In Moneyball, Pitt tries something new - and comes away with one of the strongest performances of his career. Yes, in a sense this is an old-fashioned baseball movie - Pitt plays real-life Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, forced to rebuild his team after his roster is gutted in a buying frenzy.
But it's a baseball movie like no other, offering an insider's perspective on how coaches and players relate - or don't. And it documents a pivotal moment in Major League Baseball, when Beane, at the start of the 2002 season, adopted a radical new strategy, seeking out low-salaried players with high on-base stats. Aiding and abetting him on his Sabermetrics mission - which begins pitifully, and ends in a record-breaking winning streak and a playoff berth - was a numbers-crunching Yale economics nerd, played with glorious uptightness by Jonah Hill. Moneyball opens Friday.
"I love process films, films that draw back the curtain and show you how things are done," says Pitt, who also produced Moneyball - adapted from Michael Lewis' 2003 bestseller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game - and stuck with the project through several false starts, and several directors. "Remember Dr. Strangelove? Strangelove is one of my all-time favorites, and just the time [Stanley] Kubrick takes showing them going through the code sequences, what it takes for Slim Pickens to drop the bomb - I jones on that."
Pitt, sporting a beard, with his hair dusting his collar, was in black tie, arm in arm with a begowned Angelina Jolie, on Sept. 9 when Moneyball had its gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The next morning, he's in a suite at the Ritz Carlton, talking up the film and some of his other projects.
He made The Tree of Life, with Terrence Malick, a few years ago, but its release this summer showed a different facet to Pitt: intense, internalized, anguished. The movie's lengthy cine-poetic sequences - vast stretches without dialogue - are in stark contrast to the crackling back-and-forth in Moneyball, which was scripted by two Oscar-winning Hollywood wordsmiths, Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network).
"Zaillian really got the undercurrent of what was happening internally in Billy's life, and comes from a great love of baseball," Pitt explains. "In fact, he wrote a two-person play afterwards, set in the world of baseball, that I hope gets staged. It's really, really good.
"And then Aaron brought in a kind of rhythm. These characters are charismatic and joking, full of this gallows humor. They were really cut off and on their own, and Aaron brought this beautiful layer to it, this kind of verve, that uplifted the piece."
Pitt says that other "fingerprints" are on the film, too, including Pitt's Ocean's Eleven (and Twelve and Thirteen) director Steven Soderbergh, who was all set to do Moneyball with his pal when Sony Pictures pulled the plug.
"They balked, to use a baseball term," says Pitt. "It wasn't the concept of the film, or what Steven was after, it was the price tag for that concept. But it was in a similar direction to where the film's ended up. In the same ballpark, so to speak."
"It's hard not to use baseball-speak. It so permeates the American lexicon."
That last-minute no-go came in June 2009, mere weeks before Pitt, Soderbergh and company thought they were going to start shooting.
"Yeah, that was an unpleasant little period, but I wanted to stay with it, and we had a patron saint in [Sony chairman] Amy Pascal who decided she was going to double down. More often than not, this is the place where projects go by the wayside; they're written off and that's it. But she double-downed and we got it made."
Bennett Miller, of the Oscar-winning indie Capote, came in as director, a suggestion offered by Catherine Keener - Pitt's friend, and costar on his first lead role, in 1991's Johnny Suede.
"It was complicated material, it was unconventional, and everyone had a hand in the end product," the actor says about Moneyball. "We needed to go through these evolutions to get to the place it is."
Pitt, 47, has been on the move lately, literally. After Moneyball, he shot Cogan's Trade, playing a mob enforcer (in the company of Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard, James Gandolfini, and Richard Jenkins) for director Andrew Dominick, who made The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with Pitt.
Right now, he's in Toronto on a break from World War Z, Marc Forster's global zombie holocaust thriller.
"We started in Malta, we're in the U.K. now, and then we go to Hungary," he reports. "Yeah, I've spent more brain cells on zombie logic than anything these days."
And don't ask Pitt if he's seen his buddies' pictures, some of which have had their debuts in Toronto, too.
George Clooney's The Ides of March? "No."
Clooney in The Descendants? "Nope."
His Tree of Life wife, Jessica Chastain, in Take Shelter?
"If it's not Mr. Popper's Penguins, I have no idea what's going on, really," Pitt says, just like any other dad whose movie-watching is dictated by a brood of kids. (He and Jolie have six.)
And anyway, between his acting and Jolie's forthcoming feature directing debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, "we haven't not been working."
But then Pitt's eyes light up.
"In fact, I did have three days off from World War Z, and I took a bike through the highlands of Scotland," he says - and by bike he means a BMW 800. "It was one of the places I really wanted to ride - I've got a list of places all over the world, and this was one I really wanted to do. It was something I hadn't been able to do in such a long time. And being out on these single-lane roads in just the most amazing country, I kept expecting Mel Gibson to come riding over the next hill waving a sword, or for Harry Potter to show up, waving a wand.
"And it's misting, it's raining, I'm riding in the rain, through these mountain passes. And I realized how much I've been on a schedule, someone driving me to this place or that place, how much my life has been dictated . . . . I had not been autonomous in any way, and had my own life in my own hands where I had to get myself back - and make sure the tank is full.
"It was just such a great feeling. And I didn't run out of gas."
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.