Brad Pitt On Making 'Ad Astra,' Processing Trauma And Channeling David Bowie

Sep 22, 2019
Originally published on September 22, 2019 8:31 am

In the near future, resources on Earth are limited, space pirates fight for control of the moon, and travel into deep space is possible.

At least that's the future in Ad Astra, directed by James Gray and starring Brad Pitt. In the new sci-fi movie, Pitt plays astronaut Roy McBride, the son of space hero Clifford McBride, who commanded a mission called the Lima Project.

That mission disappeared somewhere in the outer reaches of the solar system many years ago. But when he learns that his father may still be alive, the younger McBride sets out to find him.

When we spoke with Pitt, now 55, he walked into the room stretching his back and quipping about his age. "I'm just an old guy sitting in chairs," he said.

He wears his years lightly — same piercing eyes and slow smile — though it's been a rough few years for Pitt: a messy, public divorce (still ongoing) from Angelina Jolie; a custody battle over their six children; getting sober, with a stint in rehab.

But Ad Astra has been a passion project for Pitt — he's been working on getting it made for years. It deals with themes that are relevant for both Pitt and James Gray.

"We're both fathers ourselves, and we wanted to do something very sincere and raw and painfully honest," he said. "That was our jumping-off point."


Interview Highlights

On what the movie tries to impart regarding men and processing trauma

Well, it's just that. I don't know that we've been taught to deal with those painful events very well. In fact, we're better at burying them — at least certainly speaking for myself. You know, it's this Marlboro Man image of: Don't show weakness. But then we were questioning: In doing that, are we actually denying our own feelings? Denying a part of ourselves — a vulnerability, in this guise of Superman — to really be open for our loved ones, for our sons and daughters, in the sense that we're all flawed; most of us are doing the best we can. And is there a peace of mind that comes from embracing one's foibles and humiliations as well as our successes?

On what he drew on for his character

It seems universal that we all carry great pains, great feelings of loneliness and regrets. I had a friend who worked in a hospice and he said: The only thing that people talk about is their loves and then their regrets in love, dealing with love. I thought: Man, that's really interesting. If that's our focus on the way out, better start working on that now.

On if his divorce has influenced his performance

I would be exploring it whether there was a script that allowed that or not. A breakup of a family is certainly an eye-opener that as one — and I'm speaking in general again — but as one needs to understand, I had to understand my own culpability in that, and what can I do better. Because I don't want to go on like this.

On how to embrace a healthier type of masculinity from a young age

I don't know how to answer that, but it is the question. We seem to be a culture where we will impugn someone for their missteps, but we don't value what is the next move. And the next move, to me, really defines the character of the individual — to redirect, recalibrate. I see that going on certainly in the workplace, certainly in Hollywood; male and female interactions that needed to be recalibrated [are] being recalibrated in a positive way. Questions of equality certainly still, still need to be recalibrated.

On once confronting Harvey Weinstein on behalf of then-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow

Well, I can only speak to my experience. ... I mean, we're talking about an event in the late '90s, I think it was. I mean for me, I was just — I'm a guy from the Ozarks, and that's the way we handle things. ... She was going to do a couple more films with him; just had to make sure it wasn't going to happen again.

On acting less over time, and on aging in general

Yeah, I mean, I have artistic aspirations. There are things I just enjoy that are ... it's not pottery. I mean, there's amazing ceramicists. In fact, I just got back from Japan, and people dedicate their entire lives to a craft, and so exquisitely done, and I just — I admire that so much. That kind of quest for that kind of beauty — I feel like that speaks to us, and brings us together. But no, I just see it [acting] becoming less and less as you get older. ...

What I find, you know: What we trade off in looks and dexterity, we gain in wisdom. And I will make that trade any day ... But I [have] certainly lived more of my life than I have left to live. And so I start thinking about how I want to go out. I have this romantic — it's probably a projection, but — this romantic idea of David Bowie going out with such grace, and full acceptance. And it really appeals to me.

Sophia Alvarez Boyd and Samantha Balaban produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In the near future, resources on Earth are limited. Space pirates fight for control of the moon. And travel into deep space is possible. That's the setup for the new film "Ad Astra." Brad Pitt plays astronaut Roy McBride, the son of space hero Clifford McBride, who commanded a mission called the Lima Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AD ASTRA")

BRAD PITT: (As Roy McBride) First manned expedition to the outer solar system, sir - the ship disappeared approximately 16 years into the mission. And no data was ever recovered. Deep-space missions were halted after that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, Roy, we believe your father is still alive near Neptune.

PITT: (As Roy McBride) My father's alive, sir?

BLOCK: So now Roy must travel to the edge of the solar system to find him. Lulu Garcia-Navarro met up with Brad Pitt last week to talk about the movie and more.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Hi.

PITT: Hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How are you? Nice to meet you.

PITT: How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

PITT: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi.

PITT: Yeah - very nice to meet you. Ow.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You OK?

PITT: This old guy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

PITT: (Groaning).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brad Pitt walked into the room stretching his back, quipping about his age, now 55. He wears his years lightly, though, the same piercing eyes and slow smile and that megastar wattage. Still, it's been a rough few years for Pitt - a messy, public divorce still ongoing from Angelina Jolie, a custody battle over their six children, getting sober with a stint in rehab. "Ad Astra" has been a passion project for him. He's been working on getting it made for years. And it deals with themes that are particularly relevant for both Pitt and director James Gray.

PITT: We're both around the same age and fathers ourselves. And we wanted to do something very sincere and raw and painfully honest. And that was our jumping-off point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say painfully honest - I mean, what is it that the movie's trying to sort of impart? I've seen you talk a lot about masculinity, about how men deal with traumatic events, difficult things. I mean, this is a character that lost his father and really struggles to talk about it. What is it about that that you want to show?

PITT: Well, it's just that - that I don't know that we've been taught to deal with those painful events very well. In fact, we're better at burying them, at least certainly speaking for myself. You know, it's this Marlboro man image of don't show weakness. But then we were questioning, you know, in doing that, are we actually denying our own feelings, denying a part of ourselves, a vulnerability in this guise of Superman to really be open for our loved ones, for our sons and daughters in the sense that we're all flawed? We're - most of us are doing the best we can. And is there a peace of mind that comes from embracing, you know, one's foibles and humiliations as well as, you know, just our successes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So because it was such a labor of love for you, because it was such a personal film - and I read how much you talked with the director about your own experiences - what did you kind of delve into to portray this character?

PITT: Well, I mean, without getting specific, you know...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Get specific.

PITT: (Laughter) Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's fine. It's just between us (laugher).

PITT: Yeah. No. You know, it's, you know - it's - it seems universal that we all carry great pains and great feelings of loneliness and regrets. I had a friend who worked in a hospice. And he said, the only thing that people talk about is their loves and then their regrets in love, dealing with love. I thought, man, that's really interesting. If that's our focus on the way out, better start working on that now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was that something that you have come to recently? I mean, you know, going through a difficult divorce and the many things that you've gone through at this particular time - is that something that you wanted to kind of explore on-screen?

PITT: I would be exploring it whether there was a, you know, a script that allowed that or not. A breakup of a family is certainly an eye-opener that - as one - and I'm speaking general again...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand.

PITT: But as one needs to understand, you know, I had to understand my own culpability in that and what can I do better because I don't want to go on like this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that - coming back to the idea of masculinity is that, you know, there is a discussion right now about men and how can we embrace this idea of masculinity at a young age and sort of not have this be so difficult.

PITT: I don't know how to answer that. But it is the question. We seem to be a culture where we will impugn someone for their missteps. But we don't value what is the next move. And the next move to me really defines the character of the individual to redirect, recalibrate. I see that going on certainly in the workplace, certainly in Hollywood, male and female interactions that needed to be recalibrated - is being recalibrated in a positive way. Questions of equality certainly still need to be recalibrated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You brought up equality. And I want to ask you, obviously, because you did have an interaction with Harvey Weinstein back in the day. His trial is coming up. He says that he is not guilty. Do you have any thoughts on that?

PITT: Well, I can only speak to my experience. And...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Please.

PITT: Certainly, I mean, we're talking about an event in the late '90s, I think it was. I mean, for me, I was just - you know, I'm a guy from the Ozarks. That's where we handle things. And...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is - yeah. When you...

PITT: He - yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Obviously defended Gwyneth Paltrow...

PITT: Well, he had - yes...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Your girlfriend at the time.

PITT: She was going to do a couple more films with them - just had to make sure it wasn't going to happen again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess I'm asking because, back then, you had to deal with it in a certain way. And that might have been the only way to have dealt with it then. Do you think there are systems in place now that make it so that that can't happen?

PITT: I just think we're more conscious. Certainly, you have systems in place to speak out. And we're seeing, you know - when those voices weren't heard, those people who didn't protect them are also paying the price and rightfully so. And that's part of our recalibration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been talking a little bit about how you act less and less now or take less roles than you possibly used to. Is there something else that you could imagine yourself doing that wasn't this?

PITT: Yeah. I mean, I have artistic aspirations or things I just enjoy that are peaceful...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You do pottery now.

PITT: It's not pottery (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No. I'm so sorry.

PITT: I know like there's any - I mean, there's amazing ceramicists.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is.

PITT: In fact, I just came back from Japan. And people dedicate their entire lives to a craft. And so exquisitely done and I just - I admire that so much, the kind of quest for that kind of beauty. I feel like that speaks to us and brings us together. But no. I just see it becoming less and less as you get older.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you did come in sort of saying its age. And now you've mentioned age again. And so I feel like I might ask you a little bit about that experience for you and how that's changed you.

PITT: Well, what I find, you know - what we trade off in looks and dexterity, we gain in wisdom. And I will make that trade...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At least that's the hope (laughter).

PITT: ...Any day. Yes, fair enough.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) For me, at any rate - yeah.

PITT: But I am certainly - lived more my life than I have left to live. And so I start thinking about how I want to go out. I have this romantic - it's probably a projection - but this romantic idea of David Bowie going out with such grace...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

PITT: ...You know, and full acceptance. And it really appeals to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID BOWIE SONG, "DANCING OUT IN SPACE")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Brad Pitt. His new film is "Ad Astra." Thank you very much.

PITT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING OUT IN SPACE")

DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Cutting through the water, hands upon the ghost, to the city of solid iron, through the kingdom of the boats. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.