Five minutes after the final frame of USA WEEKEND’s photo shoot, Brad Pitt, 49, casually elegant in his own black clothing and gold jewelry that coolly bests the garb assembled by a styling team, orders a latte and takes a seat. He’s solo — no publicist, no entourage — in a private room near the airy, all-white studio. Zombies are on his mind, and so is speed.
“In my younger days, I used to love the big adventure (photo) shoots. But now it’s fine,” he says with a smile, snapping his fingers, his right hand adorned with a thick gold ring. “Get in and get out. Everyone knows what I look like.”
Indeed. And yet the world’s most famous movie star, and half of the world’s most famous couple, lives — and moves — in a startling amount of secrecy, given the swarm of photographers hovering outside, waiting for this very interview to conclude.
A key example: For three months this spring, his partner, Angelina Jolie, 38, secretly underwent a preventive double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, without the ever-present pack getting a glimpse that something was amiss with the mother of Maddox, 11, Pax, 9, Zahara, 8, Shiloh, 7, and twins Vivienne and Knox, 4. Not even a hint — until the morning of this interview, when Jolie made it public.
Jolie’s surgery, and a grateful well of confidence, is the current running underneath this conversation. Pitt’s voice changes when describing the experience. He softens, speaking of the months they spent together as “something that makes you stronger, and us tighter.” His hand drifts over his heart, and stays there. “My most proud thing is my family,” he says. “[The threat of cancer] isn’t going to get that.”
Far more public earlier this year was how much Pitt had at risk with his summer blockbuster-to-be, World War Z. Initially, the expensive zombie thriller, now in theaters, was made with his three sons in mind, particularly Maddox.
“He’s the one who started the whole zombie craze in the house, so it’s his fault we’re sitting here now,” says Pitt, blue eyes crinkling. In fact, Maddox “shot a zombie movie. He made it with his little friends in the backyard kind of thing,” Pitt grins. “It’s a zombie-baby, actually.”
Dad’s version proved a bit more arduous. Pitt has spent the past six months retooling the reportedly $200 million World War Z, an apocalyptic tale that became a lurching beast to complete. Bad press infected production like a virus, far-flung shoots went over budget, and rumors spread of a cold war between Pitt and director Marc Forster (both deny it).
And that was nothing compared to the movie’s last act, which Pitt admits failed at its first cut. The crisis called for a classic reboot, a dose of 11th-hour writing and reshoots.
“It’s our job to get it right. And some take longer than others,” Pitt acknowledges. Thanks to a new, 40-minute-long chilling crescendo, scripted by Lost’s Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard, Pitt’s protagonist is in a far more impressive position to fight a raging pandemic of the undead.
More important: His sons are into it.
“We kind of bond on some tougher subject matter,” Pitt says. “And I just wanted to do something they’d think was cool. I showed it to them last week, and they’re pretty high on it. Which was my most important critique.”
In World War Z, Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator turned devoted father of two girls. As swarms of zombies reshape the planet, Gerry reluctantly leaves his family’s side in an attempt to quite literally save the world from a multiplying threat that kills blindly.
Initially, Pitt was drawn to the material’s geopolitical focus, as it explored a stricken world in which white-collar jobs would be “rendered useless.”
But what of present-day Earth? With six children at home under age 12, does he worry for the future?
“I think the world’s going to be all right,” he says. “I think we will always by nature tip too far in one direction, and by great acts of humanity bring it in the other direction. Dealing with these movies, this global apocalypse, we started an adventure down the road when society falls apart and you lose all sense of dignity for each other, that we devolve into our basest selves. But I don’t believe that’s really true.”
“Actually,” he says, “in these kind of situations, in war, you may see the worst of human nature, but you also see the very best. Any catastrophe brings out the best of human nature. That’s what I think will always be there to pull us back on track. So I don’t worry about the world as a whole. Except for that we don’t trap ourselves in some kind of climate greenhouse that we can’t reverse. Or some asteroid wiping us out.”
At this, Pitt raises an eyebrow and sips his coffee, deferring to his fiancée. “Angie works on something outside our own home, our own world, our own orbit, every day. Every day she’s working on something, dealing with some effort to give some people a hand.”
He and Jolie expose their children to only “a little bit” of the causes they focus on, “especially about what Mommy’s been doing lately. We are sure to tell them so they’re conscious of it. They see people around the world. We have the great fortune of travel. They see people in all conditions, humanity in all conditions. It’s nothing we force on them; we just let them absorb it.”
But it’s having an effect. “You can see already Shiloh’s such a product of her mom” and her advocacy for others, he says. “She’s deeply affected by it and wants to get in there and start fighting for them.”
Pitt’s focus? Playing the protective father, a role that consumes him off-screen.
“He’s such a protective father and dedicated family man,” Forster says. “It’s beautiful to watch.”
Pitt’s waking hours are filled with watchful thoughts. “That’s the only thing that keeps me up at night,” he says. “Just thinking, ‘Is everyone safe?’ Family safety, I’m telling you, that’s what informed this film. There’s safety when they’re climbing the jungle gym, you worry a little bit. There’s safety when they’re out playing. There’s safety when you know they’re all in their beds and everyone’s sleeping right. Then there’s worry when one gets sick. It’s the normal parental woes and worries.”
He and Jolie are treading carefully, be it in the face of larger threats or everyday nuisances. “We don’t take them into the dangerous places in the world,” he says. “And as far as trying to protect them from celebrity or celebrity-hunters, that’s any major city. That’s any urban hub anywhere. We’re always better in the country — any country, but in the country.”
Even small steps are blueprinted; 15-minute errands turn into an hour and 15 minutes of detours and dodging.
“We have our ways, but it’s a little unfortunate for [the children],” he says. “We can’t take them to the park because it just becomes a photo shoot. You don’t want that for them. We’d like to have some sense of privacy.”
The next frontier? Those formidable teenage years. “As they get older ... it just becomes more fun. It has anyway,” Pitt grins. “Until they become wicked teenagers and don’t want anything to do with us.”
Andrea Mandell is an entertainment reporter for USA TODAY.