- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

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LOS ANGELES

Tracy and Hepburn. Hanks and Ryan. Pitt and Roberts?

Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, two megastars who never have shared the big screen, suddenly have three film projects together.

Too beautiful for their own good? Perhaps. But will this on-screen duo click?

The actors, discussing their first film together, "The Mexican," appear too invigorated by their teamwork to care.

Miss Roberts says during a recent round of interviews that after years of trying to find the right project for the two of them, their first film showed why she originally wanted to work with Mr. Pitt.

"He, in every way, surpassed anything I could have expected," says Miss Roberts, wearing a beaded tank top, her dark-brown eyes ample and expressive.

"He was so lovely to be around, always so energetic under some less-than-energizing circumstances," she says, referring to a run-and-gun shoot in a Mexican town untouched by Hollywood.

"The Mexican" finds our heroes enmeshed in a lovers´ quarrel over a legendary "pistola." Mr. Pitt´s character, a low-level bagman named Jerry, is ordered to travel south of the border to retrieve the Mexican, an ornate weapon rumored to be cursed. Meanwhile, Miss Roberts´ psychobabble-spouting Samantha, who prefers that he pass on the assignment, is kidnapped by a homosexual hit man played by "The Sopranos" star James Gandolfini, to make sure Mr. Pitt keeps his word.

After "The Mexican," which opens today, the duo join an all-star cast in the Rat Pack remake "Ocean´s Eleven." They follow that film with "Replay," a romantic yarn about a middle-aged man who dies, but later is resurrected as a younger version of himself.

For "The Mexican," Miss Roberts says her co-star brought life to an already precocious script.

" part on paper is terrific, but what he did with it, the nuances, the physicality, the risks he would take to play this lovable, stumbling guy," she says, her litany of praise trailing off.

Mr. Pitt plays down his exploits, describing his decidedly uncool character as the "anti-McQueen."

"We could all do this guy, the idea of a guy who doesn´t have his together," he says.

Miss Roberts´ Samantha, by comparison, is hardly what one might call reliable.

"She´s so wacky, what a mess of a girl. She´s like a big tangle of yarn, that if you could straighten it out you could see something useful," she says. "I was intrigued by sorting out the puzzle which was this girl and all her kinetic energy."

Mr. Pitt, redolent of cigarette smoke and wearing a faded "Shazam" T-shirt, says he and his co-star toyed with several projects that might have suited them, but "The Mexican" seemed a prophetic match.

"It´s a delightful little script," says Mr. Pitt, whose short, disheveled hair can´t mask his much-ballyhooed mug. The guerrilla-style tactics used to shoot the $35 million feature also appealed to both, each of whom took a healthy cut in asking price in return for a piece of the profits.

"The idea of us going into this low-budget, hand-held-camera, two-take kind of movie was kind of exciting for us," Mr. Pitt says.

Miss Roberts, 33, also relished the spontaneous shoot.

"There is something to be said for the momentum of having a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it in," she says, reflecting on a shoot that featured its share of 22-hour days. "It really keeps spirits up, energy up. There are no other options. It must be done. There´s a deliciousness to those sorts of pressures."

Despite their sugary praise for each other and their workplace, the pair don´t spend nearly as much screen time together as some might hope. After a brief, blazing argument in the opening reel, the duo split and remain apart through much of the action.

Mr. Pitt says the separation provides the perfect start for the film.

"We´ve all been in relationships gone awry, and I think starts out at a beautiful jumping-off point where we´re at that peak where we´re not seeing eye to eye," he says. "You get enough in that first scene."

The film deposits the cast in Real de Catorce, a historic village in the northern central highlands of Mexico.

"The location was fantastic. There were no stresses, unless you´re allergic to scorpions," Mr. Pitt jokes.

"It´s this defunct mining town. It had been there for centuries at the top of this mountain range," he adds. "You take this mile-and-a-half tunnel in, and you come out into this bowl where the main mode of transportation is burro."

When the crew arrived, there was "one phone line," he says. The production company upgraded the town´s plumbing, electrical and telecommunications systems to ease filmmaking. It also left the villagers with a modestly enhanced town.

"Now, they´re all on EBay," he cracks.

In person, Mr. Pitt resembles a surfer boy wrestling with adulthood. His vocabulary and poise seem proficiently mature, yet he retains the carefree cool of his youth.

The 37-year-old actor looks back on his career with satisfaction, particularly 1999´s "Fight Club" and the recent "Snatch."

"They did great for me," he says of those two, brushing off their modest box-office hauls. "I´m not coming from the monetary side. I´m more interested in a film that´s gonna stick around, that´s gonna have some kind of impact on some level."

"The most fun for me is when I surprise myself, when I find something in me I didn´t think I was capable of," he says of his modus operandi.

Director Gore Verbinski says the stars adapted to the lack of Four Seasons-level accommodation on the various sets.

That´s a good thing, because the script needed the mercurial locations to make its small charms sing.

"It´s a film about history, this legacy and this pistol. It was the obvious choice," he says of the Mexican locales.

At first blush, the project seemed an odd choice to attract two of Hollywood´s hottest properties.

"The script´s a great read, but it´s difficult to see it as a star vehicle," Mr. Verbinski (1997´s "Mouse Hunt") says of the project´s earlier stages. "And it´s not a movie which can support just one movie star."

Fortunately, once Miss Roberts signed on, Mr. Pitt did the same shortly thereafter.

But can chemistry crackle when the stars spend so much of the film separated?

"A little bit goes a long way," Mr. Pitt says of their common screen time. The actors contacted each other throughout the shoot to build their characters, he says, recommending what should be the couple´s favorite song and other minute details.

As for the near future, Mr. Pitt´s next feature finds him side by side with an actor many think he resembles, Robert Redford, in director Tony Scott´s "Spy Game."

Miss Roberts has a potential date with a certain golden statuette March 25, thanks to her gutsy performance in "Erin Brockovich."

But she dismisses talk of Oscar anxiety with a practiced shrug, saying it´s too soon for the butterflies to start assembling in her stomach.

That doesn´t mean she´s taking her career streak in stride.

"I sit here a very happy girl, and why wouldn´t I be?" she says.

Mr. Verbinski suggests the two actors´ unique lifestyles superstar salaries, Oscar nominations and a penchant for drawing tabloid titters forged a palpable bond between them.

"As soon as I saw them together in a room it felt like they had known each other forever," he says. "They´ve both been through the wringer a few times, and they have a lot to talk about, a lot to draw upon."

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