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The Many Revolutions of Brad Pitt

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Born in Oklahoma, Pitt grew up in Springfield, Mo., the son of a trucking company worker and an educator, with two younger siblings. "This was Huckleberry Finn country, Mason-Dixon Line, where televangelism was born," he recalls. It gave him a certain mistrust of "government and any power that may be above us and could oppress us; but that mistrust transcends into anything not like us -- that's the flip side, the not so nice side" he's proud to have overcome.

Pitt's father, William, rose from the bottom of his company to the very top. "My dad came from nothing, an outhouse in the middle of winter, walking to school, and was really determined to give us what he didn't have."

As for his mother, Jane, "She's very, very loving -- very open, genuine, and it's hilarious because she always gets painted in the tabloids as a she-devil. There's not an ounce of malice in her. She wants everyone to be happy."

Pitt says he has aspects of both: "I can be naive like my mom sometimes, but I'm like my father. Every film I do, there's some connection to my dad, though my father's got a toughness. He's probably tougher than I am."

Growing up, despite his fondness for them, he started to question his parents' religion and the environment he had known.

"I always knew I was leaving," he says. "I didn't know where I was going, but I knew there was so much more to see and learn. I was always looking out and beyond -- and movies were a big part of that for me. Film shows you other [paths]."

He remembers going to the local drive-in with his family, sitting on the hood of the car on "really humid, hot summer nights," eating homemade popcorn because they couldn't afford the concessions, then sneaking into 1977's Saturday Night Fever and "howling" when he saw the family gathered around the table. Pitt also describes being overwhelmed by 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. "This idea of loss, when they get killed at the end and they're gone, just shattered me" -- an awareness of death that lingers and influenced his choice of tattoo.

But film was not a career option, so he majored in journalism at the University of Missouri. Then, right before graduation, "it just struck me: I was done."

Two weeks before earning his degree, with $325 he'd made from working on his father's loading dock, he drove to California in a beat-up car and stayed in the Burbank home of a family friend. He didn't even tell his parents he was planning to act; he said he was going to investigate Pasadena's Art Center College of Design.

He remained in the Burbank apartment for a month. "It was me and a Thai maid who couldn't speak English," he says. "I stopped immediately and went to McDonald's, had a meal, got the trades, and by the end of the week I was doing extra work and pretty excited about it."

Soon, he was acting, with a four-episode stint on Dallas. But Pitt truly galvanized the public in his role as the abs-gifted grifter who seduces Geena Davis in 1991's Thelma & Louise. With that simple sequence, every agent and executive knew a major star was born.

The course he took, however, was never predictable. Rather than follow the safe route of appearing in evident blockbusters, he opted for a wide range of projects, largely driven by their helmers.

"Look at those directors he's worked with -- Terrence Malick, Soderbergh, Robert Redford, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. They all know just how good he really is," says Pascal. "People think of him as an actor, and he's so much more."

While Pitt's star ascended with 1992's A River Runs Through It, 1994's Legends of the Fall and 1995's Seven, his personal life declined, even following his 2000 marriage to Aniston.

"I got really sick of myself at the end of the 1990s: I was hiding out from the celebrity thing; I was smoking way too much dope; I was sitting on the couch and just turning into a doughnut; and I really got irritated with myself," he says. "I got to: 'What's the point? I know better than this.' "

Pitt wrestled with dark thoughts: "I used to deal with depression, but I don't now, not this decade -- maybe last decade. But that's also figuring out who you are. I see it as a great education, as one of the seasons or a semester: 'This semester I was majoring in depression.' I was doing the same thing every night and numbing myself to sleep -- the same routine: Couldn't wait to get home and hide out. But that feeling of unease was growing and one night I just said, 'This is a waste.' "

His comfort level already had been shaken during a prolonged trip to Yugoslavia for the filming of 1988's The Dark Side of the Sun, before "ethnic cleansing" (the subject of Jolie's In the Land of Blood and Honey). Even then, "They were talking about it and you could see the hatred. It was like the Hatfields and McCoys -- as soon as they heard a name, it put them on the other side of the fence, and that left an indelible mark on me."

So did a trip to Casablanca, Morocco, in the mid-to-late 1990s, "where I saw poverty to an extreme I had never witnessed before, and we talked about inequality and health care, and I saw just what I felt was so unnecessary, that people should have to survive in these circumstances -- and the children were inflicted with a lot of deformities, and things that could have been avoided had become their sentence. It stuck with me."

Almost overnight, he decided something had to give. "I just quit. I stopped grass then -- I mean, pretty much -- and decided to get off the couch."

Not one readily to discuss such intimate things -- "probably one of my faults is that I don't go to this wealth of knowledgeable people I have around me; I don't do that enough, and it's part of the Southern thing of not wanting to show weakness" -- he nonetheless reached beyond his inner circle.

"I sought out Bono and sat down with him a few times and got involved in some of the stuff he was doing. But it all started before that. It started with private acts," which he doesn't define.

Inevitably this led him to Jolie, with whom he starred in 2005's Mr. & Mrs. Smith. While the tabloids gloat about her effect on Pitt, the two were drawn to each other by corresponding concerns.

"That may have been one of the things that brought us together," Pitt reasons. "Certainly, I've met very few people more dedicated than she is. She is always studying issues, daily. She has such compassion for the people she works with."

He found the same compassion growing within himself, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which hit him hard as he'd grown to love New Orleans, where he'd spent three months filming 1994's Interview with the Vampire. "The first thing that rang wrong to me was when it was being called an act of God," he says with an unusual flare of rage. "And it wasn't an act of God. It was an act of human failure and marginalizing people and the areas that contain these people."

Despite being told, "Don't go near it" -- particularly the devastated Ninth Ward -- Pitt felt "there was a responsibility to make it right, which was not being answered wholly, so I decided to make that a focal point and help families return home -- and in the process we started discovering the inadequacies in low-income housing, that it actually keeps a family trapped at a low-income level. There are a lot of shoddy appliances that drive up utility bills to hundreds and hundreds of dollars, and that can make or break a family."

Through his Make It Right Foundation, created in 2007, Pitt began building environmentally friendly homes at a competitive price. He organized 21 architectural firms to construct 150 single-family houses and duplexes in New Orleans and gave millions in donations.

He marvels at the result, having seen poor families living healthy lives with manageable bills. "It's remarkable," he says, "and now we want to take what we've learned and expand to other parts of the U.S. and abroad."

Pitt is currently developing projects in Newark, N.J., and a tuberculosis clinic in Ethiopia -- and that's just a fraction of what he and Jolie do. The Jolie-Pitt Foundation has given millions to charities including SOS Children's Villages, Community Foundation of the Ozarks and Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia, among others. The Chronicle of Philanthropy estimates Jolie and Pitt donated more than$8.5 million in 2006 alone.

As one executive familiar with their nonprofit work notes, "You have no idea how much money they give away. It's millions and millions and most people never even hear about it."