The Many Revolutions of Brad Pitt

Frank W. Ockenfels 3

The superstar with multiple Oscar nominations has everything: a brilliant career, a partner he wants to marry and, in "Moneyball," a seeming disaster he turned into a masterpiece. Still, Hollywood's producer-actor confesses to earlier bouts of depression and a relentless need to question just about everything (himself included): "This idea of perpetual happiness is crazy and overrated."

Try to set up an interview with Brad Pitt, and you instantly plunge into his almost Dada-esque world.

After all, where do you go? A restaurant rendez­vous would devolve into a scrum of gawkers and gapers; his suggestion that we meet at this reporter's office creates such a stir among jaded journalists, it is rapidly nixed; and Pitt's house in the Hollywood Hills is apparently out of bounds, reserved for his partner, Angelina Jolie, and their six kids -- and those inquiring minds eager to know about a decapitated head found nearby only days before.

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So it is, like participants in the witness protection program, that we find ourselves ensconced in a 14th-floor suite at Hollywood's W Hotel this Jan. 20 -- chosen because Pitt's Cadillac Escalade can make a quick in-and-out to avoid the paparazzi thirsting to behold him.

Pitt doesn't blame them. Media reports surfaced hours earlier that police had interviewed his bodyguard about human limbs scattered near the Hollywood sign. Still, he can't help being bemused. "I was watching CNN, and they said, 'Brad Pitt's home!' and, 'Brad Pitt's bodyguard!' " he laughs in disbelief. "I'm like: 'Why? Why?' "

The report is nonsense, of course: His security chief happened to pass a policeman who asked if Pitt's surveillance cameras had recorded anything strange, which led to CNN's proclamation: "Police interview Brad Pitt's bodyguard, search Hollywood Hills for more body parts."

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Such is the life of a megawatt star, though Pitt has learned to handle it. Rarely ruffled and polite to a fault, he shrugs it all off, leaning casually against a window and revealing a previously unnoticed tattoo on the inside of his forearm. It's an outline of Otzi the Iceman, found frozen in the Alps in 1991, some 5,300 years after his death. Next to him, a series of numerals specify the height of the General Sherman Tree, a giant sequoia in Central California. Beside that, there's an inscription in French: absurdité de l'existence -- the absurdity of life.

Pitt knows something about this. He's a man, after all, who can make $10 million to $15 million a film and has starred in such pictures as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fight Club and Legends of the Fall -- work vastly enhanced by his growing stature as a producer, which flowered in 2011 with Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life and the near-masterpiece Moneyball, a movie he saved from the clutches of death.

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But he's also Pitt the Celebrity, not once but twice half of the most famous couple alive -- first through his marriage to Jennifer Aniston, then through his relationship with Jolie.

Despite a quarter-century as an actor, this Pitt has overshadowed the actor-producer and perhaps factors into his never having won an Oscar, which might change this year thanks to his multiple nominations -- two for acting in and producing Moneyball and probably a third as a producer of Tree of Life (the Academy has yet to determine which producers qualify). "It's a great honor," he says later. "And Tree of Life! I'm doubly excited because we felt we were all but forgotten." (On Jan. 27, the Academy did not give producing credit to Pitt on The Tree of Life for the film's best picture nomination.)

This is the glory, but fame and its consequences have left him conflicted, he acknowledges -- though conflict runs through Pitt like a river, to adopt the title of one of his acclaimed films.

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"I've always been at war with myself, for right or wrong," he admits. "I don't know how to explain it more. There's that constant argument going on in your head about this or that. It's universal. Some people are better at dealing with it, and they sleep with no pain -- not pain, arguments. I've grown quite comfortable with being at war."

His words are symptomatic of the thoughtfulness Pitt brings to everything he embraces. He's a man far deeper than most people know -- more intelligent, curious and intellectually restless.

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He talks about the books he's reading, Charles Bracelen Flood's Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War and A.J. Baime's Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans. He discusses the architects he has worked with to develop low-income housing in New Orleans; the marvel of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove; his struggle to learn French (which he speaks "comme ci, comme ça"); and his love for Egon Schiele, an Austrian artist deemed "decadent" by the Nazis, whose style came to mind when he first saw that image of Otzi.

Even when we broach the subject of Jodi Kantor's new book The Obamas, which describes Pitt as "awkward" in a meeting with the president ("I probably was -- you don't want to impose on a busy man," he says), he's more interested in Obama than himself, particularly whether the commander in chief has stopped smoking, as Pitt would dearly like to do. While backing Obama, he nonetheless was glued to the Republican debate Jan. 19. "I'm an Obama supporter, no question," he says. "But it doesn't mean there's nothing to learn from the other side."

All his life, Pitt has learned from the other side. That's what led him to make a leap of non-faith when he rejected his Southern Baptist upbringing. "I grew up very religious, and I don't have a great relationship with religion," he reflects. "I oscillate between agnosticism and atheism."

He oscillates, too, on the subject of whether he'll get married, and it's clear Pitt has shifted from his promise that this won't happen until gay marriage is legalized. "We'd actually like to," he says of his seven-year partner, Jolie, "and it seems to mean more and more to our kids. We made this declaration some time ago that we weren't going to do it till everyone can. But I don't think we'll be able to hold out. It means so much to my kids, and they ask a lot. And it means something to me, too, to make that kind of commitment."

Has he asked Jolie to marry him? "I'm not going to go any further," says Pitt. "But to be in love with someone and be raising a family with someone and want to make that commitment and not be able to is ludicrous, just ludicrous."

It's an unexpected confession for a man generally rather private. Indeed, throughout our conversation I'm surprised by his willingness to discuss almost anything -- from religion to relationships to Republicans -- always in a manner that seems temperate and respectful, possibly shadowed by the awareness of how far he's moved away from the thinking of his youth.

"If you look at where Brad came from and charted the transformations he has realized, you'd recognize this is a person who's staged multiple revolutions in his life and career," says Moneyball director Bennett Miller. "There's a revolutionary spirit there."

Pitt resists that notion at first. Then the next day he calls to say he has lain awake late into the night, mulling Miller's words.

"There were many revolutions," he agrees.

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