While news about Jesse James crawled its way across 19th century America — compared to today’s lightning-fast Internet — the tone was uncannily comparable to today’s celebrity coverage, Brad Pitt found in reading those old accounts.
“I will say, I was surprised to see how tabloid journalism was alive and well even then and operating in the same way, just sensationalizing a complete fabrication of untruths,” said Brad Pitt, who stars as the legendary outlaw in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
“There’s just more of it today. There’s more of it in quantity, but the execution’s the same. In that day, when you only had a newspaper to get your information, that would have been the extent of it. But it doesn’t seem to have changed at all,” Pitt told The Associated Press at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Pitt and Angelina Jolie, stars of the 2005 hit “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” have been the quarry of celebrity photographers and the object of incessant tabloid gossip since they hooked up amid the breakup of Pitt’s marriage to Jennifer Aniston. A media vigil preceded the birth of their daughter in Namibia last year, and crowds swelled during the Toronto festival everywhere they went.
In the late 1800s, James was able to move anonymously through America under a series of aliases, but his notoriety was unparalleled. James’ image as a Robin Hood-style bandit of the people — a myth he helped perpetuate himself — had made him a folk hero to the public and a demon to the railroads.
Destroying what you worshipBased on Ron Hansen’s novel, “Assassination of Jesse James” dissects the James myth to present a charismatic man in the last year of his life, as his sense of security crumbles and he is overwhelmed by paranoia that associates are selling him out to the law.
Into James’ inner circle comes young idolator Ford (Casey Affleck), who has grown up on romanticized stories of the outlaw’s deeds. Initially an intimate, Ford later becomes an object of scorn for Pitt’s increasingly unpredictable James.
Ford eventually feels compelled to become James’ executioner, coming to believe it’s almost a civic duty.
“I don’t know what led to his idea, the need to destroy the very thing that he worshipped, but that’s certainly what’s going on here. You have a demoralized boy, a boy who’s subject to humiliation, and in his quiet hours has this lust for the Jesse James celebrity, the Jesse James phenomenon,” said Pitt, 43.
“Then at the point where he meets Jesse James, meets his idol, and his idol spurns him, it becomes that thing, needing to destroy the thing you love to become equal with it again.”
At two hours, 40 minutes, “Assassination of Jesse James,” which opens Friday, is a challenging tale, yet one that has drawn praise for the lyrical melancholy of its 19th century landscapes and for the key performances. The film earned the best-actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for Pitt, a previous supporting-actor Academy Awards nominee for “Twelve Monkeys” who could be in contention for a lead-actor Oscar this time.
The celebrity mystique that surrounds Pitt meshed well with the mythic nature of James, said Andrew Dominik, director of “Assassination of Jesse James.”
“It was the sort of part that you could cast a movie star in and it would make sense,” Dominik said. “It wouldn’t be miscasting Brad, who you never really feel like you know on-screen. He’s always retained kind of an essential mystery. He’s not a person people really identify with. He’s more of an object to them. They aspire to be him, but they don’t really identify with him.
“Those were really good qualities for Jesse. They’re both enigmatic and charismatic.”
Pitt first caught widespread notice in a scene-stealing role in 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” and went on to star in such films as “Legends of the Fall,” “Spy Game,” “Troy” and last year’s acclaimed “Babel,” co-starring Cate Blanchett.
‘He’s just so open’Blanchett and Pitt reunite for next year’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Pitt’s third film with David Fincher, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story about a man who is born old and ages backward toward infancy.
“He’s just so open. He’s a great player. Brad loves a good idea and a good conversation, and I think that extends to acting, really,” Blanchett said. “I think he’s got a really good nose for what works, and I think people will be blown away by him in ‘Benjamin Button.”’
Pitt now is shooting the Coen brothers’ dark comedy “Burn After Reading” with George Clooney, his partner in crime in “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels.
While Pitt looks for roles that offer fresh dramatic possibilities, finding good work companions such as Clooney has become crucial in his job choices.
“As I get older, it’s the company I keep,” Pitt said. “It means something to me to have these friends out here and people I respect ... Most of the movie is spent when the camera’s not rolling, and to work with these interesting people is really the most important thing to me.”
With his production company Plan B, Pitt also is active as a producer whose credits include Jolie’s recent drama “A Mighty Heart.” (He also was a producer on “Assassination of Jesse James.”)
Safety is keyPitt jokes that the advantage of today’s celebrity culture is that people are not carrying six-shooters around the way they did in James’ day. Even so, as a new father, Pitt is mindful of the potential dangers that come with fame.
Along with their biological daughter, Pitt and Jolie have three children she adopted from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam.
“It’s something that I want to be aware of and be cautious about, especially with the family, that everybody’s protected,” Pitt said. “I mean it’s rare, but there are imbalanced people out there. I’ve had break-ins in the house ... I’ve had some of these abnormal incidents that can be a bit frightening.”
When Pitt or Jolie is working, the other takes time off to tend the children, who travel with them wherever they are filming.
“We just take turns and make sure we keep the family together,” Pitt said.
Pitt is quick to acknowledge reporters’ questions about his and Jolie’s plans for more children.
“We’re not done. They say, any plans for a fifth? And I say, ‘And a sixth, and a seventh, and an eighth, and a ninth.’ That’s my answer. ...
“We also made a 9-foot-wide bed” that can fit him, Jolie and all four children, Pitt said. “Just big enough. One more and we’ll have to go to 11 feet.”