In the pits of the celebrity profile
GQ's Brad Pitt interview is a study in the form's emptiness
There are few things as boring as someone telling you about a dream they had. That doesn’t change if that person is Brad Pitt, especially when that account is itself part of the breathless second-hand retelling that constitutes a modern celebrity profile. Other things that are not interesting include that Brad Pitt likes to get up early to play the guitar, that he consumes nicotine mints, and that he enjoys his beach house.
The novelist Ottessa Moshfegh’s profile of Pitt for GQ is a 5,000-word attempt at spinning profundity from banality. Beginning with Pitt’s dream journal (“Brad Pitt tries to remember his dreams…”), it skips — with all the grace of a PR-drafted list of agreed talking points — over his ongoing legal battles with ex-wife Angelina Jolie, and ends up in the familiar surroundings of sycophancy:
When he welcomes me in, Pitt is wearing neutral tones, draped khaki trousers and a loose white T-shirt, like a man trying to camouflage himself in a wheat field. The colours call to mind the Midwest, big skies. Pitt grew up in the Ozarks, a place he speaks about with reverie. A scented candle perfumes the kitchen where he cheerfully offers me a beverage: tea, coffee, water, juice, booze. I’m sober, like Pitt, who hasn’t had a drink in almost six years. I take water, as does he.
“Cold or room temp?” he asks.
I choose cold because I want to see into his fridge: barely anything in there, just the cool bluish glare of the electric light. “All my friends have gone to room temp,” he says. Room temp. That seems appropriate. The vibe here is gentle and calm.
Haven’t all your friends gone to room temp?
A rich man is wearing clothes. A candle is lit. He offers the writer a drink. If these details provide ‘colour’, it is one Farrow & Ball might call Oatmeal Mediocrity. But for the celebrity profile writer, the prosaic must be stuffed with meaning until it bursts at the seams like a grotesque turducken.
“Brad Pitt is just like you and me,” the article assures you, before quickly correcting itself, “no, not like you but a bit like me.”
One of the biggest failings an interviewer can have is to be beguiled by their subject. But every line makes it clear that Moshfegh wants to like Pitt and to be liked by him. It may not be a coincidence that she is so rhapsodic about his production company’s way with a literary adaptation:
Add those to a slate of other acclaimed novels Plan B has adapted or optioned—Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time—and a portrait emerges of Pitt as a kind of literary kingmaker.
While the latest of those movies, Women Talking, is being directed by a woman (Sarah Polley), Moshfegh is the only woman talking in the profile. A series of Pitt’s Hollywood lad mates are lined up to praise him, from Quentin Tarantino (“He’s one of the last remaining big-screen movie stars.”) to Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s bassist Flea (“When Brad’s lost in the process of creating, there’s something magical about that.”)
Because the premise of the profile is that Pitt is “more mystical than we ever could have imagined”, the reader is expected to accept one ludicrous statement after another with straight-faced gratitude; Moshfegh certainly does.
“I’m one of those creatures that speaks through art,” Pitt explains. “I just want to always make. If I’m not making, I’m dying in some way.”
… he turns his lens on me. “I wanted to ask you,” he says, “why the fuck are we here? What’s beyond? Because I gather that you believe in something beyond.… Do you feel trapped here, in this body and in this environment?”
… His personal pursuit of ceramics isn’t an art form, he tells me, but a “solo, very quiet, very tactile kind of sport.”
… I am a murderer. I’m a lover. I have the capacity for great empathy and I can devolve into pettiness.
The last one runs the risk that he’ll start quoting Meredith Brooks (“I’m a bitch, I’m a mother, I’m a child, I’m lover…”). That Moshfegh doesn’t subject those statements to any critical reading is perhaps unsurprising as the piece is littered with lines like:
[Pitt’s] the opposite of a guy who’d snub you at a party. He’s the guy who wants to see your soul.
Or, perhaps, he’s an actor with many years experience and a veteran of thousands of interviews, who knows how to give the audience what it wants, especially when the audience is a profile writer who can be sent into raptures by a Rumi poem (“Insane to think I am quoting a 13th-century Persian poet to a movie star in L.A. in 2022…”).
There are two anecdotes in the profile that a writer less susceptible to Pitt’s glamour — here used in its older meaning of a conjured illusion — might have taken not as signs of his mystical energy but that he might actually be a bit of a doofus.
In the first, Pitt effectively admits that he got conned…
He tells me that he was approached a few years ago by a man who explained to him that the château was supposedly home to another fortune: millions of dollars’ worth of gold that one of the estate’s medieval owners had taken from the Levant during the Crusades and buried on the grounds. “I got obsessed,” Pitt says. “Like for a year, this was all I could think about, just the excitement of it all.” He bought radar equipment and scoured his property…
… Of course, no treasure was unearthed. Pitt says the man who’d approached him was ultimately seeking money for some kind of radar company; an investment opportunity, he was told. The whole thing went nowhere and Pitt was left feeling a little surprised that he’d let himself believe in the idea. The entire experience was, he says, “pretty foolish in the end. It was just the hunt that was exciting.”
… while in the second, he shows off his craft projects:
As we’re talking in his living room, Pitt slips away for a moment and then reappears, looming over the couch on which I sit. He slaps two incredibly heavy candlesticks into my open palms. I understand that these are his creations. Over the pandemic, he learned ceramics. The candlesticks are painted black and gold and are very handsome. “That’s porcelain,” he says. “Everything I read, porcelain’s about being thin so that light penetrates, the thinner you get. It’s a cardinal sin to make it thick.”
But, of course, Moshfegh declares the results a triumph (“And yet that’s what Pitt has done, and he’s succeeded.”)
What’s the point of this profile? For Pitt, it’s an opportunity to bolster his reputation with a magazine cover at a point when he’s in a public relations war with Jolie. For GQ, it maintains its relationship with a huge star, gets him in spendy clothes from potential advertisers, and piggybacks on the attention he receives. And for Moshfegh, it’s a nice fee and some additional profile at a time when she has a book out.
But what does for the reader is negligible. It’s like eavesdropping on two pretentious people who will undoubtedly have you ejected from the private members’ club if they notice you lurking in the corner. It’s a bubble in which the statement…
Pitt polishes off his bottle of water and looks past me, seemingly lost in thought. Silence is especially dramatic when Brad Pitt is creating it.
… expects more silence with a big dose of awe mixed into it rather than a Nelson Munce-style explosion of laughter.
In ‘Frank Sinatra has a cold’, the 1965 Esquire profile, Gay Talese turned the absence of the singer— who used his illness as an excuse to renege on in the interview — into an advantage. He observed the way the court of Sinatra worked to give a greater insight into the man and his world than rehearsed quotes would have.
There is an absence at the heart of the Brad Pitt profile — as there is in many modern celebrity profiles — despite the star’s availability for interview. It’s because what the writer was presented with and the reader is given is not questioned. Pitt gets to play a character — a slight variation on the one he gave GQ in a 2019 profile — and pretend that he is “opening up”.
By dodging what’s actually happening in Pitt’s life, Moshfegh and her editors don’t just ignore the elephant in the room but try to persuade the reader that all the dung is just more of his wonderful art.
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