Brad Pitt swishes down the Lisbon streets, one more American on vacation. In his hand he carries a camera, which he shoots from waist height. "I learned a few tricks from the papara*holes," he announces. "The paparnazis. They all look alike to me - horns and a pointed tail and a big Cyclops eye. . . ." He snaps a ragged, down-and-out Portuguese man on a bench and pushes through a flock of pigeons, a little disappointed that the birds, with their seen-it-all urban ways, are too underwhelmed to scatter in front of the lens. Instead they nonchalantly hop out of his path, and he swishes onward.

It is the last week of May. "I'm unemployed, andJen's on a break," Pitt says, "so we thought we'd travel." He describes his state of mind: "I'm on the move. I'm in the ramble-on state of mind. Just, you know . . . on the search. On the . . ." - he pronounces this last word as French - ". . .Exploration." I ask him what he's looking for. "Just playing," he says. "Just seeing how other people live, that's all. Other people's cultures." Pitt has not acted since David Fincher's Fight Club, a remarkable film - out this month - in which Pitt and Edward Norton play the co-founders of an underground group in which willing men beat one another with bare fists to rediscover feeling in themselves. Having turned down roles in films from Robert Redford and Cameron Crowe, Pitt has no jobs in the pipeline. "I just go with the flow pretty much," he says. "I'm enjoying floating, too, man."

Pitt seems relaxed. His girlfriend, Jennifer Aniston, is back in the hotel and will not be seen today, but the very fact that he mentions her so readily - and that he is happy to meet up during their European break - marks quite a change from the blinds-down, determined privacy behind which they have previously shuttered their relationship. "We did well for a while there," he says. "We just didn't participate. We just wanted to see if something was going to grow on its own without any outside influence. We just wanted to keep it special. Keep it ours."

Right now, Pitt's plan is to go to an art-deco cafe he spotted earlier from their car. He heads down the long road toward it, moving swiftly. If anyone half-recognizes him, he is gone before the photo-fit match is completed. If you are famous like Pitt, you adopt smart tactics. You learn that the best way to see a city is on a bicycle - you can out-pedal any pedestrian attention and cut away to places where the paparazzi cars can't follow. But even on foot, there are useful strategies. "Good hats," he says. (Today he's in a floppy-rimmed Puma number.) "You've got to switch the hats. You've got to have some good glasses and stay on the move." Mostly, Pitt and Aniston have been doing all right.

Pitt: I'm a little more concerned about it than when I'm on my own. Because I don't want...[His voice trails off]

Me: It's called chivalry.

Pitt: No, it's called...[Pitt gets this far through the sentence and stops, as though he realizes he has a decision to make. And he makes it.] I suppose.

Me: Well, there's nothing wrong with that.

Pitt: No, there's not. Absolutely not. [More confident] Absolutely not. [Grins] Greatest thing in the world. On the record, I say that.

In the cafe, a Portuguese woman comes to the table and asks whether he is Brad Pitt."No", Pitt replies, though not in an unfriendly manner, and she backs away. He tells me that when he is asked that question, he usually replies, "No - - not today" Anyway, later, when another person approaches with the different opening line, "You make film of Tibet?" he nods and happily signs a shirt.

We are alone. Pitt glances suspiciously at what lies between us on the table, as though it's always the inconsiderate, tattle-telling interloper that spoils a good conversation. "The dreaded tape recorder," he says, fingering it. "I'm going to point the evil red light facing your way." He hunches down a little bit and stares at me. "What's your angle? You gotta find something?" As I will learn, his faith in this form of communication is not great. Maybe he has his reasons. In our times together, Pitt and I will each have our faith stretched; it is perhaps best simply to relate it as it happens.

To begin with, we talk about Pitt's other passion, architecture. This is not a flighty celebrity hobby. Back in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri, Pitt and his father are developing a subdivision with forty or fifty houses. Fighting the hegemony of the strip mall. "We're going to do something where everybody's got land and space," Pitt says. A way of living where "we don't completely have to destroy and manipulate nature." In California he is working, in a more hands on way, on personal architectural projects of his own.

Me: Do you physically draw stuff up?

Pitt: Yeah. Oh yeah. I'm in a frenzy. I want to build cities! I'm quite mad with it.

Me: So what would Bradville be like?

Pitt: It wouldn't be called Bradville. I'll tell you that right now.

Me: I know. What does this fantasy city look like?

Pitt: Seriously? A plethora....listen, I've been drawing for the last decade. Chairs to cities. Most of it's crap - some of it's really good.

Me: Do you show it to people?

Pitt: Not really. Because they'll be a time when I do it. [There are other, connected, half formulated ambitions. He says he'd like to have a chair museum "based on the craftsman and design aesthetics."]

Pitt has an observation he chooses to share. "I've noticed," he says "that if I was ever in a chaotic relationship, I was always into very linear thinking, very proportion - divided - off, very strict, almost like Frank Lloyd Wright, in a sense. In this relationship thing I'm in now, I find myself going more toward the whimsical, this free flowing, free - form architecture. I respond more to cleanness and a modern perspective. Instead of darkness now I go more light. Light rooms"

Me: So your taste in architecture reflects your spirit at the time?

Pitt: Yeah, absolutely. Because if you look at Frank Lloyd Wright, he had a terrible family life. Chaotic. Horrendous. He couldn't get it together. And out of that, I feel, came this strict perspective where things are very orderly.

Me: If your taste in architecture reflects your emotional state, does the way that you act do too?

Pitt: Absolutely. One hundred percent. Like the rainbow trout; You pull 'em out of water, and if they're out of their element too long, they start losing their rainbow stripes. Same thing.

Me: [A little confused] So what's your equivalent of being out of water?

Pitt:That's doing something other than what you are. [Pause] right?

Me: Does that mean you become a worse actor when your personally unhappy?

Pitt: No, it's just a different slant on the world, you know. [Reconsiders this] Me, particularly, I think I become worse. [Duells a moment longer] I don't go for that whole argument that you have to be miserable to create great art. Listen, I'll put on a Doors record any day on a road trip, but you can't maintain it, that's the problem. Jim Morrison couldn't maintain it.

On this road trip, Pitt and Aniston have been listening to Everlast and Lenny Kravitz, and dipping their toes into Cornershop. Sometimes they turn on the TV "The other night" Pitt says "we were flicking channels, and we saw Amigos." They have to check into hotels under assumed names. In Portugal, they are the Vegases; Pitt is Ross Vegas. "I love when they call up:'Something for the Vegases,' " he says. Pitt has also been Abe Froman ("The sausage king of Chicago.....a Ferris Bueller reference"), Lance Boyle ("a little disgusting") and Bryce Pilaf ("one of my personal favorites. As in rice pilaf")

Back home in Los Angeles, Pitt has a stalker. She was arrested in his house. You've probably seen her on TV or read interviews with her.

Me: It must be weird to have a stalker who does more interviews than you do.

Pitt: That's the way of the world, you know. That's the way of the world.

Me: It must creep the shit out of you, someone getting into your house and sleeping in your bed.

Pitt: I would think so. But who wants to hear me complain? What's the point? I don't have a say. It doesn't surprise me. It doesn't alarm me, either. It's gross, and it's what I expect.

Before Pitt and Aniston reached Portugal, they visited the great cities of Andalusia in southern Spain. In Granada, the paparazzi found them at the Alhambra, the grand Moorish palace, and they agreed to pose together for 50 minutes if they were then left alone. "Then they'd fuck off," Pitt says, "and you'd find them in the bushes half an hour later, because they've got to get that pic with us picking our nose or scratching our sweaty crack." The attention was bearable until they reached Seville, where there was such a scrabble of people around them that they had to give up. To avoid further attention, they headed off in a car at four in the morning (this is what money and fame get you: to do a little sightseeing, you have to wake up in the middle of the night). In Portugal, so far, they remain undetected. Early tomorrow, they will take a private plane to Morocco.

These Spanish photos of Pitt and Aniston will soon appear all over American tabloids, alongside the latest rumors about the couple. They are forever about to be married - never nearly true, Pitt insists. "It's just a weekly barrage," he says. "You know they have a perception of Jen from the show and they take her character as being man-needy, and so they present her that way, chasing, and that I don't want to get....." - he lets this thought hang - ".......and they create this whole scenario, and then they say we're getting married, and because I did a movie about Tibet, and because she's Greek, we're going to have a Tibetan - slash - Greek wedding, and we're going to ride yaks into the sunset."

Me: I'd just assumed that was all true.

Pitt: Yeah. And that I'm hung like a yeti.

Pitt tells me this: "....I used to have this dream where everyone was using my toothbrush, and I'd come in and either someone I didn't know was in the process of using my toothbrush or someone I knew let someone use my toothbrush. And then a couple of years ago I started having a dream that someone was using my toothbrush - this is such a, who's that guy, Richard Bach dream - but that....." -he laughs - ".....I had all these other toothbrushes at my disposal and I didn't know I had them. Dissect that one."

The truth is, I am embarrassed to.

Me: Before I jump in, do you have any theories what it's about?

Pitt: Yeah, oh, that one's pretty blatant, isn't it? That was pretty much a fame dream, wasn't it?

Me: [Nervously] I think I'm right in saying that Freud thought, in dream analysis, that things to do with teeth tend to be about sex....

Pitt: Freud was pretty awesome, because he brought it into the mainstream, psychoanalysis, but I think he was off, a lot of his theories.....

Me: Yes, but I believe the classic teeth - falling - out dream is supposed to be fear of sexual dysfunction.

Pitt: Really? But again, this is with toothbrushes.

Me: Yes. makes it a very strange dream.

Pitt: [Pauses. I presume he is thinking through the dream. We will be discussing it no more.] All right. I'll take your definition and we'll let it sit there.

Recently, Pitt says he's been having comedy dreams. Sometimes he laughs in his sleep. Pitt tells me that he is happy. And then, almost as soon as he has told me this, he begins to worry about it. (It doesn't take much to get him worried.) His imagination begins rolling away with itself, scaring him as it goes. "I just saw a dreadful title," he says. "Brad Pitt Talks About His Happiness.' Listen man, it's all up and down. It's all up and down."

I nod vaguely, wondering why he's saying this, but then, he says something strange and interesting.

"Your talking to a guy," Pitt begins, "who's always had this kind of congenital sadness. I don't know where it came from. I don't know what it is - the state of the world, the state of yourself. I don't know. I had a very easy childhood, deprived of nothing per se, so, you know...." -and, not knowing, I wait, and he shrugs - "....I mean, turn on the news man."

Me: So your less sad now?

Pitt: I've got reins on it. Awww, man, listen. I see it in so many people. I just always had so many questions growing up; why this, why the state of the world, why does God want this? Congenital sadness. It always came up, for no reason. I don't know what it is.

Me: And you've had the same as an adult?

Pitt: I always had periods. I always had times.

Me: Obviously, people who read about you from a distance.......

Pitt: [Nods] "You've got it made" Listen, I also live the life of a rock star.

Me: The only bad thing they think they know is that you might have had a couple of love affairs that didn't work out.

Pitt: I know. [Exasperated] Christ. I wish they'd leave it alone. Everybody's got 'em.

Me: But they can't think of anything else bad that's happened to you.

Pitt: Yeah. It's a mystery to me, too. It's an enigma.

Pitt is wearing a blue top with a slit at the front in the center which hangs open nearly halfway down his torso. As we talk, he is forever putting his hands inside his top, rubbing his chest. "I'll tell you what I've learned in my span of dating," he says "The dating spans of goods and bads. If Madonna's Truth or Dare Is her favorite, run. Run. If she was taking notes during the Sharon Stone cross - your - legs scene in that hit movie Basic Stinky, run. Run!"

A while later, Pitt returns to the subject of love and happiness, "It's not love itself that to me brings on happiness," he says. "I'm just saying more perspective. I'm not saying I'm any happier or ..... sadder."

Me: [Confused] But your saying that right now your in love or whatever, and it's a good thing.

Pitt: [Laughs] I guess it could be reduced to that. OK. [Forcefully] Love doesn't guarantee happiness. Where are we going here man? what's going on? [Laughs] This is turning into a debacle.

Me: [Persisting nonetheless] Before you were in love, were you expecting to be in love?

Pitt: Of course. Of course. What's the point of going on if your not?

Me: But if you walk around when your not in love expecting to be in love, it can ruin everything.

Pitt: I don't understand. No. No. You just know it's going to happen.

Me: How do you know?

Pitt: Jesus - you know; I mean, you stick around long enough, it's bound to happen, is it not? I'm not saying I was pinning for it. Listen, this L word, it's so abused and bastardized, you've got to have a fair understanding of yourself before you can experience any of that.....

Me: And what do you understand about yourself?

Pitt: [Long pause] I just stepped in a pile there. I'm really, truthfully, not good at explaining myself. I don't know how to say it without being preachy or pedantic. God, I hate saying this, but I'm a pretty decent guy. Growing up, I always judged things according to how I would behave in that situation, and I was a naive kid because I really believed....... I've just come to understand that people don't think like I do.

Pitt, 35, grew up in Missouri. At the age of twenty-one, he got into a car and drove to Los Angeles to become an actor. And that is what he became.

Me: What smell makes you think of your childhood?

Pitt: A nice big fart.

Pitt's first memories are unusually precocious. "I have moments when I can see when I was a baby," he says. "Under two. I just remember moments, flavors, like highlights from a football game. Sweet flavors, bitter flavors." He's been thinking about his formative years a lot recently. Reading serious psychology books. Cleaning house inside his head. Figuring stuff out. (But don't ask anymore. Please. "That's something truly I just wouldn't talk about," he says. "I just feel like it would all get corroded.")

When Pitt talks about his childhood, the details are usually slight. Though the bonds still seem to be strong between him and his family, I suspect that, to an unusual extent, he had to completely leave the world he grew up in - the eternal one as well as the external one - to become who he has become. There is one subject he refers to time and time again, and that is religion. "I would call it oppression," he says, "because it stifles any kind of personal individual freedom. I dealt with a lot of that, and my family would diametrically disagree with me on all of that."

It's only when we later drift into an unlikely debate about one of the New Testament parables that I realize just how different a kind of God Pitt grew up with. To him, the parable of the prodigal son is an authoritarian tale told to keep people in line. "This," he explains, "is a story which says, if you go out and try to find what works for you, then you are going to be destroyed and you will be humbled and you will not be alive again until you come home to the father's ways." It is not hard to see how he relates this to his own departure westward. When I ask whether he thought he would come back, he says, "I never thought past the leaving."

Pitt's movie career has gone from the first blush of success in 1991's Thelma and Louise to star vehicles (A River Runs Through It, Interview With A Vampire, Legends Of The Fall, Seven), a 1996 Oscar nomination for Twelve Monkeys and the inevitable backlash for stuttering blockbusters such as The Devil's Own, Seven Years In Tibet, and Meet Joe Black, in which he played Death. Pitt affects to take those career swings with a pinch of salt. "Think of how it was in high school," he says. "To me it's all high school."

Me: When Meet Joe Black came out, you got a pretty stinky ride.

Pitt: [Smiles] Oh, yeah. We got slaughtered on it.

Me: Were you hurt?

Pitt: No, I just figured it was my turn. Listen, I didn't agree with most of it. I like the pace of Meet Joe Black. I think it got a little long-winded. But so what? It's not infallible. It's art. I don't think it deserves a beating from people who don't make things. If Marty [Brest, the director] had made the same movie with someone else, it wouldn't have got the flogging it got.

Me: So don't you then think, "Why do they want to have a go at me?"

Pitt: Because, look, I represent the guy who's got everything. I deserve a beating, you know what I'm saying?

Me: But you don't agree, presumably?

Pitt: Well, I'm not that guy. But I see that guy out there sometimes - what he's turned into - and, you know, I want to beat him up. I want to slap him. The me out there [ he points across the room, where no one is ] who's not me.

Me: What does he look like?

Pitt: [ Pauses, then grins ] He's pretty good-looking.

Me: [ Laughing ] They're going to kill you for that.

Pitt: Listen, they're going to kill me anyway, so I might as well give them some.

Pitt mentions that on the set they referred to the film as Meet Joe's crack, just as The Devil's Own was known as The Devil's Shitbox. "I have them for all movies," he says. "It's a term of endearment." He won't tell me what they called Fight Club. "I've got to let that one sit - that one wasn't PG." He says that he is now considering doing a comedy with Aniston, Waking Up In Reno.

Me: You've never really done funny funny.

Pitt: [ Dryly ] Not really. I've only done depressing depressing.

Me: But you fancy it?

Pitt: Yeah. It would have to be original, though. I read so many of the same stories and I can't do them anymore. It's like Leading Man Guy. The Leading Man is truly one character - the guy who figures things out [ Laughs ]. He's MacGyver, that's what it is. And there's a handful of us, and any one of us [ can do it ]. It's really not so fulfilling anymore.

Me: What's the typical script?

Pitt: Oh, you know, the guy who does the right thing, saves the babe. You know exactly what I'm talking about......These are traps I've tried to avoid in Hollywood. The inevitable fight against becoming a personality, you know?

Me: What's a "personality"?

Pitt: People who you know too much about - too much useless information.

Me: Do you spend much time thinking about this kind of thing?

Pitt: Awww, I spend a lot of time thinking, period. It'll probably be my demise. I think too much, certainly. I don't trust where my mind goes when it goes into those places.

Me: So you've had more luck with instinct?

Pitt: Oh, absolutely, 100 percent. At this point, I'm clear about when I can trust my mind and when I can't.

Me: When can't you trust your mind?

Pitt: [ Exasperated ] Come on! There's always the next question, man. Come on. That was such a great capper, man. I don't want to explain anymore. I'll sound like Tony Robbins.

Me: Well, that's your perogative. It's my prerogative to dig and it's yours to take the shovel out of my hand.

Pitt: All right. Fantastic.

[ A few minutes later ]

Me: What do people commonly misunderstand about you?

Pitt: Next. Next. That's a no winner. Throwing out the shovel.

[ And... ] Me: Which drugs would you never take?

Pitt: Throwing out the shovel. Shovel out of your hands.

[ And... ] Me: When did you last use a vacuum cleaner?

Pitt: about three weeks ago, I broke a glass. I knocked it off. [ Puzzled ] What do you want? [ Perplexed ] There's no good story there.

Fight Club

David Fincher's adaptation of Chuck Palahuniuk's 1996 novel seems to have engaged Pitt on a level beyond personality. The film, closely based on the book, details the strange relationship between an unnamed narrator ( Norton ) and a mysterious provocateur called Tyler Durden ( Pitt ). The fight club itself is only a part of a thrilling, complicated cocktail in which modern consumerist values, nihilism, messed-up notions of gender identity and warped personal psychology all beat unstably against one another. It's funny, it's sick, and it's smart.

Fincher, who worked with Pitt on Seven, knew from the moment he finished the book that Pitt should play Tyler. "It's probably a character that's closer to Brad in real life than most people would be comfortable knowing," Fincher suggests. "There is a childlike sense of anarchy to things that interest Brad. He is a kind of a shit stirrer and one of those people who is 'Huh? Is that the current thinking? I don't really buy that. I have to think about it more, but it seems like bullshit to me.'......I think he understood the themes of emasculation and disenfranchisement, as odd as that may seem. I think there's a side of him that said, 'OK, I relate.' "

When we talk, Pitt quotes approvingly the Tyler line, "I feel sorry for those guys packing into gyms trying to look like Calvin Klein told them they should look like." When I suggest that, willingly or not, he's surely a kind of poster boy for that kind of image, he scoffs.

"I've always been on a slow suicide route," he insists. "I mean, what is this?" He holds up his cigarette. "When I started, this was cool. Now it's a crutch. And I eat crap. I'm one of those guys you hate because of genetics. It's the truth."

In Portugal, for no particular reason other than that I was interested, I asked what Pitt had thought of The Game, the Michael Douglas movie that Fincher made between their two collaborations.

"I liked it," Pitt answered. I like ours better, but come one. Do you know how tough it is to make one good film, for all the elements to come together? It's a miracle in itself. And anyone who has had one touch of greatness, they can go do anything else in the world."

Me: How many times do you think you've touched that?

Pitt: I think I've only grazed it a couple of times. Just elbowed it.

Me: When?

Pitt: [ Shakes his head ] I won't.

Disappointingly but predictably, there have been storm clouds gathering over Fight Club. Especially since columbine. It is a film that includes home bomb-making and anit-corporate terrorism. I tell Pitt that this is exactly the kind of movie about which President Clinton might argue: What's the point of entertainment that just shows lots of very nasty things happening to lots of very unlovable people without any moral redemption?

"Well, that's the whole question of 'What is art?" says Pitt. "There's art that's meant to just take us away, let us forget our troubles, and when we're right back where we were. That is definitely not Fight club. Or there are things that push the buttons. That speak some kind of truth. Like Radiohead. [ During the filming, Pitt listened to plenty of his current favorite group, Radiohead. Particularly their third album, OK Computer, which he considered to have many parallels with fight club. ] What is so important about Radiohead is that they are the Kafka and the Beckett of our generation. Thom Yorke and the rest of Radiohead are precisely that. What comes out in them I don't think is anything they could actually articulate, but I would certainly say that it's that which we all know is true somewhere when we're in our deepest sleep. That is their importance, and this movie hits on the same level. Listen, I know we're going to get hung up in the morality net somewhere, and I think that would be a shame, because they're missing the whole point."

Me: to play devil's advocate, what is the point that they're missing?

Pitt: The point is, the question has to be asked: "What track are we on?" Tyler starts out in the movie saying, "Man, I know all these things are supposed to seem important to us - the car, the condo, our versions of success - but if that's the case, why is the general feeling out there reflecting more impotence and isolation and desperation and loneliness?" If you ask me, I say "Toss all this, we gotta find something else." Because all I know is at this point in time, we are heading for a dead end, a numbing of the soul, a complete atrophy of the spiritual being. And I don't want that.

Me: So if we're heading toward this kind of existential dead end in society, what do you think should happen?

Pitt: Hey, man, I don't have those answers yet. The emphasis now is on success and personal gain. [ Smiles ] I'm sitting in it, and I'm telling you, that's not it. Whether you want to listen to me or not - and I say to the reader - that's not it.

Me: But, and I'm glad you said it first, people will read your saying that and think....

Pitt: I'm the guy who's got everything. I know. But I'm telling you, once you get everything, then your just left with yourself. I've said it before and I'll say it again: It doesn't help you sleep any better, and you don't wake up any better because of it. Now, no one's going to want to hear that. I understand it. I'm sorry I'm the guy who's got to say it. But I'm telling you.

For Fight Club, Pitt's head was shaved. "It felt great," he says. "Best haircut I've ever had."

I ask where he had it done.

"Awww," says Pitt. He shakes his head. He's worried about answering. "Because," he explains, "it's going to be a cute little moment."

You could share one cute little moment, I tease.

"I don't want cute moments, man! I want to be mean and ugly." He relents. "No, Jen shaved it. We had a laugh. Please don't make it a cute moment. Just say she shaved me - that's it."

"We wanted to shave his head even more, so he had pimples on top of his head and stuff but...," [ Fox 2000 executive ] Laura Ziskin was adverse to this idea. 'Don't make him ugly!' she said. 'You broke his teeth, you shave his head - oh my God, what are you doing?' "

Pitt has learned from experience one preposterous sub-detail about modern fame. "What's funny," he says "is every time I have dyed my hair lighter, they make a stink about it. Any time I dye my hair dark, which I've done just as many times, it's never mentioned."

That's an interesting observation, I note, which few men are in a position to make.

"It's true," says Pitt. "Then you see the absurdity. That's my life, man. That's my life."

The photographs that accompany this story were taken during this period, at Pitt's instigation, with him wearing a dress. He is extremely reluctant to discuss this.

Me: why are you reluctant?

Pitt: There's nothing to talk about. What am I going to do - keep doing the same thing? I couldn't just sit there and be pretty guy again.....Truthfully, I don't know what the hell I was doing. It just felt better than anything else.

Me: How did the idea come into your head?

Pitt: I have no idea. [ Smiles ] I think that dress looked pretty damn good.

Me: Did it feel good?

Pitt: Not necessarily. Got a little more ballroom dancing room.

Me: Have you slipped into many frocks before?

Pitt: No, I can't say I have....Funnily enough, I was quite serious about it. I just wanted it to work.

Me: [ Teasing ] You obviously felt like a hot sexy thing.

Pitt: I wouldn't say that. We just wanted to create some other world - some alternative to modern living.

"From the first - time discussion I had with Brad about it, I felt an intense finishing' each - others - sentences kind of synergy with the material" says Edward Norton. "I think we all felt that in Chuck's book there was a real crystallization and articulation of a lot of things that hadn't been named in most of the contemporary art of our generation. Brad and I talked about it a lot - the Reality Bites vision of our generation as an aimless - slacker, angst-ridden kind of affair that was something that none of us ever really related to. And it seemed a disdainful over - simplification that was being fed to us by the baby - boomer generation that on most levels underestimated the depth of the cynicism and paralysis and despair at the heart of a lot of people in our age group."

Norton is warmly generous to his co-star: "I think that Tyler was a great outlet for Brad. He has this great irreverence. Brad's natural instincts are toward flatulent self-exposure, scatology. Tyler was such a creation of Brad's natural mischievous impulses, and I think all his best instincts were set loose by that part.... At times in this movie, there's a highly stylized, comic surrealism where you're breaking that fourth wall and sort of winking at the audience. Brad's great at that wink at the audience." Norton mentions that he and Pitt shot a music video in character - a twisted version of Frankie Avalon's "Venus" that 20th Century Fox, the distributor of Fight Club, has so far been unwilling to release. "We shot for 126 days on this film," says Norton, "and the last night, we finished at about one in the morning, and then Brad and I sat in his trailer until about 5:30 in the morning." Just the two of them, some beer, some Radiohead. "Just kind of recapitulating, shaking our heads and grinning. It was hard to let it go, because we were working on it for so long with such high hopes. I drove home with the sun coming up..." Recently, at the Venice Film Festival, Norton and Pitt watched the film together for the first time. "We were just standing up out of our seats," says Norton, "and Brad turned to me and said, 'I can't imagine that I'll ever be in a better movie than that....'"

To further inhabit the role of Tyler, Pitt offered to have the caps on his front teeth filed down so that later in the film, Tyler's face betrays some of the cumulative damage done to it. When I mention the teeth to Pitt, he tries to freeze me out. "Not talking about it," he says. Naturally, I persist. "I don't want to make a deal out of it," he says. "It works for the part. I don't want to make it like Nicolas Cage-eating-the-cockroach-sensationalism kind of thing. I chipped my teeth as a kid, so I have the luxury of playing with the teeth as another bit of the arsenal to adapt to the character. It's no big deal. It's nothing. It's what I do."

Me: Did you take off any real tooth that wasn't damaged?

Pitt: [ Pause ] Not really. The tooth is not emphasized in the movie - there's no reference to it at all. It's just that little bit extra; it's that detail you find in a great painting, in a great song. [Fixes me with a stare] So if you make a big deal out of it, it just becomes another hindrance to the movie.

Me: How do you feel when people make out that you're really dumb?

Pitt: It's part of it. It's part of it.

Me: I'm not looking to flatter you but...

Pitt: [ Sarcastically ] You're doing a great job.

Me: ... but that's not my impression. Do you think you play up to it?

Pitt: I was very surprised when I heard that one - very surprised by it. It's not who I am. I have someone who's gone out of their way to trash my character and who's very good at it, and that's when I first started hearing it. I know why the person was doing it - out of defense, to save themselves, really. And maybe I've facilitated that. On the other hand, I don't have the East Coast vocabulary in which all I say is packaging. The upper East Coast schooling. It's very different from private schooling in Missouri, you know, but I work on it.

Me: What kind of person was interested in trashing you?

Pitt: Someone who was very good at it. Just a very frightened individual. I was more surprised by how readily that was embraced. [ He returns to the accusation ] Aidan Quinn said to me during Legends - and this was the first time I heard the phrase "You're dumbing yourself down" - he said, "You do this at times." I had no idea. I was surprised. I think it was something I learned when growing up - there's a big sense of that in a country mentality, in not wanting people to feel bad. [ Gets a little more agitated ] I don't mind showing flaws. I think the beauty in people is flaws. But you know what - I think most people could care less, all the stuff we're talking about. I think the majority of people would f*cking care less. I think there are catty people who get caught up in a lot of this, and I don't give it much thought, truthfully, but I do know that I've run into people who love to find something wrong with me.

Though Pitt led the conversation to the subject, this was something I had meant to bring up anyway. ( I had scribbled something down about this in my notes beforehand. ) I had noticed, talking to all kinds of people, the fairly common perception that Brad Pitt is dumb. And it interested me, partly because when I'd met him before he never seemed like that. I didn't necessarily imagine that he'd be thrilled to discuss the subject, but it seemed much more useful and fairer to mention it to him than not to.

We had this discussion halfway through our long afternoon in Lisbon. Afterward, I didn't think much more about it. He did.

Los Angeles

About three weeks later, we meet on the patio of the Chateau Marmont hotel. Pitt's Coke arrives. They've given him diet instead. One sip. He shakes his head, sends it back. "That filthy aftertaste," he says. Before we talk about anything else, Pitt says he wants to discuss our last meeting. He says that halfway through, he started getting really disturbed and uncomfortable. Though he concedes he can come across as defensive - "I feel like I'm on trial in a sense, and there's always someone gunning, and rather than talking about anything forward..." - Pitt thinks I was always digging for a "negative connotation." He started going through it all when he got back to the hotel room in Lisbon. ( That filthy aftertaste. ) He reckoned, for instance, that asking if he liked David Fincher's The Game was trying to get him to say something bad about a friend. And when he said he was reading psychology books and I asked whether they were proper psychology books or more self-help stuff, he thinks that was a dig.

I ask Pitt to take his sungalsses off. It's unnerving hearing all this from someone who's not even making eye contact. He obliges.

And then he gets to the bit that really bugged him: When I asked him how he feels when people say that he's dumb. "Basically," he says, "presenting the case immediately that 'Brad Pitt' is synonymous with 'low intelligence' or 'dumb.' That was really fucked up. For you to say that that's out there - listen, you may have heard it from a couple of people. People are always talking shit. People have their opinions. But, you ask me, that statement there is just designed to make someone feel lousy and defend themselves. You may say you're asking the probing questions - I say that's bullshit."

The debate that follows is long, heated and circuitous; this is a representative extract.

Me: As I said to you in Portugal, it's not my own perception. Maybe you think that's disingenuous....

Pitt: Well, after you throw that shit ball at me, I don't know if it's disingenuous or not. I just think the way it was presented would throw anyone off.

Me: [ At his instigation, I consult the transcript in my bag .] I said, "How do you feel when people make out that you're really dumb."

Pitt: Yeah. I'm not aware of this.

Me: To be fair, that may be because people say nice things to your face....

Pitt: [ Incensed ] Hey now, listen, no way. I've got an amazing bullshit detector. Listen, I don't sit around getting fluffed, and I don't surround myself with yes people by any means. But I don't want to be put in the position where I have to defend my intelligence, because I'm not going to do it.... Why do you want to put that out there? We live in a fucking vacuum, man. What constitutes food for us has no place in the outside world, and that's the bottom line.

Me: But I think this is in the outside world.

Pitt: I don't agree. I believe you presented it that way. In our little circles...

Me: I'm not talking about "little circles." I'm referring to people who don't know you.

Pitt: Here's the thing. It gives so much validity to a couple of shit talkers. A couple of people say that, it gets passed on, people love to find any negative and shoot the guy down, and so they grab that and run with it... I don't think you should have gone there. Listen, I think you're an asshole if you put it out there into worldwide consumption. I don't think that's cool. Because, listen, I got my enemies. I got people gunning for me for whatever reason, which I will not go into here, and I don't want to play... What you do in this form is you put something out there that was just between me and so-and-so, and you make it worldwide consumption. And what you actually do is breathe life into it. And that's what I think is disrespectful.

Me: But I think if this perception's there, it comes mostly from your demeanor and from some of the parts you play. You're seeing it as such a bigger and nastier thing.

Pitt: [ Angry ] Wait a sec! Such a bigger and nastier thing! Come on! Come on! If I say to you, man, I've been talking to everyone around and taking a poll and they all say you're a fucking idiot, what do you have to say to that?

Me: But I'm telling you what I do see and hear out there.

Pitt: [ Calmly ] Well, let's talk about what's required here. What's required is entertainment.

Me: [ Irked ] For what?

Pitt: For these articles. That's what's required.

Me: Well, that's not my goal.

Pitt: That's the name of the game.

Me: [ Incensed ] Wait a minute. If I said to you, what's required in your acting career is entertainment and everything else is horseshit, you'd be insulted by that, wouldn't you?

Pitt: I'm not getting the arithmetic. Ultimately all we're doing is selling a magazine.

For a while my fury battles Pitt's rather patronizing view of why we're talking. Eventually, there is a kind of conciliation. As we settle down, Pitt amplifies something he said in Portugal which relates to all of this. "The part of the world I came from, there was not a whole lot of communication going on," he explains. "That's not the way. So many things are said between the lines. And what's not said is almost as important as what is said. And it's deciphering that. It's another language and another culture, and it doesn't transfer when we get to this situation. Listen, I've got nothing to hide. It is true that somewhere in me I've always felt I was protecting myself from some great injustice or some great shame. And then when I look at me and I break down where I stand and how I operate, I've got nothing to hide from. You know when you're walking down the street and just enjoying the day, minding your own business, and you get a wing job from someone out of nowhere? I didn't see it coming. Now, if I had looked ahead and seen the guy's disposition and demeanor, I could've figured out what's going on, right? This is what I've walked into more than not... I'm struggling... I am trying to communicate with you the best I can. I'm trying to get the thoughts and feelings across. We didn't label them at home. I had to learn to start labeling and deciphering them after I left, which is after college. So it's a different world for me in that aspect."

Naturally, later, I worry about this whole exchange. I wonder if I really have fantasized and conjured up the notion that anyone thinks of Brad Pitt like this. But that evening, when I meet a friend for dinner and mention what I did that day, the first thing my friend say is, "Now, is he really dumb?" The following day, David Fincher alludes to a similar perception when he says, "I think his demeanor often gets reduced to this kind of 'awww, shucks' thing in interviews. And I've never felt that's what he was doing or saying in real life, but that's the easiest way to label it." And during the next few weeks, without any prompting whatsoever, on two continents, people who have never met a movie star and wouldn't recognize one of Pitt's "little circles" if they were sitting in the middle of it, ask the "Is he really dumb?" question over and over, again and again. (Still I say no, because no is what I think.)

Our lunch is otherwise pleasant enough ( Pitt eats pizza ), though, perhaps understandably, with subject and interviewer now doing their best to be over-courteous, the conversation wanders a bit. "Look at that fly," says Pitt, pointing to the table. "It's having the strangest... spasm." For a while we talk about acting. "I think I am better than I have ever been now," says Pitt. "I've seen a progressive growth. You see some of the first stuff I did - it's absolute crap. It's amazing someone let me get in there again... I'm just horrid. Really, really bad. Just no acting clue whatsoever, man. Horrendous. Just phony as phony. And then you start to discover things that feel right...."

This reminds me of my favorite recent tabloid story about him and Aniston: that they went to a garage sale where Pitt handed over twenty dollars to buy a video of Cutting Class ( an early Pitt flop ), which he proceeded to smash on the spot while saying, "I wish I could destroy every copy." "No truth," says Pitt. "Not even the garage sale. Not even the forum - never been to a garage sale. We have never been anywhere near a video of Cutting Class. It's a sh*t-bag teen horror film with nothing horrifying about it except that it exists. [ Sighs ] I don't think even De Niro could have done Cutting Class."

Me: Just to clarify - do you wish you could destroy every copy of Cutting Class nonetheless?

Pitt: Actually, that is true. I do wish I could. Truthfully, I've never seen it. It was so bad I couldn't watch it. It was right there in my first year out here, which is my disclaimer.

About an hour after the argument with which our lunch began, we share the following short conversation.

Me: What's your favorite word today?

Pitt: Any one of them I can pronounce.

Pitt tells me this: "As we're going into the twenty-first century, I think we're far enough along - we know enough now, that no one can save you. I go crazy when I read a script and one character says, 'I can't live without you.' It drives me crazy. Because we're teaching the wrong thing."

Me: But haven't you ever felt that?

Pitt: When I was a kid, yeah, because I was told that.

Me: But not as an adult?

Pitt: No, I wouldn't call myself an adult.

Me: Well, since the age of eighteen have you never felt "I can't live without you"? Whether or not it turned out to be a stupid thing to have thought?

Pitt: Yes. As much as I hate to admit it. And it falls into the happily-ever-after bullsh*t that does not exist. It's not the case. And it's teaching the wrong thing.

Me: Would you never say it again?

Pitt: No. Because I don't believe it. And maybe I'm too hung up on it.

Me: Do you believe in happy ever after?

Pitt: No. No. [ Shakes his head ] No, there's no such thing.

Me: Does your girlfriend mind that?

Pitt: We're pretty much on the same wavelength.

Me: Some people would find that unromantic.

Pitt: Oh, I find it quite beautiful. I find the others bullshit.

Me: What takes its place?

Pitt: I don't know. [ His tone changes ] The gauge comes up and I start monitoring when we start talking about the relationship, only because of the ways it's been perverted in the past, and I'm hypersensitive. But I will say this about Jen: She's fantastic, she's complicated, she's wise, she's fair, she has great empathy for others... and she's just so cool.

Me: So you like her then?

Pitt: Very much. But what I ask is that she does not hold anything back - I don't want to stifle that.

Me: Can you explain what the two of you have in common?

Pitt: No, that's really all I want to say. We're pretty much after the same thing - I'll say that. Just great respect for each other. It's fantastic. We don't get hung up on... there's no offense ever taken.

At my request, Pitt gets two friends to call me. James Gray is a film director ( Little Odessa ) whom Pitt has known for about six years, though they have never worked together. Gray tells me about dinners full of smart conversation. "The last time I went to dinner with Brad and Jennifer, most of the discussion boiled down to Freud and capitalism," he says. "And whether or not Freud was a misogynist. It's not like we sit down to dinner and say, 'Let's talk about Freud....'" There also seem to be echoes from the conversations I've had with Pitt. "Recently we discussed the fact that if you call someone an idiot or stupid, it's an inherently terrible thing," says Gray, who is bewildered by any misperceptions about his friend. "I guess it's because life is too cruel if he's bright, right?" (A further thought from Edward Norton: "I think it's a shame if politeness and humility are perceived as a kind of rube-ish disingenuousness.") Gray also says this: "I'll tell you what I like most about him: There is a certain tender quality about him which I find endlessly interesting."

Evan Mirand and Pitt met on a Vancouver-based TV show, Glory Days, in the early years - "struggling, working actors," Mirand says - and hit it off. "He's my best friend in the world," says Mirand. As Pitt says of his friend: "We have the same sense of fairness." ( It seems very typical of Pitt that he would value fairness so highly. ) Together they play poker, discuss architecture, see movies. "We love the guy stuff," says Mirand of their movie taste. He observes: "Brad is an instinctual actor. He's not one of those actors who sits home and figures out how he's going to say a line and then gets to the set and says it the same way fifty times. He's more of a reactor."

During September I also speak to Pitt on the telephone - calm, friendly chats. One time, he is at the work site of one of his domestic architectural projects, deliberating on the lighting of an indoor cliff bluff down which water trickles, thinking about how the shadows will fall. "He'll sit there for hours looking at the walls," says Mirand, thinking about how to move something an inch." Pitt is girding up to go back to work and has accepted a role in the new ensemble movie Diamonds, from Guy Ritchie, who directed Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Maybe he'll do David Fincher's next film, The Mexican. "I'm just excited about the prospect of doing something small-scale and gonzo," says Pitt, "because all these films seem to become so important and ultimately none of them are, except what you enjoy." Another time, Pitt is at home, getting ready to go to the Emmy Awards with Aniston. "Remember the Oscar question you asked me?" Pitt says. I asked him if he thought he would ever win one. "I thought about that later and the answer is definitely no." Unless, he says, they give him one at the end of his career for playing some weird old guy in the mountains. "Listen," Pitt says, "I wouldn't say I deserve it yet." We talk more about the ways he feels misinterpreted, and he explains, laughing, how he sometimes worries that he'll end up like Donald Turnupseed, "the guy who pulled out in front of James Dean and [ nearly ] decapitated him...." By which I think he means that fame has an uncomfortable tendency to base itself on the very things which are no real part of your life.

At one point during our Los Angeles lunch, I ask Pitt which of his parents he is most like. It seems a reasonable enough inquiry. Pitt, however, begins to agonize over whether he can answer. As he does so, he seems at once both amused at himself and serious about the quandary. His problem seems to be that he does not want to lie or obfuscate, and that he can think of an answer and it is, strangely, something he has been thinking about of late... but. His eventual conclusion is that his answer to the question is not one he chooses to share. I crack just a little.

Me: [ Exhausted ] Oh, God. It's very hard work, interviewing you.

Pitt: [ Nods ] I know. I know. Listen, you should try being me, all right? It's even harder.