Photographed by John Russo
One of the world’s biggest stars, BRAD PITT talks with Prestige Hong Kong about how he chooses roles, the meaning of “silent victories” and his latest movie, Moneyball, scheduled to open in Hong Kong next month.
DIP INTO BRAD PITT’S DVD collection and you’ll discover that the actor has a penchant for classic American, director-driven films from the 1970s. At the top of the pile sit the likes of Milos Forman’s heart-rending One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Francis Ford Coppola’s esoteric Vietnam picture Apocalypse Now, and Alan J Pakula’s tightly wound thriller All the President’s Men. They are timeless movies, films that seem to get better with each passing year, pieces of cinematic brilliance that don’t conform to standard Hollywood requirements.
“That’s why I love them,” says Pitt. “I’m really drawn to the films I grew up on…it wasn’t so much about character arcs and clean stories, and someone learns something in the end, and everyone’s happy and everything’s explained. You know these guys were kind of the same beasts at the end of the film as they were in the beginning. It is not so much that they change but they change something around them, and I feel drawn to that.”
Since his last adventures in big-budget film-making – with his sword-swinging turn in Troy (2004) – the 48-year-old actor has redefined his career trajectory, employing his superstar status to unearth, develop and explore perennially fascinating roles. In recent years he’s brought us Babel (2006), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and The Tree of Life (2011).
The most recent project to grab Pitt’s attention and flourish into a highly effective and affecting movie is Moneyball, based on the 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which charted how the Oakland Athletics baseball team put together a record-equalling 20-game winning streak in the 2002 season despite fielding a team on just a fraction of the budget of its main competitors.
“I became obsessed with this book by Michael Lewis that was about these guys questioning and going up against a system,” explains Pitt, who takes on the central role of Billy Beane, a former player turned general manager who assembled a team of cast-offs and misfits using a “sabermetric” statistical approach. Beane’s methods caused controversy at the time by challenging the entire architecture of how the multibillion-dollar game was run. Now teams across every professional sport apply the techniques that he championed to assess players’ value.
The book from which the film is drawn carries no standard narrative; it is a work of non-fiction. And yet such was Pitt’s passion for the project that he persevered with the production despite the complications, and with a final script worked by the expert hands of Steve Zaillian and then Aaron Sorkin, the actor and his director, Bennett Miller, have truly stepped up to the plate. Nominated for four Golden Globes – best motion picture – drama; best screenplay; best supporting actor (Jonah Hill) and best actor in a drama, for Pitt himself – Moneyball is a tight, character-driven drama imbued with an honesty and integrity to the truelife story. For all the emotion evoked by the characters’ journey, this is not a movie with a typical Hollywood conclusion.
Director Miller made his name with the 1998 documentary Cruise and the stirring character feature Capote (2005), which earned Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar, and he does indeed bring an authenticity to the picture. His remarkable use of real-life footage drives the movie’s pace without ever taking the viewer out of the picture. The film is boosted by expert performances from Pitt and Hoffman, as well as Jonah Hill in a strong, dramatic role.
“I think Jonah is terrific. We had a real ‘bro-mance’ on this movie,” says Pitt with a laugh. “No, I think he is wonderful in this role and there’s a truth in his performance.” The film-makers’ bid for authenticity and truth extended across their own recruitment drive: many of those filling the back rooms and scouting tables on screen are real players and scouts – “guys from the business,” says Pitt, who “know this world.”
Pitt likens Bennett’s approach to that of cinematic luminary Terrence Malick, with whom he worked on The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. “I was really pleasantly surprised and happy for Terry,” says Pitt. “That was a personal story for him. I love him greatly. I don’t expect awards. I never expect it. It is fine when your number comes up. It is fine when a friend’s number comes up. But more importantly it is a quality film, a film to be proud of.”
Born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in 1963, Pitt was raised with brother Doug and sister Julie in Springfield, Missouri. He’d always enjoyed film, although it was only when studying journalism at the University of Missouri that he suddenly decided to go west to Hollywood. After winning a small role in 1991’s Thelma & Louise, his star rose quickly.
His output in the 1990s was punctuated with iconic characters and memorable movies, including A River Runs Through It (1992), True Romance (1993), Interview with the Vampire (1994), Legends of the Fall (1994), Se7en (1995), 12 Monkeys (1995), Sleepers (1996) and Fight Club (1999). Each film asked something different of Pitt, and many a less-courageous actor might have been daunted by the potential risks involved.
“I think my choices have been smart on the whole, not risky,” says Pitt. “If you look close enough and are able to work with directors who are much smarter than you, then that’s a smart thing to do, because they have the ultimate hand on the pen; they’re writing the story.” Pitt’s own interest in storytelling was the foundation for his production company, Plan B, which launched with Troy in 2004. Its subsequent films include Angelina Jolie’s A Mighty Heart (2007) and Pitt’s own The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Tree of Life and his forthcoming Marc Forster picture World War Z, adapted from the post-apocalyptic horror novel by Max Brooks.
Pitt was recently named best actor by the New York Film Critics Circle for his performances in The Tree of Life and Moneyball – a portent, perhaps, of Oscar recognition this year. In an interview conducted before he won the Film Critics’ award, Pitt talks about Moneyball and how he considers “silent victories” more significant than trophies.
What’s your connection to baseball?
I had a go in school, and 18 stitches and a scar on my face were the result of that adventure. I played lots of sports at school, although I never really stuck at any one. I don’t watch much baseball, although I like to throw the ball around with the kids. Personally, I like Moto GP and American football and football football [soccer].
Baseball is the backdrop but Moneyball is not really a sports picture per se, is it?
No, and like I said, I do not spend a lot of time watching the sport, but I became obsessed with this book by Michael Lewis that was about these guys questioning and going up against a system. These were guys who worked on a team with a $40 million payroll, and they’re trying to compete with teams with $240 million payrolls. It is an unfair game, and that’s the title of the book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. And so it forced these guys to back up and say, “We’ve got to search for new baseball knowledge. We’ve got to re-examine the sport and where we place value.” And in that process, they found great inefficiencies in how people were judged. They were then able to exploit that and put together a formidable team. I think that ultimately the film is about that. And you need a guy like Bennett when you cross those ideas.
What does director Bennett Miller bring to the picture?
Bennett has got a documentarian’s feel and approach to films and he is one of the directors that will always search for authenticity. A lot of the cast that you see in the film are guys from the business, real players and real scouts. These people are not actors. You don’t want them trying to be actors; you want them to put it in their own words, because they know this world. So even though we have a really strong script we use that just as a starting point in some areas – so you’ll see in the scenes with the scouts and players that there’s a lot of stepping on each other, talking over each other’s lines. It’s got a really nice feel to it. In that way Bennett is really similar to Terry [Malick] and our approach, keeping a constant vigil on the story, being in the moment, having to react to the real people who really know what they’re talking about. Also, Bennett’s got a subtlety that I like. The thing with Moneyball is that this kind of film could easily dissolve into convention, and I think why it stands out is it’s got a real authenticity to it, and this is down to Bennett. This is all to his credit.
And the system used to scout players in the book and film could also be applied when choosing actors for a film, for instance?
Well, funnily enough, Billy Beane and the book’s author, Michael Lewis, give seminars on this very thing. And that’s how the studio first came into contact with the book; the studios were having a seminar with Billy on how to apply his theories to the movie business. They apply it to all areas of industry and sport.
Do you think Moneyball is very different from other movies that you’ve made?
Yeah, I do. You’re looking for something new, something different, a new structure; maybe it’s trying through the subject matter. But I’m really drawn to the films I grew up on, which were 1970s films and it wasn’t so much about character arcs and clean stories, and someone learns something in the end, and everyone’s happy and everything’s explained. You know these guys were kind of the same beasts at the end of the film as they were in the beginning. It is not so much that they change but they change something around them, and I feel drawn to that.
One of the themes of the film is how we as a society define winners and losers. Is that fair?
Yeah, the film is ultimately about that, about value and how we place value on people, value systems in a society, which then informs how we value ourselves. What’s a winner, what’s a loser? These kinds of themes are universal. I remember watching the Olympics and it was the early 1990s. I don’t know anything about gymnasts but I was watching and there was a Russian woman who was supposed to take it all and she came out at the gates and 10 seconds in she fell. The announcer went: “Oh my God, oh what a shame, this is just horrible, this is the worst thing that could possibly happen.” I watched her and she picked herself up and she persevered and finished the routine perfectly and it was just magical. It was an amazing moment; she was really inspiring to me. But all they talked about afterwards was just how humiliating that was, what a shame it was and there was no recognition from the announcers. I looked for recognition the next day in the papers, but nothing; there was no mention. I was really surprised by it because for me I had witnessed a true victory. That is the silent victory that we could focus on, more than the trophies.
What would be an example of a silent victory that you’ve experienced?
They are little, they’re small; they’re micro shocks not major earthquakes. But little films for me like Jesse James, that is one of my all-time favourites and it did very little business. But for me it was a real accomplishment – a great example of the films that I like, and the stories that I like to tell. That’s what comes to mind, but all of them are on the way and this one too. For me it’s more about longevity, is it a quality picture, is it a quality story, and is there something original about it?
Has there been any moment in your life when you have felt undervalued?
Yes, and I am sure we all have them. For me it’s usually about a sense of injustice. I don’t know if that was implanted in me as a child, but I hate an injustice, and I think here in the movie Billy also felt a bit of that. He felt he was groomed for this thing that he really didn’t want to do. He didn’t know enough. He wasn’t old enough or wise enough to put the brakes on. This idea of levelling the playing field in an unfair game was more personal to him and he wanted to fight that injustice.
You do always seem to choose the unexpected when making movies…
That is just smart, man. If you look close enough and are able to work with directors who are much smarter than you, then that’s a smart thing to do, because they have the ultimate hand on the pen; they’re writing the story. I think of the films I grew up with and the ones that left an indelible mark are those that shaped me in some way and taught me something. And I’m still watching those movies today. They have legs, they have longevity, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
The Tree of Life would fit into that category…
I was really pleasantly surprised and happy for Terry [to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival]. That was a personal story for him. I love him greatly. I don’t expect awards. I never expect it. It is fine when your number comes up. It is fine when a friend’s number comes up. But more importantly it is a quality film, a film to be proud of. Like I say, I am still watching films that I was watching 20 years ago. That to me is the goal with the films I make.
What are those movies to which you keep going back?
The movies I love right now? I would say One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I would say Dr Strangelove, I would say Apocalypse Now, and I would say All the President’s Men. That’s all off the top of my head.
Would you like to direct a picture one day?
I do have a production company and we want to specialise in more obscure films, which have a harder time making it to the screen, or interesting, new film-makers. We’re not a big-money production company, though. But as regards directing, I have no aspirations to do that whatsoever. I would be tormented. I think that I would make a good movie but that also it would take three years of agonising and pain and sweat, and I wouldn’t see my family much during that time. It wouldn’t be healthy for me. I’m pretty happy with the gig that I’ve got.