- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

NEW YORK — Production on “Troy” was set to wrap last September on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. The crew and thousands of extras had endured punishing weather during a location shoot on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Director Wolfgang Petersen (“The Perfect Storm,” “Air Force One”) remembers bodies dropping like flies, fatigued and sick from humidity.

Back on the Baja, Hurricane Marty knocked down a sizable chunk of Troy, the ancient city where Homer set his epic “Iliad.” It took weeks to rebuild the set.

Nearly $200 million later, there was just one scene left to shoot: a mano-y-mano battle between Achilles and Hector. Brad Pitt (Achilles) and Eric Bana (Hector) had been training for months for the climactic showdown.

“We made a deal that we were just gonna go for it,” says Mr. Pitt during a recent promotional appearance at a Manhattan hotel.

The deal came with a codicil: Minor bumps and bruises inflicted on the other would cost $50; major clobberings, $100. Mr. Pitt ended up owing Mr. Bana $750, which he says he paid in full.

Before the scene, however, Mr. Pitt suffered a minor, yet debilitating, injury. “In a bout of stupid irony,” he says, “I tweaked my Achilles tendon.”

The ironic tweaking set production back for two months.

“It wasn’t our week,” he says.

It’s been close to 10 years since Mr. Pitt has carried a major hit movie (1995’s “Se7en”) and three years since he’s starred in a movie at all.

For his most physically demanding role yet, injuries — not to mention cold-turkey abstinence from cigarettes and a cutback on junk food — would have to be weathered.

Mr. Pitt, one of only two Americans in this London-based production, insists his role in the big-budget studio epic wasn’t chosen with comeback on the brain.

“That wasn’t the thinking; really, it wasn’t,” says the actor, his head shaved for summer heat.

Mr. Pitt says he spent his free time “exploring other things,” picking up small projects along the way, such as a speaking role in the animated “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” last year.

“I missed the movies,” he says.

Audaciously, Mr. Pitt sought the part of Achilles, Homer’s bellicose man-god, conveying his passion for the role over beers and pork shank with Mr. Petersen. (It was there, in a German restaurant, that the two agreed that Mr. Bana should fill the role of Hector, the noble Spartan prince.)

He was cast immediately and set down to reading “The Iliad” for the first time — when not working out in the gym, that is.

“I really hit it hard,” he says, adding in jest, “An impending midlife crisis was probably a motivator as well.”

Mr. Pitt has since reduced his exercise regimen to “dabbling.” Asked if he’s smoking again, he replies, “Oh, yes.”

But during shooting, he says he lived “a monastic life,” renting a rural stone house on Malta where he went without air conditioning, battled flies and tried as best he could to ignore the enveloping smell of manure.

The rough-it lifestyle, he says, gave him “that extra percentage, that loneliness” he was looking for in researching Achilles.

What he found was a remote, isolated figure brooding over his place in history and obsessed with immortality.

“I saw him as extremely human,” Mr. Pitt says of the warrior Achilles, who, in “Troy,” is an unmanageable subject of the Greek king Agamemnon, a power-hungry imperialist.

At first, Mr. Petersen had his doubts about the direction in which Mr. Pitt was taking the character.

“He added elements of darkness to the part that I wasn’t even sure would work,” the director says. “The way he played it was risky, courageous. I respected him immensely for that.”

“His way of acting is different from people I’ve worked with before,” Mr. Petersen adds. “He was very keen on getting the dialogue to a minimum. It helped with the magic of Achilles, he really reduced himself.”

“What I was drawn to,” says Mr. Pitt, “is that he has this search for more in his life. His character is formed through experience. It’s not by adopting any kind of dogma or belief system; it’s by trial and error.”

He admits there are parallels between Achilles’ obsession with glory and the modern chase for fame.

Mr. Pitt’s own fame is one of the reasons Mr. Petersen wanted him for the movie. To fill Achilles’ sandals, the director says, “We needed a big star.”

This “big star,” of course, is married to another big star, ex-“Friends” star Jennifer Aniston.

Dispelling assumptions of glamour, given the couple’s combined wattage, Mr. Pitt says his life with Miss Aniston isn’t all that exciting. “It’s peaceful,” if we must ask.

Asked about his wife’s new lack of a regular TV job, Mr. Pitt reports with pride:

“That unemployed woman makes more money than I do.”

Perhaps Miss Aniston can spring for air conditioning the next time her husband rents a pad in Malta.

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