Pitt Plays The American Patriarch In 'Tree Of Life' Brad Pitt has played a police detective, a mental patient, the outlaw Jesse James and a cutthroat Nazi hunter. But critics are already calling Pitt's latest part, in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, a career-defining performance.

Pitt Plays The American Patriarch In 'Tree Of Life'

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We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

There's a new Brad Pitt movie in theaters this weekend, but it's not like any Brad Pitt movie you've seen before. It's called "The Tree of Life." It just won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and in it, Pitt plays a husband and father who, along with his wife, is raising three boys in 1950s Texas.

In the movie, Pitt's character is strict and emotionally distant. He expresses love for his sons openly, but he's got a short temper. And that can be downright frightening at times. At one point, he tries to teach his boys how to fight.

(Soundbite of film, "The Tree of Life")

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (As Mr. O'Brien) Come on. Hit me. Come on. Come on, Jack. Hit me. Hit me. Hit me. Come on. Come on. Here it is. Here it is. Come on, son. Come on. Huh? Left.

MARTIN: The family's story is at the center of the film. But director Terrence Malick is reaching for a lot more here, universal questions about nature, science, philosophy and religion. And Pitt says his character, too, is asking universal questions.

Mr. PITT: You know, the family lives in the era of the '50s, and they're - what I understand, coming from a - not a rural area but at least certainly more Southern in its roots, a father-knows-best kind of mentality. And the character here in "The Tree of Life" is someone who feels most oppressed by the world, oppressed by the job.

The American dream didn't work out as he believed it would be, quite envious and bitter that people are ahead of him. Naturally, when someone feels oppressed, they find someone weaker to pass that oppression on, and the sadness in this situation, it's on his sons.

But here in this moment, he's trying to prepare them for the world as he understands it, and that is that it's a fight, and you're on your own, and you've got to take care of yourself.

MARTIN: When you explained this movie to your kids, how did you explain it?

Mr. PITT: I don't. I haven't even explained what we do for a living to my kids.

MARTIN: Seriously?

Mr. PITT: Well, they know mom and dad, you know, they tell stories, they're in movies, and it's an everyday thing, and it's nothing more than that.

MARTIN: What was the hardest part about making this?

Mr. PITT: I can't say - I wouldn't say hard. It was just completely different. You know, you have to understand a movie set is very chaotic. There's hundreds of people. There's generators and trucks.

And this was a completely different experience. We had none of that. He rented the neighborhood, this neighborhood that had been cut off by the interstate in the '50s and was ostensibly a time capsule for that era.

There were no lights, camera lights, there were no generators, and the camera was all hand-held. So it was a very kind of free-form, low-key experience.

MARTIN: You mentioned the fact that you were raised in a fairly rural environment in the Midwest. This takes place in 1950s rural Texas, small town Texas. Was there anything about that environment, that part of the film that resonated with you personally?

Mr. PITT: I had great parallels with this upbringing in the sense of environment, staying out late until the sun went down, hearing your mom's voice call you in, getting into trouble breaking windows, firecrackers, playing in cemeteries. You know, I could feel the balm in the air on the summer nights. And yes, it's very close to me, so I was quite comfortable.

MARTIN: I want to ask you a little more about the experience of working with Terrence Malick. He is a bit of an anomaly in Hollywood. He's made only five movies in a period of nearly 40 years, a very private man, and he doesn't do press, doesn't do a lot of interviews like this one.

And his movies are not exactly the kind of pictures that studios line up to fund. Can you talk a little bit about what was particularly different about working with Terrence Malick?

Mr. PITT: Terry is all free-form. He's someone who's looking for moments of truth and not created moments of truth, the accidents that happen. So he'll torpedo a scene. By that, I mean, he'll push the cameraman beforehand, or he'll - if Jessica and I were having a fight in the first take, he would suddenly send the youngest child in to sit down at the table, and it would change the whole tenor of the scene. He would throw a dog up in the front seat and laugh. He would just - he's just constantly trying to push people off their comfort zones.

MARTIN: How much time did you spend with the kids, the young actors who were on the film?

Mr. PITT: Well, we practically...

MARTIN: Preparing for the roles.

Mr. PITT: Practically lived together every day.

MARTIN: Oh, you lived together?

Mr. PITT: So - no, I mean, not literally. We didn't go home together. But, you know, we spent the days together like a family would, playing between takes, playing outside, throwing the ball around. By the way, Terry Malick is a fantastic athlete. As humble and meek as the man seems, he's quite aggressive if you get a ball in his hand.

MARTIN: I want to switch gears a little bit. You've been very involved in the field of architecture. That's something that you're interested in. And you've extended that in your work in Louisiana.

There are some interesting parallels between what happened in New Orleans in 2005 and Hurricane Katrina, and this film, "The Tree of Life." There's a message in that film that life is finite and can change in an instant. And clearly, Hurricane Katrina changed everything for millions of people.

Wondering if you can talk a little bit about your experience working in the Gulf. I've actually seen some of those houses that your foundation has been building in the Lower Ninth Ward, and I'm curious to hear from you, four years into this, do you think it's having the kind of catalytic effect that you had hoped for?

Mr. PITT: Well, first, I'll say that the film does speak to our impermanence, and I think whenever we see these catastrophic events, it again reminds us of our impermanence and fragility. And just like the tornado that just hit Joplin, Missouri.

So I also draw the parallels there. The project itself has been more successful than I possibly imagined. You know, we're - these homes that have been built are being built for the same price to build an antiquated, non-efficient house where your bills are $300, and here, we're seeing families with $30, $20 a month. And so it frees up all this income, extra income for the family.

But the real interesting thing, the thing I did not expect, was the feeling in the neighborhood, the feeling - the families, just the - what it meant for them for, in a place where they're used to being marginalized, for someone to come along and help them out. Just that has changed - seemed to change their life view, and I have to believe that's being passed on.

MARTIN: You've said in other interviews about this film that you wanted this particular movie to start a discussion, to get people to ask big questions. And I wonder what kind of discussion that this film, in making it, may have provoked in your own life.

Mr. PITT: During my last viewing of the film, it occurred to me - let me back up by saying there's been a lot of theological discussions attached with this film, as I understand it, and spiritual conversations.

MARTIN: There are a lot of, really, just allegories. There are a lot of questions about is there a God.

Mr. PITT: Yeah. And iconography, and sure, sure. And first, what I'll say about what I know about Terry, Terry is a man who sees God in science and science in God. And usually, these things are opposing forces. But me, for myself, it -you know, it speaks to the unknown, the things that we cannot define, that it seems to me we try to comfort ourselves with stories that stem from theology of different religions and that maybe the real peace to be found is in the acceptance of the unknowing, that we don't know, but that there is something, that there's a real power there that's greater than us, and maybe that's enough.

MARTIN: That's Brad Pitt. He stars in the new film "The Tree of Life," which opens in select cities this weekend.

Brad, thanks for being here.

Mr. PITT: All right. Thanks much.

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