I’m in an anonymous suite on one of the upper floors of Midtown Manhattan’s so-tacky-it’s-glitzy Waldorf-Astoria Hotel talking to Brad Pitt about toddler meltdowns. This is largely normal. It’s 2012, I’m working at USA Today writing about celebrities, and Pitt is pushing the wildly bloody and soon to be forgotten Killing Them Softly. He’s dutiful about his press obligations and always polite, but mostly Pitt wants to talk about his kids. And not in a weird way. He’s just excited about the sort of stuff that dads get excited about.
This is not to say that Brad Pitt is a normal person. He’s not. He owns a French chateau, tools around on Ducatis, hangs out with George Clooney, looks like that, and attracted paparazzi the way still bodies of water lure mosquitoes. He’s still married to Angelina Jolie, who was also incomprehensibly famous. But he’s proud in normal ways. So we get into a bit. Not for the paper of record or anything — there’s no record and thus no quotes in this piece — but as parents in a specific place at a specific time. It feels like we’re smoking cigarettes outside a PTA meeting.
We’re laughing because toddlers don’t give a shit if their dad is so famous maids pass out when they see him (that had just happened) and because Brad can tell a story. Here’s the one he offers: His toddlers found some Sharpies and decided the wallpaper in a five-star hotel suite needed a few more designs here and there, sending the hotel manager into a frenzy and Pitt into hysterics after he was asked to explain why. There was, of course, no why. There never is. I’m laughing at the story not because it’s a Brad Pitt story — that’s not the premise — but because it’s funny and I get what it’s like to try to explain kid logic to flustered professionals in unbecoming uniforms.
Cut to the present and Pitt is promoting Ad Astra, which he produced and stars in and which, along with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood represents a moment, while conspicuously avoiding talking about his family life. He’s talking about movies and acting and a little bit about his confrontation with Harvey Weinstein. He’s on the cover of GQ and across a fold in the New York Times, but he’s not exactly forthcoming anywhere. And no wonder. He’s now in the middle of The Divorce and The Custody Battle. He has to be opaque. He can tell people that he likes watching movies and making movies and sometimes producing movies. For practical reasons, it’s best that he leave it there.
People have takes on Pitt. There always the “character actor in a leading man’s body” take, which has to sound silly to the man himself because he’s just him. But there are other takes as well, some generous and some not. And the mean ones bother me. Brad Pitt doesn’t need me to have his back, but I do. I’ve met him a few times over the years and he’s attentive and kind and he loves his kids.
That’s enough. That’s the good take on Brad Pitt. He’s a nice dude. No one has to regret having a poster of Brad Pitt on their wall.
I think about Pitt for un-celebrity reasons sometimes because he gave me some great advice about tantrums, which I will now regurgitate. It started with me showing him a photo of my son spreadeagled in a coffee shop because the place had the temerity to run out of sugar cookies. And so, my son refused to move until the cookies somehow teleported themselves to the bakery. Pitt didn’t roll his eyes when I showed him the photographic evidence of toddler logic. He nodded. He smiled. And he shared. (Yes, even Pitt’s offspring had tantrums. Lots and lots of tantrums.) He told me to record kids losing their minds over irritants real and imagined, and then play the clips back to them a day or so later. Mortified, the kids wouldn’t replicate the scene. I tried it and it worked — to the degree to which any of these things work. I’m still grateful for that.
He asked questions about my son: Grade, age, hobbies. He shared a few things about his own kids, stuff I won’t print here out of respect for him. And he was measured in how he talked about them, mindful that one day, they’d wind up reading about themselves or seeing videos of their young adult tantrums aired on TMZ. He was protective, not cagey. Totally reasonable.
And over the course of our conversation, Pitt accomplished the near-impossible: I forgot I was sitting opposite the most famous man in the world. Is Pitt perfect? Visually, yes, but surely not as a human being. That said, he’s out there trying to make it work and he’s been out there trying to make it work for a long time. If he’s a bit tired now or slightly lower wattage than he was a decade ago, that’s perfectly understandable. I’m tired too. Lots of parents are tired. Lots of parents are divorced. Lots of parents want to talk about it sometimes and sometimes don’t.
Don’t ask Brad Pitt to explain why the hotel room got totalled. There’s really no explanation. Sometimes bad shit happens to — or just around — good people.