By Jake Coyle
AP Entertainment Writer
The face is hardly wrinkled and the long blond locks appear unchanged, but Brad Pitt, who will turn 49 this month, is increasingly preoccupied with the passage of time and the thought that his rarefied place in movies is fleeting.
It’s now been more than 20 years since Pitt broke out as the heartthrob of “Thelma & Louise.” While nothing has diminished his status as one of the few genuine movie stars on the planet, Pitt says he’s now working as if an expiration date lurks.
“I’m definitely past halfway,” says Pitt. “I think about it very much as a father. You just want to be around to see (your children) do everything. If I have so many days left, how am I filling those days? I’ve been agonizing over that one a bit like I never have before.”
But that sense of urgency has helped fuel some of Pitt’s best, most daring work, including his new film, “Killing Them Softly.” It’s his second with Andrew Dominik, the New Zealand-born director of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” In the adaption of George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel, “Cogan’s Trade,” Pitt plays a hit man operating in a shabby underworld of image-conscious gangsters.
It’s almost surprising how few blockbusters Pitt has starred in over the last decade. Instead, he’s gravitated toward working with revered directors like Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”) and the Coen brothers, and shaping his opportunities by producing them. His production company, Plan B, produced both “Jesse James” and “Killing Them Softly,” as well as many of his films in between.
More often than not, he’s sought to downplay his glamor, a track begun with David Fincher’s “Fight Club” and extended with ruminations on celebrity (Dominik’s “Jesse James”) and more character actor roles than most leading men would dare (his ditzy personal trainer in the Coens’ “Burn After Reading,” his Nazi-killing lieutenant in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”). “Killing Them Softly,” too, is an ensemble, with James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn.
Even in last year’s performance as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in “Moneyball” (for which he landed his third Oscar nomination), Pitt deliberately played it low-key.
“Life is more interesting,” says the Missouri-bred Pitt. “I enjoy the fantasy; I enjoy when everyone wins. I just don’t contribute to that idea very well, for better or worse. There’s something subversive in my Christian upbringing or something, my mid-America upbringing. That irreverent urge that makes you want to yell or fart during the Benediction in church. I just can’t help it.”
And yet, Pitt has simultaneously carried the movie star mantle with seeming ease. Though his relationship with Angelina Jolie, with whom he has six children, has made him a constant tabloid target, he’s relaxed and unguarded in conversation. He says his celebrity “hasn’t bugged me since the ’90s,” but he acknowledges that he occasionally trades on it: “I mean, I play some smart ball,” he says.
“The difficulty with Brad was always: What can you cast a movie star in?” says Dominik. “You have to deal with it. You have to cast him as someone extraordinary, which I guess he is. He’s the cool guy in the movie.”
Certainly a very un-“Fight Club” thing to do was the recent Chanel ad campaign Pitt stars in, where he smolders in black-and-white and says things like “It’s not a journey” into the camera. The spots were mocked on “Saturday Night Live,” to which Pitt says cheerfully: “Fair play, fair play.” After a reporter admits not knowing much about fragrances, he laughs: “Apparently, neither do I.”
So why do it?
“Never done it before,” says Pitt. “Respect the company. I’m getting old. Last time I’ll probably be able to do something like that.”
It’s a line of reasoning that seems pervasive in Pitt’s choices right now, including his current project: “World War Z.” It’s a zombie action film reportedly budgeted at $180 million that could give Pitt what his resume is missing: a franchise.
“I’m not a franchise guy,” he says. “They told me I should be focusing on that, as I’m getting older and cresting the precipice and heading down the other side: ‘You should really bank one of those.’ I’m just not good at it.”