A few sentences into the next topic, though, Pitt circles back to defend Jolie’s honor. “What people don’t understand is that we filmed [Mr. & Mrs. Smith] for a year,” he explains. “We were still filming after Jen and I split up. Even then it doesn’t mean that there was some kind of dastardly affair. There wasn’t. I’m very proud of the way that it was handled. It was respectful. [The film] will mean something to our kids. It will, that’s all.”
Pitt’s love life aside, a perhaps unintentionally revealing remark comes in his offhand response to a question about being in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night for President-elect Obama’s acceptance speech. As it happened, Pitt found himself in the city to tape a segment for Oprah and couldn’t resist the opportunity to see history in the making. “It was just total jubilation,” recalls Pitt, animated by the memory. “It was the best rock concert that I’ve ever been to. Really. I could just feel it in the air. All the boulevards were closed afterward, and so we walked a half hour to the hotel. Everyone was just on a high.” Asked how he was able to walk undisturbed through the crowded streets (accompanied by Benjamin Button director David Fincher, one of the film’s makeup artists and Pitt’s assistant), the actor replies in an aw-shucks manner that evokes his small-town Missouri upbringing, “Man, nobody cared about us at that moment.”
He pauses, then tosses off a telling bit of glib self-analysis: “By nature, I keep moving, man. My theory is, be the shark. You’ve just got to keep moving. You can’t stop.”
It’s a deft summary of Pitt’s two-decade career. As an actor, he’s blessed with an unusual physical agility—there’s no one whose moves the camera loves more—and he’s likewise proved to be exceptionally adept at navigating the challenges of his public life. Pitt has developed a protean fame that encompasses hits and misses (1998’s Meet Joe Black), wealth and kudos, love and divorce. At present, he may be at his apogee, thanks in no small part to his relationship with Jolie. At the time of Thelma & Louise, Pitt’s appeal boiled down to washboard abs and a tan. Now he’s famous as a family man and known for his cultured knowledge of architecture and, more recently, contemporary art. He and Jolie have also successfully spun the crass commercial potential of their earlier notoriety into public goodwill, as when they sold baby pictures of their twins for $14 million and funneled the money into charity projects around the globe. Perhaps even more surprising is that Pitt—along with Jolie and his friends George Clooney and Edward Norton, and following in the footsteps of Paul Newman and Robert Redford—has created a paradigm of Hollywood stardom that turns from self-indulgence toward good works.