Brad Pitt‘s new film, Killing Them Softly, is, in many ways, a throwback to a kind of film that seemed to get made all the time in the 1970s and was regularly reinvented in the 1990s: a crime story in search of a moral center, and the kind of parabolic tale that is filled with skeezy characters and suspect schemes but simmers with the very modernist sense that something larger (and probably bad) is at work. Directed by Andrew Dominik and adapted from the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the film nominally tells the story of a low-level criminal ecosystem that is suddenly disrupted when a couple of petty hoods (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are recruited to knock over a card game, setting off a chain of events that brings local commerce, as it were, to a halt. To fix the situation, a consortium of unseen overbosses dispatches Pitt’s character, an enforcer-for-hire named Jackie Cogan, to take the appropriate corrective measures so that business as usual can resume and everyone can start making money again.
While much of the action in Killing Them Softly plays out in back alleys and dive bars, the film itself has an allegorical quality, set in 2008 as the country struggled to come to grips with the initial onset of the current financial crisis (from which America, of course, still has yet to recover) and prepared to elect Barack Obama to the presidency on the back of a campaign of hope (which would very quickly transform into anxiety and impatience). That framing, though, never fully draws focus from the narrative, in large part because the film is filled with actors who, when thrust into any sort of quasi-mob-related scenario, bring veritable mountains of baggage to the proceedings–among them, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, and Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack on The Sopranos), as well as others with definitive presence, like Sam Shepard (in a quiet but pivotal role) and Richard Jenkins (who, hilariously, plays the smarmy middleman who communicates with Pitt’s character on behalf of the crime syndicate and tries to keep the whole operation on budget by lowballing him at every turn).
Killing Them Softly, which Pitt also produced through his Plan B shingle, marks his second collaboration with Dominik. (The pair last worked together on the highly underrated 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a carefully drawn western that’s a meditation on both westerns and on celebrity.) It also represents the latest in a string of films—unofficially beginning with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) and continuing through Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) and last year’s The Tree of Life and Moneyball—in which Pitt has quietly but assuredly transformed himself as an actor. Of course, Pitt’s life offscreen with his partner (and now fiancée) Angelina Jolie and their six children continues to get a lot of attention. But on screen, late-era Brad Pitt has been nothing short of a revelation, cracking himself open freely and readily in film after film. At times, that has translated into a very real kind of vulnerability (see Babel, Jesse James, Tree of Life). At others, it has meant stirring up a certain conviction or resolve (see all of the above plus Inglourious Basterds and Moneyball). But more often than not, it has involved exploring the idea of character, in both the dramatic and the human-emotional senses, as something more tapped into or developed than taken on or assumed.
Guy Ritchie, who directed Pitt in Snatch (2000), recently met up with the 48-year-old actor in London, where Pitt was finishing work on another film, World War Z.
GUY RITCHIE: Okay, we’re recording–in airplane-friendly mode for some reason.
BRAD PITT: Get another one going . . . Okay, test, one, two.
RITCHIE: There you go. You’ve got yours going now, too. We’ll get a third recorder going as well. Lovely.
PITT: Lovely. So how’s the spot you’re doing now?
RITCHIE: Oh, the spot . . . Do you ever watch commercials?
PITT: Not really.
RITCHIE: Well, I’ve gotta tell you, that’s where the real technical talent lies. There aren’t many movies where you can spend $3 million on one minute, so when I do a commerical, I can go balls-out and play around with toys and try out new stuff.
PITT: So you can use it as a tester for what you’re going to do in your next film.
RITCHIE: I do use it as a bit of a tester, yeah. But the commercial guys are actually more open to the idea of fucking around with stuff and they don’t mind if you hit a post because it’s so cutting-edge. Commercials will always be technically more advanced than movies. It’s a funny thing but they’re also so much more efficient. So I try to do one commercial a year just for that reason.
PITT: The fight scene in the forest in Sherlock 2 [Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows] with the Germans with the howitzers—did that come from a commercial? Because I’ve never seen anything like that.
RITCHIE: That was an amalgam of all sorts of things. But we did try some new stuff. I just think there’s room to do more in movies—that you can have almost everything in a film. You can have all the new technical stuff, but you can also keep it edgy enough so it still feels a bit indie, and it can also be accessible enough so that kids can like it, and you can get this lot all around where everyone’s a winner and comes out with cred.
PITT: So what’s your template for that?
It’s hard to be surprised by another actor or by a director when you’ve seen enough and been around. So when i am . . . I’m in.Brad Pitt
RITCHIE: Dunno. You’ve just gotta feel it in you. You just gotta feel it.
PITT: What makes you want to go back and see a movie again and again and again? That is what we’re talking about, isn’t it?
RITCHIE: Let me ask you this then: What gets you excited about making a movie at this point? How do you decide to do one?
PITT: Well, listen, I think I’m at a point now where I feel like I can jump into anything and lay something down that’s quality. Someone may be better at it—or maybe not—but I know that if I have a feeling for it, then I can make it interesting. But even more as I get older, it’s about the company that I keep. That’s the most important thing to me—that if I’m gonna spend however long it takes to make a movie, give up 14 hours a day for however many weeks or months, then it’s very important for me to know that I’m working with people who I respect and enjoy and that we’re going for something together. That’s it, really.
RITCHIE: So it sounds like you’re saying that you choose to work with certain directors or writers because of a kind of tone that they set in a sense.
PITT: Yeah. I mean, as you know, so much of making movies is about discovery on the day, what you’re figuring out. If you know everything going in, then it’s not worth doing—it’s already done. So I’m interested in finding people who I think have a voice—and a very specific voice. It’s hard to be surprised by a film. It’s hard to be surprised by another actor or by a director when you’ve seen enough and been around. So when I am, or when I forget that I’m watching someone’s movie, or when I don’t know how someone made a certain turn that I didn’t expect . . . You know, I’m in.
RITCHIE: Do you find that there is a correlation between the work that you like and liking the person who created the work?
PITT: Yes. I would say that the directors that I’ve liked the most are all curious in nature—curious thinkers. They’re all big questioners, I would say, first and foremost.
RITCHIE: So then what was it about Andrew Dominik and Killing Them Softly that made you want to do that film?
PITT: Well, I’m a big fan of early Jimmy Caan. I come from a rural environment–well, not completely rural, but more in its mind-set—so to get in and do something urban for me is always fun.
RITCHIE: The accents . . . You should be very comfortable with urban.
PITT: Well, you know, I like a bit of song, and dialect is a song. I’m most comfortable with the Southern dialects, really. It’s easy, for example, for me to do Irish because we’ve got Irish heritage where I come from. We also have some German heritage. The Upper East Coast, though, is a little bit more connected to a British heritage.
RITCHIE: What accents do you suffer with? Which ones are a challenge?
PITT: I’ve never done a proper Brit.
RITCHIE: Have you tried?
PITT: No, I haven’t really tried. It would have to be something specific.
PITT: Irish is lovely for me. But Cockney? Too many people know it too well.
RITCHIE: It’s fucking hard to do.
PITT: You just have to get one misstep . . . [laughs] That’s an easy one to fall into caricature. Bad caricature.
RITCHIE: What about posh English?
PITT: No, not that either. I’d say I would have to go up north and do something like Scouse or Brummie.
RITCHIE: I can’t do an American accent. It’s too close for me.
PITT: You tried, though, on Snatch. Remember?
RITCHIE: [laughs] I can’t do it. But, okay, getting back to the film . . . What, for you, is at the center of it?
PITT: Well, what Andrew wanted to do with this film was interesting: He wanted to talk about America—and America as a business—but he wanted to hide it within this low-end crime drama. We in America have some grand ideals—and some very strong ideals—but a lot of times, those ideals are used for marketing.
RITCHIE: So does business trump humanity often?
PITT: Yes—I think that’s a nice way to put it. In a way, it’s a call for responsible capitalism. But Andrew wanted to juxtapose that idea with the financial crisis and effects of that because there’s an interesting psychology at play in terms of who we are and what we do when given too much room. It started out in the ’90s, under Clinton, with the good intentions of “Everyone should own a house and have a shot at the American dream.” So you open up doors to make that possible by giving people these loans. Then, Bush comes in and deregulates everything, so there’s no one at the helm, and it becomes easier to take advantage of it because there’s no accountability. And then you know what happened from there—a lot of people got hurt. But it also says something about the nature of greed and what can happen when we don’t look beyond that. At the end of the day, what it says is that we can’t trust ourselves, that we need some governing body. I mean, people knew where things were heading–clearly, we got to the point where banks were actually betting against the very people they were giving these loans to.
RITCHIE: The old double dip . . .
PITT: Yeah, and obviously, it got ugly. But the old adage of capitalism is to make as much as you can for as little as possible. So, I mean, that’s the simple arithmetic of it all, but there are these ethical questions at play.
RITCHIE: The film also seems to touch on something about the relationship that people in America have with both politics and the media.
PITT: Well, it’s what we were talking about, how so much of what’s in the media—at least in American media—falls in line in this way where it’s just parodying the mission statement. Again, so much of it seems to be about perception. We are a country that needs a story. You know, marketing is the word that I used earlier, but it’s really just a new term for propaganda. It might be a very human thing across the board, but we, in America, love a story—we need a story to get involved in. But then everything becomes more about how the story protects a certain perception as we pick sides.
RITCHIE: So you’re saying that the story then becomes more important—
PITT: Than the actual issues, yeah. And, by the way, most people’s daily lives are just about surviving. Their lives are about making the weekly nothing and taking the kids out on a Sunday. Most people don’t have time to really study the issues. And the media could help us, but there’s capitalistic interest in the media outlets as well. It’s not the old “CBS added a 1 percent profit—that’s all we need to make in order to bankroll our news division,” like the thinking was in [Walter] Cronkite’s day. It’s not that way anymore. I mean, the Internet has done a wonderful thing for us. But democracy doesn’t work unless people are well informed, and I don’t know that we are. People just don’t have the time.
RITCHIE: One of the things that I noticed in the film, which I liked and thought was very funny, was how organized crime had become caught up in petty bureaucracy. I mean, I wasn’t sure who was actually running the card games—and I wasn’t sure if I needed to know.
PITT: Right—you never know. There is just this upper echelon who everyone has to negotiate. And what made me laugh and what I think presents so many parallels to politics was that what these guys in the film were dealing with wasn’t really the issue itself, but the perception of the issue. It was about getting the perception right so that the people who were making money could continue to make money and everyone else would fall in line as they were supposed to. Again, that’s something that relates to the way that our economy works—and, really, politics itself works. The political discussion in America is very seldom about the issues—it’s often more about the perception of the issues. We’re at a particularly ugly time when we’re at such a divide in America, but that divide is not there because everyone is trying to figure out what’s best for the people. It’s there because one side is trying to win out over the other side.
RITCHIE: So Killing Them Softly is a political film.
PITT: Yes, it is a political film.
RITCHIE: But it’s also fun.
PITT: Yes, it’s fun too, but it also asks some interesting questions. I mean, who rips Jefferson? [laughs] This film puts it on the line. Andrew does something really well in this film, which is that it’s constructed so that you never know exactly what you’re watching until the last scene.
RITCHIE: But then you’re very clear about what you’re watching in the last scene.
PITT: Yeah, then all the tumblers come in and the thing unlocks.
RITCHIE: But then the irony is that there is also a lot of humanity in the movie. At one point, your character talks about how he doesn’t like to whack people that he knows because things can get a bit touchy-feely. I liked the subtle humanity of that: that your character can whack a fella that he doesn’t know, but he can’t whack a fella that he does know. Although he’s a guy who kills people, it seems like he’s been doing it for so long that the practical aspects of the job have taken their toll. You get the sense that he has tried to kill people or has successfully killed people that he has known before, and that the process of going through that is just exhausting to him. There’s something very real-world about that.
PITT: But also, “If I do, then let’s not make him suffer. We gotta take his life from him. We all know what’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen. But let’s not drag it out.”
RITCHIE: Obviously you’ve worked with Andrew Dominik before on Jesse James. It’s interesting, because I have about 10 of my mates who I really trust creatively, and all of them—without any ambiguity at all—rank Jesse James in their top 10 films.
PITT: The Assassination of Jesse James remains one of my favorite films that I’ve done. You know, it’s still labeled a loser. In fact, Dominik couldn’t get a job for several years afterward because it got labeled that way after the opening weekend. But then we always knew, “That one’s a fine-wine film. It’s gonna age well.”
RITCHIE: You’ve done some interesting things, though, over the last several years. There’s Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds . . .
PITT: Good fun.
RITCHIE: Some fucking master strokes in that film.
PITT: I know you love Tarantino as well.
RITCHIE: Then there’s Mr. O’Brien in The Tree of Life, Billy Beane in Moneyball—just this eclectic mix of men and characters. Where has your head been at in terms of acting? Has how you approach it or feel about it changed at all?
PITT: You know, right now, this is like a clean-up-the-loose-ends-and-tidy-up-the-place kind of year, which I also look at as a refill kind of year. I’m not good at going back-to-back-to-back-to-back with movies, and it’s just now that I’m starting to get my bearings again and a flavor for what’s next. But it can’t be something repetitive that I’ve done before. I’m bored to death by that, and when I attempt things like that, it never works–I end up hurting the movie. So it’s just about discovery now and finding something new that’s interesting to me.
RITCHIE: And, again, the more practical issue of who you’re going to work with and spend your time with.
PITT: Right. That’s all got to line up, too. Those people have got to be free. So you’ve got to be thinking about the same thing at the same time. I mean, I’ve known Quentin since True Romance , and we just never crossed paths in terms of what he was doing and what I was doing. But then it came together for Inglourious Basterds—overnight, it seemed. But I always knew that one day we’d be working together, that he’d call up and I’d go, “Yep,” and then we’d go. At this point, the where is also important. I’ve been in a few nations now, and there are some places that I’d rather not go back to in order to make a film.
RITCHIE: It’s funny because there are always creative issues, but those practical issues are also significant: who you’re going to be with, where you’re going to be together, how everyone’s schedules line up, how long it’s going to take you away from your family.
PITT: Yeah. I want it to be worthy enough of a story to leave the family, you know? They’re everything. The family is first . . . I also don’t want to embarrass them.
RITCHIE: [laughs] How do you feel about yourself as an actor now?
PITT: Pretty damn solid. I’d say pretty damn solid.
RITCHIE: You’ve been producing more, too. Do you enjoy that side of things?
PITT: More than ever. More than anything, actually.
RITCHIE: Really? More than acting?
PITT: Yeah. I’d rather be behind the camera. As a producer, obviously, you’re part of a team that brings the story to the screen. It wouldn’t be there if you didn’t champion it or if you and a group of people weren’t championing it. I like that.
RITCHIE: One of the films you’re producing is Steve McQueen’s next film, 12 Years a Slave, right?
PITT: I’m very excited about that one. I’m a big fan of McQueen. Did you see the [Michael] Fassbender one that he just did, Shame?
RITCHIE: I didn’t see Shame.
PITT: Well, it’s a shame that you didn’t see Shame. There’s a real painterly way about McQueen and how he tells stories. They’re very quiet . . . It’s almost like he broods. But this one we just did, 12 Years a Slave, is a very particular story about American slavery, which is a subject that some people think we’ve dealt with and done and put away, but then you see this story and you realize that we really haven’t. It’s based on the memoir of a free black man who lived in the North and who was tricked into slavery in the South. It’s just a horror story in a lot of ways. I think it’s gonna be interesting.
RITCHIE: Is it still in production?
PITT: Just finished. Just wrapped.
RITCHIE: And then there’s World War Z, which you’re also in.
PITT: We’ve got some tidying up to do there, but that one is gonna be big and entertaining. My boys are gonna love it.
RITCHIE: Okay, let’s speed on a few.
RITCHIE: Architecture. Obviously, you’ve got a strong interest there. Does architecture relate in any way to what you do or how you think about life?
PITT: Maybe as far as how I look at structure . . . I guess the way I look at scripts and the way I look at story.
RITCHIE: You’ve talked before about being instinctual in how you approach things. Has anything surprising ever happened to you as a result of that?
PITT: I don’t know . . . I hate anecdotes. [both laugh]
RITCHIE: Well, has there been a moment when following your instincts—maybe even against the advice or the wishes of other people—has really paid off?
PITT: Yes . . . Often.
RITCHIE: Has there ever been a time when you’ve done it, and even made the right choice, but you now wish maybe you’d approached things differently?
PITT: No, because each misstep leads to the next correct step.
RITCHIE: What about your thoughts on the political front? Obviously it’s an election year.
PITT: Well, I just want to avoid confusion with this film and say I’m a big supporter of Obama, and I think he’s our best answer for the next four years.
RITCHIE: All of the sudden, I’m playing the pushy interviewer! “We’d love to hear a little bit about Brad’s feelings on marriage and fatherhood . . .”
PITT: Yeah, I bet you would. [both laugh]
RITCHIE: It’s funny how you take on the role when you do this and get all pushy.
PITT: [laughs] I do appreciate it.
RITCHIE: Should we call it a day then?
PITT: Yeah, let’s call it a day.
RITCHIE: Off to France?
PITT: I’m off to France.
RITCHIE: When will you be back?
PITT: Friday night. Where are you? You in L.A.?
RITCHIE: I’m going to L.A. tomorrow for a couple of days.
PITT: Fun, fun, fun.
RITCHIE: See you later.
PITT: Yeah, take it easy.
RITCHIE: Okay. Cheerio!