Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt may not be able to get you into the most raucous Hollywood parties, but their latest film, “Babylon,” can give you a taste of the unique magic of a movie set.
In a massive early scene in Damien Chazelle’s over-the-top ode to old Hollywood, art imitates stressful life. In “Babylon,” a silent costume drama, filmmakers are attempting to line up a key shot in which A-list power player Jack Conrad (Pitt) plants a kiss on his leading lady while extras bang around behind them in swords and shields, an orchestra plays, an explosion goes off, and the sun sets – all at the same time. That had to be like clockwork for Chazelle and company as well.
“I’m so excited that people who aren’t in the film industry can watch this and feel a part of it,” Robbie says. “Because I would give it to everyone on the planet if I could.”
The film casts her and Pitt as silent-movie actors in the 1920s on opposing paths as sound pictures become popular. Jack is the world’s highest-grossing star (though the only way down is down), want tobe actress Nellie LaRoy (Robbie) is a spitfire who seizes every opportunity, and young Mexican assistant Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is the go-getter connected to both.
“Babylon” is Pitt and Robbie’s third film together (after “The Big Short” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), but they had never shared a scene until the unhinged Nellie plants a big wet smooch on Jack in front of his fiancee at a swank soiree (Katherine Waterston). “We made it count,” Robbie says, laughing.
Unlike their on-screen counterparts – “They were a bit destructive,” Pitt jokes – the two A-listers speak with USA TODAY about “Babylon,” Hollywood stardom, and whether they could pull it off in the silent-film era (edited and condensed for clarity).
What part of Nellie’s story most moved you, Margot?
Robbie: I adored her hunger. She has an insatiable appetite for everything, especially things that make her feel good. When she likes something, she wants it again and bigger. On the page, she was unforgettable, and I thought this would be a once-in-a-lifetime role for me.
And Brad, what did you find interesting about Jack’s long career in the industry?
Pitt: I guess I’m on the back end of things, so I didn’t really think about it. This idea of still looking for new expressions, new evolutions of storytelling, fascinates me. And that was quite a distance behind Jack. That all felt completely natural.
In the film, Nellie says something interesting: “You don’t just become a star. You’re either one or you’re not.” What percentage of that statement is true?
Pitt: That may be true, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of potential wattage performers out there. We’ve seen with streamers how deep the talent bench is, and it goes on and on. So it tells me that I was extremely fortunate to get in. Carrying on (and) lasting requires skill, savvy, and humility. But then again, I’m not entirely sure.
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Robbie: In my opinion, being a star is not the same as being a great actor. In that moment, Nellie is saying, “I have what it takes to take up space in this industry.” She looks around Hollywood and sees people who are even crazier than she is, and she believes that is where she belongs. She also exudes confidence. And when the talkies arrive, she realises she’s not going to make it in under the new rules.
The opening scene of “Babylon” is a shindig, complete with sex, drugs, booze, and wall-to-wall nudity. Have you ever been to a party like that before?
Pitt: That crazy? No.
Robbie: I’ve attended some wild parties, but nothing on the “Babylon” scale. That’s something else entirely.
Pitt: I’m sure I’ve been to parties where there was a lot of that going on in back rooms. I simply did not enter those rooms. We don’t have the unbridled, debaucherous, Wild West freedom that is described of Hollywood before ratings, when they were discovering it as a big business.
What was it like to film that scene? Where do you even begin to look?
You can’t even look up, Robbie. People were even standing on balconies. You quickly become desensitised. Everyone runs in with the robes and covers up for the first take. By the third, fourth, and fifth takes – and definitely by the third, fourth, and fifth day – there was no more hiding.
Pitt: That is correct. But Jean Smart had the best line: Don’t sit down and don’t back up.
You’re both big stars in this era. Would you have looked good in the 1920s and 1930s?
Pitt: That’s an excellent question. It’s a completely different language than what we use today. To be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought until this film because the acting style is so large, you have to indicate so much, and we’ve gone the way of (Marlon) Brando and (Robert) De Niro since. Going back to see them, however, they have great charm, great fun, and great beauty. I believe I would have done well.
Robbie: Perhaps I have too much Nellie bravado. I’d like to think I could have done it. But with such light eyes, you might not have. Back then, having brown eyes was preferred because light blue eyes made you appear ghostly.
Pitt: So we might have been kicked out. They might not have let us in.