Brad Pitt knows all about firearms – the 50-year-old actor inherited his first gun when he was still in short trousers. “There’s a rite of passage where I grew up of inheriting your ancestors’ weapons,” begins Pitt, who was born in Oklahoma and raised in Missouri. “My brother got my dad’s. I got my grandfather’s shotgun when I was in kindergarten.”
Pitt owned an air gun when he was in nursery, received his shotgun when he was six and had fired a handgun by the time he was eight. America is a country founded on guns, he says, and he doesn’t feel as though his house is safe unless there is a gun hidden inside. “The positive is that my father instilled in me a profound and deep respect for the weapon,” he says.
Our conversation has turned to guns and tanks courtesy of Pitt’s latest movie, Fury. Set during the Second World War, it stars Pitt as the commander of a Sherman tank crew during the Allies’ final push into Nazi Germany. The film is written and directed by David Ayer, who scripted Denzel Washington’s Oscar winner Training Day, and made cop movie End of Watch.
The film was shot over 12 weeks in the fields of Oxfordshire and at Bovingdon Airfield in Hertfordshire. Pitt, who recently married long-term partner Angelina Jolie, brought his family over to visit, and sons Maddox (13) and Knox (six), were enamoured with what they saw. “Maddox knows so much about tanks that when we first started on the movie, I was asking him for information. He has an extensive knowledge developed on his own since he was young.” Knox came to the set and, “loved the tank, and though he has no concept of war or what the tank’s history is, he was so drawn to it. There is that inexplicable fascination that man has with machine.”
The star of Se7en and Fight Club is no stranger to war films, having already enjoyed a starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi- bashing Inglourious Basterds (Friday 24 October Film4). But nothing could have prepared him for what he went through when making Fury. “A tank is a very tight and intimate place. As characters, we eat, sleep, p*** and fight, all within this confined metal box. It was our home,” Pitt recalls.
Fury (in cinemas now) unfolds in April 1945, as the Allies bid to break the last lines of German resistance. The audience meets the crew of Fury – the name they have given their tank – just as one of their team has been killed. A greenhorn (Logan Lerman) is then foisted upon them, much to the crew’s distress.
“It’s not just that he’s new, but he has no tank experience, which was often the case towards the end of the war,” explains Pitt. “And because he’s had no tank experience, he is actually a threat to our survival. If he can’t perform, the mission is in danger and people will die.
“This kid comes in with all the values we cherish at home: innocence, idealism, humanity. But these values have little place on the battlefield. This paradox becomes my character’s responsibility: to beat this out of him and prepare him for the horror that is war. He needs to get him to act, not think. How do you raise a child in a day?”
David Ayer is known for putting his actors through gruelling pre- production regimes and on Fury the director arranged a one-month boot camp that was run by a US Navy SEAL and was designed to break each actor.
“If you really want to find out about someone, punch them in the face,” says Ayer. “We put the cast through a tough camp with weeks of preparation. There was hazing and plenty of sparring and then in the final phase they were given a tank loaded with blanks and a combat problem to solve.”
“We wanted that,” says Pitt. “We want to be pushed to the places we haven’t been. You want to keep things loose and you want to get some punches thrown at you so you can throw some punches back. You want to be on your toes and you want that feeling that anything can happen, and we lived that daily.”
Pitt plays a tough nut, a soldier not afraid to commit murder if he believes the circumstances demand it. And as the senior man among the tank crew – and among the actors – Pitt felt a responsibility to the younger men around him.
“If we were ordered to do push-ups, I was first on the ground. In class, I studied hard. I never whined, bitched or complained. The other guys had to know I was working as hard if not harder than they were. And it was true whether the camera was rolling or not.”