Brad Pitt likes to keep it real. Both as a person and as an actor. He can hide behind other peoples' creations, he can pretend to be someone else very well, but he rarely hides behind artifice to protect himself. He's smart, he knows he's what he refers to as "lottery lucky", but he doesn't appear to be seduced by Hollywood. He doesn't promote himself as being special or unique; in interviews he tends instead to portray himself as a guy you could go for a few pints with, an American hippy hanging out in British pubs.
Recently, however, keeping it real has become increasingly tough. In March this year, 11 weeks after announcing their separation and almost five years after they tied the knot in a lavish ceremony in Malibu, his wife Jennifer Aniston filed for divorce, seeking the dissolution of their marriage based on "irreconcilable differences". The rumours were twofold: Brad wanted kids and Jen wasn't ready; he had started an affair with Angelina Jolie on the set of the recently-released Mr and Mrs Smith. But both Pitt and Aniston kept their dignity, refusing to publicly discuss the details of their separation and divorce.
Following the break-up, Pitt - who has always managed to successfully embrace both the critical and the commerical - became even more of a tabloid target. He talked of paparazzi hiding in the bushes and described men in suits looking through his bins. He said time and again that he refused to read the rumours and speculation, refused to drag his private life into the public eye. In an interview with American GQ, he described love as "sometimes changing shape". In the same piece he went on to talk of his split from Aniston in an unexpectedly poetic and positive fashion: "There is a beauty in our coming together, there's a beauty in our time together, and there's a beauty in this, for us... We've kept the love we have for each other."
While the press has been feasting on the break-up of one of Hollywood's most celebrated couples, Pitt has found a welcome distraction. In early interviews it was often reported that he liked to sketch his surroundings in a journal and that he was an admirer of the Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie MacKintosh and of the organic American Frank Lloyd Wright. He has long been infatuated with architecture, but more recently it has turned into a full-blown affair. It is the thing, he says, that really drives him crazy.
In 2001, Pitt and Aniston bought and renovated a six-bedroom, $14 million Normandy-style mansion in Beverly Hills. With an estimated $5 million of vintage wine to store, Pitt invited the very modern and often playful Canadian architect Frank Gehry to design the wine cellar. The 76-year-old and the 41-year-old became friends. The actor described meeting the architect as "about as much fun as I'd had".
By contrast, Pitt was making it clear that his life as an actor had a sell-by date: "There's a new generation coming up and we need new voices in the industry," he said. Most actors who command around $20 million a movie make such comments to enhance their image, to make them sound generous, thoughtful or interesting than they really are.
Not Pitt. This is not a man known for showing off. Remember that William Bradley Pitt is one of the most famous and celebrated actors of modern times - and, of course, was once voted the sexiest man alive - yet more often than not he hides his tall, Herculean frame in loose ripped denim jeans and bleached white T-shirts and chats about endless attempts to give up smoking while wondering if acting can really feed his soul. He often talks about music (David Holmes, Jeff Buckley), but it is architecture that has truly captured his imagination.
And the boy who dropped out of university two credits shy of graduation now wants to learn. He has been doing an "informal apprenticeship" at Gehry's Los Angeles offices, studying computer-aided design. And his first project? A commission to design an apartment and restaurant in a residential and leisure development on the seafront in Hove, East Sussex. It is a controversial complex, one that has divided the local council and outraged locals due to its height, unusual shape (designed to look like crumpled Victorian dresses) and Gehry's trademark metallic look. There is talk of Pitt buying the apartment after he has designed it, joining another peripatetic Hollywood local Cate Blanchett.
But for all of Pitt's protestations about his time as an actor being limited, it is hard to imagine him walking away from such a brilliant career. After all, for such a huge star he had an unusually slow start. In his early twenties, he abandoned a degree in advertising and journalism at Missouri University, drove to LA and signed up for acting lessons. Initially he earned money by dressing in a chicken suit for a fast food chain and driving strippers around town. In April 1994, he told Empire magazine that it was a good job. "There were some interesting rides home," he said, with a grin. All a far cry from being signed up as a brand ambassador for Swiss watch company TAG Heuer, earlier this year, joining the illustrious company of Uma Thurman, Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova and Kimi Ra?kk?nen.
He was an extra in Less Than Zero and was in Dallas for, quite literally, a minute. But it was, of course, his portrayal of JD, the cowboy hustler in 1991's Thelma & Louise, that made his name. He seduced Geena Davies not only with his smouldering sexuality but also with lazily-delivered lines such as: "Well, now, I may be an outlaw darlin', but you're the one stealing my heart." The 28-year-old soon made up for lost time, starring opposite Robert Redford in A River Runs Through It and clocking up a further 27 films to date.
Although his good looks and athletic physique always find a way of shining through, Pitt has always fought against being stereotyped as a bimbo. "As soon as you get an image, you gotta break it," he once told Details magazine. So he worked hard on making himself look deranged in Twelve Monkeys and messed up as the Irish pikey boxer in Guy Ritchie's Snatch (where he was by far the best thing about the film). Julia Roberts, who has acted with him in several films, calls Pitt a "very low-key, groovy guy" and this is probably the sort of description he appreciates. He certainly appears bored by the constant attention to his looks. "I feel like a girl walking past construction workers," he once said.
If at some stage Pitt does abandon acting in favour of becoming an architect, it is quite possible that it won't be because the discipline has lost its appeal, but because of the constant attendant attention. During his marriage to Aniston he grew to despise the paparazzi more each day. Since their divorce, he imagines they are crouching in every bush, waiting to grab an illicit shot of the new bachelor. "I wouldn't be surprised if they are walking round this fence line right now," he told American GQ in June during an interview in one of the bungalows at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles. "Outside our house, mine and Jen's, we had teams there every day. You'd have one team of three cars, a secondary team of three cars."
If architecture is a distraction, from the press, from his divorce, from Hollywood, it is a timely one. This is not yet the end of Brad Pitt the actor. There are several projects in the pipeline including Chad Schmidt, in which the amateur actor of the title looks just like Brad Pitt; Benjamin Button, which reunites him with David Fincher, an old friend who directed Pitt in two of his best films, Se7en and Fight Club and then Babel, in which Pitt co-stars with Cate Blanchett.
Yet it seems that architecture is offering itself to Pitt as some kind of holy grail. The idea of this tall, handsome guy turning up at a planning meeting at Hove Town Hall on a dull afternoon to discuss the seafront development is a rather an odd one, yet it may soon become a reality.
He talks again about architecture soaking up all his energy, being an obsession. He refers to buildings as "a piece of art you get to walk through and experience". It seems that this is not a phase nor is it a bandwagon to give him another dimension. For the man who says, perfectly seriously, "I love a construction site", it's simply a way of keeping it real.
Words Amy Raphael