Snapshot: An unseasonably hot May night in New York, 1991. The feminist road movie “Thelma & Louise” has just had a splashy premiere, with an after-party at a Mexican restaurant. A 27-year-old actor named Brad Pitt, who started the night as an unknown, has emerged from the screening as the breakout story. At the party, he and his girlfriend, Juliette Lewis, greet well-wishers at their table — not a crush of fans, mind you, but the kind of high-energy scrum that announces to everyone present: From now on, this young man will be a star.
A friend and I happened to witness the transformation firsthand that night. But as we watched the blond, baby-faced actor throw back beers with his posse, we weren’t entirely sure whether Pitt knew that his life had irrevocably changed.
“I remember that night,” he said in a call from Los Angeles last week. “But I was absolutely naive and was not prepared for what it would mean. I just wanted to be in movies, I wanted opportunities, and that’s what I saw from that.”
Those opportunities came, and Pitt seized them so shrewdly that, over the ensuing two decades, he became one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood. He has been nominated for an Oscar twice, for his performances in “Twelve Monkeys” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Odds are good he’ll earn a third nod for his new movie, another mind-bending time-travel drama called “The Tree of Life,” from legendary auteur Terrence Malick.
The ambitious epic, opening in the Washington area June 3, weaves together the life of a 1950s family in Texas with the birth of the universe, existential meaning and cosmic questions of faith. It just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where Pitt worked the reporters, paparazzi and rope lines of adoring fans with practiced finesse.
But when “The Tree of Life” won the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or last Sunday, Pitt wasn’t on the Riviera but in Hollywood, attending the premiere of “Kung Fu Panda 2” with Angelina Jolie and their six kids.
“I like a bit of extremes,” he said. “And by the way, [“Kung Fu Panda 2”] is really good, too.”
In “The Tree of Life,” Pitt, 47, plays a character named Mr. O’Brien, a strict, by-the-book father to three boys who grow up equally oppressed by his fiery temper and in awe of his godlike moral power. The movie traces how the eldest son, Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn), comes to terms with those contradictory feelings. Malick cast three nonprofessional kids to play the O’Brien boys. When they filmed “The Tree of Life” in Smithville, Tex., the director took over an entire residential block, stocked the fictional O’Brien home with real toys and closets full of clothes and essentially ordered the actors to simply behave like their characters, while cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki caught it all on a hand-held camera.
The spontaneous, immersive filming style, Pitt said, commanded a deeper level of performance than most sets. And acting with the kids entailed some tough love. “Like on the first day, during the dinner scene, they were looking at me as ‘Brad-Pitt-actor-guy.’ I’m trying to be stern with them, and they’re laughing.
“I had to establish on that day that . . . they had to take this seriously. I had to reprimand them and send them away from the table. And from that moment on, I could be friends with them, but they had to know this was serious. And they’d never know when I was going to go off.”
That sequence stayed in “The Tree of Life,” which unfolds less as a story than as shards of memory, both idealized and bitterly stark. The moments between Pitt and the children are especially potent, as likely to end in a hug and a kiss as with an explosive outburst of temper.
Embodying Mr. O’Brien brought home powerful truths about parenting for Pitt. “Actions speak louder than words,” he said, “and it’s no more true than with your kids. I’m painfully aware of the effect I have on them in their formative years, and I’m careful not to bring my [stress] home and burden them with that and worry them with that. I want them to have the joy that they carry and the freedom of exploration. My job is to prepare them for the world and to help them find out what they want in life, and to foster that and not get in the way of that.”
As a paragon of “Father Knows Best”-style authoritarianism of the 1950s, but also of the era’s postwar disaffection, Pitt added, Mr. O’Brien “feels quite oppressed by his surroundings and his job, and is quite bitter about it and doesn’t know how to handle it. And in turn he brings that home and puts pressure on his kids.
“This idea that Father knows best just didn’t sit well in the end. It was more complicated than that.”
Pitt also executive-produced “The Tree of Life,” which he didn’t intend to star in until the possibility arose that it would not be made at all. Pitt began producing five years ago, with the Sudanese refugee documentary “God Grew Tired of Us” and the Martin Scorsese crime drama “The Departed,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2007.
Since then, he has made it a point to champion auteurs such as Malick, Mike White (“The Year of the Dog”) and Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and the upcoming “Cogan’s Trade”), who may otherwise struggle in a marketplace that rarely rewards singular artistic visions.
“I’ve seen many stories not being told because they haven’t had the right force behind them,” Pitt said of his prodigious producing slate. “We have three people in our company, with a mandate to help stories and storytellers get [financed] that might not otherwise get made.”
At the “Tree of Life” news conference in Cannes, a reporter pointed out that, unlike many of his peers — and Jolie herself — Pitt has largely stayed away from the big action roles that actors often leverage to subsidize their passion projects. “I’m not that highbrow,” he demurred. “But about 10 years ago, I started thinking about my favorite films, and they weren’t the big commercial things. They were things that had a little more depth and were asking questions.”
Increasingly, Pitt said from L.A., he has been drawn to working with directors who will allow him to “mess it up” in the same loosely planned approach Malick used in “The Tree of Life.” There’s no doubt that Pitt has delivered some of his best performances in recent years in movies by David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “Benjamin Button”, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (“Babel”) and Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James”), as well as delectable comic turns in Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” movies and the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading.”
What even those disparate outings share are performances from Pitt that exude a newfound, even reckless energy. “The best moments can’t be preconceived,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in editing rooms, and a scene can be technically perfect, with perfect delivery and facial expression and timing, and you remember all your lines, and it is dead. When you’re feeling something, dialogue is irrelevant.”
On “The Tree of Life,” Malick would regularly “torpedo” a scene, injecting an unexpected element to throw the actors off the written script and into the present moment. “Now, on subsequent jobs, I try to torpedo myself, in a way,” Pitt said, “and I’ve been working with directors who have been heading in that direction, as well.”
It all loops back to that muggy May night in 1991, when Pitt didn’t know what was about to hit him. When he first shot to stardom, he said, he didn’t always make the right choices (“Johnny Suede,” anyone?). “I think I spent more time jacking around a little bit,” he recalled of that period. “I was more attuned to irreverence and not doing what I was supposed to be doing.
“You asked earlier about being a father. I’m conscious that my kids are going to grow up and see these films someday, and I want them to mean something. . . . I’m much more interested in leaving them something they’ll be proud of in the end. I’ve only got so many more of these to do, so I’m just more focused on them having some meaning.”
opens at Landmark’s Bethesda Row on June 3.