Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt can’t get you into the most rip-roaring Hollywood parties, but with their latest film, “Babylon,” they can give you a taste of the singular magic of a movie set.
Art imitates stressful life in a massive scene early on during Damien Chazelle’s over-the-top ode to old Hollywood. In “Babylon” (in theaters Friday), filmmakers are trying to line up a key shot in a silent costume drama where A-list power player Jack Conrad (Pitt) plants a kiss on his leading lady just as extras bang around in swords and shields behind them, an orchestra plays, an explosion goes off and the sun sets – all at the same time. And that had to be like clockwork for Chazelle and Co., too.
“I’m so excited that people who aren’t in the movie industry can watch this and be a part of that moment,” Robbie says. “Because if I could give that to everyone in the world, I would.”
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The film casts her and Pitt as silent-movie actors in the 1920s on different trajectories as sound pictures come into vogue. Jack is the highest-grossing star in the world (though the only way from there is down), wannabe actress Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) is a spitfire who makes the most of her chance when she gets one, and young Mexican assistant Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is the go-getter connected to both.
“Babylon” marks the third time Pitt and Robbie have been in the same movie together (after “The Big Short” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) but they had never shared a scene until, at a swank soiree, the unhinged Nellie plants a big wet smooch on Jack in front of his fiancee (Katherine Waterston). “We made it count,” Robbie says with a laugh.
Much different than their on-screen counterparts – “They were a bit destructive,” Pitt cracks – the two A-listers talk with USA TODAY about “Babylon,” Hollywood stardom and if they could hack it in the silent-film era (edited and condensed for clarity).
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Margot, what aspect of Nellie’s story most spoke to you?
Robbie: I just loved her hunger. She has this insatiable appetite for everything, like things that feel good. If she likes something, she wants it more and again and bigger. She felt unforgettable on the page, and I thought this would be a role of a lifetime for me.
And Brad, what did you connect with in terms of Jack’s long tenure in the industry?
Pitt: I guess I’m on the back end of things, so I didn’t really question that. This idea of still seeking new expressions, new evolution of storytelling, it still intrigues me. And that was a lot behind Jack. That all felt quite natural.
Nellie says something interesting in the film: “You don’t just become a star. You either are one or you ain’t.” How much truth is in that statement?
Pitt: That may be true, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of potential performers with wattage out there. We’ve seen now with streamers how deep the bench is as far as talent, and it goes on and on. So it tells me that I was certainly very lucky to get in the door. It takes skill and savvy and humility to carry on (and) to last. But then again, I’m not even sure about that.
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Robbie: In my mind being a star is different to being a great actor. What Nellie’s saying in that moment is, “I have what it takes to take up space in this industry.” She looks around Hollywood and sees people that are even crazier than she is so she feels like that’s going be home for her. She also has a lot of bravado. And definitely when the talkies come in, she recognizes that she’s not going to make it in with the new rules.
The opening of “Babylon” is quite the shindig, with sex, drugs, booze and wall-to-wall nudity. Have either of you ever been to a party that wild?
Pitt: That wild? No.
Robbie: I’ve been to some wild parties, but not on “Babylon” scale. That’s something else.
Pitt: I’ve probably been to parties where a lot of that was going on in back rooms. I just didn’t make it into those rooms. We don’t have that kind of unbridled, debaucherous, Wild West freedom that is described of Hollywood in that time before ratings came in, as they were discovering it as a big business.
What was that scene like to film? Where do you even look?
Robbie: You can’t even look up. There were even people on balconies. You get so desensitized really quickly. The first takes, yeah, everyone runs in with the robes and everyone covers up. By the third, fourth, fifth take – and definitely by the third, fourth, fifth day – there was no covering up anymore.
Pitt: It’s true. But Jean Smart had the best line: Don’t sit down and don’t back up.
Both of you are big stars of this era. Would you have cut it in the 1920s and ’30s?
Pitt: That’s a fair question. It’s such a different vernacular than performing today. Truthfully, I hadn’t really given it much credence till this film came along because the acting style is so big, you have to indicate so much and we’ve gone the way of (Marlon) Brando and (Robert) De Niro since. But going back to see them, there’s great charm and great fun to them and great beauty. I think I would’ve fared all right.
Robbie: Maybe I’ve got too much Nellie bravado. I like to think I would’ve made it. But actually with eyes so light, you might not have. Back then, you wanted to have brown eyes because you just looked kind of ghostly if you had light blue eyes.
Pitt: So we may have got booted. They may not have let us in the door.