When Brad Pitt arrives for our conversation at the Sunset Tower Hotel in L.A. and peels off his motorcycle gear, you get a sense of how he much likes to tease and play with people's reactions. "Man, when I'm riding with the helmet on, I'm invisible," he tells me. "And people just deal with me as the guy on the bike . . . .it gives you a chance to read ‘em." For his role in director Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, he plays an American who is dealing with a horrific situation far away from home and who is so wrought with frustration that, as Pitt describes him, "It's like he's limbless." With the role, Pitt has made another of the career choices—like Kalifornia (1993) or his Oscar-nominated work in 12 Monkeys (1995) or Snatch (2000)—in which he essays roles that allow him to effectively scrawl graffiti over himself and make a commentary on narcissism. One of the more playful examples of this is his turn as the slippery hustler Rusty in the Ocean's films, where he's wrapped in several thousand dollars' worth of manly handmade couture, at the same time constantly gobbling fast food and not worrying about spilling anything on himself. Pitt is quick to acknowledge "the trap of the leading man" and grumbled good-naturedly as our afternoon together turned into an examination of his film roles.
Despite his unfailing politeness—"Missouri is basically the South," he says of his home state, explaining his deportment—what subtly comes across is his determination in his approach to acting and his take on the character. His steeliness is obviously what kept him going, an understanding that the work would come if he applied himself in a way that made sense to him (stardom arrived a little later for both Pitt and his friend George Clooney, which gave him time to find himself as an actor). He also allows that the search is ongoing, and that his family—Angelina Jolie and their three children—have added to his perspective on that mutation process.
ELVIS MITCHELL: What kind of stuff would you say you were first influenced by?
BRAD PITT: It was all about Mickey Rourke—I can see bits of him in stuff I do. Not that it's a copy, or even at that level, but I certainly see where the inspiration comes from.
MITCHELL: What was it about Rourke for you?
PITT: Just the juxtaposition of this toughness and intimacy. He can be stone tough and paper brittle at the same time. He and Sean Penn were the two guys I was drawn to, like most of the young guys at that time. Later it was Nicholson, mainly because of his irreverence. [laughs] He's a charmer.
MITCHELL: I saw some of that irreverence in you the first time I saw Ocean's Eleven . It was like you were saying, "I'm not going to play this guy the way he looks."
PITT: Yeah, he's the No. 2 man, so he's always on the move and has to get what he can. I find all of my performances come down to mathematics in a sense—how do you approach the problem of this character? Sometimes I crack that problem, sometimes I don't. My best example is 12 Monkeys, because I thought in the first half I nailed it, and in the second half I was playing on the gimmick of what worked in the first.
MITCHELL: It's like your work in Babel, which is really kind of a still performance. Because, with the exception of that one moment where you break down on the phone, things are mostly just going on around you.
PITT: Yeah, but the character is always trying to put the pieces together, to move the pieces on the chess board. And it's the frustration of being absolutely helpless to do that.
MITCHELL: But you could have done that thing where you're indicating too much—where you're crying and screaming.
PITT: Well, as you get a little experience your realize that those are the feelings you'd be having underneath, but what you'd really be doing in that situation is trying to hold everything together, to stay calm, to keep this thing moving forward.
MITCHELL: What are some performances where you feel like you turned a corner?
PITT: Oh, Kalifornia was one of those for me. That was the first time I stepped inside and did some more character stuff and really made some great discoveries. Taking that role set a direction for me, where I bounced back and forth between different kinds of things—I started messing it up a little bit. When I first got out to Hollywood they were pushing me for sitcoms, and I didn't really have an interest in them. I wanted to do films and slowly worked that way. And then it became, I guess, this curse of the leading man.
MITCHELL: Warren Beatty has always said that he looks at every role as a character rather than a leading man part, which seems to me what you're saying here too.
PITT: Yeah, I guess so. It wasn't playing against something, so much as it was going after something. It's a real distinction. You take De Niro—he does New York better than. . .he is New York. It's what he knows. So it occurred to me to go investigate some of the things that I knew. And then, on top of that, to investigate characters that I enjoyed, instead of what I should be doing.
MITCHELL: Let's talk about Babel. What made you want to do it?
PITT: It's kind of a global idea of the world that I agreed with and that I thought was really bold. I liked how [the director Alejandro González Iñárritu's] ideas had really coalesced into this piece. I liked what it said.
MITCHELL: What was you first conversation like?
PITT: I think it was about age. He wanted to age me a bit, take off the shine. [laughs] We just talked about the elements of the script. I didn't realize that it was going to be so tough to shoot, to maintain that kind of frantic energy over every day.
MITCHELL: How'd you do it?
PITT: You've just got to get there. It's not one specific thing, you just kind of manipulate your mood and ramp up until you get there. It's exhausting.
MITCHELL: For me one of the great things about Alejandro's works is that is scares people—you don't know how to deal with it.
PITT: The amazing thing is that he was trying to talk about communication and jumping to conclusions and misunderstandings without really seeing others' points of view. That's the undercurrent of the film. I think it's an extraordinary achievement, and I hope he gets full credit for it, because it's a really difficult thing to do.
MITCHELL: You talk about being an instinctive guy—tell me about directors who have helped you to find characters.
PITT: [David] Fincher and I have a really good rhythm and shorthand [way of communicating]—it started out as shorthand.
MITCHELL: Fincher is somebody who wants a lot of takes, isn't he?
PITT: Yeah, he loves to shoot. He loves the process; he loves technology. This movie we've just started, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is like nothing he's done before. I don't know how to describe it; it's such a weird movie. It's written by Eric Roth [based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald], who is another lovely man. He'll crack you up, easy. But this movie is about a guy who is born old, grows backward—grows young. It's just really weird.
MITCHELL: Where did your splayfooted walk in Snatch come from?
PITT: I don't know. I do a walk like that in Kalifornia, too... We're not going down memory lane with all my movies like they're important are we?
MITCHELL: Only enough to help me understand you a little better because that aspect of finding this physical way to play seems to be how you approach a lot of the stuff.
PITT: The fun ones, yeah.
MITCHELL: What music is the character in the new Fincher movie thinking about?
PITT: Well, me, I've just been listening to old jazz. It's in New Orleans, so it's all there, and that flavors it. The people there flavor it. It's such an amazing city. It's a haunted place—it just permeates a mood.
MITCHELL: What music is playing in your head when you're doing Rusty in the Ocean's movies?
PITT: That one's easy—Frank Sinatra and all those guys. That one is just a bunch of guys having a laugh.
MITCHELL: Yeah, but if it's too much a bunch of guys having a laugh, it's just that and not a movie right?
PITT: I think that's what happened on the second one [2004's Ocean Twelve]. Ocean's Thirteen is the movie they should have made.
MITCHELL: [laughs] Steven Soderbergh is somebody, too, who must trust you to figure out all these things, so he can shoot it.
PITT: Yeah, and if you do something good, he'll build around it; and if you do something stupid, he'll build around it.
MITCHELL: What's something stupid that you did that he built around?
PITT: [laughs] Oh, me? Never—the other guys.
PITT: Clooney, man.
MITCHELL: What sort of movies do your kids want to watch over and over again?
PITT: [The Adventures of] Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3D  is real popular in our house.
MITCHELL: What do they think about your movies?
PITT: Oh, they don't—they're not really old enough. Got to keep some distance. Though I wonder what their perspective of the world is—go to the store and there are 20 cameras fighting for a shot. They just think that wherever you go there are random bands of crazy people with flash photography.
MITCHELL: How do you feel about that?
PITT: Truthfully, I think it's really invasive to the kids. There ought to be some kind of law.
MITCHELL: Though there's a good side, too—when you guys go to a place like Darfur, you get the same kind of coverage.
PITT: Yeah, we drag that spotlight with us.
MITCHELL: Are you guys going to settle in one place for a while?
PITT: I don't know—we're trying to figure that out. I think L.A. is impossible. There's just too much media focus. You can't live a normal live. I'd like to have a base camp here and go from there.
MITCHELL: It's kind of crazy the way your life has changed in the past couple years.
PITT: My life's always gone that way, though. I've been no stranger to change. I always knew it'd take this form someday.
MITCHELL: Has having kids changed the way you think about your movies in terms of the kinds of things you want to do?
PITT: It makes me think. They may see this someday, so I have to answer to it.
MITCHELL: What movie do you look back on and go, "That was the right one at the right time."
PITT: I guess I don't think that way because I have to maintain this belief that they all work in some way—you've got to have the misses, to send you in the direction for the next. I'll tell you what I'm curious about though—if I live to an old age and look back and weigh my decisions, I'm curious what they will add up to. I'm starting to see what kind of shape it's taking and where I'd like to add to that shape—if we're talking sculpture now, which it sounds like I am. I've certainly got a couple of directions I'd like to explore after Benjamin, but I don't want to state what those are at this point. I'd rather go do them, find them, see if I can find them.
MITCHELL: Is there some kind of instinctive deliberation that tells you, "This feels right."
PITT: Yeah, like maybe it calls out to your desire to explain something in your life. Like [doing Babel] was easy-really, no thought.
MITCHELL: Like with Kalifornia?
PITT: Yeah, but apparently the writer hated what I did. It was written more like Martin Sheen in Badlands  instead of what I did. I liked it, though.
MITCHELL: Has it happened before that you were told you made choices that weren't written into the part?
PITT: Yeah, Angie. [both laugh] And we'll let that lie right there.
MITCHELL: How much does the writer saying that influence what you do? Is it enough that you're happy with the way you played it?
PITT: Yeah, that's my own barometer. Once you get older, you get a little closer to yourself, intimate. Certainly this last half a decade I've been very aware of that, more conscious of who I am, how I fit in the thing as opposed to trying to emulate someone else. Though I try to emulate De Niro all the time, who is someone I could never be.
MITCHELL: Which attracts you more, the guy who's stuck helping keep everything together or the one who's making it all go haywire?
PITT: Seriously, both—I oscillate between the two, though the former means more now because I'm older.
MITCHELL: Well, and that's the thing you do in Babel, right? That's the guy who tries to keep everything together.
PITT: Yeah, I was just really moved by the last moment, that epiphany of realizing just how close he came to losing everything. It was just that one idea that made me jumpy.
MITCHELL: And what was it like watching the performance? Can you see where you got lost in it and just started being it?
PITT: It's just at the end, the back three or four scenes.
MITCHELL: Talk to me about the Jesse James film [due out later this year].
PITT: Great title: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I love that.
MITCHELL: What attracted you to that script?
PITT: It's a much more intimate story; I seem to be more drawn to those as of late, and there's this contemplative aspect to the story. Also, it was working with [director] Andrew Dominik and the fact that the story spoke a lot about fame and the quest for fame, without really understanding the consequences. And the Jesse James character is both trapped behind a façade and caught at a crossroads—and please don't draw any parallels, because I don't feel like I'm trapped behind any façade. Though certainly the trappings of celebrity I understand.
MITCHELL: It must have interested you as well to play one of the first big American media celebrities who had to fight between people's perception of him and who he actually was.
PITT: Yeah, but it's also such a brilliant script.
MITCHELL: As we're talking, I'm thinking Robert Duvall has to be one of the guys for you too, because he goes back and forth between those poles you're talking about.
PITT: A little bit, but also there's a great capacity for love underneath that. I mean Duvall in The Great Santini —you're able to see who he really was [despite not being able to express his feelings] and that makes him all the more endearing to me. For a lot of us coming from Missouri, it's about what's between the lines.
MITCHELL: So there wasn't a lot of talking about feelings when you were coming up?
PITT: No, and I'm not sure I'd be comfortable with that anyway.
MITCHELL: How do you think that has influenced you with your kids?
PITT: I try to tell me kids everything. I try to get everything on the table so no one wonders.
MITCHELL: Now, your interest in architecture is well known by this point. What are some of the buildings or architects that you love?
PITT: Oh, there are so many. You know, I've been asked if I'd ever direct, but me, I'd rather build. It's very similar to directing, because you get to walk among this piece of art, to live in it, be surrounded by it, which is just thrilling.
MITCHELL: You really have no interest in directing?
PITT: It's not that I don't have interest but more that I think I would go crazy. You've got to be such a perfectionist. Plus, I've got this production thing going now, and I'm so involved films as it is.
MITCHELL: Right, you co-produced The Departed, which is a remake of one of my favorites, the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs .
PITT: Yeah, I developed that for two and a half years. We fought for that movie, and then we got William Monahan on the script.
MITCHELL: Were you ever interested in being in it?
PITT: Once [the director Martin] Scorsese became involved, I thought it would be better if they were younger guys that were just starting their lives, guys coming out of the academy, guys who were hungry. I thought I was too old for it.
MITCHELL: Do you like the producing?
PITT: I really do. I like the idea that we can put some movies out there that wouldn't be seen otherwise, and I like to see them put together. It pays absolutely nothing, and it takes a huge amount of work, but it's fun.
MITCHELL: One thing I thought was interesting was that in Infernal Affairs no one bothers to explain where these guys come from psychologically, but that's a big part of what you do in The Departed. To me that points to the difference between American and Asian movies, where they seem to be saying, "It's a movie, go along with it."
PITT: Right, and sometimes we overexplain. We certainly don't trumpet the art of storytelling [in this country]. We've lost a little of the grace of it. For me a film is at its best when you can start filling in the story with your own life experience.
MITCHELL: That's got to be one of the things that attracts you about movies and wanting to make them—to get to do these things where you don't answer the questions.
PITT: Yeah, like, it's a mistake to try to surmise who a person is in the first five-minute set-up. I get into this argument a lot at the production studio.
MITCHELL: So that's the kind of filmmaking that excited you—making movies that audiences are going to leave still trying to figure out?
PITT: Yeah, because I was so affected by movies as a kid—they gave me direction to think about things. I had this idea, and it may be idealistic, that putting films out there might do the same for someone else sitting in a little theater in Oklahoma, and that's going to surprise and entertain them. And, you know, there's something for everybody—that's something I respect and believe in.
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MARCH 2007 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.