“Brad was initially like, ‘I don’t want to make a movie where I don’t do anything,’” recalls Fincher, who likens Pitt’s onscreen fluidity to that of Redford and James Stewart. “This is a much stiller performance than he’s been asked to give. When we first worked together, he’d want to know, How does my character affect this scene? He wanted to have things to do.”
Pitt acknowledges that he had time to mature into the role during Benjamin Button’s decade-long gestation—it went through several script overhauls and a host of directors. He recalls worrying that the central love story between his character and Blanchett’s might become “the ballad of codependency,” a tortured romance that he didn’t care to step into. In the end, however, after hashing out the project with Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth, he viewed it as a more adult romance, in which both parties accept the consequences of their decisions.
“It’s not a classic love story in the sense of ‘And they live happily ever after,’” Pitt explains. “It’s two individuals who want to be with the other one instead of needing the other one to complete them. It was very important to us that each one was responsible for their choices.”
The film, which is based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, shuttles between locations and time periods with stunning verisimilitude, and Pitt’s elaborate makeup provides its own dramatic storyline. Daily makeup sessions lasted five to six hours. “I got to help design [the looks] a little bit,” recalls Pitt. “I’d go, ‘I don’t really like what’s happening here with the jowls. Let’s kick these back a little bit.’ I’m sure that time will not be that graceful with me.”
The heavy mask didn’t smother Pitt’s spark, says costar Tilda Swinton, who plays Button’s first love interest when he reaches the age—with the mind of a teenager and the body of a retiree—to leave home and become a merchant marine. “I had the problematic task of delivering the line, ‘So you’re a seaman?’” she writes by e-mail. “Even inside high-end Hollywood latex, I saw Brad’s eyes light up. The game was on.”
During a particularly long shoot for a voiceover montage, their gamesmanship took, as Swinton puts it, “diabolically obscene turns,” such as when she arranged a prop carrot and two potatoes into a “vast vegetable genitalia,” and Pitt dared her to leave it in the shot. “Not a soul noticed,” adds Swinton. Sadly, the sculpture didn’t make final print; Swinton and Pitt later confessed to Fincher, which Swinton says she now regrets.