The Sunday Times (November 2011)

Brad’s own field of dreams

By Will Lawrence
Photographed by John Russo

Brad Pitt is no fan of baseball, but that hasn’t stopped him making a movie about it. It’s not at all what you’d expect; neither is the man himself, Will Lawrence discovers.

It was high noon, and a teenage Brad Pitt was scrambling in from the left of the outfield. The baseball was flying, but Pitt was sure he could take the catch. He raced towards centre field while the other players watched with bated breath. He was all set for glory. Then the ball passed across the sun and Pitt lost track of its trajectory. When it re-emerged, it was hurtling towards him and, in the blink of an eye, it smashed into his face, knocking him to the ground.

“I needed 18 stitches, and you can still see the damage,” Pitt tells me, leaning in as he traces his index finger along the faint edges of a scar above his right eye. “Still, I threw the guy out, a second after the ball bounced off my face. Then I went and got my stitches.”

It’s typical Pitt: even when things go wrong, they still go right. Here is a man who completed all but two weeks of his degree, bottling a regular vocation at the last moment — “Some guys I knew were going off to Procter & Gamble, and it just didn’t feel right” – only to turn up in Hollywood and quickly land a life-changing role in Thelma & Louise. Here is a man who, at age 25, had not boarded an aircraft, yet has now crossed more international airspace than Phileas Fogg. ‘My kids have flown round the world twice,” he says with a hint of pride.

He grew up in Missouri. “Mine was a Mark Twain kind of existence: lazy days, great fun, but not too good information-wise,” he says. “All we had was Top 40 radio.” He’s now highly informed, with a keen interest in architecture and a scholar’s knowledge of 1970s cinema. He is also a notable philanthropist. His film CV is studded with interesting choices, from Se7en and Fight Club to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Even his very public divorce from the former Friends star Jennifer Aniston in 2005 left his stellar reputation largely unstained. Pitt, it seems, has a golden touch.

We meet in a Mexican hotel resort — two of his brood are splashing about in the pool — and Pitt manages the impossible, looking good in a white linen suit. His long lair, grown out for the post-apocalyptic zombie movie World War Z, is tied back, his face carpeted with patchy stubble. He proves quite candid, generally thoughtful, sometimes introspective and, endearingly, bashful on occasion. “My favourite film?” he blushes. “It’s got to be Mr & Mrs Smith” — the film on which he met Angelina Jolie. He is likeable, too, positively brimming with bonhomie. By the time the interview draws to a close, I almost expect an invitation for tea with Angie and the kids.

The conversation turns to baseball, thanks to the 17-year-old actor’s latest movie, an adaptation of the 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. The bestseller charts the success of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, which put together a word-equalling 20-game winning streak in the 2002 season, despite fielding a team run on only a fraction of he budget of its main competitors.

As one has come to expect with Pitt. Moneyball is a peculiar pick, drawn from a nonfiction book that has no obvious narrative on which to hang a film. “But I became obsessed with it,” he says, “and the way it showed these guys questioning and going up against a system.” He takes the central role of Billy Beane, a major-league player turned general manager, who recruited a team of misfits using sabermetrics, a mathematical approach that analyses previously disregarded or unrecorded statistics. His methods challenged the entire structure of baseball management, inspiring widespread controversy at the time. Nowadays, executives in every sport — and other businesses – apply the techniques to assess their people’s value.

“These guys had a $40m payroll, and they were going up against the Yankees, who had a $240m payroll and another $100m in reserves. No way. They groom a strong player and that player gets poached. But look what they did that season. In football terms, it’s like the small teams taking on and almost toppling the likes of Manchester United or Real Madrid, absolute giants with vast spending powers. Billy Beane realised baseball was an unfair game.”

Injustice invariably strikes a chord with Pitt. Born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, he was raised with his brother Doug, and sister, Julie, in Springfield, Missouri -mother, Jane, was a high-school counsellor; his father Bill, ran a haulage company — and eventually rebel against his strict religious upbringing. “I grew up with strong Christian background, and I had my problem with it,” he concedes. “I had a lot of questions, and to get to that point where I actually questioned something based my life on took a long time. It wasn’t until I was 20 that I truly started separating from it – the ideas didn’t make sense any more. I remember this scary moment when suddenly I didn’t have anything to my existence on, to be comforted by, yet I had to go against this thing, against this system that didn’t make sense. Ever since, my family accepts me for who I am, they pray for me, because I am going to burn in this eternal pit of fire.”

I had always liked film, and had lamented that there had been no opportunity for me. I grew up in the bellybutton of the United States. But then it occurred to me that I could drive to it. So I loaded up my beat-up old Datsun with the bumper hanging off, and became the cliché. I was doing extras work within a week. Ever since that period, especially since I was about 20, I’ve been a sucker for an underdog story, somebody going up against the system and questioning it. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make Moneyball – he continues. “Billy Beane felt a tremendous sense of injustice, and that spurred him on.” Beane was groomed for playing baseball from a young age, “which he really didn’t want to do. So, when he became manager of a baseball team, the idea of levelling the playing field in an unfair game was personal to him—he wanted to fight that injustice, and I can relate to that.”

So, it seems, can audiences. Moneyball has taken more than $70m in America; if it scores similar figures overseas, the studio will be more than satisfied with its $50m investment. The film has also proved popular with critics: the director, Bennett Miller, brings a documentarian’s touch to a project that also has plenty of heart, thanks to an excellent script from Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, a great ensemble of actors as diverse as the Oscar-wining Philip Seymour Hoffman and The OC’s Chris Pratt, and a breakout performance from the comic actor Jonah Hill, who shines in his first serious role. The film also represents something of a triumph for Pitt, who kept the project simmering even when the studio funding it pulled the plug on its first incarnation, headed up by the director Steven Soderbergh, days before shooting was due to begin. All this, and Pitt doesn’t even like baseball. “It is like a religion,” he smiles, “and I try to avoid all things that constitute religion.”

As a kid, in the aftermath of his 18-stitch mishap, he avoided baseball altogether, but now finds himself drawn back towards it, hearing the siren call of personal as we as professional duties. “My boys love sports,” he says of his two eldest sons, Maddox and Pax, “and I do have to throw the baseball around with them. My eldest has a great throwing arm — mine is crap, which is another reason I didn’t last long in baseball.” He is immensely proud of the education his lifestyle affords his children, exposing them to numerous cultures from an early age. “I would have loved that life as a kid,” he says, and he feels as though his family can live its life in peace, despite occasional press intrusion. At home, certain television stations are banned and internet security keeps the parents’ names away from the children’s screens.

“I am more passionate now that I am a father, too,” he adds. “It has focused my mind on the kind of work I wan to do. I think of how movies affected me when I was younger, and how they’ve stayed with me ever since. He cites Milos Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’ Nest, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men. “Now I want to make films the kids can see and that might stay with them, want to make films they can be proud of.”

In this respect, he can rest easy: whatever his children make of his performances, they are unlikely to question his integrity. His output throughout the 1990s constitutes a host of memorable movies – A River Runs Through It, True Romance, Interview with the Vampire, Legends of the Fall, 12 Monkeys, Sleepers and Being John Malkovich to name but a few. “I think my choices have been smart,” he says. In the past decade, with the exception, perhaps, of Troy and Mr & Mrs Smith, Pitt’s choices have been smarter still, even if some have stumbled commercially – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel, the Coen brothers Burn After Reading, David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Terrence Malick’s Cannes favourite, Th< Tree of Life. And he recently signed up to star with Michael Fassbender in the next Steve McQueen project, Twelve Years a Slave. “I’m bothered less about whether the films I shoot make money. I just want them to have longevity.

“We all have a shelf life, and mine is coming — although there are a couple of things I’d still like to do. I am looking; forward to playing a foul-mouthed grumpy old dude one day, that’s for sure.”

Whatever his remaining contribution to cinema, we can be sure he will continue to make curious choices. Ever since that day on the baseball diamond when the hurtling ball knocked him to the floor, Pitt has invariably come in from left field.

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