Brad Pitt. Tab Hunter's agent couldn't have come up with a better name for a movie star, although maybe Brad Stone would have implied more gravitas. At any rate, the actor has taken time off from the Rhode Island set of his next movie, Meet Joe Black (the film is "inspired by"--and not, a chorus of publicists insists, "a remake of"--Death Takes a Holiday), to talk about his new release, Seven Years in Tibet. Just down the lawn from a Newport-style mansion, we are sitting in the estate's opulent boathouse, itself a minimansion slung over a bay so ludicrously sun-dappled it could double for Golden Pond.

Pitt, 33, is dressed casually but expensively, his well-tailored shirt an odd hybrid, country-and-western in style, but with extra long cuffs that the actor has chosen to leave unbuttoned so that they flap modishly about his wrists. It's a look that suggests sartorial detente between Garth Brooks and Austin Powers. Which, when you think about it--if, like me, it's your job to think about it--is pretty much where Pitt would fall on the spectrum of masculine iconography, his fidgety Midwestern guyness touched with just a hint of dandified self-regard. This isn't always the case with stars, but the charisma that works for him on screen is readily apparent in person too. It's that smile, the one that detonates in quick stages across his face, starting with just a shy quiver of amusement, then a wry grin, and then bursting into sheer amazement at--what? Its own infectiousness? You can't help being drawn to it, and neither, you feel, can he.

The first thing anyone would want to ask Pitt is, What really happened between you and Gwyneth? Gwyneth, of course, being Gwyneth Paltrow, the long drink of water whom Pitt met on the set of Seven three years ago, where she played his wife, and with whom he ended a well-publicized real-life engagement last summer. But Pitt will not discuss his private life. (Well, almost. "I keep hearing I'm a crazy party guy," he says. "I'm not. I'm boring... At least by party standards.") And so we are forced to turn to the more enlightening but less sexy topic--Richard Gere notwithstanding--of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibet, as viewers of awards shows well know, has been the subject of some interest in the celebrity community, but Pitt says he received no phone calls from colleagues like Gere or Steven Seagal--recently revealed to be the reincarnation of a particularly revered lama--worrying about how his film would portray key moments in the Dalai Lama's life. Pitt himself is not a particularly spiritual person. "I've always paid attention to religion," he says, "because I grew up in a religious background, but I've never felt a part of any of them. I think there's something to be drawn from most of them--other than goat sacrificing." He adds that last part with a minor-key smile that doesn't quite make it through all the paces. (Jackpot! A slipup in front of a reporter! Pitt's movies will now be boycotted by Satanists and practitioners of Santeria!)

Before Seven Years in Tibet, Pitt didn't know much about the country's predominant religion. He picked up a copy of Sogyal Rinpoche's The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, an introduction to the subject, but never cracked it, preferring in the end to enter the project as ignorant as was the character he plays, Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, when he stumbled across the Tibetan border in 1944. But on a movie set stocked with actual monks working as extras, the actor picked up a thing or two. "Their idea of a civilization that rejects violence on principle--I mean, what?" he ejaculates with Jackie Gleasonesque incredulity, feigning the shock of someone raised in a society, like ours, with a less diffident regard for force. "The Tibetans say, 'Don't look at this as our weakness but as our strength. If we bless our enemies, we become stronger.' They say, basically, 'Thank you for allowing me to become a stronger person by taking all the shit you're giving me.' On the streets we'd look at someone like that as a wimp. Tibetans go beyond that. It's not fear. It's just, 'I'm sorry you feel that way [about me being a wimp]. I'm sorry you're spinning in that little mudhole.'" Seagal probably couldn't have said it better.

Pitt brushes off the controversy about Harrer's recently discovered SS past and the resulting news stories that suggested Pitt and director Jean-Jacques Annaud were making some kind of glam hero out of a Nazi scuzzbag. "That's a slant people took before they knew all the information," Pitt complains. "You shouldn't speak until you know what you're talking about. That's why I get uncomfortable with interviews. Reporters ask me what I feel China should do about Tibet. Who cares what I think China should do? I'm a fucking actor! They hand me a script. I act. I'm here for entertainment, basically, when you whittle everything away. I'm a grown man who puts on makeup."

That stark reality didn't protect him from overeager Argentine admirers while shooting Seven Years in Tibet on location in the Andes, which doubled for the Himalayas. By one account, Pitt's living quarters were ringed by young girls chanting, "Ole! Ole, ole, ole! Brad Peeeeet!" "Yeah, yeah, there was that stuff," he says, embarrassed. "Argentina is a place where not many movies come through, so I could have been New Kids on the Block for all they cared. And that stuff never did much for my ego. I mean, when we were kids, my sister had Andy Gibb up on her wall, so that kind of puts it in perspective."

Which, when you think about it--if you think about it--is a not un-Buddhist-like take on the burdens of Brad Pittitude.