As has become a tradition for Variety’s Actors on Actors conversations, two superstars realize they have even more in common than celebrity. The careers of Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler ran on parallel tracks after they arrived in Hollywood in the late 1980s, emerging among the last generation of A-list superstars in the ’90s through wildly different genres of film. Sandler made hits of raucous comedies like “Happy Gilmore” and “The Waterboy,” while Pitt burnished a character-actor reputation with turns in “12 Monkeys” and “Fight Club.” This past year, Pitt was as melancholic as he’s ever been in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” while Sandler was characteristically outsized in the New York freakout “Uncut Gems.” And yet, during a lengthy exchange, they keep stumbling over what unites them as artists.
“What I love when we started were cables everywhere, and massive lights,” Pitt tells Sandler, reminiscing about their early days in movies. “You’d be sweating all the time, and big-ass cameras that were super loud. Now it’s getting down to, we’re almost sitting in our own room in the dark. It’s a whole ’nother thing.”
Moviemaking has changed since the days Pitt and Sandler first stepped on a set. Their heavily Oscar-buzzed projects this year are proof: Pitt’s work in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” for instance, gleams with a postmodern awareness of how transient the 1960s were. And in James Gray’s ”Ad Astra,” he’s lost in a lonely outer space that feels utterly of the moment. In Sandler’s case, his “Uncut Gems” — directed by the young and ambitious Safdie brothers — represents independent cinema’s most daring and deranged cutting edge.
But for all that Hollywood is transforming, some things are eternal. One is the camaraderie among actors, a troupe united by their desire to entertain and to express their humanity. Another, perhaps, is Sandler’s bro-ish wit. Noting that both have worked with cinematographer Darius Khondji, Sandler tells Pitt, “He couldn’t help himself. He kept saying, ‘Something about your face is better than Brad’s.’ I have better eyes or something!” Pitt, of course, has his own comebacks ready.
Adam Sandler: I’ve seen Quentin. He goes hardcore at the perfection of the script. So you get your character — what’s the first thing you do?
Brad Pitt: This one, because the previous script got burned, it was just one copy, his first copy, and you had to go to his house to read it. I think the Rick Dalton character [Leonardo DiCaprio] had to get cast first. So the first time I went, it was a nice, clean, crisp script, and I got called back and it was all dog-eared and snot stained.
Sandler: And the dialogue itself?
Pitt: I found that with the Coen brothers, and I find that with Tarantino, there is a very particular music to it. He’s one of the few writers that I’ve read where you can hear it immediately.
Sandler: The Bruce Lee scene, you just laughing on the side and getting excited about a guy boasting. I’ve seen those guys hang out before, the stuntmen, and you always go: “Those guys are the coolest guys on the set.”
Pitt: They are. By the way, I’m so happy they’re there. I rely on them for everything. I don’t know about you, but I have no point in doing my own stunts.
Pitt: What I’ve noticed about you, you usually have a group, and you guys are used to riffing. You guys will try another line and then another take. Do you bring that same thing when you get to a drama?
Sandler: Not really. I throw thoughts out there, and I talk to them during the pre-production.
Pitt: I once saw Tony Hopkins, we were doing — this was mid-’90s — something, and the scene wasn’t working for him. He turned his back to us all for about 30 seconds, turned back around and he did it. He just came in; it was a completely different tone. The words were the same, and it was glorious. I’ve always made a point since then to keep trying to mess up the intention of the scene. That’s what I drew from. Whenever I see comedy guys riffing like that, it’s always fresh.
Sandler: We did a few scenes in “Uncut Gems” where I’m at home working on it, and it’s one thing. Then all of a sudden you’re with the other actor, you’re meeting eyes, you’re like: “Oh man, this is bringing up a whole other feeling.” That’s usually when I feel I did something right, where I was there in the moment. You let yourself say: “OK, that was real at least.”
Pitt: That’s always my argument. If it’s real for you, it’s going to be real, because the camera reads that. I just wondered how you approached that with comedy.
Sandler: The realer, the better. But then there are guys who come at it where they take a step back from being real, and they do something bananas, and it’s funnier than anything you could do.
Pitt: I see that in some of your stuff, like the really irreverent “Zohan.” But I equate that to Will Ferrell. You can do dramas all day long if you want. You’ve proven that with several films, especially this last one. Coming from comedy, were you ever reluctant to make that switch? What did it take you to find the confidence in that?
Sandler: I think ultimately it was just Paul Thomas Anderson writing me something [“Punch-Drunk Love”]. I didn’t know how to write that stuff for myself, and I went to NYU. I studied acting at Strasberg and all that stuff. I was never doing comedy monologues in school. I was always doing “The Indian Wants the Bronx.”
Sandler: Oh yeah. I was doing stand-up on my own, but when I was in school, I was just doing serious stuff.
Pitt: How amazing was stand-up training for this thing? Because here’s my take on it: It scares the shit out of me. I’m too old to jump off that bridge. What I understand, before you put a show together, before it makes it, you’ve got to go in front of a live audience, and you’ve got to try stuff out. You’ve got to fall flat until you find those gems that work.
Sandler: Yeah, you put them together in an order that makes sense. I got to the place where, sometimes all of a sudden, you get punched in the face so hard when you’re going out: “What just happened here?!” But now, I even had this when I was 19. I would say something that didn’t work. These guys didn’t get it. They didn’t understand what was good about that.
Pitt: It was their fault?
Sandler: Never blame me. The times you blame yourself, though, you are shook up. When you finally just go, “What am I doing, man? That was a very stupid thing to do in front of decent human beings.” But Brad, you know you’re a comedy man. You certainly would be funny as hell onstage. Like how funny was it in the acid trip, when you had the gun up to the guy. That was the funniest, man.
Pitt: Quentin said, right before we started shooting: “By the way, the end’s going to be you’re on acid.” I said, “Crazy. Great.”
You were talking about your time at NYU. This is my favorite Adam Sandler story that I heard from Bennett Miller —
Sandler: Oh, really?
Pitt: Yeah. It was that you were at NYU, and it was an acting coach, I believe.
Sandler: Acting professor.
Pitt: And he said to you, “I want to take you out for a beer.” This is what I’m told. You guys went to a bar, and he kindly said to you: “Think about something else. You have to choose another path.” Truth?
Pitt: There’s a second part to this story. This is why it’s my favorite Adam Sandler story, and I think it says a lot about you. That you ran into him at your height, when you’re getting the ultimate payday, and you’re with a bunch of friends, out at a bar. Anyone would think that’s the opportunity where you rub it in his face. And reportedly, what you did was you introduced him to your friends, and you said: “This is the only teacher to ever buy me a beer.” True?
Pitt: I love it. But all right, back to “Uncut Gems.” I’m a little obsessed with comedy right now; that’s why I’m banging on your door that way. But this movie. First of all, hats off, man. That was phenomenal.
Sandler: I’m so happy you liked it.
Pitt: I had such anxiety watching it, though it looked like a ball to make. Except for the panic scenes.
Sandler: There were some heavy moments. Yes, there were so many people in every scene; it was so rat-tat-tat, everybody going nuts. It was alive most of the time.
Pitt: Very kinetic. But watching it, I was so anxious. But doing it, isn’t there a certain perverse freedom?
Sandler: Yeah. Oh, my God. This was probably the most free I could ever be in a movie. He made so many mistakes, and he was so unlikable at times.
Pitt: He was never unlikable.
Sandler: In my head he was. That’s good to know. There’s something about me, no matter what I do, that it’s slightly goofy. It makes you go, “He’s off a little bit.”
Pitt: You’re definitely off, no question.
Sandler: I was going to ask you an actor question. You have stuff that you’ve been working on a long time, like “Ad Astra.” How long were you working on that before you actually shot it and got it going?
Pitt: James Gray, I think he developed it for like five years. Then afterward, the post-production was pretty long for us. It was almost two years by the time we got it out.
Sandler: Yeah, the look of that movie, it’s incredible.
Pitt: How long was the shoot with the Safdies?
Sandler: It was probably 37 days. It was all over New York, most of it live, most of it in the city.
Pitt: I put on a dinosaur mask, and I got recognized in New York City. I don’t know what it is, especially when people grow up with you. But you were deep in character.
Sandler: I had a character going. I still got recognized, yes. Maybe a little more of a delay. But like what you were saying: I was skiing one time, had the helmet on, the dickey was up, the goggles, and I was like: “This is going to be a fun day. No one’s going to …” Literally, it was 7 in the morning. “Hey, Adam Sandler!” I go, “How did you know?” He goes, “That big nose of yours.”
Pitt: You started out originating your own comedies. They’re still the favorite, the films I go to when I’m done with the day. I can watch those over and over. I got here in the end of the ’80s. When did you?
Sandler: I finished college ’88. I got here like ’89.
Pitt: Then, it was still big blockbusters with Stallone and Schwarzenegger. We went through the ’90s, independent cinema. In the early 2000s, it was harder to make interesting material. You could see it heading toward the blockbuster, mainly because prints and advertising was so goddamned expensive. You couldn’t take gambles on gutsy material. You had to do it under $10 million or something.
Pitt: Then streaming services came along and blew it wide open again in a very interesting way. You were one of the first to go to Netflix.
Sandler: I lucked out doing that.
Pitt: You crossed the picket line.
Sandler: I sure did. I didn’t even know I was doing that. They were interested in working together; they were so passionate. I’m just tight with Netflix. They love providing opportunities for many different types of comedies.
Pitt: And then it’s become an arms race for material. I guess my point is, I’m all for change. I’m not going to fight. I see the positive more and more. I see really interesting material get made.
Sandler: So many great filmmakers.
Pitt: On the other hand, people talk about lamenting the death of the cinematic experience. Is that gone, because the home experience has gotten so good?
Sandler: I don’t see it being gone. I just saw your movie in a theater five days ago.
Sandler: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” I was in New England, and I looked it up. And I had to drive an hour and 20 minutes. It was so much fun going to the theater, watching it on the big screen. Of course, Tarantino wants you to see it on a big screen.
Pitt: Sure, shot on film still. But that’s exactly the question. Does it have to be an event film to play now?
Sandler: I don’t think stuff goes away forever. I just think this is where it’s at right now. I saw “Ad Astra” at home, on my screen, and it felt more private. I love being alone with it, because I was digging the sound design. I was digging the shots, and the quiet stuff on the moon. It rocked me hard.
Pitt: Got you —
Sandler: Not hard! Not hard! Rocked me.
Pitt: OK. I just want to be clear.
Sandler: That doesn’t happen anymore.
Pitt: I’m not going to take a stab at the comedy. I’m sorry.
Sandler: There was a pause button.
Pitt: You can’t do that in a theater. Not anymore anyway. You could in the ’70s, but the times have changed.
Sandler: No, you can’t do that.
Pitt: The upside of films through streaming is a lot of them get more eyes on it; more people actually see them. The downside: There’s so much material that they can become disposable.
Sandler: It seems like stuff that is exciting to see, though, does get talked about a lot, where you say, “OK, I’ve got to check that out.”
Pitt: Things are getting made, and that’s what I care about.
Sandler: Ted Sarandos, does that guy care about movies, more than anyone. He really gets excited about films.
Pitt: What I love is we don’t have to do much press.
Sandler: Oh yeah.
Pitt: No, it’s nice, isn’t it? We don’t have to get out there. We’re not fighting for eyes. We’re not trying to put butts in seats, as they tell us we need to do.
Sandler: You’re right. You did put a few butts in the seats, though.
Pitt: Well, that was Tarantino, my friend Leo, Hollywood ’69, Manson. It became an event.