Brad Pitt has a great laugh: a sort of staccato, slow-rolling ah-huh-huh-huh that makes you think of surfers and cowboys and movie stars. He uses it more than once to excellent effect as Cliff Booth, the laconic stuntman-cum-sidekick who stumbles into the dark heart of the Manson family in Quentin Tarantino’s showbiz Babylon Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and not at all in the lonely-astronaut epic Ad Astra (out Sept. 20), though it often punctuates his conversation with EW about both those roles.
To say that one of the world’s most beloved and best-known celebrities is having a moment 30-plus years into his career feels, at this point, pretty much indisputable. But don’t call it a comeback, or a Brad-aissance; several times over the course of a friendly, sometimes philosophical interview he’ll insist that his only goal is “putting stories out into the world” — which in 2019 means not just starring in a pair of films that may well end up dominating the coming awards season but also continuing to head up Plan B Entertainment, the boutique production company responsible for a vanguard slate of films, including Vice, Moonlight, Beautiful Boy, and 12 Years a Slave.
That laugh comes tumbling out again when he’s asked to find the thread between Hollywood’s Cliff, a sort of beach-boy Lebowski with a singular gift for sudden violence, and Ad Astra’s Maj. Roy McBride, an almost pathologically contained spaceman on a solo mission to Mars. “Well, Cliff is by far a much easier way to live, and certainly I would say what we’re all striving for,” he says, chuckling. “But to get to Cliff’s peace of mind and acceptance in the day, you’d probably have to go through Roy’s dilemma to get there.”
Pitt quickly grows more serious, though, on the subject of Roy’s arc in Astra — an emotional journey that often finds the major struggling to maintain his NASA-trained composure even as the fate of both his family and the free world (and, the movie heavily implies, his soul, too) hangs in the balance. “Toxic masculinity, that may be a little harsh as a term? But certainly we’re questioning what is masculinity,” he muses. “Having grown up in an era where we are taught to be stoic, taught to be capable, not to show weakness, never be disrespected — that works for the pioneer spirit, I guess, on the plain when you’re trying to make your claim. But it’s also very limiting, because it doesn’t embrace the whole human being.”
And while he admits to having no special affinity for space movies (“Um no, not specifically. I mean, when I was a kid my dad took me to see Alien, and that’s still everything”), Astra did get him pondering the mysteries of the universe, as it were: “In all our concepts and constructs of how we understand life to work, there are powers there that we cannot even begin to understand,” he marvels. “Powers that can bend time, and gravitational forces that could crush a planet. And just that we ourselves are made from dying stars — I find that really awe-inspiring, just because of how much we don’t know and yet how connected we are to it.”
Astra director James Gray (The Lost City of Z), who has known Pitt for more than two decades, tells EW that though he didn’t pen the script for his longtime friend — “I never actually write projects with actors in mind, because you’re always disappointed when they don’t do it” — he did end up getting exactly the performance he hoped for: “In some ways, because he’s a star, Brad’s acting is underrated. To control a performance and still convey the ideas and the emotions necessary for the film I think is as difficult as anything, really. To be kind of showy — and by the way I’m not saying this about him in Quentin’s movie, which I think is wonderful — but sometimes a showy performance can lead us in a very obvious series of choices. But he understood it completely, this character who lives so much in his own head.”
Heady isolation isn’t so much an option in Pitt’s other day job as the cofounder and CEO of Plan B, which often involves developing and championing the kinds of films that fall far outside his own lived experience. “It’s certainly not by design,” he says of the company’s particular track record with black auteurs like Ava DuVernay and Steve McQueen. “Myself and my partners Jeremy [Kleiner] and Dede [Gardner] have an extreme belief in equality and this want for justice in an unjust world, and I think we naturally are kind of guided that way. We were trying to get Selma made for years, and it wasn’t until 12 Years did what it did that it suddenly opened the door for all of these others.”
“Certainly when we started,” he goes on, “it was at a time when we saw that the studios just weren’t taking that kind of gamble on more complex mid-range budgeted films. “[And] I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to contribute to the zeitgeist…. But you know for every one that gets made, there’s another 10, so it takes a fight for all of them. And I can’t tell you how many talented, talented people there are still struggling to to be able to tell their story, the one that moved them. That’s where we were able to apply our muscle in a way that I never even expected when we started.”
In fact since its 2001 founding, the company has already racked up three Best Picture wins (for The Departed, 12 Years a Slave, and Moonlight). But the thrice-nominated actor promises he’s not interested in gunning for personal gold, despite the growing buzz on Astra and Hollywood. “Oh, man. I’m gonna abstain,” he says of campaigning for either role (though his generous recent press schedule may belie that). “I mean, you never know, and it’s really nice when your number comes up. But the goal is for the film to land, to speak to someone whether it’s now or a decade from now. I find chasing it actually a disservice to the purity of your telling a story, and a shackling thing to focus on.”
He’s less circumspect when it comes to another, less expected career avenue: the world of prestige television, where A-list peers like Nicole Kidman and Matthew McConaughey have already blazed a trail. “Could I see it? Absolutely,” he says. “What I love about TV is that you get to spend more time with the characters. You have to let go of so many scenes in order to fit into the ‘film’ container, as far as running time and how it plays, and with a series, being able to break it up, you can expand so much more. I’m especially drawn to the comedies that are able to do that. That might just be romantic of me, I may have to go with the times, so we’ll see. We’ll see where it all lands, but that’s certainly of interest.”
In the meantime there’s more than enough to keep him occupied, between promoting his current projects and tending to a production slate that this year already includes Astra and the Sundance sensation The Last Black Man in San Francisco (which EW named the best film of 2019 so far this past June), as well as the upcoming Timothée Chalamet drama The King and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ Underground Railroad series for Amazon. So does that mean there could be some truth to a recent viral magazine quote that implied he’d soon be done with big-screen acting?
“I was just saying that it’s really a younger man’s game,” he insists. “Not that there aren’t still parts and interesting things to do. As I get older and transition does its thing, the great thing about producing is you still get to be part of what I love most, which is storytelling. Or maybe it’s just me, maybe I’ve just seen my interests broadening or shifting into other things. But no. No!” — one last, long ah-huh-huh-huh — “It’s not a claim of retirement.”