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"I never knew I was capable of so much love."
"I never knew I was capable of so much love." / Kwaku Alston, Stockland Martel, for USA WEEKEND
The Tree of Life: Clip from the Terrence Malick drama The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt.
Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan and Brad Pitt star in “The Tree of Life.” / Merie Wallace, 20th Century Fox

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In the parking lot outside a Los Angeles photo studio, a scruffy-looking guy sporting a goatee, black T-shirt and motorcycle boots sits on the curb puffing a cigarette. He's listening intently to a stylish man rave about a cool camera shop. A passerby would barely notice the pair as they head into the building.

But when the photographer starts shooting, the bearded guy seems to undergo a transformation. Grooving to Jimi Hendrix on the sound system, he assumes an expression of ineffable cool, his posture somewhere between rakish and regal. He radiates glamour by the gigawatt. Suddenly, he's Brad Pitt.

That name, of course, refers to several entities that occupy the same broad-shouldered, 5-foot-11-inch frame. There's the actor, whose talent and charisma draw crowds to movie theaters worldwide. There's the celebrity, twice declared “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine, whose private life has been a source of public fascination for more than a decade. There's the Brad Pitt of the past, who has put his stints as a serial romancer of co-stars (Gwyneth Paltrow, Robin Givens, Juliette Lewis) and errant husband of Jennifer Aniston (from whom he was divorced in 2005) far behind him.

Now 47, Pitt is an unabashed family man. Fatherhood is, indeed, his most consuming project: raising an unruly brood of six children ages 2 to 9 — three of them adopted, three biological, born in five different countries — with partner Angelina Jolie. Their effect on Pitt has been, by his own account, profound. He credits parenthood, in great part, for his hard-won maturity.

“Kids hold up a mirror to you,” he says in his first extensive interview since 2009. “You can't make excuses. You've got to make sure they've brushed their teeth and eaten a good breakfast. You want to be present if they wake up with a bad dream.”

The responsibility weighs heavily on the now-middle-aged actor. In a display of emotion any parent would relate to, Pitt says fears about his kids' safety “keep me up at night.”

But unlike in most families, Pitt's worries have an added dimension. “We're hunted,” he says, flexing his tattooed, muscular forearm as if contemplating retaliation. “Our kids have to live behind a gate. Outside, there are people with cameras.

“But I'll take the trade-off. I never knew I was capable of experiencing so much love.”

In his newest movie, the sprawling and poetic Tree of Life — directed by the legendary Terrence Malick and opening in some cities this weekend — Pitt plays a father of three boys in 1950s Texas. (One son grows up to be an architect, played by Sean Penn.) That's fitting: Parenthood is increasingly central to Pitt's sense of self, influencing everything from the movies he chooses to make — “I want to leave some work behind that my kids will be proud of” — to his vision of the future with Jolie.

Though he has said the couple would wait to wed until gay people could do so legally, he now acknowledges that the timetable may change. “The kids ask about marriage,” he says, sinking wearily into a sofa. He takes a sip of cappuccino. “It's meaning more and more to them. So it's something we've got to look at.”

For all the luxuries Pitt can give his children, he regrets that he can't pass on the freedom he had as a child growing up the eldest of three siblings in Springfield, Mo., where his father owned a trucking company and his mother was a high school counselor.

“On the road, we're a military mobile unit,” he says. “The kids have got their stuff down to one backpack, and they're each responsible for their own bag. Mom does the packing; she's quite gifted at that. Puts in just what we need — nothing extra.”

The family migrates between the multi-house Los Angeles compound he calls “our base camp” and film sets around the globe, spending downtime at a 1,000-acre estate in southern France.

“We're pretty nomadic,” he says. “We go where the crops are.”

Pitt concedes that his family life “seems a bit extreme.” But “I like extremes. I guess I've always operated that way.”

Still, he says, “Angie and I do everything we can to carve out some semblance of normalcy for them, to re-create the kinds of moments that were special for us. It's not unusual for the kids to be covered in paint. We have mud fights. It's chaos from morning until the lights go out, and sometimes after that.”

The older kids are home-schooled, but their parents try to create opportunities to socialize. The family sometimes sneaks past the paparazzi to an undisclosed location for a football game with friends.

Pitt and Jolie carve out time to nurture their own relationship as well.

“There are no secrets at our house,” Pitt says, his blue eyes crinkling in a slightly wicked smile. “We tell the kids, ‘Mom and Dad are going off to kiss.' They go, ‘Eww, gross!' But we demand it.”

As he navigates his fifth decade, Pitt has begun to ponder the long term. “Will I be acting when I'm 80?” he asks rhetorically. “Definitely not.”

A passionate amateur photographer and architect (whose Make It Right foundation is building environmentally sustainable homes in New Orleans for low-income residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina), he aims to explore those vocations more deeply in the coming years. He also wants to improve his French and his cooking skills — now limited to bacon, eggs and flapjacks.

But Pitt won't be trading in biker boots for house slippers anytime soon. “I hope to keep riding motorcycles,” he says with that devilish grin, “until I can't stand up anymore.”

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