With Benjamin Button, Pitt scratches the surface of a dark Hollywood taboo: the inevitable aging of a hugely profitable star. Pitt admits that his own mortality frightens him—“I’m scared to death of death,” he says—and he also acknowledges that becoming a father inspired him to give up a deadly 20-year habit. “I quit smoking,” he says when asked how family life has changed him. “That was the only thing that got me to quit. That was it. Done.”
As if to publicize a private epiphany about arriving at the brink of middle age, Pitt requested that artist Chuck Close, known for his superdetailed daguerreotype portraits that reveal every skin flaw, shoot the pictures accompanying this story. Pitt has always been a master of using press images to convey messages about his life, as when he and photographer Steven Klein created a provocative shoot in this magazine that depicted him and Jolie as a Fifties-era married couple with kids—before they had publicly acknowledged their love affair. Close suggests that the actor, who showed “no vanity” during the sitting, is once again playing with public perception.
“You can’t be the fair-haired young boy forever,” says Close. “At some point he’ll have to become some sort of character actor. Maybe a photograph of him with his crow’s-feet and furrowed brow is good for him. It humanizes him. It makes him less of a cinema god and more of a person.”
It’s a series of images that a publicist might have shot down, just as a PR rep would likely have gone apoplectic about W’s November cover shot of Jolie breast-feeding, which Pitt photographed. But neither Jolie nor Pitt employs a media gatekeeper among their team of handlers—although both do retain brass-knuckle legal counsel. “A publicist isn’t going to know as much as I’m going to know about what we want to do,” says Pitt. “It just becomes more people to talk to. Man, we’ve got six kids. We don’t have time for that. We’ve got to streamline. I make my own decisions for myself anyway. I’ve never seen a publicist that could protect me from things, protect anyone from what’s going on out there.”
Besides, Pitt and Jolie apparently loved doing the photo spread that accompanied Jolie’s cover, a surprisingly personal album of a world-famous family at home in Provence, France. “We have fun working together; these things bring you closer,” he says of the experience. “And let me tell you, it’s really sexy to see your loved one through the lens. I went much further [than the shot of Jolie breast-feeding]. I didn’t show those.”