Philanthropist, Photog, Politician, Actor: Who Is Brad Pitt?

Brad Pitt seems less interested in Hollywood than in everything else.

Oct. 15, 2008 — -- There was a time when Brad Pitt was the platonic ideal of the alpha male, all-American actor. Blond hair, blue eyes, buff body: Whether rolling with the punches in "Fight Club" or making 'em swoon in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," the screen was his domain. His forte. His raison d'être.

Today? It seems Pitt's passion has shifted from the bright lights and the big screen to ... just about everywhere else. One day he's building homes for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The next, he's donating $100,000 to support gay marriage in California. After that, he's snapping magazine pictorials of his picture-perfect partner, Angelina Jolie. And sometimes, in between, he acts.

As the old saying goes, Jack of all trades, master of none. So, what's up with Pitt? With so much on his plate and such a diverse palate, can he really be on top of all his endeavors?

Trevor Neilson, Pitt's philanthropic and political advisor of three years, says yes. Neilson, who also works with Jolie on her outside-of-Hollywood projects, paints Pitt as a kind of Superman-meets-Robin Hood, though perhaps without the tights.

"Brad is somebody who is passionate about promoting justice. Whether it's dealing with the injustice of a poor family in New Orleans being left behind by their government or the injustice of this ballot proposition, which would strip legally granted rights away from gay couples in California, he wants to use his influence the best he can," Neilson said. "He doesn't think that he alone can solve these things, but if he can play some small role, he wants to."

Lots of small roles seem to be Pitt's MO these days. When he's not in France with the fam or in Hollywood with his famous friends, he's often in New Orleans working on Make It Right, his rebuilding project that aims to finance and construct 150 affordable, environmentally sustainable homes in the Katrina-wrecked city's Ninth Ward. The first six homes welcomed new residents last week. According to Neilson, Pitt has raised more than $30 million toward rebuilding efforts, including $5 million of his own money. But he's not just signing checks -- he's also getting his hands dirty.

"Brad was involved in every single aspect of that project, from coming up with the idea for the shape of the staircases in the houses, to the roofs," he said. "Every aspect. Every community meeting. He knows well the people of the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans now. I think it's safe to say he'll continue his focus there."

Tom Darden, Make It Right's executive director, remembers one meeting in particular:

"I watched him turn around a community group who was angry at the world, angry about the levee breach, saying they were sick and tired of people coming and saying, 'I'm going to help,' but then never follow through. He said, 'Keep talking. I want to hear where you're coming from.' He was able to single-handedly turn that meeting around. He's sincere and people know he's there to help."

In addition to Make It Right, Pitt is behind Not On Our Watch, an organization dedicated to bringing attention and resources to ravaged regions like Darfur. In September, he donated $1 million to Human Rights Watch and $2 million to the Global Heath Committee via the Jolie-Pitt Foundation.

But Pitt pursues nonphilanthropic projects, too. Take his latest: Photographing Jolie for W magazine. His shot of her breastfeeding one of their newborn twins graces the cover of the November issue, which also features his portraits of intimate family moments, such as Jolie biting into a hamburger and laughing with son Maddox. Pitt reportedly used a no-longer-produced Kodak Tech Pan film specially shipped to him from Tel Aviv for the black-and-white photos he shot at his chateau in the South of France.

According to Steven Klein, who shot Pitt and Jolie for a 2005 W magazine spread (two of his black-and-white portraits of Pitt and Jolie are being auctioned tomorrow by Phillips de Pury & Company), Pitt has natural knack for the art of photography.

"Brad has a sixth sense," he said. And talking about Pitt as a subject, he added, "He intuitively gives me what I need. This process is unspoken between us but understood." Klein noted that Pitt wanted the spread with Jolie to be one "of substance, something to remember," and the couple was willing to put in the time to make that happen.

Photography's not the only form Pitt has picked up as a pet project. He's an architecture enthusiast, and his knowledge of the field impressed Bill McDonough, the green design specialist Pitt works with on the Make It Right homes.

"I had heard that Brad was interested in architecture. I didn't realize the depth of his exposure or his skills. He has a really deep love of design and a great ability," McDonough said. "He understands architecture with a capital A, as well as building with a small b. It was fun and exciting to realize just how much he understood about what we were doing from the architectural perspective. He was fully engaged in the design strategy and discussions."

And then there's that other art form Pitt has his hand in -- acting. As his concern about the state of the world has grown, his affinity for leading roles has declined. Gone are the Hollywood heartthrob parts in movies, such as "Troy" and "Legends of the Fall." In his most recent movie, "Burn After Reading," (spoiler alert) he bumbles around a gym, chewing gum and drolling "Duuuude" before getting shot and killed by his real-life best friend/big-screen rival, George Clooney.

"He hasn't done too many movie star projects in a while. Since 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith,' in most of his films, he's either producing, taking small roles or taking nonglamorous roles," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of "He's interested in producing a lot, which makes sense, because eventually, the good looks go away and I think he wants to be a well-rounded person in this industry."

So, it looks like acting will take a backseat while Pitt pursues his other passions: Taking pictures, building homes, promoting justice far and wide, and since he's got his hand in pretty much everything else, why not politics?

"I want to announce to you today that Brad is running for president," Neilson joked. "You can quote me on that."