This is the life of the reluctant movie star. Despite godlike features, untold riches, and Jennifer Aniston for a ladyfriend, he wants to be a serious actor. Which could be why his latest role is Death himself in Meet Joe Black. Jeff Dawson meets Brad Pitt.

IN MEDIEVAL TIMES, QUACK doctors and suchlike were oft presented with local hags suffering from what was dubbed furore uterinus. This affliction resulted in women frothing at the mouth, babbling hysterically and generally losing all sense of self-respect. The cure-for the lucky ones-was a swift dunk in the local river. For the rest, the only sure remedy was a burning at the stake.

The advance of civilization has rendered such treatments redundant-though one feels compelled, on occasions like these, to lobby for their return , furore uterinus, it seems has been far from eradicated, manifested here in the lobby of the Essex House Hotel, New York City-where, currently, the female half of the international entertainment press corps, is going into a simultaneous screeching frenzy. The reason for such tumult? A blond chap by the name of Brad Pitt is known to be lurking somewhere in the building.

For one middle-aged frump, a brief glimpse is nearly too much.

"His hair's really spiky , really spiky," she babbles ,as if Darling Brad's gone and dunked in the hair gel especially for her.

Now admittedly there's an element of jealousy on Empire's part. Who wouldn't want to be possessed of the ability to induce such swooning in the fairer sex. Were it the case, then Empire, like most blokes, would turn into an egotistical tyrant.

Fortunately, Pitt has had the good sense not soil himself with such behaviour. A while later, though a good 30-odd floors of skyscraper high, he seems as down to earth as one could possibly get.

Dressed in black cashmere sweater, spanking new jeans and a pair of black boots, he enters the hotel suite for his tete-a-tete with Empire, and shakes hands with an assured grip. The hair, verily, is spiky, and the neat little blond goatee adorns the beautiful features.

Though his home state of Missouri is usually lumped in as part of the Midwest, the town where Pitt hails from, Springfield, is only a short hop over the state like from Arkansas, and the Southerness is immediately apparent. Not only in the "aw-shucks" annunciation, but more so in the Sunday school manners mumbling "sir", "ma'am" and "pardon me" like a young Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Pitt enjoys talking about home-his days at the University Of Missouri studying graphic design before dropping out when the acting bug got too itchy; how all 24,000 fellow students now claim him as their best friend; and how the folks from Springfield are all non-specific "mutts", hence his difficulty in getting a handle of ethnic accents.

"I'm really terrible at them. That part where I'm from, it's kind of a hushed monotone," he drawls. "It takes me a lot of work."

Such self-deprecation is refreshing in a star of his magnitude and not a little disarming. Indeed, Pitt's Belfast brogue in The Devil's Own was about the only positive thing in an otherwise horrible movie (such a shame he had to employ the same accent when speaking West Indian in Meet Joe Black-but you can't have everything).

It's this ordinariness that catches reporters out, especially those used to the likes of, say, Julia Roberts-an encounter with whom is so stage-managed you might as well get her publicist to write up the interview for you.

Witness Pitt's biggest profile this year in Vanity Fair magazine, one of only two he's done thus far in 1998, in which the writer goes into great detail about the "heroism" of Pitt because, on the way back to the hotel from a photoshoot, during a rainstorm(that's a slight shower to you and me),Captain Brad took the wheel of the transit van when the driver became "paralysed by fear".

"He actually seemed to enjoy the ordeal," the crazed scribe gibbers, "and later calmly retired to his room to strum his guitar."

Brad's guitar is always used to convey "sensitivity". Sometimes he's in glasses, talking about architecture(cultured).On other occasions they mention his love for his mother, who often travels with him(sweet).But you can't really dress him up. Unlike Keanu Reeves, there's no craving for Shakespeare. Unlike Johnny Depp, no ambitions to make movies himself.

"I don't want to direct", says Pitt, "I don't wanna direct and I don't wanna write." The only thoughts on his craft are cloaked with acute embarrassment.

"I'm wondering about a more spontaneous, free-form style of acting", he offers, awkwardly." But, I mean, it's actor bullshit talk. It all comes out the same way."

In the course of our conversation, one piece of homespun philosophy perhaps sums up Pitt better than any other.

"My dad told me always to keep a spare roll of toilet paper in the car and never drive with a coke can between your legs."

For a moment, the way he says it, "coke can" sounds like "cocaine", but alas, there'll be no dark secrets divulged.

"You guys gotta find something interesting to write about and the truth is, most of us are pretty boring," Pitt mumbles. "You know, you hope you come off nice. But sometimes you don't, sometimes you come off like a moron. The truth is you probably were a moron that day. When it drags is when someone gets their feelings hurt because of something I said."

Which is partly why he doesn't do many interviews (Pitt's audience with Empire is a UK magazine exclusive, by the way. Any others you read have been cobbled together from cuttings).

"Because there's just no way to get it all right," he continues. "We only got a few minutes, how we gonna get in 34 years of my life?"

Are we too obsessed with celebrity? Brad Pitt shakes his head and reflectively rubs the back of his neck. "I don't know, I really don't know. Would I be here if we weren't?"

WAY BELOW THE HOTEL SUITE, ON A bright winter afternoon, the tail-end runners are limping along Central Park South in the final stretch of the New York Marathon, before snaking off into the park itself. The cheers of the well-wishers waft up to our lofty perch. At the race's five hour mark, it's a traditional phase in the race where the elderly and the blistered make way for the people dressed as chickens. This is not an irrelevant aside, for as the Brad Pitt legend would have it, Golden Boy's first gainful occupation in LA was spent dressed as a giant cockerel, handing out lists of "today's specials" outside a fast food chain called El Pollo Loco.

A TV soap opera soon followed, small film parts, and then Thelma And Louise. Without the latter, life might have been oh-so different. Johnny Suede, Pitt's superb independent starrer, might have sent him on a course more akin to that of his big mate Dermot Mulroney. But that's all conjecture. Once Brad's farm big grin got plastered all over the shop, not to mention that Levi's ad-Pitt prancing about to T. Rex's 20th Century Boy-the gig was up. From then on it was merely a short hop to the rank of World's Sexiest Man. Interviews with Pitt will never stay far from this honorary status, especially now that he has, famously, split from his long time squeeze, Gwyneth Paltrow. Everyone, it seems, wants to know who Brad's doing it with next.

The current bet is Jennifer Aniston, with whom Pitt was snapped-in full nuzzling, hair-stroking mode-at a Freedom For Tibet concert in the summer. Such is the mania for all things Brad that the bloke who took the picture has syndicated the rights to it over 2,000 times, tame though it is when compared with those famous snaps of Pitt and Paltrow romping sans underwear in the Caribbean.

"At first I didn't know what to do," says Pitt, recounting his early brushes with the paparazzis. "I found it very confusing. That was a weird time, but you start making adjustments to see what works because you don't wanna hide out, you wanna enjoy your life. You know, it's the life I chose. Just kinda roll with it."

Pitt won't talk about Aniston, but until he does, female journalists will continue to fantasise in print.(To wit, the second Brad Pitt interview of the year, in Harper's Bazaar ,refers to him as "The Great Hunky One".)

The Great Hunky One still shies away from all this Love God stuff ("Well, I just don't want the emphasis to be on that, it just feels cheap").But after a while, as he knows, such talk can become tiresome("I just stopped fighting. It's just gonna be what it is").

As one young actor said recently: "I hate the whole reluctant sex symbol thing. It's such bullshit. You see these dudes, greased up, in their underwear, talking about how they don't want to be a sex symbol." The fact that that actor is Ben Affleck, the very fellow with whom Gwyneth Paltrow is now ensconced, is neither here or there, but you get the point. So, long gone are the antics designed to debunk Pitt's pretty boy image (a.k.a. the Juliette Lewis years), like his ill-advised "Jesus" look, the long hair and beard worn more or less to snub those who had overlooked the serious business of acting.

"What's my Jesus look? When I was wearing the thorny crown?" Pitt joshes, when Empire puts it to him that he might now, in hindsight, regard said deportment too fondly. "Do I regret it? No, just another incarnation for a while."

His films have reflected that attitude, with Brad avoiding the obvious romantic leading roles, going instead for offbeat parts in films like Kalifornia, Interview With The Vampire, Seven. Sleepers and Twelve Monkeys, a film which vindicated his more eccentric leanings with his first Oscar nomination. Even the fly-fishing epic, A River Runs Through It-Pitt as beaming Redford clone-pitched him as the bad brother. The oft-confused Legends Of The Fall, the nearest you'll get to a cinematic Athena poster, treated us to the bizarre spectacle of Pitt galloping his trusty charger about the battlefields of The Somme, non-regulation flaxen mane a following (Pitt's, not the horse's).

Still, all of the above took a ton of money. Recently, things have gone a little awry, with The Devil's Own and Seven Years In Tibet-filmed, it felt, in real time. It may come as a surprise, then that Meet Joe Black, is Pitt's first straight romantic lead. Straight if you ignore the fact that he's playing Death. At last , Pitt the matinee idol. "I'm not quite sure how it happened, really," he muses. "The one thing I don't like because they spend so much money, there's more pressure on what it's gonna be. You know, people have invested a lot of money and they need to get it back "Art versus business."

Pitt starts to speak more diplomatically. "I chose this one because of the story, " he adds." It reflected what I believed and it was fulfilling to me. Love and loss and what that is and what you have to do to deal with it."

He is perfectly nice about the film, though you sense that he's not 100 per cent behind it. "I'm actually more comfortable when the movie ends," he says, though instantly clarifies that this is a reference to filming in general, not Meet Joe Black specifically." Just the standard 14-hour days at a six month stretch. I'm ready to move on actually." Pitt was far less kind about The Devil's Own, the late Alan Pakula's unfortunate swansong. So down-to-earth and unsplattered with "actor bullshit" is Pitt that he trashed that film before it opened, doing as much as anything else to cause it to go belly-up (another reason why his people are so sparing in his dealings with the press). You can judge for yourself about Meet Joe Black.

A favourite role of his is Floyd, the stoned hippy in True Romance, a character reportedly based on a mate who came to crash on Pitt's sofa and ended up staying for months.

"I had a great time doing that one," he chirps, and goes into enthusiastic detail about how he and director Tony Scott created the character's detail, right down to the amusing "honey bear" pipe through which Floyd smokes his dope.

"I was in a head shop recently and they had these honey bear bongs there, " Pitt chuckles proudly, before backtracking to explain that he as merely browsing. His obvious pangs for the offbeat are why he's currently filming Fight Club, a bare-knuckle boxing flick with Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter. Pitt genuinely raves about Norton's performance, though already the biggest talking point of this production is that Beautiful Brad voluntarily had a front tooth chipped off for his part (since re-capped).

"I know it sounds crazy but it made sense to me," he says." People walk into a movie theatre and there's baggage that comes with me, from all the things they've seen and read and it's good to have that little twist, that change."

And there we go again, the image thing. In speaking to a big star, one often casts around for some second opinion-a pointless exercise as the referees are hardly likely to knock Hollywood royalty. Anthony Hopkins, who's worked with Pitt twice (Meet Joe Black and Legends Of The Fall),makes a joke-"I said, 'Can't you do something about your hair and your looks? Can't you get the make-up guys to do something?'" Claire Forlani, the love interest in Meet Joe Black, does the Ordinary Joe thing-"His humility surprised me. He's very humble and incredibly smart." Harrison Ford, Pitt's co-star in The Devil's Own, is more cryptic-"As an actor," he says, "I really enjoyed working with him."

The day after meeting Brad, Empire encounters Brenda Blethyn, in New York to promote Little Voice. In A River Runs Through It, she played Pitt's mum-"He was a lot of fun, a really nice bloke," she says." That was before he was Brad Pitt."

Perhaps the most profound words come from wise old bird, Morgan Freeman, Pitt's co-star on Seven, there when the Sexiest Man Alive tag was bestowed." He knows it will pass," says Freeman, smiling wryly. You get the feeling it wouldn't bother Pitt, if it did, either.

"In Buddhism," says Pitt, "the three terrible karmas are Fame, Beauty and Fortune. These are the three worst obstacles to achieving enlightenment. That's really funny."