REBEL STAR TOP DOG - by Jancee Dunn
Getting to Brad Pitt is a pain in the ass. First of all, he is in the Canadian
wilderness, where he is filming Seven Years in Tibet, the story of Austrian
mountain climber Heinrich Harrer. So you take a six-hour flight from New York
to Vancouver. Easy right? Then there is another flight up to the mountains on
the terrifyingly named Wilderness Air. As the 12-seat Beechcraft reaches a comfortable
cruising altitude, you notice that the pilot is continually talking to the passenger
behind her, as if she is driving a Datsun, and that the co-pilot is reading
a book. You look around for dibs on the meatiest-looking passenger, who you
can eat when the plane crashes. After you land on a tiny airstrip, you must
wait for a van to pick you up, so you wander down a long road, over to a diner
situated in the middle of a piney field. As a waitress slaps a burger on the
table, she remarks, “Been a lot of moose attacks around here lately. Mother
protecting their babies. They just come barreling out of the woods at ya.”
Wait. What? What was that last part? She shuffles away with a you-city-slickers-wouldn’t-last-five-minutes-out-here
No matter. Here is the van, which winds through desolate (but pretty) hills
for an hour and a half. You pass Tatla lake, a miniscule burg with one bar and
a satellite dish. (Last weekend, boisterous Tibet crewmembers piled into a car
to explode the town and slunk back a short time later.) Finally you arrive at
the camp, which is blankered in 6 inches of mud due to recent inexplicable thaws.
And here you are, at one of the few places on Earth where Brad Pitt can walk
“Hey,” he says. Big grin. He’s dressed for the mud and the
mountains - boots, sweat pants, rugged black suede coat, mirrored shades, stubble,
bed head - and the first thing you notice is that unlike most male actors, he
clears 6 feet. The second thing you discern is that you are instantly at ease.
Pitt is low-key, free of attitude and positive. (“I like everywhere, pretty
much,”) he says of his travels. This seems to be a philosophy.) Talk to
folks who know him, and they will tell say that he’ll remind you of someone
- your brother, somebody you went to high school with, a friend. This is true.
His favourite expressions? A conspiratorial “Yeah, right?” when
you agree on something, followed by “Yeah, man,” for a emphatic
statement, closely followed by “Excellent.”
As you chat with Pitt, it’s quite easy to forget he’s a huge movie
star until, as he makes his way through the mud to his trailer, he turns around
with his sunglasses and starts telling you about - well, who the hell knows,
really, because you’re thinking, “Damn, this boy doesn’t look
like other folks!” With a jolt, you get the full force of his blue-eyed
charisma as he animatedly tells you about…something. Then he turns around
with a “Yeah, man” and continues slogging through the mud. Excellent.
The 33-year-old Pitt finds himself in this remote locale because the Canadian
Rockies substitute for the Himalayas in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years
in Tibet, due out this fall. It is not the most commercial of movies, but Pitt
doesn’t care. He’s not interested in the blockbuster; he wants a
compelling role. Tibet is based on the memoirs of Harrer, who escaped from a
British prison camp in India in 1940 with a fellow POW, played by David Thewlis.
The pair weaseled their way into Tibet, where Harrer ended up tutoring the young
Dalai Lama before he was driven into exhile by China.
The making of the film has been slow going. For starters, Tibet preparations
began in India a year ago, before the Chinese government reportedly voiced its
opposition to the project. China views the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader
of Tibet, as an enemy. And since the film contains emotional scenes of gentle
Tibetan monks weeping as Communist Chinese soldiers sweep through the monks’
beloved country, the film isn’t exactly good press for China. A million
dollars’ worth of sets and production costs later, a fearful Indian government
shut down the project, OK, then, then off to Argentina, where the Andes would
serve as the Himalayas.
Before Tibet, Pitt was trying to quit the embattled The Devil’s Own,
in which he plays a gunrunner for the IRA - until, that is, he was threatened
with a sizable lawsuit. Pitt’s recent remarks to Newsweek regarding the
chaotic process of making The Devil’s Own without clear direction or even
a discernible script (“It was the most irresponsible bit of filmmaking
- if you can even call it that - I’ve ever seen”) got him in a little
spot o’ trouble.
"I didn’t even think about it,” Pitt says, stepping up into
the trailer. “This was old news. Then I get home [Los Angeles]. I’m
so happy to just hang out, see the dogs, relax. Boom! The calls start at 7 in
the morning. ‘Go on Entertainment Tonight,’ they begged. ‘Say
you didn’t mean it.’ I was like, ‘I can’t do that. [he
shakes his head] I said it. I said it.’” Pitt wrote a letter to
Newsweek, saying that his remark referred to his dilemma before filming, not
to the actual movie, which he likes. The chaos continues, however: The ending
for The Devil’s Own was recently re-shot.
Then there were the reports of tension with co-star Harrison Ford. “He’s
absolutely cool,” says Pitt. “Look, it was tough. It was the hardest
film I’ve ever been on. But as for reports about out-of-control egos and
people hiding out in trailers, that just wasn’t the case. It was everyone
trying to make the best movie they could under the circumstances.” He
fires up a Camel. “I’m playing a Catholic kid from Ireland,”
he says. “I’m speaking for this situation that’s gone on for
years. I felt a huge responsibility for that.” He gets up to sift through
his CD collection (Bob Marley, Shawn Colvin, Dave Matthews Band…). “So
I’m not just gonna sit there and say, ‘Oh, I’m Irish! Give
me a Guinness!’” He laughs. “I’m not gonna make leprechaun
In fact, Pitt went to Belfast alone to research the role. “At one point
I stop at a Protestant bookstore,” he says. “I look in the window
for two seconds. Boom! I get this wing job from two Catholic guys. It about
knocked me over. They just kept on walking. You know that walk?” He struts
around, elbows out. “When you’re pumped?”
As he talks, a fetid odor insinuates its way into the trailer. He frowns slightly.
“Smells like pooh,” he says. He keeps talking. It won’t go
away. He goes to the door and pokes his head out. He finally locates the culprit
- a burly crewmember who hit a nearby Porta-Potti.
Pitt looks sly. “I thought it was you,” he says to me. He emits
a dry cackle, “And be honest,” he says. “You thought that
it was me, didn’t you?”
Let’s look around the trailer for a moment, shall we? A fax machine,
a black Prada tote (hmm - fiancée Gwyneth Paltrow’s doing?), Scientific
American magazine, an array of first-run movies such as The People vs. Larry
Flynt and Sling Blade on tape, myriad packs of smokes, a book on Frank Lloyd
Wright (architecture is one of Pitt’s passions) and a Gargantuan box of
strawberry Twizzlers (“That could go in a day,” he says grinning).
Pitt has been here only a few weeks. Before that, he had spent five months
filming in Argentina (which was around the time that Martin Scorcese started
filming his Dalai Lama opus. Kundun, in Morocco. Hollywood!). From the start,
Tibet was a fairly Herculean affair. Start with a set located in the tiny ton
of Uspallata. Add too much monks handpicked by Annaud, machine-gun-toting guards
to protect Pitt from hordes of rabid fans and no less than 16 languages spoken
on the set, and you have an epic even before the cameras roll.
Pitt, for his part, has been having a ball. Mountain climbing was new to him
- he and Thewlis prepped by “doing some glaciers” in Austria, then
tackling the Dolomites, in Italy. “Sure, I’m scared of heights,”
he concedes, “Absolutely. But this is fantastic.” He uses the words
mission to describe recent shoots in the nearby mountains. “We all pile
in these helicopters. You take off in this little tin cans, and you fight the
wind, trying to stay level.” He pauses. “I’m getting excited.
I have to stand up.” By all means. “Thank you. You fly up these
mountains and land on a frozen lake,” he continues. “This wall of
blue ice glowing. It’s fantastic.”
Filming is often delayed because of the temperamental weather. “The minute
the safety guys say, ‘We gotta go,’ we dump everything, stop shooting,
everybody gets in the helicopter, and we go down,” says Pitt with relish.
“Wild.” He’s moving around, talking with his hands. He puts
on another CD - Soundgarden (“Greatest band in rock & roll right now”).
For the moment, he is tired of talking about himself, so he cranks up “Burden
in My Hand” and proceeds to rock out. It’s always sort of strange
moment when someone rocks out. What is the etiquette here? Fill in on air drums?
Pick something up and examine it?
You opt to look out the trailer door and take in the view of the mountains.
After a bit, Pitt joins you in contemplation.”Man, this is beautiful"
he says. He looks around with a lazy smile. Yes, for many guys, this setup is
sky-bum-bachelor heaven, and so it is for Pitt.
But there is one thing missing. Or, more specifically, one person.
Ask Pitt to name the most significant change in his life in the past year,
and he looks slightly incredulous. “I’m getting married,”
he says. Of course. She is Gwyneth Paltrow, 24, Hollywood’s darling after
her elegant turn in Emma, smart, stylish, the child of actress Blythe Danner
(The Prince of Tides) and TV producer Bruce Paltrow (St. Elsewhere).
“I can’t wait, man,” he says heartily. He is hiking in the
woods behind the camp. His boots make squelches in the mud. “Walking down
the aisle, wear the ring, kiss the bride,” he says. “Oh, it’s
going to be great. Marriage is an amazing thing. And what a compliment: ‘You’re
the one I want to spend the rest of my life with,’ you know? Because I’m
only going to do it once.” He saw his fiancée a few days ago, when
the pair drove up the California coast to Big Sur to celebrate their 2-year
anniversary. They try not to let more than two weeks go by without seeing each
other. “It used to be a three week rule, now it’s two,” he
says. “You should see our phone bills.”
Sparks flew, as many of you know, on the set of Seven. “I knew immediately,
I’ll tell you that much,” he says. “I got within 10 feet of
her, and I got goofy. I couldn’t talk,” He shakes his head, he sprinkles
his conversation with mentions of her ("Gwynnie’s a major cook. What
bonus huh?”). Clearly, the man is besotted. Part of the reason that the
Tibet shoot was so pleasant, for instance, was her presence. “Gwynnie
was with me the whole time [in Argentina]. It was excellent. You put in a hard
day, then you come home, and…there she is.” He proposed to her in
Argentina, in December. “Why do people get married? [Knocks on table]
For the bad times.” He gets all Allman Brothers on you: “She’s
sunshine. She sure is.”
Pitt’s next project is Meet Joe Black, a remake of the 1934 Death Takes
a Holiday, in which Pitt will update the Fredric March role as an allegorical
Death who falls in love. The movie will be shot in New York. “Gwynnie
will be in there,” he says. “We got it all worked out.” Soon
the two will begin filming Duets, directed by Paltrow’s father.
Then they will get married. Because they are the young couple in Hollywood
right now and because all of America talks about the wedding with a propetary
air, as though it is happening to a cousin, this event will be a challenge to
pull off without hordes of press and fans. It is hard enough for the two to
emerge from their Los Angeles home as it is.
When they are home, they do what you do - bum around. Watch movies while eating
dinner in their pajamas. When they go out to restaurants and the like, it is
often Paltrow’s idea. “She goes out more; I get her home more,”
he says. “It’s a good balance.”
It is hard to comprehend the enormity of Brad Pitt’s fame, but the hysteria
that surrounded the star’s arrival into Argentina is a good way to start.
“On the first day,” says Annaud, a charming, garrulous Frenchman,
“I invite him to a restaurant in a tiny village. There are 250 people
living there. You have to get to the village by crossing two ropes.” As
they attempted to eat, “there were like 600 people banging on the windows.”
Housing Pitt was another matter. “Brad was in an army camp,” says
Annaud. “We had to put up a double-barbed-wire fence because people would
climb the walls. And people would charter buses from Buenos Aires to come see
the star. They were yelling and screaming, ‘Braaaad!’”
The obsession with Pitt became so fevered that Annaud was forced to call a
press conference. “It was starting to get ridiculous - ever detail, what
shoes he was wearing,” says Annaud. “So Brad and I said, ‘Listen,
we are here to work. We need serenity. Could you leave us alone?’ And,
magically, they did.”
When the director first met with Pitt, he had slight reservations: “I
was thinking that he is maybe too much of a…good-looking person? But Brad
charmed me. He’s very genuine. Even if he doesn’t know how to say
it, he is preoccupied with the dilemma between fame and self-respect. He knows
it’s not the same thing at all.”
If brad Pitt wanted to, he could sail the seas of cheese forever. He could
crank out a formulaic romance picture every year, and folks would be lining
up until he was wearing a truss. Instead, when it comes to career choices, he
seems to have followed his Inner Agent. His roles have ranged from a delusional
psycho in Kalifornia to one of the undead in the often ugly Interview With the
Vampire to the twitchy, mentally unbalanced rich kid in 12 Monkeys, a role that
garnered an Oscar nomination (a performance that Pitt wasn’t entirely
happy with because he didn’t take the role to the next level: “I
should have made him completely frightening in the second half of the movie,”
he says). Pitt has only occasionally ventured into more conventional fare such
as Legends of the Fall. Indeed, with his offbeat choices, he seems to operate
within the Hollywood system, yet he is curiously removed from it. In the past,
he never seemed to play by Hollywood rules, and now, he doesn’t have to.
Pitt seems to have followed his gut throughout his life. A Springfield, Mo.,
boy, he had, by all accounts, a happy childhood with a strong, solid family
background. (This is something he has in common with his fiancée. “We
hit the lotto on that one,” he says.) Pitt is the oldest of three children.
His dad, Bill Pitt, is a former manager of a trucking company; his mom, Jane,
a high school counselor. His first drink? “I snuck a little taster of
Chivas downstairs in the basement.” First concert? “The Doobie Brothers,
with Foreigner opening.” He went to the prom in a white tuxedo ”and
feathered hair. Zipperhead. It was Missouri, come on.” He was a student
of advertising at the University of Missouri, although he says he should have
been in architecture (his great love, remember?). “But school was about
getting out of classes instead of learning,” he jokes. “And the
architectural school was tough! They were studying day and night! I mean, I
was in college man!”
Pitt was also a Sigma Chi man and still has a couple of good buddies from that
time. “Although one thing bugs the shit out of me,” he says. “These
guys will come up and say [he extends his hand], ‘Brother Pitt,’
The secret handshake. It makes me cringe. I don’t know you, all right?
That was then! Learn something else now, all right?” He shakes his head.
“Oh God, now I’m going to get in trouble for this.”
Pitt set out for Los Angeles two credits short of graduating. Why? “In
my head, I was done with college,” he says. “I was on the next thing.”
That same inner voice told him that she should try his hand at an acting career,
even though he had never acted in his life. After a couple of lean years (sitcom
auditions, a role on Dallas) and a short-lived stint on the Hollywood club-hopping
circuit, he hit pay dirt with his role as a sweet-talking drifter in 1991’s
Thelma & Louise. He made that part extraordinarily vivid, giving it all
the full force of his laconic charm. From that point on, he was a star. What
most people forget is that in that film, Pitt was onscreen for barely 10 minutes.
A few years back, Pitt said that he felt he was a good actor but that he would
never be a great one. “I’ll always be a good, solid actor,”
he says. “I’ll never let you down. But will I ever have one of those
great performances?” He considers. “Well, I feel like I’m
better than I was when I said that.”
It’s nighttime, and the crew (about 100 people) has just finished dinner.
Now they will drift around. There is not a whole hell of a lot to do. There
is a tiny recreation center that has a pool table attached to the cafeteria.
Some of the more innovative crew members will play Strip Darts, but the game
always kind of dissolves before things get really interesting. There is a guitar
around somewhere for the occasional spontaneous sing-along. Or they get drunk.
After five months in Argentina and at least another month in Canada, most of
the crew is just itchin’ to go home.
Pitt has headed off to his trailer. He has told you to come by before you leave.
“I’ll give you my number, in case you need anything else,”
he says. It’s time to go, and the van guy awaits, so you start for the
trailer. It looks dwarfed by the enormous, starry Canadian sky. A soft yellow
light shines from the trailer’s windows, and the faint, wispy harmonies
of a Shawn Colvin CD can just barely be heard. You think of what Pitt said earlier
about enjoying this remote part of the globe. “I think if it wasn’t
for family and Gwynnie and Gwynnie’s family and a couple of good friends,”
he says, “I could have gone this route.”
You decide to let him have a little peace. “I’m ready,” you
tell the van guy.
“We have to drive slowly,” he says. “Been a lot of caribou
around here lately runnin’ out in the road.”