By Donna Freydkin, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - Brad Pitt bounds into a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, doles out a quick handshake that turns into a hug, and sprints to one of the three windows in the room. He pulls open the curtains and looks at the sleet and rain hammering Manhattan 29 floors below him. Like any commuter, Pitt is concerned about annoying travel delays and getting to work on time.
"I gotta get out of here. I go straight to set," he says, referring to the London re-shoots of the zombie flickWorld War Z. "I just buzzed in and am buzzing out. I hit the plane this afternoon."
Yes, this is what the most famous actor in the world is really like. Shockingly, weirdly, almost off-puttingly accessible. Once you get past the thick layers of security - necessary, as evidenced by a hotel employee who had earlier flipped out in ecstasy after seeing Pitt in person - and peel back all your expectations, fed by years of panting tabloid coverage of everything Pitt, you meet a guy who's friendly, a bit tired, and exceedingly pleasant.
"He's the most normal guy. I spent a lot of time with him on those Ocean's movies - he doesn't do anything to drum up that insanity. He lives in the middle of that and he's somehow found a way to not go crazy. He's not crazy," confirms his friend Matt Damon, who had just seen Pitt. "I don't know if that's his family or his upbringing and now it's become his children and his wife. It's incredible - seeing him yesterday, he's the same great guy from Missouri. I don't understand how he keeps doing great work. It would seem to me that you would lose your ability to be a human being. I genuinely don't know how he's still such a great guy, such a real guy."
Ask Pitt that question and he just laughs. That's probably the better and smarter alternative to furiously and futilely fighting the constant scrutiny lavished on him and his family, fiancée Angelina Jolie and their six kids, Maddox, 11, Pax, 9, Zahara, 7, Shiloh, 6, and twins Knox and Vivienne, 4.
"We're a double whammy, Angie and I. I jumped into this thing somehow as a tabloid magnet. I'm not sure what I did," says Pitt. "We stay blissfully naïve to all of it. You can't do anything about it. More importantly, I trust my decision-making process. When you have that other feedback, those other comments, they're always in the back there. They color your thinking in an unpure way. I don't like that. I don't want anything steering me right or left. I find it a much healthier way to live and my decisions are better, because they're strictly mine."
He applies that same instinctual approach to his career. It's how and why he signed on to star in Killing Them Softly, a Mob drama directed by Andrew Dominik that opens Friday. He'd worked with Pitt on 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Dominik had sent Pitt a text, asking if he was interested in playing a cool-headed and practical hit man. Pitt said yes. The next day, they hashed out the deal at Pitt's L.A. home, sans agents or managers.
"I don't know if I've ever made one happen faster. Andrew is a friend of mine and someone I trust with anything and everything," says Pitt.
What fuels his decisions? "It's more about the company I keep. But I liked this idea. Selfishly, for me, it's getting to do something more urban from my upbringing in the old Ozarks," he says. "I thought it was a very provocative telling. People came in. We did it for no money. We shot the whole film in five or six weeks. It's pretty fun."
Dominik first approached Pitt because they had a history together, and a rich working relationship. Plus, he says, Pitt has that ephemeral quality you can't really quantify. You know it when you see it.
"He always seems to retain his mystery on screen. There's something unattainable about Brad. There's something mysterious about him," says Dominik. "Brad is a naturally very generous guy. This time, he gets to play a selfish (expletive) and gets to take a holiday from himself. You have to cast Brad as someone exceptional. Here, he's the enforcer. He's a cool part."
In person, too, says Dominik, Pitt is just as disarming. "He's really hard to buy a gift for. He gives a lot. It's hard to receive," says the director. "I find Brad to be very straightforward, very stubborn. He's a contrarian. He's not frightened. That might be unusual for a movie star in his situation. He's very fearless. When things have been difficult in my life, he's been there. I admire the way he handles himself."
Would Pitt go into acting today, if he knew what the industry was like and the impact fame would have on his life?
"Now, at this age? No, but not because of acting. I have other, quieter interests," says the Oscar-nominated actor, who works with the Make It Right foundation, which builds green homes for lower-income families, and dabbles in architecture, jewelry and furniture design.
Pitt doesn't come across as angry or bitter or fed-up with his supersized existence, which is based in Los Angeles, New Orleans and a chateau in France. His life just is what it is. The fans are who they are. And things, he says, have calmed down - somewhat.
"It's changed a little bit. Now, being older, it's actually sweeter. It's nicer in some ways. Somewhere in the middle it got really ugly, the grabbing, not seeing that there's a person there," he says. "That was coming from the bounty hunt for pictures. It's an older generation now. We're all getting older."
His birthday is next month and in one year, he turns 50. To say Pitt is aging gracefully is to call Chanel just another clothing line. "I'm actually kinda doing it. Talk to me in 10 years when the knees aren't working at all," he says.
As for his upcoming nuptials, Pitt remains circumspect, telling reporters only that it may happen soon. His home life, says the actor, revolves around his brood. He and Jolie take turns working; she just shot the fable Maleficent in England.
"We keep the family together and one of us can always be home with the kids. By the way, it's a really nice break. Mom worked all summer. I got to spend a lot of time with them. We got to come up and spend time at mommy's work. It's just the way to do it," he says.
When told about this reporter's problems with toddler tantrums, Pitt nods. He gets it. And he also understands the mess that kids usher in, and the inability to keep any area of any dwelling toy-free.
"After two, you just throw in the towel. It's just nice. Once you get to three or four or five or six, it makes it a little bit richer," he says of his children. "There's a few more sounds in the house. I love it. I love the chaos. I love the big family. I love the chaos in the house. It's so full of light. As long as you've got a place to be a quiet, but you don't because they take over those areas too. It's not your home anymore."
And what about the obsession with crayons or markers? Yes, Pitt's been there.
"Oh man. One of them ended up with a Sharpie. I walked into our room and am washing my hands in the bathroom. I look over. What's that on the sink? I trace a line across the wall, across the shades, the bathtub, into the bedroom, along the wall, up over the bed. Someone had covered the entire place and ended in big scribbling at the end," he says, not naming the culprit. "It was a she. It was two shes. One inspired the other to keep going."
He's adorable when discussing his kids, just another doting and bemused dad telling stories about them and Jolie, as long as they're not for publication. As the interview wraps up, Pitt checks the time, glancing at the stunning gold timepiece on his left arm.
"My missus got me this watch. It's an old one," he says.
Clearly, Jolie knows her man. If there's one thing to note about Pitt, it's the difficulty in finding a good present for him. Dominik says he's impossible to buy for. Pitt agrees.
"I don't want people to buy me gifts. I feel guilty. I'm not good at accepting gifts. I feel uncomfortable. Buy me a drink!"