In the late Nineties he was something of a slacker, “spending too much time smoking things I shouldn’t be,” Pitt recalls. “I was asking, What’s it about? It couldn’t just be wanting a successful movie or something. Then I got more engaged, started studying more and [my] interests blossomed.”
In addition to his passionate advocacy for affordable housing—his Make It Right Foundation in New Orleans is building homes for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and the program may expand to low-income neighborhoods nationwide—Pitt also contributed $100,000 last year to California’s “No on Prop 8” campaign, which sought unsuccessfully to block a ballot proposition banning gay marriage. A de facto spokesman for the cause, he has said that he and Jolie will not wed until marriage rights are available to all.
“People who are against gay marriage do not understand the very freedoms that they themselves are enjoying,” he argues. “What if someone said, ‘Sorry, no Christianity here? No Judaism. Certainly no Mormons.’ No one would stand for that, and I wouldn’t allow anyone to say that either. I’d fight them in the same way.”
One could say that Pitt has stayed ahead of the fickle public’s inevitable boredom precisely because he “keeps moving,” continually adopting new stances before the public eye. Less of an enigma than Jolie—who was recently described in a front-page New York Times article as “expertly walk[ing] a line between known entity and complete mystery”—Pitt nonetheless still fascinates. Even at 45, he generates the heat of a teen pop sensation.
“There’s no getting around the fact that the public interest in him goes far beyond explanation,” acknowledges Fincher, who also directed Pitt in 1995’s Seven and 1999’s Fight Club. “But for the first time in our working relationship, I see someone comfortable with that nuttiness. He’s no longer trying to control it. He’s a man at peace with who he is, and that makes it possible to give a performance like Benjamin Button.”
The role, perhaps Pitt’s most ambitious yet, required him to do one thing that doesn’t come easily for the actor, notes Fincher: to hold still. Pitt’s Benjamin Button is an emotionally passive observer of his own life, a character broadly akin to Forrest Gump who bears witness to the world as it shuffles him along. He’s equally constrained by the limits of the flesh, from his early decrepitude of old age to his final frailty of childhood. Not until perhaps halfway through the 160-minute epic, when Button has arrived at Pitt’s approximate age, do viewers finally get the heartthrob shots they’ve been waiting for: Pitt tearing down a bayou highway on a motorcycle, lounging on a Caribbean yacht and rumpling the sheets with costar Cate Blanchett.