Sometime Last Year, BRAD PITT Began Giving A Lot Of Thought To Unhappy Marriages.

The actor was in Los Angeles filming Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Doug Liman’s thriller about a glamorous husband and wife who are secretly hired to assassinate each other. While the movie uses domestic ennui as a backdrop for a series of high-style action sequences, Pitt wanted to tell a darker, truer tale, one that explored the “unidentifiable malaise” that so often haunts a seemingly happy couple. “You don’t know what’s wrong,” he says, “because the marriage is everything you signed up for.”

That was the inspiration for this shoot, which Pitt created with photographer Steven Klein. Tired of celebrity portraiture and always up for an artistic “Jam sesh,” as he calls it, Pitt (who’d teamed with Klein and W in 1998 for an equally risqué layout inspired by the film Fight Club) essentially co-directed the photo series, while starring in it alongside his Mr. and Mrs. Smith costar and purported new love, Angelina Jolie. He opted to set it in 1963 (the year he was born), a time when the last traces of the squeaky-clean Fifties were giving way to something more complicated. “The façade was still being maintained,” he says, “but things were starting to crumble underneath.”

As you might have heard, Pitt’s own marriage broke up recently: Jennifer Aniston filed for divorce in late March, as our photo shoot was under way in Palm Springs. Pitt, calling in early May from the Moroccan set of his next film, Babel, is inclined to emphasize the positive aspects of that particular union. “I know that if a marriage doesn’t fit a certain idea, it’s looked upon as a failure,” he says. “But I see mine as a total success. My God, man, Jen is such an influence on my life. We made it for seven years---that’s five years more than I made it with anyone else.” Even at a time when the tabloids are depicting a contented Pitt and Jolie strolling on an African beach while Aniston supposedly scowls her way around Malibu, Pitt says he and Aniston are still close and will likely remain that way. “We’ve been able to keep the love that we have for each other in front [of everything else].”

A self-described “Zen master” at tuning out the intrusions of the tabloid press, Pitt allows his meditative calm to collapse when he talks about the paparazzi’s recent conduct, particularly their treatment of Aniston. “These guys have been incredibly despicable this round,” he says. “They should literally be hung up and flogged. You wouldn’t believe the s--- they’ve been saying to Jen. She doesn’t have a nasty bone in her body, and they are yelling horrible things to get a rise out of her so they can get more money for their pictures.” Even as he speaks, he and his Babel costar, Cate Blanchett, and her two children are being stalked by two photographers who’ve snuck onto the ground of their hotel in Ouarzazate. “They’re scaring the kids,” Pitt says. “Some of these guys need a beating.”

As for Jolie, Pitt calls her an “incredibly talented” actress, but beyond that he’s determinedly mum, clearly because he’s picturing his every word as a three-inch headline on the cover of the Enquirer. “Well, I just don’t want to…I really don’t…let me see. I’m really wary, in this particular climate, of commenting.” After a long pause he says, finally, “I just can’t find any safe bets.”

Jolie, calling a few days later from her home in London, gives it a go. “The thing that makes Brad a great actor is that he’s a very genuine person,” she says. “Anybody who’s met him would know that. You can read him, and you can feel that there’s something open and approachable and interesting. And he’s just very real. Whether cameras are rolling or not, he doesn’t change.” She adds, “He’s very solid. I think you know you can count on him.”

The benumbed, salon-perfect housewife in these photographs, who seems far more interested in her nails then in her children, reminds Jolie of what can happen when you become “absent from your life,” as she puts it. Jolie herself doesn’t appear to have that problem; at 30 she’s raising her three-year old son, Maddox, flying her own plane and holding human rights press conferences in Islamabad. But she knows a few things about marital dysfunction, having been divorced twice (from Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton), and she states flat out that she’s not very good at being a wife.

“I haven’t learned how to work as well in partnerships as I do as an individual,” she says. “I’m better alone.” The key, she believes, is finding someone with goals as ambitious as hers. “Basically, I think there should be a reason for you to be a unit. Not just to be happy, but to actually accomplish and change, and take on the things you want to take on in this life.” One wonders how the famously uncensored actress feels right now about having to stay silent about her role in the biggest offscreen drama of the year. Just fine, she says. “People want an answer about what’s happening in my life and my family, but I need to know what’s happening first,” she explains. “And I don’t plan to discuss it before then. It’s not about censoring myself. It’s that there’s nothing to say until I know that there’s something to say.”

Coincidentally or not, both Pitt and Jolie have lately been drawn to new pursuits that take the focus off their screen-idol selves. “I’m so bored with me,” Pitt says, sounding as though he might really mean it. At 41, the actor is aware, and perhaps relieved, that his pinup days are numbered. True, the torso he first showcased in Thelma & Louise retains the same chiseled splendor 14 years later, and nobody Pitt’s age has abs like that without making them a very serious priority. But with time, Pitt laughingly notes, in place of the six-pack, “there’ll just be a keg.” He’s now more interested in things he can create, from buildings to babies, and in luring the press with him to Ethiopa and South Africa, on the off chance that they’ll notice the millions of AIDS orphans there. Pitt has also been spending long hours on his motorcycle, blissfully unrecognizable beneath his helmet. “It’s great,” he says, “No one has a clue. You’re just another jackass on the road.”

Jolie, too, gets her biggest highs while operating heavy machinery, but her vehicle of choice has wings. “Flying solo really is the most amazing feeling,” she says. “And the freedom of it is something I’ve desperately needed my whole life. Now I really don’t feel confined to this earth.” While on the ground, Jolie has taken the intensity that once made her Hollywood’s favorite badass babe (with a taste for S&M sex and self-mutilation_ and redirected it toward her work as a mother and a UN goodwill ambassador. Having declared herself uninterested in anything as banal as a boyfriend, she’s kept her liaisons outside the house for the past few years. “The man that enters my home with me and my son---I take that very, very, seriously.” She does have an idea about who such a man might be. “Somebody who just really works hard, and loves,” she says. “That has not been an easy thing to find.”