NEW YORK — Brad Pitt is apologizing for the mess in his suite as he maneuvers around a canvas duffel bag overflowing with dirty clothes. He steps over two pairs of boots that remain where he kicked them off last night or the night before and pops a Neil Young album into the CD player. As he lights a Camel cigarette, the scene is set, musical score and all. "You are like a hurricane," Young croons in the background. "There's calm in your eye. . . ."
Over the past year, Pitt has torn through Hollywood on his rapid rise to stardom. But he has left no casualties in his wake for, as Young seems to understand, Pitt exudes calm. It's evident in his unkempt goatee, frayed T-shirt and jeans and the way his arm drapes easily over the back of the sofa.
Perhaps that comes from arriving at the top with a decade of experience--and a sense of humor--already in place. It's most likely one reason he earned himself the title of Sexiest Man Alive, which, much to his chagrin, People magazine thrust onto him earlier this year after his one-two punch with "Interview With the Vampire" and "Legends of the Fall."
"I think that was a cruel, cruel thing to do to me, that's what I think," Pitt says with an embarrassed tilt of the head and an amused grimace.
"Listen," adds Pitt, 31, whose jutting jaw muscles and soulful blue eyes prove the magazine wasn't far off, "who wants to be the standard of comparison? It's some cruel and heinous joke. A friend of mine said they misspelled it--it was supposed to be sexiest moron."
Still, it was the publication's proclamation that finally made Pitt a household name and pushed him that extra distance in the eyes of the studios. "The article definitely helped to increase awareness," says Cynthia Pett, Pitt's manager of seven years. "People in the entertainment industry have been watching Brad for the few years since 'Thelma & Louise.' Now that people in Kansas know who he is, studios are betting he can open movies."
And sure enough, over the past year, Pitt's price has doubled to a reported $6 million per film and he's contending for plum leading roles once reserved for the likes of Tom Cruise. With a full-blown screen career (he's booked solid for the next year), a new girlfriend (rising star Gwyneth Paltrow) and a new home in Los Angeles, Pitt has clearly done something right--something he says he couldn't have predicted or manufactured.
P itt's mantra has been simple but savvy: Never play the same role twice. And in keeping with his philosophy, he's leaving his "mythic hero guy" persona in the dust. For his newest role as an unglamorous but endearing young homicide cop in "Seven," which opens Friday, he has taken the shears to his flowing locks and slimmed down the frame he'd pumped up to play the godlike Tristan Ludlow in "Legends of the Fall" last year.
"I just wanted to escape the cheese," Pitt says, using one of his favorite expressions to describe his foray into the world of the schmaltzy romantic lead. He eases into a subtly disarming smile as he draws out the last word for emphasis. "I came to find out [director David Fincher] had a lactose intolerance as well, so I was very happy about it."
In Fincher's "Seven," Pitt stars opposite Morgan Freeman, a seasoned member of the police force who has had enough of the depressing grind. On Freeman's final case--Pitt's first in the big city--they try to catch a serial killer who bases his killings on the seven deadly sins: Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy and Wrath.
"I was looking for something with more of a documentary feel, more conversational and urban like 'The Conversation' or 'The French Connection,' " Pitt says, sporting a bottle-brush haircut that just plain looks like a mistake.
Indeed, there are no golden halos around his head this time out. Pitt's Detective Mills puts his foot in his mouth on more than one occasion, and stumbles into all the potential pitfalls of youth as his overzealousness spills over into carelessness.
"I mean, the guy is kind of an idiot," Pitt says. "The intentions are there, he just speaks before he really knows what he's talking about."
During the actor's long pauses, one realizes that Mills is far from Pitt's own character. "I'm more quiet, and I tend to sit back and see what's going on. I've pretty much always been that way."
Fincher says it took Pitt's natural charm to pull off the tricky role. "I hadn't originally thought of Brad," he says. "I'd never seen Mills as particularly accomplished, and I was concerned that Brad seemed too together. But when I met him, I thought, this guy is so likable he can get away with murder--he can do anything and people will forgive him for it."