’12 Monkeys’ was Brad Pitt’s Career-Defining Performance

It only took one frenzied role for the world to recognize he wasn’t just a pretty face; he was a bonafide character actor.
Brad Pitt In Monkeys

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we revisit Brad Pitt’s Academy Award-nominated performance in 12 Monkeys.

Before he moved to Hollywood in the late 1980s, Brad Pitt had zero acting experience. He had just spent four years working towards a Journalism degree at the University of Missouri, but two weeks shy of graduation, Pitt turned his back on college and headed west. He knew he wanted something more out of his life, and he hoped to find it in film. As he told Esquire:

 “I just knew there were a lot more points of view out there. I wanted to see them. I wanted to hear them. I always liked film as a teaching tool — a way of getting exposed to ideas that had never been presented to me. It just wasn’t on the list of career options where I grew up. Then it occurred to me, literally two weeks before graduation: If the opportunity isn’t here, I’ll go to it.”

After Pitt arrived in California, he immediately began enrolling in acting classes. The teachers he found, though, were too, as he described to Backstage, “guru-ish,” evoking a self-help coach more than Stanislavski. It wasn’t until he had a chance encounter with a stripper’s boyfriend at his survival job as a limo driver that Pitt connected with the well-renowned acting teacher Roy London. Through his work with London, the ideas behind acting techniques began to click.

What made London so attractive to new actors is that he didn’t box them into one method or another. He was influenced by Uta Hagen, but it wasn’t solely about the psycho-physical connection between actors and their characters. He wanted his students to surprise an audience by surprising themselves first. London encouraged actors to make bold, engaging choices so that a character’s thoughts can be spontaneous and, in turn, feel more realistic.

As London told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m always telling my students how important it is to be doing new things. I tell them that good acting is when you are hired to do something you can do well and then delivering the goods. But great acting, which is what I am interested in, is about setting things up so that you are experiencing something for the first time.”

London’s core concept – that an actor should make surprising choices – is central to why Pitt’s performance as Jeffrey Goines in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys so riveting: he’s utterly unpredictable, and it’s insanely fun to watch.

His performance took the industry by surprise, especially considering how Hollywood viewed him up until then. In the early ’90s, Pitt’s biggest roles – from A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall to Interview with the Vampire – kept him in the mold of a believably brooding heartthrob. It’s an image that of course helped him enormously in his early career. Even in a B-horror movie like Cutting Class, his natural magnetism is apparent. It’s undoubtedly what landed him his first big break as the hunky hitchhiker in Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise. He’s affable and memorable as J.D., even if it’s less for his acting than it is for how great he looks without a shirt on. 

Pitt has never been able to shake how the industry perceives him, but with 12 Monkeys he began to break from his image, using his good looks less as a tool to make people swoon, and more as a means to take an audience off guard. No one was anticipating that he’d give such a committed performance that completely subverted his reputation.

That doesn’t mean 12 Monkeys was the first time Pitt stepped outside of the box that Hollywood put him in. In 1993, he co-starred in Kalifornia as Early, a murderer road tripping with a journalist (David Duchovny) who’s writing a book about serial killers. Early gave audiences their first taste of what Pitt could do with a more complex character, except his performance doesn’t have the specificity or spontaneity that makes his role in 12 Monkeys so enrapturing. From scene to scene you can see the actor working, rather than disappearing, into his character. On the page, it’s unlike anything we had seen from him, but he made easy choices in a role that still capitalized on his inherent pensive charisma. The character was unique to his career at the time, even though his performance wasn’t exactly surprising.

The same can’t be said for his work in 12 Monkeys. When we’re introduced to Jeffrey, it’s in a mental institution where time traveler James Cole (Bruce Willis) is interred. Pitt collaborated with a doctor to ensure that he wasn’t portraying a gross mischaracterization of someone with mental illness, but he didn’t make bold choices purely based on Jeffrey’s psychological state. Instead, he uses his chaotic surroundings to inform how he reacts in any given moment. He embodies the manic energy of the institution to act as an exhilarating contrast to Willis’ understated performance, following his impulses so every line is approached from surprising new angles. As he speaks to Willis in a frenzy about the evils of capitalism, he glides seamlessly between neurotic rantings and coyish impersonations of hospital staff, deploying different tactics so we can’t anticipate what he’ll do next. He’s electric in these opening moments because we’ve never seen him be so capricious.

More striking than the sheer dynamics of his performance is how Pitt’s bold choices don’t feel forced. Even when he’s speaking wildly with his full body, it doesn’t feel like actorly decisions, but the natural reactions of an unwell man. He avoids becoming a parody of mental illness by playing Jeffrey truthfully. He does this by staying present in every scene he’s in. His connection to the character is best seen in the moments between each of his lines. As Jeffrey’s mind seems to drift away in thought, we can watch Pitt’s eyes keep him rooted to his character’s present moment. Even in his most physically outrageous scenes, bounding between hospital beds with his ass hanging out, his commitment is unwavering. Jeffrey feels real because Pitt stays engaged with him beat to beat, never allowing us to see the actor behind the performance.

In a way, Jeffrey Goines can be seen as Pitt’s revolt against his own image, a performance where he could contort his body and face into abstract expressions that told the audience he is unafraid of challenging himself and how he is viewed in Hollywood. 12 Monkeys smashed our perceptions of who Brad Pitt was as an actor by proving he is so much more than a sex symbol: he is an artist willing to take risks. It’s an aspect of Pitt that we’ve now come to expect in his roles post-12 Monkeys. He’s constantly experimenting with the ways he brings his characters to life, whether it’s through weaponizing his own attractiveness in Fight Club, playing with dialects in Snatch and Inglourious Basterds, or really any of the goofy food-related choices he makes in practically every movie he’s in. If he hadn’t stepped outside of his comfort zone in 1995, who knows what kind of career he may have had.

In 2019, we named Brad Pitt our Performer of the Year for his one-two punch of Ad Astra and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. His role in the latter stood out particularly because it acts as a synthesis of everything Pitt had worked towards throughout his career. Sure, Cliff Booth is handsome with a sunburnt charm Pitt is effortless at exuding, but he injects the character with nuance and pathos. He takes the strength of conviction written into Cliff and uses it to convey the attachment he feels towards his movie star BFF Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio.) While the characters couldn’t be further apart, this considerate approach is something Pitt gained thanks to his kinetic work in 12 Monkeys.

If Pitt’s early career was centered around his boyish good looks, his latter career has been defined by character roles that captivate audiences through interesting, unexpected choices. His unhinged performance as Jeffrey Goines is fully committed, thoroughly entertaining, and always surprising; everything we’ve come to love in Brad Pitt over the last twenty-five years.

Jacob Trussell: Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)