” he says. “Not
too much to ask for, is it? But truth doesn’t always sell, and on the
gossip side, there are some petty people. They talk shit about everyone, and
suddenly it’s given credibility. They have no right to…” He
looks away. “I’m starting to censor myself. But it is the truth
that a story about somebody’s misery is more entertaining than a story
about someone’s happiness.”
Pitt sued to halt distribution of the Playgirl issue-the nude telephoto snapshots
it featured had appeared in a European magazine and on the internet-and succeeded.
“Enough’s enough,” he says. “I don’t feel that
when our forefathers made the laws they thought of 600-milimetre lenses. People
say, ‘He’s famous, he has no right to privacy.’ I didn’t
read that anywhere in the Bill of Rights.”
The most unpleasant effect of life in the fishbowl, Pitt has discovered, is
the isolation. And fame is only of the reasons. “Once you walk into money,”
he says, “it separates you, and it separates the outside world’s
perception of you. That’s what I’m afraid of.”
His salary for Meet Joe Black is a reported $17.5 million, and it’s been
said that he’s turned down $25 million offers to star in action movies.
Being a really rich guy is just not how he pictures himself. “It’s
ironic that I walked into all this, because I truly never cared either way,”
he says. “We always had enough to eat. We were always provided for. Maybe
The topic, like every other one tonight, leads back to that hospital room in
Boston. “Any of my speeches with my father, they’ve just been about
money,” he says. “Because I’m so irresponsible, and he’s
right. I wish everyone had money so they could see that it doesn’t really
In truth, Pitt found another love while he was engaged to Gwyneth Paltrow.
He fell in love with mountain climbing while he was making Seven Years in Tibet,
and he seems intent on making this relationship last.
As preparation for the film’s extensive climbing sequences, Pitt went
on an introductory expedition in the Italian Alps with co-star David Thewlis,
Pitt immediately got a giant buzz from the self-reliance, the confrontation
of one’s fears, the communing with nature, and the sensation of being
wholly and completely in the moment, away from the stress and complications
of human interactions. Everything you’ve heard about climbing.
He recalls standing on a narrow ledge in Italy, with Thewlis climbing beneath
him. “All your tendons are shaking, and you don’t think you’re
going to make it, but somehow you get over it,” he says. “It’s
definitely a lesson in fear and knowing who you are.”
Annaud sensed that Pitt had found a reprieve from superstardom while shooting
the Seven Yeas climbing sequences. “I remember one day we were in a remote
mountain location in Canada,” the director says. “For the first
time in months, Brad was alone. I remember seeing him on this frozen lake, looking
at nature. And I came to him, and we just walked in silence. I was happy to
offer him this.”
It’s dark outside, and the crickets’ droning is the only reminder
that it’s summertime. Black comes to fetch Pitt for his all-night shoot,
which will be followed by a long drive to his father’s bedside. This has
been the hardest time of his life, but that’s OK. “I think I could
have been a manic-depressive at one point,” he says, sticking his head
above the clouds for a moment, mocking his own despair. “But I said no.”
Too easy? “Exactly, that’s exactly it.” And with that, Pitt
jumps up, grabs his coffee and cigs, and trots down the boathouse’s grand
staircase and into the cool New England drizzle.