At 50, arguably the world’s most famous actor tackles a role as a World War II tank commander in fury, and offers thoughts on what patriotism really means

By susan hornik & matt Scanlon

After being asked what profundities she could offer in the face of her 50th birthday, Coco Chanel replied, in her inimitable dry and biting style, “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty.”

Though she didn’t state it explicitly, Chanel was probably speaking multi-dimensionally—the “face” she was referring to both the physical one as well as her presence in the world, mission, and focus.

Faced with the ringing in of his own half-century, Brad Pitt can look back on, of course, a Valhalla-altitude career, but one handled with almost unstoppable dignity—in an industry designed to provide endless reasons to abandon that mission. From the first moment he marched into sexual god status at 28 as the itinerant thief who fleeced Geena Davis in 1991’s Thelma and Louise, Pitt’s life could have easily been an adventure in Kardashian-esque ridiculousness, relationship pyrotechnics, and ultimately physical meltdown. Yes, he wandered through a few high-profile relationships on his way to marrying Angelina Jolie (most notably with Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow), but he has since settled into a home life with six children, a steady stream of admirable and interesting roles, and commitment to a variety of philanthropic endeavors—with steadiness that borders on the eerie.

After two years that marked wildly different roles in World War Z and 12 Years a Slave, Pitt tackled another world war in Fury, released just a few weeks prior to publication. The film, directed by David Ayer, tells the fictional story of a Sherman Tank crew (led by Pitt as Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier) caught behind Nazi lines in 1945, and rumors abound that the star is poised to pick up yet another Oscar nomination (he has six so far) for the role.

“I was a David Ayer fan from his previous work, especially End of Watch,” said Pitt at a press event for the film. “Knowing the depths he goes to for realism and authenticity, and his unique structure, I find him to be one of the standouts. He’s also a vet, and from that firsthand experience, he has a wealth of knowledge on the subject that drew us all in.”

About his character, Pitt explained that, “Wardaddy is the tank commander—his responsibility is keeping his men alive. He’s responsible for their operations, their morale, and especially making sure that they are operating as a machine. His calls are going to determine who walks away and who doesn’t.”

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At the start of the film, this tightknit tank crew loses one of its members, and warily greets a replacement in the form of Shia LaBeouf.

“A new kid is thrown into the family,” added Pitt. “It’s not just that he’s new, it’s not just that he has no tank experience—he’s actually a threat to our survival; if he can’t perform, the whole crew is in danger and people will die. He comes in with great innocence, and the question is, how do you raise a child in a day? Wardaddy has to get him calloused and get him performing to ensure the safety of others.”

One way the filmmakers were able to make Fury authentic was to enlist the aid of a number of veterans of the 2nd Armored Division who served during World War II.

“David [Ayer] is ferocious about authenticity,” said Pitt. “He set us up with some beautiful experiences. We got to meet several vets who were all in their 90s; they had survived D-Day landings and the Battle of the Bulge… it was a very humbling experience to sit in their presence and listen to their stories. They had visceral descriptions of what it was like to be in the tank—the heat, the exhaust. It was oily, and the smell of death was always in the air. Most of them were under-trained, underequipped, and dealing with incredible hardships and weather…lack of food, lack of sleep. And they had to push on under the most harrowing conditions.”

To foster a sense of camaraderie among the performers, military advisors on the film created a simulated bootcamp.

“It was mandatory,” explained Pitt. “We were full-on, up at five in the morning, two hours of PT [physical training], schooling, grunt work, obstacles until late evening, cold rations, sleeping in the rain—and somebody’s gotta do point guard, changing on the hour. It was designed to break us down, to get a taste of the little hardships, but then also to build us up when we were at our lowest, morale-wise.”

The film’s cast visited Fort Benning in Georgia for a screening, and Pitt was visibly moved as he talked to soldiers there in an informal speech.

“We got to be tourists in your world for about six months,” he said. “And after about three months training, we started principal photography…We walk away from this experience with a deeper understanding of your commitment, not just physically but mentally, and the commitment of your families. Lastly, we got to see our flag differently. We got to see our flag through our soldiers’ eyes. That I thank you for.”

Born William Bradley Pitt on December 18, 1963, in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Pitt was the eldest of three children in a devoutly Southern Baptist family, and grew up in Springfield, Missouri (his dad owned a trucking company, and his mother was a family counselor). Pitt originally wanted to be

“We got to meet vets who were all in their 90s; they had survived D-Day landings and the Battle of the Bulge…They had visceral descriptions of what it was like to be in the tank—the heat, the exhaust. The smell of death was always in the air. Most of them were under-trained, under-equipped, and dealing with incredible hardships.”

an advertising art director, and studied journalism at the University of Missouri. A love of films persuaded him to drop out of college, however (just two credits shy of graduating), pack up his car, and go to Tinseltown. He told his parents he was going to enroll in the Art Center College of Design, but instead spent his time driving a limousine. He joined an acting class and after that, went with a fellow classmate as her scene partner on an audition. In a lightning-strike moment is there ever was one, the agent signed Pitt instead!

The first job came in TV in a small number of Dallas episodes, followed by gigs at the soap Another World, the sitcom Growing Pains, and in 1990’s short-lived Fox Television series Glory Days. His big screen debut was in 1989’s horror/slasher Cutting Class with Donovan Leitch, followed by a turn as a teen track star in Sandy Tung’s Across the Tracks. Pitt’s performance in Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise grabbed the world’s attention, despite only a few minutes’ worth of screen time, and he soon went on to roles in The Favor (1992) with Elizabeth McGovern, Tom CiCillo’s directorial debut Johnny Suede (1992), and Cool World (1992). Pitt was also a cult fan favorite as Floyd, the burnout hippie in Tony Scott’s True Romance.

Lacking the space in this article to detail all the roles since, suffice it to say that there have been no fewer than thirty eight since True Romance—from a tragic but garrulous alcoholic in A River
Runs Through It to the lovable (and constantly eating) big con practitioner Rusty Ryan in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, from the Greek hero Achilles in Troy to ex-CIA agent Jerry Layne with a small idea to save humanity in World War Z.

This past year, Pitt won an Academy Award as a producer of 12 Years a Slave. In addition to its win for Best Picture, the film won Oscars for screenwriter John Ridley and supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o. (Pitt also played a supporting role in the film.)

Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment company develops and produces both film and television projects, producing World War Z for Paramount, as well as films like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ryan Murphy’s Eat Pray Love, and Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. The company is currently in post-production on Rupert Goold’s True Story, starring James Franco and Jonah Hill. On the television side, Plan B’s Resurrection has been picked up for its second season on ABC.

The actor is currently starring in and producing By the Sea, opposite Jolie, who is also writing and directing the film (their first effort together since Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which made $100 million at the box office). Now in the ninth year of their relationship, Pitt and Jolie were married in a secret August ceremony in the South of France that was outspoken in its deliberate understatement. Jolie reported to Vanity Fair that the couple’s son Pax made a cake, other children made ring pillows, and Pitt’s mother went about the countryside picking flowers and tying them into bouquets.