DUBAI: We all hit rock bottom at some point. If you’re Brad Pitt — perhaps the most famous actor on Earth — it’s just a lot more public. While the lows of Pitt’s personal-life may have been covered in painfully intimate detail on every gossip page going, his journey to self-betterment has been a lot more private. Over the last six years, he has done the work — exhaustively — and now, with “Bullet Train,” his first lead role in three years, he’s ready to make fun of it.
“I think that’s what drew me to the role, honestly,” Pitt tells Arab News. “This man who’s trying to grow — but also somewhat regressing — on his way to being a better person. My own experience with self-help and therapy allowed me to take the (mickey) out of that.
“There are moments when you have one epiphany and you think you have the whole egg figured out, and then you step in a pile of crap the next day. This was making fun of that, and I took great pleasure in it,” he continues.
Pitt is, of course, one of the world’s premiere box-office draws and has been for 30-odd years. He’s one of Hollywood’s most-admired actors too, and received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2020 for his role in the Quentin Tarantino film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” in which he played the stunt double for a famous actor.
It’s fitting, then, that he’s followed that up by teaming up with his old stunt double David Leitch, who stood in for Pitt on films including “Fight Club,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and “Troy” back in the 90s and early 2000s and has gone on to become one of the most sought-after directors in the world, helming “John Wick,” “Deadpool 2,” “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbes and Shaw,” and now “Bullet Train.”
“We saw that relationship in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,’ and it’s not untrue that actors and their stunt doubles can have great bonds. Brad and I had that. We were friends,” says Leitch. “Now, we’ve come full circle where I’m at a place in my career where I’m an artist too, and he appreciates my work. I, of course, already appreciated his work. Doing this together was such a great experience.”
“It was really nice to come back together with him, but this time with him as the boss,” says Pitt.
“Bullet Train” is based on a best-selling Japanese novel. It tells the story of five assassins who all find themselves on the express train from Tokyo to Morioka with little chance of them all surviving to the end. Pitt plays ‘Ladybug,’ a perennially unlucky man fresh off a mental-health sabbatical who is trying to keep his inner calm in a situation that refuses to allow it, spouting as many positive aphorisms as he can muster.
“Ladybug’s lines really do sound like a 22-year-old going through a self-discovery,” Pitt’s co-star Joey King says to him.
“Exactly. The sad thing is, that's pretty much where I am in life,” Pitt replies.
Pitt and company shot the film during lockdown in 2020. While “Bullet Train” is set in Japan, it was shot on a single soundstage in southern California, inside a purpose-built train set that was flanked on either side by LED screens that showed footage shot on the actual bullet train in Japan. It was so realistic that some people on set reportedly got motion sickness.
For Pitt, the film wasn’t just a chance to reconnect with his old friend Leitch, it was also an opportunity to create a surrogate family to help each other through the crushing loneliness of COVID isolation, with each taking turns trying to make the others break into laughter and ruin another take with constant improvisation.
“This was pre-vaccination, so we had all these protocols and gauntlets we had to run through just to be able to shoot this. We were essentially in a bubble. It worked because of the high degree of talent everyone had, which led to so many good laughs,” says Pitt.
Pitt even recruited some of his own friends to come along, including Sandra Bullock, whom he called up personally to ask her to appear in the film.
“Sandy is a dear old friend; someone I can call on for any favor and she's always there. She'll drop whatever she's doing, she's done me some really big favors,” says Pitt. “When this came along, we thought it'd be really cool to call her again for another favor. She did it, but this time she said I had to do something in return — which is how I ended up appearing in her enchanting film ‘The Lost City.’ I liked this idea that we could cross-pollinate each other’s projects.”
Beyond the jokes, the self-deprecation, and the reunions with old friends, Pitt even quietly found himself connecting with the deeper themes of the seemingly wacky action comedy.
“There’s this undercurrent that questions the nature of fate, and the constant battle between self-will and manifestation versus the larger powers at play. That really hit me. It was combined, of course, with the David Leitch language of filmmaking — this mashup of comedy and ultra-violence,” says Pitt.
Pitt wasn’t just focused on himself, however. Part of his journey, both professionally and personally, has been to establish meaningful connections with others and to help raise them up, whether they be people he meets briefly or his co-stars. In a quiet way, it may be his life’s mission at this point.
King, for example, found in Pitt a true mentor, she says. As a 22-year-old Hollywood sensation with nearly 20 million followers on Instagram, King was grateful to have someone to help her navigate the increasingly complicated contours of fame at a time when apps such as TikTok have made things more emotionally taxing for megastars than ever before.
“I was going through a tough time one day, and I was expressing that to some of my castmates. Brad is someone who has been through a lot in his life. He’s been around the block. I was very lucky to have someone like him, with his life experience — specifically his experience with people having opinions about his life,” King tells Arab News. “It was really helpful to hear from someone like him about why that noise should be drowned out and how he does it. It was really, really nice to talk to someone like that.”
And Pitt’s performance in “Bullet Train” contains a lesson for us all: Not to take ourselves too seriously.
“I play a chump,” he says. “And the chump is the most fun role to play, hands down.”