LOS ANGELES—Almost overlooked in Sunday’s (Monday in Manila) Oscar best actor race is Brad Pitt, who gives his finest performance so far in his career in “Moneyball.”
In Bennett Miller’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ best-selling book (“Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”), Brad plays Billy Beane, the baseball player turned Oakland Athletics’ general manager who comes up with unconventional ideas to hire rejects and has-beens.
Jonah Hill, who is also in the running for best supporting actor, is a revelation as the numbers geek Peter Brand who helps rebuild the As. Below are excerpts from our interview with Brad:
This movie champions the underdog. Have you ever felt like one?
It’s easy to forget that I came from Oklahoma, Missouri, a place where film is not on the vocational list. I started as an extra and, slowly but surely, I learned something about the industry. I still root for an underdog. I still relate to an underdog. When you begin any project, it’s a huge undertaking so you feel like a bit of an underdog.
Billy Beane is portrayed as superstitious. He doesn’t watch a game, for example.
There was a reason behind that, which we didn’t explain. Billy said that he gets so emotional watching the game that he makes emotional decisions from it. He didn’t want that to cloud his judgment. He’s only interested in the outcome, not as the game is unfolding. He can stay slightly removed and make decisions that are a little clearer, unemotional. He calls himself a danger to baseball if he watches the games … I’d imagine that chairs and radios would have suffered at his hands, too.
Are you superstitious?
No, I’m not.
But you and Angelina don’t fly in the same plane.
That’s not being superstitious. That’s just being practical. We don’t take long trips together. We take certain precautions about that, just in case.
The young Billy Beane has the potential to become a superstar baseball player but things turn out differently. What about you when you were younger, did you have a different path in mind?
I really didn’t think that far ahead other than the realization that I love films and I’d go give that a shot. I’ve been very fortunate to not get kicked out.
How was the 17-year-old Brad?
Man, I was just interested in cars and girls. I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I’ve never been one to do that. But what I find interesting about Billy is quitting. You imagine a kid at 17 and someone comes along and says, “You get to be on the show,” which is what most kids dream of. “Plus, we’re going to throw a lot of money at you.” It comes at a time when you’re not experienced enough to be able to make those decisions about what might be best for you.
Billy talks about waking up something like 10 years later and realizing it wasn’t a good match. He feels a little trapped and wants to do something cerebral which was what he wanted to do all along. We put so much emphasis on success and failure as the final markers. But to me, it’s an ongoing process. I don’t see failure as the time to place a headstone. I see failure as the next step that leads to the next win. They’re intricately connected.
Billy deals with math and statistics. Are you also good in those?
Math and science were actually my best subjects. I am quite fond of them. I see math as the basis of everything.
Are you a good pitcher?
No, I got a crap arm, man. I’m terrible. I have a scar right here (pointing at mark on his left cheek) that I got in late elementary. This is my relationship with baseball—I was having a pop fly high noon at center field. It bounced off my cheekbone and I threw the guy out at second. But I received 18 stitches later. I figured baseball and I are not a good match.
The book isn’t a conventional story … but Bennett Miller somehow found a movie in the book.
It was difficult to pull off the tone and the flavor of the book on the screen. It helped that we had Bennett Miller. Catherine Keener, who has been a friend for over 20 years, told me to talk to Bennett. I met a guy who was very inquisitive, against the grain, Socratic in his questioning. He had a background as a documentary filmmaker … We all agreed that he would be a nice captain to head the ship. Ben is such an elegant storyteller.
How much did you know about baseball before this movie?
It’s shameful how little I know about baseball.
But after this movie, you knew more, of course.
Yeah. Two years of watching “SportsCenter” 24/7 will do that to you. But there’s something special about the game. It’s allegorical to life in many ways … It’s a game where there’s virtually no clock on … If you fail two-thirds of the time, you’re considered a good hitter. It’s a team sport and yet each man has his individual moment, with a lot of contemplative time to wrestle with his action.
Do you find fame liberating or suffocating?
It can be both at different times. It’s a tradeoff …
I remember a woman crying in line at a premiere. I asked her, “Are you okay?” I thought she was getting crunched from behind which usually happens. She couldn’t speak and her friend said, “She loves Angie. She wants to meet Angie.” She got to meet Angie. That moment was something she won’t forget, or at least for that day something special happened to her. There’s something very liberating and instructive in that.
Then, on the other hand, it can be confining. I haven’t seen a hotel lobby in 15 years. I got to go up the ass end of a hotel and out the same way.
One of the fascinating aspects of the movie is the relationship between Billy Beane and Peter Brand. Have you met people that you had an instinctive faith and trust in?
No, I probably trust nobody. I’m kidding.
Angelina better hear that.
God, she’s heard everything. I think of Angie first and foremost. That’s part of a great partnership. Billy saw in Peter who he wanted to be, the cerebral side. And Peter, the opposite in Billy. So there was mutual respect. I feel that way about Jonah. We’re partners in the film. Bennett was that kind of partner, too.
E-mail the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.