CANNES, France — You won't catch Brad Pitt doing fatherhood in a small way, on screen or in his real family life with Angelina Jolie.
In Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," which premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival, Pitt plays a father of three in a drama that deals with the biggest of questions about our place in the cosmos.
In his home life, Pitt and Jolie are parents of six – three biological children, three adopted. For Pitt, who was childless into his 40s after his marriage with Jennifer Aniston broke up, it all happened in just a few years.
"I know it seems extreme from the outside, but I've always kind of operated this way. When I know, I know, and why mess around?" Pitt, 47, said in an interview.
"I had a friend who had a big family when I was a kid. I just loved the chaos around the breakfast table and the fighting and the ribbing, and the mom making pancakes for everyone or the dad making pancakes. And I just decided then if I was ever going to do it – this left some indelible mark on me – if I was ever going to do it, that's the way I was going to do it."
The whole Pitt-Jolie clan came to Cannes. Days before they walked the festival's red carpet for "The Tree of Life," Jolie was in the French Riviera resort with Jack Black to promote their animated sequel "Kung Fu Panda 2."
Jolie and Pitt have become Cannes regulars, he with "Babel" and "Inglourious Basterds" and she with "Changeling" and "A Mighty Heart," on which Pitt was a producer.
Pitt had figured on being at Cannes a year ago with "The Tree of Life," but Malick needed more time to finish his rumination on existence, a film so expansive its intimate family drama plays out against the backdrop of the universe's creation and the era of dinosaurs.
"This is a great place to air this kind of movie out, certainly," Pitt said. "It's kind of the only place, isn't it?"
Opening in U.S. theaters May 27, "The Tree of Life" had Cannes crowds buzzing, some adoring it, some hating it, and nearly everyone perplexed by it. It follows the impressionistic, nonlinear structure typical of Malick, who made only four previous movies over a nearly 40-year career.
The press-shy director skipped the public appearances usually expected of filmmakers at Cannes. That left Pitt, also a producer on the film, as Malick's ambassador.
The actor charmed a roomful of reporters for the film's press conference and thrilled fans by shaking hands and signing autographs before walking the red carpet with co-stars Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain.
Malick's last Cannes film was "Days of Heaven," which earned him the festival's directing prize in 1979. It was nearly 20 years before he released another film, "The Thin Red Line." By then, Pitt said, Malick was ill-suited to be the sort of filmmaker-pitchman Hollywood had come to expect.
"When he began making films, there wasn't this pressure to sell them. ... He really is a craftsman at heart. He's almost a carpenter, and he takes a couple decades off and then comes back, and the business has shifted," Pitt said.
"We all have to get out and get the film some notice, so we can keep making films like this, and it's just antithetical to who he is. He's a very humble, humble, sweet, sweet man. He's just not made for it."
Pitt clearly is, though. For rising star Chastain, Pitt was a mentor from the time they shot the film three years ago right up to Monday night's premiere.
"He's helped me a lot on this experience," said Chastain, who plays Pitt's wife. "He is such an expert on it by now. Even during the red carpet, when I was holding Brad and Sean's hands, I was really scared, and I was really shaking, and I just kept thinking, smile, smile, smile. And they would speak to me and tell me what was going on as it was going on.
"They would say, 'Now we're going to go up the stairs, and we'll stop and take a photo.' So I always had a guide, and who's better than Brad, who's excellent at it all?"
Pitt, an Academy Award nominee for 1995's "Twelve Monkeys" and 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," has built his career on commercial hits – the "Ocean's Eleven" capers and his and Jolie's thriller "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" – and challenging sagas such as "Babel" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."
Due out late this year is the baseball tale "Moneyball," in which Pitt plays Oakland A's boss Billy Beane, who reinvented the cash-driven game by scouting diamond-in-the-rough players on a shoestring budget.
Pitt just finished shooting the crime thriller "Cogan's Trade" with his "Jesse James" director Andrew Dominik, and he's about to start on "World War Z," about the sociopolitical upheaval that ensues after a zombie outbreak.
He and Jolie also are looking to reunite on screen.
"We're not ones to repeat ourselves, but we'd like to, because right now, we're hopscotching with films so one can be with the kids and one's free to work," Pitt said. "And why aren't we doing them together? Why aren't we doing everything together?"
Family man Pitt said he settles on film roles differently now. While Jolie has the "Kung Fu Panda" flicks for their kids to see, Pitt was a voice star for last year's animated adventure "Megamind," and he takes the children into account on all future projects.
"I think my focus before was more irreverence, by nature," Pitt said. "I'm a dad now. It's more important to me that if I'm going to do the film, there's something I can bring to it, it's not generic. And most of all, I'm painfully aware that my kids are going to see these when they're older, and I want them to understand something about their dad, and I want them to be proud of their dad."
And maybe remember some chaos around the breakfast table, said Pitt, who cooks pancakes for his kids.
"Breakfast is pretty much my specialty," Pitt said. "And barbecue."