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MOVIES : Don’t Call Him Sexy : OK, Brad Pitt has an undeniable smoldering presence that’s fueling his white-hot career. But he doesn’t want to talk about that cheesy stuff. Honest.

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Brad Pitt is apologizing for the mess in his suite as he maneuvers around a canvas duffel bag overflowing with dirty clothes. He steps over two pairs of boots that remain where he kicked them off last night or the night before and pops a Neil Young album into the CD player. As he lights a Camel cigarette, the scene is set, musical score and all. “You are like a hurricane,” Young croons in the background. “There’s calm in your eye. . . .”

Over the past year, Pitt has torn through Hollywood on his rapid rise to stardom. But he has left no casualties in his wake for, as Young seems to understand, Pitt exudes calm. It’s evident in his unkempt goatee, frayed T-shirt and jeans and the way his arm drapes easily over the back of the sofa.

Perhaps that comes from arriving at the top with a decade of experience--and a sense of humor--already in place. It’s most likely one reason he earned himself the title of Sexiest Man Alive, which, much to his chagrin, People magazine thrust onto him earlier this year after his one-two punch with “Interview With the Vampire” and “Legends of the Fall.”

“I think that was a cruel, cruel thing to do to me, that’s what I think,” Pitt says with an embarrassed tilt of the head and an amused grimace.

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“Listen,” adds Pitt, 31, whose jutting jaw muscles and soulful blue eyes prove the magazine wasn’t far off, “who wants to be the standard of comparison? It’s some cruel and heinous joke. A friend of mine said they misspelled it--it was supposed to be sexiest moron.”

Still, it was the publication’s proclamation that finally made Pitt a household name and pushed him that extra distance in the eyes of the studios. “The article definitely helped to increase awareness,” says Cynthia Pett, Pitt’s manager of seven years. “People in the entertainment industry have been watching Brad for the few years since ‘Thelma & Louise.’ Now that people in Kansas know who he is, studios are betting he can open movies.”

And sure enough, over the past year, Pitt’s price has doubled to a reported $6 million per film and he’s contending for plum leading roles once reserved for the likes of Tom Cruise. With a full-blown screen career (he’s booked solid for the next year), a new girlfriend (rising star Gwyneth Paltrow) and a new home in Los Angeles, Pitt has clearly done something right--something he says he couldn’t have predicted or manufactured.

P itt’s mantra has been simple but savvy: Never play the same role twice. And in keeping with his philosophy, he’s leaving his “mythic hero guy” persona in the dust. For his newest role as an unglamorous but endearing young homicide cop in “Seven,” which opens Friday, he has taken the shears to his flowing locks and slimmed down the frame he’d pumped up to play the godlike Tristan Ludlow in “Legends of the Fall” last year.

“I just wanted to escape the cheese,” Pitt says, using one of his favorite expressions to describe his foray into the world of the schmaltzy romantic lead. He eases into a subtly disarming smile as he draws out the last word for emphasis. “I came to find out [director David Fincher] had a lactose intolerance as well, so I was very happy about it.”

In Fincher’s “Seven,” Pitt stars opposite Morgan Freeman, a seasoned member of the police force who has had enough of the depressing grind. On Freeman’s final case--Pitt’s first in the big city--they try to catch a serial killer who bases his killings on the seven deadly sins: Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy and Wrath.

“I was looking for something with more of a documentary feel, more conversational and urban like ‘The Conversation’ or ‘The French Connection,’ ” Pitt says, sporting a bottle-brush haircut that just plain looks like a mistake.

Indeed, there are no golden halos around his head this time out. Pitt’s Detective Mills puts his foot in his mouth on more than one occasion, and stumbles into all the potential pitfalls of youth as his overzealousness spills over into carelessness.

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“I mean, the guy is kind of an idiot,” Pitt says. “The intentions are there, he just speaks before he really knows what he’s talking about.”

During the actor’s long pauses, one realizes that Mills is far from Pitt’s own character. “I’m more quiet, and I tend to sit back and see what’s going on. I’ve pretty much always been that way.”

Fincher says it took Pitt’s natural charm to pull off the tricky role. “I hadn’t originally thought of Brad,” he says. “I’d never seen Mills as particularly accomplished, and I was concerned that Brad seemed too together. But when I met him, I thought, this guy is so likable he can get away with murder--he can do anything and people will forgive him for it.”

This is the role, in fact, that producer Arnold Kopelson (“The Fugitive,” “Outbreak”) says will push Pitt into the realm of serious acting. “I just came away from ‘Legends’ with a very core feeling in the pit of my stomach: This is a superstar,” says Kopelson, who cut pre-production time on “Seven” to five weeks from 12 so he could get Pitt for the role. “In ‘Seven,’ people are going to see a Brad Pitt they may not be prepared for. He doesn’t come in on a horse, he’s really not shaved and he wears the same ugly white shirt through the whole incident. He’s going to prove he’s more than just a pretty face.”

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Don’t forget, Pitt’s overnight success took 10 years to culti vate. He’s been paying his dues since 1986, when he cut out of the University of Missouri two credits short of graduation. His father, an executive at a trucking company, and his mother, a school counselor, both devout Baptists, learned years later from a magazine article that their son had never received his degree.

Claiming he was headed for art school in Los Angeles, Pitt put his worldly possessions in his car and drove to California, with, as the story goes, $325 to his name.

Why did he decide to become an actor? “I loved movies so much. I loved it the most--next to music, that is. It’s the simplest notion in the world but the hardest thing to learn. I thought, ‘Ah, I’ll just leave and go do it,’ ” he says, his soft voice trailing off. “I’ve only gotten better because I’ve gotten the work.”

Perhaps the drive that got him through the odd jobs that preceded the acting--shuttling strippers in a limousine and dressing up in a chicken suit outside an El Pollo Loco--comes from the folksy, no-back-talk attitude his parents instilled in him and his two younger siblings at an early age.

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“I notice a difference in where I grew up,” says Pitt, who was born in Oklahoma and raised in Springfield, Mo. “You deal. You get through it, power through it, straight up the middle,” he says, ever-fond of cliches. “And you don’t complain. It’s the hardest thing in the world. It’s just kind of what fathers teach their sons around there.”

The philosophy jibes with director Fincher’s observation that Pitt, though easygoing, is completely absorbed in his work. “He knows exactly what’s going on,” Fincher says. “I don’t think he’ll ever be used for somebody else’s purposes.”

In fact, Pitt’s will caused heated arguments with director Ed Zwick on the set of “Legends.” While Pitt felt his character should sink to the depths before rising again, Zwick thought it necessary to show only a portion of that suffering. “Pitt is very intense,” Zwick says. “We had a passionate collaboration. We just had different ideas of how to make the movie better.”

Still, Pitt shone in that role, and not because of acting training--he never had any. But he’s ensured a connection with the characters he plays by choosing roles he can throw himself into. “Brad was physical in the role of Tristan, and comfortable, which is an even harder thing,” Zwick says. “He revealed a vulnerability which he’d not necessarily shown before.”

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Part of his believability has to do with his hands-on involvement in his own stunts. There were no stunt doubles for Pitt in “Legends.” He rode his own horses, which ultimately caused him one black eye and many more bruises. He insisted also on doing the chase scenes in “Seven,” though he fell through a windshield and cut tendons and nerves in his left hand.

P itt’s on-screen appeal is all about his personality. “He’s always being compared to some movie star from the ‘30s or ‘40s,” says Pett, his manager. “He’s very genuine--Brad is Brad. It’s truly what you see is the way he is.”

Morgan Freeman, his co-star on “Seven,” was surprised by the young star’s lack of attitude. “He’s very down to earth. He’s disarming in that way. It’s something he works purposefully at, to remain true to his sense of self rather than someone’s idea of who he is.”

Which may be why the February issue of Vanity Fair still makes Pitt wince. All it takes is a mention of the magazine and he sits up straighter in his seat and leans forward for emphasis. “Yeah, I wanna know, who picked that picture?” he asks indignantly, referring to the golden cover image of a wind-blown Pitt in leather pants and an open pirate shirt.

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“Do they not like me? It’s amazing to me, completely amazing. You wonder why people want to have more control,” he says, referring to his distinct dislike for publicity. “It’s always been a fight against the Velveeta, it really has. I don’t know how I keep getting dragged back into it, but I do.”

But it’s the Velveeta, as he so eloquently puts it, that sells. He won no glowing People magazine superlatives with his first TV work, including minor roles on “Dallas” and “thirtysomething.” Nor did he break through with his early films such as “Johnny Suede” (1991), in which he played a kitschy rock star wanna-be with a high pompadour, or the little-seen “Kalifornia” (1993), in which he played a white-trash parolee with a yen for killing.

Though he opened some eyes in 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” with his 14-minute scene-stealing role as a sexy hitchhiker, his first major role didn’t come till the following year.

Yet the role that had critics proclaiming he’d become a “real actor” is the one of which he is least fond. “My performance in ‘A River Runs Through It’ was weak. I was just bad,” says Pitt, who was compared incessantly to a young version of the movie’s director, Robert Redford. He says Redford improved the movie significantly in the editing room. “I had an ultimate respect for Redford, and so I just felt this pressure not to let him down, and ultimately that gets in the way. So what do you learn? Just do your thing.”

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T his Christmas he’ll appear in a supporting role in Terry Gil liam’s “The Twelve Monkeys,” with Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe, about a man who may or may not be traveling back in time to save the world. Pitt finally convinced Gilliam to cast him as the fast-talking, hyperkinetic madman who is out to destroy the world.

At first, Gilliam was a hard sell. “This role is 180 degrees away from the characters Brad played in the past,” Gilliam says. “It could have backfired, but in fact he was brilliant. He was determined to prove himself--I’m a sucker for that kind of enthusiasm.”

In fact, Pitt quit smoking for the role and trained with a voice coach. “It was like training to be a sprinter or long distance runner. He had to have tremendous vocal control and build up his tongue muscles for this part.”

“It’s more of what I call the ‘Killing Tristan Ludlow period,’ ” says Pitt, taking a jab at himself. "[The ‘Twelve Monkeys’] part is out there .”

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And that’s exactly what he’s after.

He’s currently filming the Barry Levinson movie “Sleepers,” a dark story of a group of New York kids who are brutalized in reform school. Pitt plays the grown-up version of one, and appears in only the last third of the movie.

B etween roles, he tries to refill himself with road trips in his four-wheel drive. He takes his three dogs, Todd Potter, Saudi and Purty, up the coast to Washington, or unwinds by playing basketball with his handful of friends in Los Angeles. Recently, he’s been spending most of his free time with Paltrow, his co-star in “Seven,” with whom he’s become romantically involved. On one such excursion, a pesky magazine photographer snapped photos of the couple sunbathing nude on St. Barts. They are now suing the photographer and the French magazine First, which published the pictures.

Of his relationship with Paltrow, he says: “Really, all I can tell you is I’ve never been happier.”

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In fact, Pitt may well be a romantic. “You mean a cheese-ball? Yeah, I’m a sucker for a happy ending,” he says, looking sheepishly down and playing with his cigarette lighter. “Even though I never pick those kinds of films.”

He’s met previous girlfriends on movie sets, including Juliette Lewis, with whom he had a three-year relationship.

“In all fairness, we’re dealing with an industry full of fascinating people, you know?” he says, defending his choice to date actresses. “They understand what you’re trying to do. I hear actors say, ‘I’ll never date another actor.’ Well, I think just the opposite.” He pauses and chuckles to himself. “If you can find a stable one.”

In fact, he originally suggested Paltrow for the part of his wife, Tracy, in “Seven,” because he’d been impressed by her audition for “Legends of the Fall.”

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“The Tracy character was so important because it’s the only sunshine we have in the film. This is the feel-bad movie of ’95,” Pitt says. “We needed someone who could take those little seconds she gets and fill them with soul, and that’s what I’d always seen in her performances--soul. She took a fantastic part and made it better.”

And while he won’t discuss whether the couple might create a more permanent arrangement, his commitment to family is evident, given his visits to his own relatives--including new nieces and nephews--whenever possible.

Would he make a good father? “Yeah,” he says without pausing. “Just ‘cause I can’t think of anything more important than teaching your kid, you know? He comes home from school, some kids made fun of him, when he wants to try out for the team, when she’s got a little boyfriend. You know? All that. There’s nothing more important than family, I don’t think.”

And sure enough, he seems to be feathering the nest these days. In addition to a three-bedroom Los Angeles home he bought a year ago, he is also looking for a place in New York City, where Paltrow is based. And while he says banks aren’t for him, he’s sunk his money into something he can relate to: land--approximately 600 acres in the Ozarks, near where he was born.

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“I don’t know very much about investing in business--that doesn’t really interest me,” he says. “The land blows my mind.”

The property is filled with trees, hills, caves and streams. “It’s nice,” he says, in a typical Pitt understatement. “It’s family land. I’ll get some horses, and build a home--that’ll come when I settle down a little more.”

When that will happen depends on physics, Pitt says. “You can’t predict careers, it’s such a crapshoot, it really is. What goes up must come down. It’s nothing to dread. It’s just something to be aware of.”

He takes a drag on his cigarette and blows it out slowly. “You ride it as long as the trip lasts, then you go raise a family, go on to deeper things. The real stage, probably.”

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