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Brad Pitt on turning undertold stories into movies: ‘Every film needs some champion’

As one of the world's biggest and best-known movie stars, Brad Pitt is spending as much time helping get films made as he is acting. His latest project, "Ad Astra," is about a journey to the far reaches of the solar system, as well as the journey inward for a tortured soul. Pitt sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss his career, and why he helps make movies when he’s not the star.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    He is one of the world's biggest and best-known movie stars. But, these days, Brad Pitt is spending as much time helping get films made as acting in them.

    He is both the star and producer of the new movie "Ad Astra," which opened this weekend.

    Pitt recently spoke about his various roles with our Jeffrey Brown as part of Canvas, our arts and culture series.

  • Brad Pitt:

    I do what I do because of my dad.

    He gave his life for the pursuit of knowledge.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The film is called "Ad Astra," Latin for the phrase "To the Stars."

    And it is about a journey into the far reaches of our solar system. But for the tortured soul at its heart, Major Roy McBride, this journey is also very much inward.

    Brad Pitt says his friend director James Gray pulled him into the role by quoting a line from the man who wrote an earlier mix of space epic and introversion, "2001: A Space Odyssey."

  • Actress:

    Please describe your current emotional state.

  • Brad Pitt:

    I'm steady, calm, ready to do my job to the best of my abilities.

    He pulled out this Arthur Clarke quote that said "Either We're not alone in the universe or we are alone, but either outcome is equally terrifying."

    And that was a very interesting starting point. I never thought about, what if we're alone here? And then what?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Is that what this became for you?

  • Brad Pitt:

    Certainly, as far as the genre was concerned, I mean, we're always — we're either fighting aliens to save ourselves or they're imparting some benevolent wisdom on us.

    And this idea that, whoa, what if it's — what if we're alone here? Then are we focusing on the right things?

  • Actor:

    We have what looks like unidentified rovers approaching our position.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Set in what it calls the near future, "Ad Astra" has its share of fast-paced action, including a car chase on the moon.

  • Actor:

    We need backup ASAP! We're being ambushed!

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And it has more than its share of breathtaking beauty. This is a film to savor on a big screen.

    But it's mostly concerned with a middle-aged man, Pitt's McBride, with a hole at his core, now in search of his last father, Clifford, played by Tommy Lee Jones, himself a space hero who disappeared 30 years earlier while leading an expedition to Neptune.

    Clifford, we learn, may be alive.

  • Brad Pitt:

    My father is alive, sir?

  • Actor:

    We believe so.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, in a further twist, behind a new threat to the Earth.

    Pitt, who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, son of a man who ran a trucking company, took the father-son issues in the film to heart.

  • Brad Pitt:

    We often discussed growing up with this kind of Marlboro Man image of, you don't show weakness.

    Certainly, where I grew up, we didn't — you didn't complain. If you broke your arm or you cut yourself, you just dealt with it. You move on, and you almost deny it.

    But then we started questioning, well, are we doing the same with our — how we really feel? Is that being cut off, you know? And is there something more to look at and embrace here? Would we be better fathers and sons, better partners, better lovers, better friends if we were more — would we be more whole?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I mean, it's interesting, because you get to sort of acted out on screen in a movie.

  • Brad Pitt:

    Yes. I would say it's…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And then apply it to your life, perhaps?

  • Brad Pitt:

    It's a bit of a luxury, what we do, because we get to spend months really dissecting that idea.

    I think of my dad, who worked 8:00 to 6:00 five days a week, and then a six day on Saturday a half-a-day. He wouldn't have that kind of luxury. He would just be tired, you know, and then have to take the kids out for a baseball game or something.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Pitt's performance in "Ad Astra" is utterly restrained and internalized, so understated, one reviewer wrote, it hardly looks like acting at all.

  • Brad Pitt:

    This is Major Roy McBride. I'm attempting to reach Dr. Clifford McBride.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And it's very different from his other big film this year in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

    He says it's all about tone.

  • Brad Pitt:

    Dad, I would like to see you again.

    Tone is that thing that's not understood.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, what does it mean?

  • Brad Pitt:

    Well, you could have a script, and you could play comedy, or you could play horror. It just depends on how you shoot it and how you play the scenes. I mean, it's wide open.

    And this one — I think this one's going to be really, really contained and really simple. And the danger in that always is that it's boring and flat, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And so how do you…

  • Brad Pitt:

    You know who did it best? Tony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Emma Thompson:

    Am I to take it that, after all the years I have been in this house, you have nothing else to say to me?

  • Anthony Hopkins:

    You have my warmest congratulations.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But so how do you do it? I mean, how do you show that much emotion without really showing it?

  • Brad Pitt:

    It's an amazing thing about the camera. It's like watch — when you watch a news report, and you are really moved by someone experiencing something in real-life time. It's real.

    And so our job is to interpret whatever the scene as something that's real for us. And, I mean, I could be thinking about something completely different than what's really happening in the scene. But if I'm feeling that, then it reads. It's true. And truth reads.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Sometimes, we say acting means something kind of phony, right?

  • Brad Pitt:

    Yes, I have always objected to that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You have?

  • Brad Pitt:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Because?

  • Brad Pitt:

    Because it's the antithesis of that, when it's good.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    These days, Pitt is as much producer as actor.

    His Plan B Entertainment company produced "Ad Astra" and has been behind a number of recent acclaimed films, including "12 Years a Slave" and "Moonlight," movies outside the megaplex box.

    Why is that important to you? What do you get out of it?

  • Brad Pitt:

    Storytelling.

    I'm a kid who always loved films. I love films now. And in that we get to be a part of stories, really beautiful, important, powerful stories that I wouldn't be right as an actor.

    So, in that sense, it's still storytelling, and I'm really proud of what my partners and I have been able to put out into the world.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Are these stories that you think otherwise wouldn't get told, when we look at what's happening with Hollywood?

  • Brad Pitt:

    No, it's often the case, you know? They — every film needs some champion behind it to get it across the finish line, no question.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You're, what, 55?

  • Brad Pitt:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do you feel like you have been building a career on your terms, making it work, or is it something that just happened to you?

  • Brad Pitt:

    It's all those things.

    It's like winning a game show to be let inside the doors of the studio and given a shot.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You still feel that?

  • Brad Pitt:

    Oh, in the beginning, no question. That is. It's like — it's hitting the lottery in some way.

    I think it's different. More talent is getting opportunities now with streaming, you know, thank God. But what you see is, there's this tremendous talent that's been there all along.

    It's been both. It's been — I have been pushed to do things I didn't feel right about. I did them and I learned, OK, always do the things you do feel right about.

    And then you find out some work, some don't. So it's all these things. It's by design, yet it's by — by fate, and it's by many more factors beyond — beyond me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Brad Pitt takes off to the stars, "Ad Astra" now playing nationwide.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Washington.

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