“Faster alone, further together,” Brad Pitt murmured. Over his left shoulder hung Mars, reddish-brown and heartbreakingly small, while to his right, the much grander Jupiter was lit up like a disco ball.
We were seated opposite each other on the lowest level of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, inhabiting a closed-off exhibition called “Depths of Space,” mulling stoic men. Pitt has played his fair share of them in the movies, including two characters just this year: Cliff Booth, the bemused stunt man who sauntered through the summer hit ‘Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,’ and Roy McBride, an astronaut shuttled to lonelier, ever more remote outposts of the galaxy in the coming ‘Ad Astra.’
Movie stars have their specialties, and while Pitt has proved that he can play a motormouth in films like ‘12 Monkeys’ and ‘Snatch,’ he’s at his most alluring when he’s holding something in reserve. It feels like you’re watching a man who says no more than he needs to, which is a major feat for someone who has starred in two films from the notoriously loquacious Quentin Tarantino.
“I grew up with that be-capable, be-strong, don’t-show-weakness thing,” Pitt told me. He was raised in Springfield, Missouri, the eldest of three children, his father the owner of a trucking company. Now, at 55, he’s reached a point where he sees his dad in every performance he gives. “In some ways, I’m copying him,” Pitt said. “He had grown up in extreme hardship and poverty, always dead set on giving me a better life than he had — and he did it. But he came from that stoic ilk.”
That lineage has served Pitt better onscreen than off, and in a year in which he has delivered two major performances, he’s giving hard thought to the person he’s become. “I’m grateful that there was such an emphasis on being capable and doing things on your own with humility, but what’s lacking about that is taking inventory of yourself,” he said, hunching over in his chair. “It’s almost a denial of this other part of you that is weak and goes through self-doubts, even though those are human things we all experience. Certainly, it’s my belief that you can’t really know yourself until you identify and accept those things.”
He was wearing a gray newsboy cap, gray T-shirt, and gray hair on his chin. Some surprising tattoos snaked down his arms, including a Rumi quote, a motorbike, the word “Invictus,” and a man and his shadow. Mostly, though, he looked just like Brad Pitt.
Pitt and director James Gray have been friends for more than two decades, ever since the actor saw the director’s 1995 debut, a low-budget crime drama called ‘Little Odessa.’ At the time, Pitt was swerving away from the longhaired hunks he’d played in ‘Legends of the Fall’ and ‘Interview With the Vampire,’ and he felt that Gray could coax something new out of him.
Gray was startled when Pitt reached out. “It’s not easy to imagine a person who is beginning to enter peak stardom calling me up when I was 25 years old and hadn’t done anything except for this movie,” Gray said. “It was bizarre, surreal. But I was very touched. He has very artful taste, and he’s always seeking out new points of view.”
The two men were determined to collaborate, but there were false starts. In 2010, Pitt dropped out of Gray’s jungle epic, ‘The Lost City of Z’ (the part ultimately went to Charlie Hunnam). “At that time, journeying into the Amazon just did not fit into my schedule,” Pitt said.
Years later, Gray would go to Pitt with ‘Ad Astra,’ expecting him to turn that down, too. “Even when he said he would do it, I never thought he would do it,” Gray said, explaining, “My only quibble with Brad on a professional level is that he doesn’t star in movies enough. I think he’s able to command the screen in a way very few other people can, and I wish I saw that all the time.”
‘What’s it all about?’
If Pitt is quieter in person and more thoughtful than you might expect, so is ‘Ad Astra.’ To be sure, there are some striking action sequences as Pitt’s character combs the galaxy in search of his missing astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones). But ‘Ad Astra’ is more concerned with its protagonist’s inner life than the magnificent starscape outside his spacecraft, and long stretches pass with only Pitt onscreen, his voice-over pondering life’s profundities.
“We’re asking questions like, ‘What’s it all about?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ That’s a bit of a minefield, because there are so many traps,” Pitt acknowledged. But the loneliness of the character appealed to him: “We wanted to investigate the inability to connect with others, and the self-protection mechanisms one builds up that keep us from really being open.”
Openness is something Pitt has been thinking about a lot lately. It is a quality that does not always come easily to men, and no one would begrudge the most scrutinized actor in the world if he wanted to seal off parts of himself. “But the ultimate place for my style of acting, as I understand it, is to get to a place of just absolute truth,” Pitt said. “I’ve got to be experiencing something that’s real to me for it to read real to you.”
In early 2017, when Pitt committed to starring in ‘Ad Astra,’ he was still reeling from his recent split from Angelina Jolie, with whom he has six children. “He definitely used the stimuli from his life,” Gray said. “Now, I didn’t get personal with him about it at all — I don’t think it’s my business, or even my job — but he investigated the essence of the character through himself.”
When I asked Pitt about that period of time in his life, he at first curtailed the inquiry. “I had family stuff going on,” he said. “We’ll leave it at that.”
Dealing with loneliness
Was ‘Ad Astra’ a way to work through some of the loneliness he may have been experiencing? “The fact is, we all carry pain, grief and loss,” he said. “We spend most of our time hiding it, but it’s there, it’s in you. So you open up those boxes.”
It was reported that the final straw in Pitt’s 11-year relationship with Jolie came in September 2016, when they fought about his drinking while aboard a private plane. Now, Pitt is committed to his sobriety. “I had taken things as far as I could take it, so I removed my drinking privileges,” he told me. After she filed for divorce, Pitt spent a year and a half in Alcoholics Anonymous.
His recovery group was composed entirely of men, and Pitt was moved by their vulnerability. “You had all these men sitting around being open and honest in a way I have never heard,” Pitt said. “It was this safe space where there was little judgment, and therefore little judgment of yourself.”
Astonishingly, no one from the group sold Pitt’s stories to the tabloids. The men trusted one another, and in that trust, he found catharsis. “It was actually really freeing just to expose the ugly sides of yourself,” he said. “There’s great value in that.”
‘A younger man’s game’
Pitt recently called acting “a younger man’s game,” and in his mid-50s, he has found himself increasingly drawn to other artistic pursuits. He is prolific as a producer — “Producing just means you don’t have to get up really early and put on makeup,” Pitt told me — and Plan B, the production company he runs with Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, has backed films like ‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ and ‘Selma.’
Still, he’s not especially bullish on the future of big-screen entertainment in the streaming era: “I’m curious to see if movies last, if movies stick around,” he said. What he does know is that he won’t be starring in as many. “It’ll be fewer and farther in between for me, just because I have other things I want to do now,” said Pitt, whose interests include sculpting and landscaping. “When you feel like you’ve finally got your arms around something, then it’s time to go get your arms around something else.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Ad Astra’ releases in the UAE on September 19.