Moneyball: How Brad Became Billy Beane

Moenyball, starring Brad Pitt, will be released by Sony on Sept 23, 2011

Brad Pitt had an instant attraction to the Oakland A’s general manager, to his shrewd, outsized personality, to his mix of obsessive focus and gritty resourcefulness and to his intimate personal relationship with the fine line between failure and success. 

Beane himself admits that having Pitt play him felt a little strange, but he liked the actor’s down-to-business approach.  “When I found out that Brad Pitt wanted to play me, at first I didn’t believe it.  I work in a place where a lot of rumors fly around, and I thought when all was said and done, it was a bit of a joke,” he confesses.  “But when we started to interact, I was impressed with how serious, bright and incredibly perceptive he is and how he had a vision of what he wanted to do.” 

He goes on:  “He’d read the book and really loved it.  I think that’s a testament to the character that Michael Lewis wrote, as opposed to myself, but it would be hard for Brad Pitt to play anybody and not do a great job.  There are certainly a lot of mannerisms that I think he picked up in our short time together.  And he couldn’t have been more of an absolutely class guy, not only with the people who work with me but with my family as well.” 

Beane continues, “Seeing this story come to life in the form of a movie is a once-in-a-lifetime, surreal experience.  And yet despite Brad Pitt being a megastar, he could not have been more down to earth or more genuine – a regular guy from Missouri.  While it’s flattering to see him play this character, at times I forget that his character is actually supposed to represent my life in baseball.  I was drawn into his acting like any other moviegoer will be.”

Pitt explored Beane’s origins, which began as a naval officer’s kid who excelled at an early age on two different fields:  baseball and football. Dubbed a true athletic “natural,” he was always told he would be destined for the elite echelons of pro sports.  But after Beane declined a Stanford scholarship for the chance to join the New York Mets, he faltered, then struggled mightily to revive a career that never truly got out of the starting gate.  After playing six seasons as a reserve outfielder for several major league teams – all the time wanting to make good on the promise he’d always been told he had – he did something bold.  Beane turned in his glove and walked from the field to the front office to try his hand at management, a decision that would prove visionary.

Miller explains, “Imagine being fifteen years old and having grown men – experts – telling you that you have a destiny, you are meant to be a superstar of the next generation, and you have to make a decision based on that information – and you go down that road, only to discover ten years later that it wasn’t going to work out.  The dream was just a dream, and he would have to start again.”

“Billy really did something crazy by today’s standards,” says Pitt.  “He quit.  I think in a way he felt that he was caught up in other people’s views of what he was supposed to be.  I think he felt somewhat trapped.  He explains it that he wanted to do something with his mind.  Even though he was ‘in the show,’ the thing every boy dreams of, it wasn’t working for him.”

Pitt continues:  “So he embarked on this new career, but he came in knowing there was a need to tear down that bias that he felt he himself was entrapped by at an early age.” 

Beane concurs that having struggled on the field gave him a connection under the skin to his players.  “Having experienced what they’re experiencing helps,” Beane says.  “Certainly, being able to share some of the mistakes I made as a player, some of the things I don’t think helped my career, allows me to sort of say ‘don’t do what I did.’” 

Miller says that the personality characteristics that make Beane a good GM also make him a compelling movie character. “Billy is charismatic and charming, but underneath that is an intense ambition to win a championship,” says Miller.  “In the story we’re telling, in his drive for a championship, he comes to reevaluate what really matters in life, and it goes beyond baseball.  He wants to challenge his own beliefs, to think differently.  He’s dealt a similar choice to the one he faced when he was a kid, and having lived through that, he has the insight, perspective, and wisdom to decide differently.”

Pitt became fascinated by how the need to succeed on his own terms became the mother of invention for Beane in his second incarnation as the A’s general manager – and how it all came to a head in 2002, when the A’s lost their most notable players and, to many, their only hope. 

“He realized that the A’s simply couldn’t fight the way the other guys might fight,” he explains.  “They had to look for new knowledge, they had to question all the norms and find the inefficiencies in the way things were being done.  They began with this seemingly naïve question:  what if we were starting this game from scratch today, how would we do it?  Where would we place value on the players? Then they went out and actually found these guys who were being overlooked and put together, in a patchwork, a formidable team.” 

Still, Pitt wanted to take a clear-eyed view of Beane’s persona.  “His leadership could be flawed and aggressive,” he notes, “but I love that kind of complicated character.”  To Pitt, Beane’s saving grace was his sincerity – and he looked to capture the essence of a guy who continually asks the question “So what?” in a way that makes it clear he really wants to know the answer. 

Author Michael Lewis notes that the Beane he presented in his book is someone who works harder and gets tougher the more resistance he meets.  “At heart, Billy is a ferocious competitor who hates to lose,” Lewis observes.  “And he knew that if he did things as they had always been done, he was sure to lose.  So anything he did that was different was going to give the team a better chance than just doing things the way everyone else did them.  But then the questions also came:  could he handle the grief that accompanies that kind of innovation?  Could he handle the hostility that comes from doing things in an unconventional way?  Billy wasn’t afraid.  He’s got neuroses and anxieties, but he’s fearless and that helped.” 

In preparing for the role, Pitt dove in by hanging out in the A’s front office, quietly observing Beane in action and chatting up his colleagues. “He was very interested in trying to see what Billy was like and get a whole feel for the team,” recalls David Rinetti, the 30-year veteran VP of Stadium Operations for the Oakland A’s.  “He asked a lot of questions and was really impressed by the camaraderie that people that work for the sport have. He was really interested in how people interact with each other and he was very enthusiastic about it.”

Miller notes that Beane and Pitt are not so far apart in their traits.  “Billy Beane is not a very risk-averse person, and I don’t think Brad Pitt is, either,” says the director.  “I think he likes embarking on a film like this.”

One area Pitt explored was Beane’s quirky rule of never watching his own team’s games in person.  Beane explains it this way:  “When you make your decisions based on the long haul and 162 games, to sit there and stare at every event would be the same as staring at your 401K on a minute by minute basis.  You’re better off checking it quarterly.  That’s my objective reason.  My emotional reason is that there’s a struggle in myself – I’m objective but I’m also emotional, and I really don’t want to be in a position where I’m making decisions based on my emotions.” 

Pitt also found Beane’s persona emerging in the push-and-pull of his relationships, especially with his assistant GM – the character known as Peter Brand played by Jonah Hill — and A’s field manager Art Howe played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

“I think Jonah did something really special in this role,” Pitt says.  “We know him as a comedian but his comedy is grounded in pathos and humanity. Here he does something we’ve never seen him do before.  He’s like a study in reserve.  It’s a really, brave, strong, idiosyncratic performance.  It helped to create a beautiful symbiotic relationship.  Billy needs Pete’s brains and Pete needs Billy to open the doors.  One without the other would never have worked.” 

Regarding Hoffman as Howe, Pitt says:  “We were very fortunate to get him because he’s so fantastic. I think their contentious relationship represents the way new ideas always conflict with the tried and true.  These two guys are never going to come to terms – it’s just a matter of which one will have the sheer force of will to get what they want.”

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