Toronto–Let's get this out of the way. Yes, Brad Pitt, in person, really does look like Brad Pitt. But at the Toronto International Film Festival news conference for the North American premiere of his new western epic, Pitt also looked a little emotional. Just a few minutes before taking the podium, Pitt discovered he'd won the best-actor award from the 2007 Venice Film Festival for his role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which opens in Vancouver on Friday [October 12]), and his response sounded a lot like an acceptance speech. "I was really surprised and remain surprised. I just didn't expect it. This has been a long road for this film, and it was an honour for us and a privilege to unleash it in this great city," Pitt said. "I could try to play it down, but it's great fun; it's really fun."
Although he's been named People magazine's "sexiest man alive" twice, the Venice award is Pitt's biggest acting prize since his Golden Globe for best supporting actor in 12 Monkeys back in 1996. And in some respects, his role as Jesse James, the Wild West's most infamous outlaw, is also a supporting performance.
The movie, written and directed by Andrew Dominik (Chopper) and adapted from Ron Hansen's novel, is a pas de deux between James and his killer, Robert Ford, played by Casey Affleck. It follows the last year of James's life as he grows increasingly paranoid–or, perhaps, prescient. It also explores what happens to Ford after he shoots his friend and idol.
Pitt raved about Affleck's performance as a James Gang wannabe turned cowboy Judas. "It's so complex. There's a lot of us who have known Casey for many years and have been big fans of his and have known him to be much more than the parts he's been able to play, so we were really happy to see him win this opportunity, because it was a coveted role.”¦And he just did an amazing job, and it's going to be nice to see what else he does."
Everyone has heard of James, but there was a time when Ford was just as famous. Both James and Ford were early American celebs, chronicled by the pulps, the TMZ.com of their era. Pitt was intrigued by how little the mechanics of star-making have changed. "I was surprised to see how much a tabloid quotient of media was alive and well at that time, still operated by sensationalism and complete fabrication beyond the facts. And it was curious to me to see that not much had changed besides quantity."
As half of the sexiest couple alive, Pitt knows the price of 21st-century celebrity. "As far as fame–look, I know the deal, and I understand the tradeoff. There are also great perks to what we do. We get to travel and see the world, and we manage it. The only time it becomes unmanageable, to me, is when it's a full-frontal assault on the kids," Pitt says. "Unfortunately, there is no line concerning family these days, and that concerns me."
Asked if the movie is part of "a reinvention of the western", Pitt was reluctant to pigeonhole it. "It's probably better to say psychological drama. And Andrew [Dominik] had called it more of a gangster film at some point. But it's hard to come up with one category or package that I think accurately describes it."
Because the film was set in the American West, it was, of course, shot primarily in Alberta. "Funnily enough, it was close to the same location where I'd shot 10 years before, Legends of the Fall," Pitt says. "We originally came here for Legends because it was one of the few places where you had beautiful, expansive country minus the telephone poles. And now you can digitally erase those, but coming back to the location really shapes the feeling of the film. It's as much a character as anything Casey and I do in the film."
Pitt also helped produce The Assassination of Jesse James, and he says his job in that role was to act as a buffer between the artists and the money people. Pitt also produces films he doesn't appear in, and he notes that he produces for the same reason he acts: "And that's a love for film and a love for stories, and the belief that stories can educate, and a belief that stories can strictly entertain, and just wanting to be a part of that."