Brad Pitt and Performance

‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’ - Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s easy to box people up into packages, ever more necessary in the age of the personal brand. If someone can’t figure you out, if they can’t label you immediately, they find that concurrently disconcerting and exciting.

The fact that large swathes of us are now searching for labels is another matter. Maybe we need these labels for ourselves as much as others need them for us.

I’ve just read an interview with Brad Pitt in GQ. Pitt, i’m sure you’re aware, is an ageing film star with some apparently fantastic performances in his latest roles. He rarely acts these days and even more rarely takes a starring role.

What struck me about his interview was his interpretation of what performance was:

“…they say, ‘Well, he's an actor,’ or ‘She's an actor, actress, actor.’ Meaning the connotation is that you go and fake something. And acting is the exact opposite. I just want to get that on the record. It bugs the shit out of me.”

He goes on to bring up how we all perform in public, put on our game face and act our way through life. Fake it until you make it etc. Pitt is someone who did fake it, having ‘never studied at Juilliard’, made it and then has spent the rest of his life after worldwide mega fame trying to reconcile what his real is with how the world would like to perceive him.

Oddly enough, it reminds me of how Bruce Wayne is Batman’s mask, not the other way around.

Acting is Pitt’s vehicle for expressing real feelings. Good or bad, whether he wins his bout with his fellow actors or not, as long as something feels real to him, he’s satisfied with the work.

‘There's strength in vulnerability. It's not a posing, strength of muscles, ‘I can do anything’ kind of blind confidence, but it's a real confidence in really knowing yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses. And being really…vulnerable to and open with the people you encounter, the people you love. Being able to laugh at your foibles.”

Expressing his vulnerability is according to him, something that happens on screen but less so in a reality where he is a, or has been, a valuable commodity that people want for a reason. The flip side being that he sees his real value being expressed when he’s allowed to be vulnerable, by himself and the audience.

My favourite film is probably Fight Club. Pitt is perfectly cast as the embodiment of Ed Norton’s id.

I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I'm free in all the ways that you are not - Tyler Durden

The irony of Pitt the apogee of celebrity culture spouting anti-consumerist rhetoric while being directed by David Fincher, a man who made his name in music videos and adverts, is just wonderful.

But for Pitt himself, the fact that the idea of him is used as a foil to a fictional character, to add another layer to a movie that’s itself an adaptation of a book, removes whatever the real him is from reality by so many steps that it’s hard to reconcile. Where is anyone’s performance in all this?

Because, some of what Durden says is true. And Pitt probably agrees with him. Playing the Batman role of Durden lets him express some of his inner rawness and violence, reject some of the consumer narratives around his person and divest himself of the things he owns. When you act, you own nothing. It’s just you.

The interviewer states that Pitt ‘talks around himself, indirectly, rather than about himself in any real, concrete detail. But of course, he well knows that Brad Pitt is the text of practically every movie he's been in and most of the conversations he's had over the past 30 years.’

He goes on to say that he’s been aware of his avoidance of vulnerability, the artifice of his day to day life for some time and that it’s those who exist as they are that he envies.

‘I mean, the people I'm really drawn to, they just have no filter. They have no protection. They have no filter on their thoughts. They sometimes get in trouble because of that, but I adore them. I adore that they're just so open and raw about their feelings at any moment.’

The world socialises you and expects you to bend to its will. This can be a society, a team or a workplace. Wherever you are, there is an element of mitigation. Most of us aren’t able to exist with ‘the courage to be disliked’ in this respect.

One man, my hero Kanye, has the courage to be disliked, to be so nakedly himself. This is someone who won’t compromise, like Rorschach in Watchmen, someone who will go to war for their beliefs and their right to express themselves.

In this way West is incredibly free. He’s free to achieve across industries and pursue his creative impulses, wherever they might lead him. It’s amazing that someone of Pitt’s wealth and status, of his place in the canon of film stars, could envy something so simple as the ability to be yourself.

We envy these people instinctively, and Pitt admits that being himself has its enormous perks, but we often neglect the dissonance that comes of not being honestly yourself. In some ways, Durden is correct - ‘the things you own end up owning you’. If you own just the idea of yourself rather than who you really are, that shadow will always follow you, no matter what that idea is.

Ben Mercer