For Brad Pitt, it's all about `the search.'

`The search for why you're here, what you're doing and who you are,' he says.

And part of this search for self, he says, is that he refuses to make any excuses for his foibles and past mistakes, or blame anyone else, even the star-maker machinery that put him where he is, or the media hordes that dog him constantly, looking to spin the complexities of his life into simplistic sound bites.

`It's hard not to believe the hype, the good and the bad,' Pitt says, gently tugging scruffy chin whiskers. `It's hard not to get sucked into it, and if you get sucked into the good it means you're going to get sucked into the bad.'

In town for the premiere of `Meet Joe Black' -- an engrossing remake of `Death Takes a Holiday' -- the actor who vaulted to superstardom as the scene-stealing hitchhiker in ``Thelma and Louise'' remains baffled by his celebrity.

`I don't know what fame is, first of all. I have no idea,' Pitt says, casually dressed in blue jeans, a T-shirt and a steel-gray pullover. `I could never have been prepared for it, for the mind games that come with it.'

When lightning struck, he was blinded.

`It was just a confusing, confusing time. And it's still confusing,' he says. `People are telling you that you're much better than you certainly feel and people are saying you're much worse than you certainly are. And you're just trying to find out who ... you are.'

Playing Death in the Martin Brest film opposite Anthony Hopkins, Pitt gives a subtle, restrained performance of an omnipotent spirit suddenly curious about the intricacies of the human lives he has ended for millennia.

`My stuff to this stage has been very hit and miss,' Pitt says. `I want to keep zeroing in on the bull's-eye. I certainly have my moments, but there's a giving up completely to the part which I've only felt a few times. There's a focus I lack, at times.'

Shunning the ease of playing stereotypical matinee heroes, Pitt's work has ranged from the lovable but doomed fly fisherman of `A River Runs Through It' to the psychotic killer of `Kalifornia.' He was the reluctant creature of the night in `Interview With the Vampire,' the babbling maniac of `12 Monkeys,' the Austrian mountaineer of `Seven Years in Tibet.'' He also received an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in ``Legends of the Fall.'

But his resume isn't always what people want to talk -- or read -- about. It's his love life that lures readers.

Pitt is reluctant to discuss his personal life, fearing a repeat of what he went through with ex-fiancee Gwyneth Paltrow. A worldwide audience followed the couple's every move, at first sighing over their storybook romance, then clucking and wagging fingers over their sad breakup.

Now he's dating actress Jennifer Aniston, and being scolded by gossip columnists for not posing for pictures with her at the premiere of `Meet Joe Black.'

`Hollywood is a minefield,' is all Pitt has to say on the subject, cradling a Marlboro Light between his fingertips, watching blue smoke rise toward the ceiling.

While accepting the reality of his fame, such a reality doesn't always sit right with the corn-fed son of Middle America who spent nearly four years studying in the journalism school at the University of Missouri.

`The main thing I remember is the code -- the code that journalists are bound to write unbiased accounts of people, places and events,' he says. `That's always stuck with me. It's a lofty code. It's tough to be unbiased, I mean who could actually be unbiased? But as a goal, that's what always kept popping up in my head when the crazy gossip that spins out of control would come out about me. `Too often, it comes from what I believe to be petty people. I mean, I just can't see someone as a kid going, `When I grow up I'm going to write terrible things about people and print them.'

After experiencing the best and the worst of society's infatuation with celebrities, Pitt is philosophical about how it can affect humanity as a whole.

`The real evil of it is just that it brings us down little by little, where we don't notice, but it just brings us down a notch,' he says, paraphrasing a tract from the movie `Broadcast News.'

`I think a line must be drawn in the press between what's rumored and what's opinion and what's fact. Most things are just opinion and they're printed up as fact. Unfortunately, people don't look that far. They just take what comes in little quotation marks as gospel.

`Innocents become scapegoats all the time,' he says. `I feel what's personal relationship-wise should be kept that way.'

And then Pitt turns to the constitutionally protected right to privacy, and details the types of intrusions Hollywood stars endure.

`Certainly the founding forefathers never could have foreseen telephoto lenses and helicopters and things of this sort that made it OK for someone to stand on the street to shoot through your bedroom window. I got nailed with that,' he says, referring to nude photos of him that he fought in court to keep out of Playgirl magazine.

`The feelings would be the closest thing I could understand to rape. It's just a creepy, creepy feeling to think you have this freedom and this privacy and then find out you're being observed or followed. It starts breeding paranoia.'

On a somewhat lighter note, Pitt admits hearing the ticking of a personal clock as he approaches his 35th birthday in mid-December.

`It's hard, very hard. But with years come wisdom, a little more every year,' he says, seeing a bright side to the ravages of time. `I like not being a kid anymore, there's less confusion.

`There's a great line in 'Fight Club,' he says, referring to the boxing film he's making with Edward Norton. `This is your life and it's ending one day at a time.' Nothing lasts. I think about it in terms about not wasting a day. More now, and more every day.'

Pitt relishes the wealth and freedom to travel that movie stardom brings.

`But there's a whole new set of concerns that comes with money, you know -- who's ripping you off, who thinks they hit the lottery because they're going to make a deal with you. You've always got to deal with the mistrust thing, and there's some resentment.'

Citing his passions for architecture and music, Pitt struggles to describe the driving force in his life.

`Complete vision, complete total and unique vision. It's about how you want to live your life,' he says, fidgeting with restless energy. `You don't have to accept what you're given. There are new ways. We can find new ways to live.'

Then he falls back on the sofa and laughs at himself and his seriousness.

`The only thing that life has taught me up to this point is that anything can happen,' he says, still chuckling. `And everything can change at any given moment.

`Hey listen, it's a work in progress. The truth is that we're all works in progress until the day we go.'