In James Gray’s Ad Astra, Brad Pitt plays an astronaut traveling to the farthest reaches of our solar system to find his lost father and grapple with existential questions. And at the heart of the film, Pitt said at its Venice press conference earlier today, was the exploration of what constructs of masculinity mean and whether they need to be broken down.
“Having grown up in an era where we’re taught to be strong, not show weakness, don’t be disrespected,” Pitt said, “There’s a certain value in that, but there’s also a barrier that’s created with this kind of embracing of the self, because you’re denying, in a sense, those pains or the things you feel shame, whether real or imagined.
“We were asking the question, is there a better definition for us? Does being more open provide you with a better relation with your loved ones and with yourself? At the end of the day, that’s certainly what we were after.”
Of the film’s more technical aspects—particularly the zero gravity sequences—Pitt said he consulted with friend George Clooney, who had starred in Gravity. “Doing a space film is a little bit like a Peter Pan stage production, hanging from wires,” he explained. “George and I exchanged some discomfort stories.”
Gray said Pitt’s vulnerability as an actor leant itself to exploring those themes. In creating the character, he explained, “The key is you cannot worry about being liked or hated or sympathetic or unsympathetic. You can only worry about being honest to who you are, and about being willing to be vulnerable or open. Sometimes that will lead you to dark places and people will love it or hate it, but you can’t worry about that. I tried to establish that dialogue with Brad, Brad certainly did with me, and you let the chips fall where they may.”
Pitt would receive emails from Gray at the start of every shooting day. “James and I don’t have the normal male relationship,” Pitt said. “He would send really personal emails, exposing ideas from his own life. That really would define the day’s work and the scenes were honed by it, and it’s something I still value. It was a unique experience.”
Liv Tyler rebuffed a question about her few appearances in the film, and said that her character—the partner to Pitt’s Major Roy McBride, who we see mostly through his memory or video clips, was intended to be a dreamlike creation. “To me that was real, to the story that was real, to his mind that was real,” she said. “All of our connections that you see—he’s alone so much and you see so much playing in his mind. You don’t always know if it’s real or not real.”
Pitt’s character does connect with Ruth Negga’s, who he meets on a Mars base. For the first time, he opens himself up. “Up there you’re still thirsty for human connection,” she said. “For both of them, they provide a need which has been absent, maybe. I loved the way she reached out to connect with him. I feel like she galvanizes him on his mission. When I saw it I felt a huge warmth there. Although he doesn’t know it, their fates are intertwined. This feels so Greek and epic. Those are the things I was drawn to.”
Asked about his Oscar chances for the role, Pitt explained he was only curious to see how the film would be received. “Every year I see amazing talent get acknowledged and I see amazing talent not get acknowledged,” he said. “When your number comes up it’s great fun, and when someone else’s number comes up, they’re usually your friends, and so I’ll leave it at that.
“How’s that for a dodge?” he laughed.