Coming of Age: Brad Pitt is older, wiser, and better than ever.

By Sondra Barr

Brad Pitt always knew he was going somewhere. Growing up, it wasn’t clear where he was headed from his hometown of Springfield, Missouri, but he knew it was beyond. Beyond what, a youthful Pitt knew not what, but it was an “itch” he felt then that the celebrated actor and director says still guides him today at age 55.

His is a Hollywood success story few get to experience. Less than two credits shy of a journalism degree, Pitt up and left the University of Missouri in his final semester and headed west in his Datsun for sunny California. According to a 2017 Esquire article, Pitt had never been as far west as Colorado. He shouted as he crossed the Colorado state line and then at every state line thereafter, until he ended up in Los Angeles––“me and my big old mullet.”

“I just knew there were a lot more points of view out there. I wanted to see them. I wanted to hear them. I always liked film as a teaching tool––a way of getting exposed to ideas that had never been presented to me. It just wasn’t on the list of career options where I grew up. Then it occurred to me, literally two weeks before graduation; if the opportunity isn’t here, I’ll go to it. So simple. But it had never occurred to me. I’ll just go to it,” Pitt explained in a 2013 interview.

For a few months after arriving in Los Angeles, Pitt supported himself by “driving strippers in limos, moving refrigerators, and dressing as a giant chicken while working for a fast food chain.” But, unlike the masses that flock to that city and toil away for years in the hopes of fame, fortune found Pitt easily. While accompanying a friend to an audition with an agent, in a made for television twist, the agent signed Pitt on the spot. In less than 12 months after arriving in Hollywood, Pitt was appearing in episodes of Dallas and Growing Pains.

“When I left Missouri, I wasn’t ready to call it quits as far as getting out into the world,” Pitt told Parade about his life. “It wasn’t leaving something behind, it was heading for something that was nascent and ill-defined. I did not know what it would be when I got to L.A., and to me not knowing that has always been the most exciting thing about making a trip.”

What a trip it’s been. According to Biography, it was a well-timed bit part in a controversial film that propelled Pitt to instant stardom. Despite only a few minutes of screen time, Pitt’s turn as a sugar-tongued hitchhiker in the 1991 film Thelma and Louise perfectly showcased his unique brand of charisma, good looks, and soulful sensuality. The role as a charming criminal instantly made Pitt a sex symbol and paved the way for meatier, more multi-dimensional roles.

Pitt went on to star in a steady stream of well-received films including A River Runs Through It, Interview with the Vampire, Legends of the Fall, Se7en, and Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, Snatch, and Ocean’s Eleven, which he followed up with the big-budget period drama Troy.

However, it was the stylish spy-versus-spy flick that changed Pitt’s trajectory and indelibly altered his image as Hollywood’s golden boy. While in a high profile marriage to Friends star Jennifer Aniston, sparks flew between Pitt and co-star Angelina Jolie on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). After five years of marriage, he unceremoniously left Aniston for Jolie in a move that has fueled tabloid stories to this day.

Perhaps a testament to his charming nature, Aniston revealed the following during an interview with Vanity Fair about the amicable split: “I still feel so lucky to have experienced it. I wouldn’t know what I know now if I hadn’t been married to Brad. I love Brad; I really love him. I will love him for the rest of my life. He’s a fantastic man. I don’t regret any of it, and I’m not going to beat myself up about it…we helped each other through a lot, and I really value that. It was a beautiful, complicated relationship.”

The heated romance between Pitt and Jolie smoldered for 12 years, though the pair were only married for two. The press mercilessly chronicled the fiery union; paparazzi followed the duo and their brood of six children from continent to continent in hopes of uncovering marital discord.

According to multiple media sources, the tipping point in the marriage occurred after a highly documented incident on a private plane. TMZ reported that Pitt allegedly argued with Jolie and their son, Maddox, got in the middle. Rumors swirled that the argument was fueled by an inebriated Pitt and although he was later cleared of any wrongdoing or abuse allegations in a Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services investigation, the incident still dogs Pitt.

“As far as out there, I hope my intentions and work will speak for themselves. But, yes, at the same time, it is a drag to have certain things drug out in public and misconstrued,” explained Pitt to GQ correspondent Michael Paterniti. “I worry about it more for my kids, being subjected to it, and their friends getting ideas from it. And of course it’s not done with any kind of delicacy or insight––it’s done to sell. And so you know the most sensational sells, and that’s what they’ll be subjected to, and that pains me.”

Chronicled ad nauseam, the demise of the Pitt/Jolie marriage has dominated the covers of magazines since 2016 and overshadowed Pitt’s fine work in films and beyond. According to Esquire, while he hesitates to identify himself as an actor, “because he considers himself primarily an artist, a doer, a maker, a craftsman, a man who felt the first thrill of artifice not onstage but in high school shop class, drawing up plans,” he’s draw to stories with a different point of view.

“Films were a portal into different worlds for me, cultures I had never seen before and was absolutely taken with. I was also taken with the power of films to define things for me that I’d not been able to define for myself, So I became an actor,” he told Parade.

Evident in the projects he takes on, Pitt isn’t afraid to take on challenges post Jolie. Indeed, his next film is one tailor fit to Pitt’s aesthetic. Slated for a July 26 release, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is being hailed as Pitt’s finest in years. From the mind of Quentin Tarantino, the film follows a group of Hollywood types living in Los Angeles in 1969, the year the Manson family went on a murder spree. Pitt plays Cliff Booth, a stuntman whose glory days are numbered, while Leonardo DiCaprio plays his pal Rick Dalton, a struggling television actor who happens to live next to murder victims Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski.

“Quentin Tarantino is the last purveyor of cool. If you land in one of his films, you know you’re in great hands,” said Pitt, who previously worked with Tarantino on the movie Inglourious Basterds. The highly anticipated movie is the first time Brad Pitt has shared the screen with DiCaprio. “And doing this with Leo was really cool and a rare opportunity.”

As Pitt is wont to do, he switches gear this fall with the sci-fi drama Ad Astra, where he plays astronaut Roy McBride, who’s compelled to explore the unknown edges of space. It’s a compulsion to explore that drives Pitt in his everyday life; it’s the same “itch” that made him pack up and leave Missouri.

“Seeing the world is the best education you can get. You see sorrow, and you also see great spirit and will to survive. But you have to go off the beaten path of St. Bart’s Island, Rome, Paris, wander off the path and go beyond that,” according to Pitt. “It is where you meet people and hear personal stories. It is a huge eye-opener.”