I was standing in front of the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara on Wednesday night when Brad Pitt emerged from his Brinks-like vehicle to a chorus of screams from waiting fans. Some of them were lucky enough to get a handshake, an autograph or a selfie from the affable actor. It was clear to my daughter Jessie and me that this was a bona fide Movie Star: he positively glowed.
Brad was there for an evening of tribute from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Having hosted these events (now called the Maltin Modern Master) for thirty years I’ve seen how people react to stars in their midst, from George Clooney and Will Smith to Cate Blanchett and Glenn Close. Nothing has ever matched the frenzy that Brad engendered—outside and inside the theater.
I’d never interviewed the actor before, although we had exchanged pleasantries on one or two occasions. I knew he was a nice man whom a colleague described as “Midwestern polite.” What I didn’t know was how funny, even goofy, he could be. I got a taste of this as soon as I introduced him onstage following a career-spanning montage. As I walked to stage left to take my seat for our interview, he dashed over and followed right behind me in Buster Keaton-ish lockstep, none of which I could see, while the audience laughed and cheered.
In introducing the tribute, festival director Roger Durling informed the jam-packed audience that Brad and I shared a December birth date. Brad kicked off our conversation by also noting that we were both journalism majors. He left the University of Missouri one term paper shy of a bachelor’s degree because he’d caught the acting bug and decided to drive to Los Angeles. He had no connections in show business but managed to support himself for a year and a half working as an extra. (Cast as a waiter, he tried ad libbing a line of dialogue, only to be shot down by an angry assistant director.)
We proceeded to have a relaxed conversation about his career, punctuated by well-chosen film clips. Brad’s responses were honest and thoughtful, although he admitted that Missourians tend not to analyze themselves. Even with twelve excerpts from major movies we only scratched the surface: after all, he’s been working for more than 30 years and earned his first Oscar nomination 25 years ago (for 12 Monkeys).
He carries himself with confidence but isn’t cocky or self-absorbed. (Following a clip from The Assassination of the Outlaw Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford he was impelled to praise his costar Sam Rockwell.) He knows how big a role luck has played in his career and is grateful for the opportunities that have come his way. He admitted to turning down The Matrix but wouldn’t elaborate on other parts he lost or bypassed—because he wouldn’t want to embarrass a fellow actor. He’s aware that he and the cast of Oceans 12 probably had a much better time than the audience, confirming that George Clooney was their inspired ringleader.
He singled out David Fincher as his favorite director and explained that whenever they work together he knows he’s in good hands. Scenes from Seven, Fight Club, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button bore this out. Fincher was there to sing Brad’s praises and hand him his award at the end of the evening—which Brad said was a surprise because normally they needle each other.
He also generously thanked me, adding a few notes of mock criticism and summing up by saying that he would rate the interview ***. I might kick that up a notch.