Exclusive Interview: James Gray On Directing Brad Pitt In Ad Astra

5 min read

In cinemas this weekend

It can take a long time to get a movie made. James Gray cites 1995 as the true origin point of Ad Astra, the space drama he has co-written, produced and directed starring Brad Pitt, which is finally released this weekend. It was the Sundance Film Festival that year where Gray’s directorial debut, Little Odessa, screened, prompting an excited Pitt, his own rise to stardom in its early stages, to request a meeting to discuss working together.

A project did not immediately present itself, but the seeds of a friendship were planted, and Gray took his first steps into Hollywood, directing such movies as The Yards (2000), We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008) and The Immigrant (2013). It was 2016 when he finally got to work with Pitt – The Lost City of Z, which again Gray wrote and directed, based on the book by Davin Grann, was produced through Pitt’s company, Plan B. This provided an opportunity for the two to talk about Ad Astra, which had Gray had already started working on.

Now the movie is set for release. Pitt stars as astronaut Roy McBride, travelling to the outer reaches of the solar system to find his missing father, played by Tommy Lee Jones, whose deep-space experiments now threaten life on Earth.

Watch the trailer here:


Here, Gray talks about the making of the movie, and allowing Pitt to show his vulnerable side:

What were the seeds of the story for Ad Astra?

I had read about the first splitting of the atom, which was under the grandstand at Stagg Field in Chicago. Before they did the experiment, they said that there was a 99 per cent chance that all known matter in the universe would not be destroyed. In other words, a 1 per cent chance it would be destroyed. The same thing goes for the first test of the nuclear bomb in New Mexico, where [physicist] Enrico Fermi said he believed that there was a 90 per cent chance, in that case, that the entire southwest of the United States would not be destroyed. Of course, they did these experiments anyway.

I thought that was horrifying. What does it mean if somebody goes out into deep space, all of a sudden stops caring about the Earth, and starts doing risky experiments? Now, that didn’t wind up, really, in the movie, but that was the beginning of me thinking about something like that.

The film also explores the loneliness of space. How did you research that?

That was influenced by the Mars mission they are planning for 2033. They had started to talk about how they need people who are going to be very comfortable sitting in close quarters with each other in a capsule for a year-and-a-half. They asked for people who were comfortable with limited social interaction.

You can understand why. Because a “normal” person – in quote marks – who’s in an area that’s considerably smaller than an average room for a year-and-a-half? There are many people who believe that solitary confinement is a worse punishment than the death penalty; that, by yourself, you start to hear multiple voices. Your grasp of reality is tenuous at best. That’s really going to be the condition of that kind of space travel, which we try to depict in the film.

You go to an extreme with Roy McBride. Do you think it’s an inevitability that people will unravel?

I kind of think that’s true, and a lot of it has to do with our perception of the Earth. If you’re orbiting 200 miles above the surface, the Earth is still your primary form of reference, but going to the Moon, it becomes a small globe. And that’s only the Moon. If you go to Mars, what does that mean? If you go to Neptune, where the Earth becomes almost invisible and the sun looks almost like a star, that would be devastating.

Brad Pitt and James Gray at the Ad Astra premiere

Your relationship with Brad Pitt goes back a while. How long have you wanted to work with him as an actor?

He introduced himself to me after the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, so I’ve known him for a very long time. He saw Little Odessa there and loved it. He sought me out, which was wonderful. I was very grateful for that.

Why was this the right project to work on together?

I had started on the movie in 2011. I had been reading a lot about Neil Armstrong – ironically, I had toyed with the idea of adapting First Man, the James Hansen biography of Neil Armstrong, which ultimately went to [director] Damien Chazelle, who did a beautiful job. But the background reading had given me ideas for Ad Astra.

When I finished The Lost City of Z, I screened it for Brad, and he really loved it. He said, “What do you want to do next?” I said, “Well, why don’t we do Ad Astra?” He said, “Sure, let’s do it,” which was great. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe he’d actually do it until I was on the set with him the first day.

Tommy Lee Jones, James Gray and Brad Pitt

Why did you think it should be him?

The short way to put it would be… In order to attempt some kind of subversion, you have to start with the myth. You have to have something to subvert. I think he brings the assumption of the all-American masculinity. In some ways, that idea is very toxic, but the truth is, that’s not Brad. He doesn’t hide his emotions or vulnerability.

I think those notions have had very harmful effects on our culture, and it’s been very bad for boys. I have two boys of my own, and it’s very hard to not see them, because of peer pressure, slip into what we might call these traditional roles of masculinity. That can be very damaging for their souls. I wanted to examine that a little bit.

The only way to do that is to actually have an iconic figure in the lead. Because then, if you’re exploring the toxic masculinity and you’re trying to do it where you know the star of your movie, it becomes a very powerful choice. Brad got that. He understood that immediately.

What did he bring to the role?

He’s a superb actor. I mean, it’s strange, it’s not something that people think about when they think of him, because he’s such a movie star kind of guy, but he has tremendous capabilities. One of the things that he’s great at is a total willingness to be vulnerable, and he has no fear of that.

Ad Astra is in UAE cinemas this weekend.


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