This year has been good to Brad Pitt. After turning in a nomination-worthy performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, he impressed critics anew as a lonely astronaut in James Gray’s Ad Astra.
In person, the 55-year-old Shawnee, Oklahoma native radiates a sun-burnished golden-boy aura. He’s become a better interviewee these days — noticeably more relaxed and candid. A family man, Brad occasionally refers to his children throughout our talk — six in all; three adopted (Maddox, Pax and Zahara) and three biological (Shiloh and twins Vivienne Marcheline and Leon Knox). So while the topic at hand is the space drama Ad Astra, our conversation is more earth-bound, especially since the movie is about a son’s search for his father.
Were you fascinated with astronauts as a kid?
I was fascinated with all the great adventurers like Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach thetop of Mount Everest [and the pioneers of] space exploration.Those adventures sounded very romantic to me as a kid — you don’t understand the hardships people had to go through to get there.
While Ad Astra explores space travel in the future, the film is ultimately about the relationship between a son and his father.
[It’s about] both themes. Space travel is a genre I love. Alien was one of my favorite movies as a kid; my dad took me to the theater at far too young an age. Before this movie, I hadn’t found a project about space travel that would be a unique addition to the genre.
But after talking to my old friend James Gray, I thought he had that unique perspective. He and I had these open conversations about our childhoods, now that we are both fathers with kids.
In your conversations with James, what reflections surprised you?
James would send me emails every morning about moments in his life, things that could be very painful or humiliating — how he mistook something at a certain time, the repercussions of a particular event, or what he got wrong last week in his family life.
We don’t normally speak on such a level. And that, I really appreciated from him. It was always in reference to whatever the day’s scenes would be. That would start a dialogue between us that would then inform filming throughout the day as we chipped away at the scenes or added a little something else that would come up in our discussions.
How often do you have conversations with yourself?
Oh my God, I talk to myself far too much. That mind chatter goes on all day long and it even continues in your sleep. You wake up and it’s still going. That, to me, is the biggest challenge; to turn off, to just be here in the moment, be here with others. Certainly for me, I find it one of the biggest challenges of being human.
Is it a critical voice?
Oh yeah. It could be really self-criticizing. It could be worrying. It could be hubris, which is such a trap. The idea of just accepting what comes your way throughout the day, even bad traffic — your reaction to traffic is a great gauge for how at peace you are that day — is not a passive thing. It takes constant vigilance.
Are you open with your feelings to your kids?
Certainly to my kids. My dad, who came from extreme poverty, once said: “I wanted to give my kids a better life than I had.” And he did. So it makes me think of what can I give my kids, how I can make it better for them, and this kind of openness is [how I do it].
Your character in Ad Astra has a deep sense of loneliness. How do you relate to that feeling in real life?
I don’t think I’m the only one. You experience those bouts of loneliness in your lifetime. Feelings of despair, of meaninglessness, of being not worthy — and really being able to get your arms around what’s real about that and what’s more like a virus on the psyche.
I have a friend who worked at a hospice. He said the only thing people talk about in the end wasn’t their careers, successes, or what cars they had. They just talk about their loves or their regrets. So that’s pretty telling about what we should be focusing on every day.
What do you think will be your regrets?
I’m hoping not to have any. I’m hoping to deal with all of them before then, as they come up.
So, are you dealing with any regrets now?
I think we always do. We carry them, we bury them. We also label things as “regrets”. Maybe it’s the wrong perspective. When you are able to really parse those moments in life and understand them for what they were, you will most likely be giving yourself a break as well.
It takes some self-forgiveness too. If there is something you need to clean up, then you clean it up. And that’s the best you can do.
Where else do you go to answer the questions you seek?
Man, wherever I can. I turn to books. There are a lot of great podcasts; I listen to those on philosophy. I will read the occasional book on spirituality. I try to meditate. I try to go to therapy. I try to talk to friends — the most stuff gets hashed out just by batting thoughts around with them.
You were quoted as saying that when you were young, it was harder to connect with your emotions. Are you more in touch with your emotions today?
I wouldn’t say we were expected to. We just weren’t taught another way. We weren’t taught to take stock of how we were feeling and how to deal with those emotions. So yes, I try to make that a daily practice. It can start with the body, like what am I feeling, and then just to check in, like if you get frustrated with something —what is at the heart of it, what first triggered it, what’s really going on, what’s really bothering you? And usually, you get to something and you can put it away.
How do you escape from everything?
I spend a lot of time in an art studio. Filmmaking is a collaborative sport, like a band in which everyone comes together to make something work. But spending solo time in an art studio, it’s all on you. I am curious about what comes out of the subconscious and that exploration. I enjoy nature; I love a cookout with friends. The kids bring [out] a lot of energy and playfulness [in me].
If you were heading back to earth after a long time in space, where would you like to land and why?
Can I just land in my yard? I’d be really happy (laughs). I got home last night and slept in my own bed. Man, it’s hard to beat that, isn’t it? If I was gone a long time, I’m going home.
I take a lot of motorcycle trips when I can. I really want to see New Zealand — especially the South Island — Chile, or the Dolomites in Italy. We just got back from Japan and I really was taken with it. I’d like to explore more of the country.
Do you think there are other living beings in the universe?
There’s this Arthur Clarke quote: “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” And that is where James and I took off for the film — what if it’s just us, are we missing something here, are we doing the best we can for each other and what we do have?
Me, I really don’t care either way (laughs). I just mean, this idea that it’s a mysterious universe and it’s infinite, that there are billions of galaxies — it’s beyond my comprehension. So I would say yeah, probably. Are they lower beings, are they more advanced beings, have they died out? We can speculate all day long. It’s fun to think about it.
Have you taken a trip where you came back and it was a journey of self-discovery?
Yeah, but I’ll keep those tucked away in my pocket (laughs).
This article first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Smile magazine.