The Clinton Global Initiative featured a range of A-list stars on Thursday, from Jessica Alba to Usher, to go along with its usual CEOs and policy wonks. But it was Brad Pitt who got top billing with a special session that evening his charity, Make It Right, and its work rebuilding New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, which suffered horrific damage from Hurricane Katrina.
"You will never again question if progress is possible when you see this panel," the former president gushed before introducing Pitt.
The actor first announced his charity at the 2007 version of this event, pledging that the outfit would resettle 9th Ward residents in a model community comprised of 150 state-of-the-art, affordable houses.
While initially suffering from the “fundraising blues,” as he put it, Pitt told the audience that he was inspired by a pep talk from Clinton to keep scrounging for donors until he found enough seed money to move forward.
“He told me to stick with it, calm down, you'll figure it out,” Pitt said.
Make It Right has already completed 13 of the houses it plans to build, all of which have so far been certified LEED Platinum, the highest possible sustainability rating. Many more are in the process of being constructed. The homes draw electricity from solar panels, reduce energy bills even further by trapping hot and cold temperatures, and stand on stilts to guard against floodwaters, among a wide array of cutting-edge features. Pitt said the biggest challenge was keeping them affordable despite the many safety, aesthetic, and green goals the group initially set out. But the team managed to find ways to cut costs and the houses ended up being valued at about $150,000 each. Make It Right helps former residents secure forgivable loans to buy the homes.
“By this time next year when we put the lid on our 150th house, that house will be built for the same price as any HUD standard house in New Orleans if not cheaper,” Pitt said.
He added that the innovations the project were forced to improvise in order to keep costs down had potential far beyond New Orleans alone.
“We are just scratching the surface,” Pitt told the audience on Thursday, saying that the model his group employed “should work in any climate, any condition, any culture around the world.”
Clinton also discussed replicating Pitt's sustainability drive, saying that the government should look to follow its lead.
"Why should we ever build another federal building thats not a platinum LEED building?" the former president asked.
The panel on Thursday included one of the 9th Ward residents, Dierdra Taylor, who recently moved into a home built by Make It Right that she described as “awesome.”
"The Lower 9th Ward was a desert,” Taylor said of the changes since Pitt's project got under way. “There was nothing there, nothing left, and now we have a community."
Pitt's own architectural chops are considerable for an amateur, according to Make It Right's executive director, Tom Dardner, who met up with Pitt after being connected through green architecture guru William McDonough.
"He's laid back, he's smart, and really knowledgeable about architecture and design," Dardner told The Daily Beast. "He even helped design one of the houses."
Dardner said that in addition to the architecture front of Make It Right, Pitt was most involved with directly dealing with the affected families.
"When we invite those architects to come meet with families from the Lower Ninth Ward, Brad's always there—he knows all the families we work with by name," he said. "It all really started with his desire to help these families that he saw go through so much."
Pitt's popularity in New Orleans has prompted efforts to draft him to run for mayor, a possibility the actor has mostly dismissed.
“Yeah. I’m running on the gay marriage, no religion, legalization and taxation of marijuana platform,” he deadpanned to the Today show's Ann Curry in August. “I don't have a chance.”
Darder says fans of the actor shouldn’t hold their breath. "I think he’s pretty busy," he said. He's not running for mayor, but I think we at Make Right are—and I know that Brad is—flattered by the suggestion."
But one of Pitt's fellow panelists at CGI, U.S. Green Buildings Council President Richard Fedrizzi, sounded bullish on the actor's leadership, however. Fedrizzi told The Daily Beast that "the idea that somebody was able to use their expertise and their ability to get people excited and focused [on New Orleans] to me is one of the best examples of philanthropy.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.