May 09, 2005 12:00 PM

By now, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are comfortable playing husband and wife—both in their upcoming action-romance Mr. and Mrs. Smith and in a ’60s-era photo shoot for the June issue of W magazine. But on April 19, it was clear that the sexy stars were no longer just role-playing for the cameras: Strolling on Kenya’s Diani Beach with Jolie’s 3-year-old son Maddox, they enjoyed a family beach outing, with Pitt engaging Maddox in some shovel-and-bucket sand play while Mom looked on. Back at the luxury Alfajiri Villas where the trio were staying, “Brad and Angie looked very jovial,” says an observer. “They walked together, laughed.” Given how relaxed they seemed, says the source, “it would have been hard to convince someone that they were not husband and wife.”

And so, after nearly a year of intense speculation—during which time the pair turned up in extravagantly romantic settings from Amalfi, Italy, where they shot scenes for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, to Palm Springs, Calif.—PEOPLE’s two-time Sexiest Man Alive and Esquire‘s reigning Sexiest Woman Alive appear to have joined forces as the Universe’s Sexiest Couple Alive (and readers agree; see page 72). After repeated steadfast denials of a romantic relationship—talk that reached a fever pitch in January, when Pitt and wife Jennifer Aniston announced their split, with Jolie singled out as the seductive Other Woman—this time around Pitt, 41, and Jolie, 29, are keeping notably mum. And yet as evidence of a romance mounts, a close source maintains that there was nothing improper going on before the actor’s separation. “He didn’t do anything while he was married,” says the source. “He’ll go to the grave saying that.”

Of the intimate Pitt-Jolie African rendezvous, during which the pair shared a romantic $2,000-a-night oceanside villa and journeyed on a half-day safari at the Shimba Hills National Reserve in Kenya, “it is what it is,” says the source.

What exactly is “it”? Although the same source says that the stars “are obviously friends,” it seems unlikely that “just plain pals” would go to the trouble of meeting in a remote pocket of Kenyan coastline. Even more telling, protective mom Jolie—who has often spoken of her desire to keep the men in her life at a distance from Maddox lest he get attached to one—has clearly given Pitt the green light. Whether sharing downtime on the Smith set in L.A. last spring or cavorting in Kenya, Pitt and Maddox have forged an obvious bond. While shooting Smith, “Brad liked to play with [Maddox],” says an on-set source.

During the same shoot, several sources close to Pitt made it clear that the actor had fallen under Jolie’s notorious spell. (She has been involved with several of her leading men, including ex-husbands Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thornton.) “Angelina can turn on the charm, and there’s not a guy in the world who wouldn’t be fascinated with her,” said a source at the time. With the rumors swirling last May, Jolie downplayed any real-life chemistry between herself and Pitt: “I end up in the paper with everyone I work with,” she told PEOPLE.

What is undeniable, however, is the mutual admiration both stars have expressed for one another. Pitt “is a great actor, a great guy,” Jolie told Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton in an episode taped in New York City on April 25. “He’s one of those people…they seem very far away. But he’s extremely down-to-earth. He’s goofy. He’s funny.” On the Smith set, “he was always encouraging me to be dumber,” she said. “He’d say, ‘You know what would be funny? If you turn around and walk into that door.’ And then I thought, ‘Now I’m just being a complete idiot.’ We had a lot of fun.” On the topic of sex scenes in general-there’s an especially steamy one in Smith—Jolie spoke with typical candor. “I can do a sex scene quite easily,” she said. “You find something about that person and you enjoy it, and you’re an adult. And if [your costar’s] husband or wife is there, you make a point of showing some respect to them, showing them that they’re the most important person.”

Regardless of whether she extended that courtesy to Aniston (for more on Pitt’s soon-to-be ex, see box), Jolie has clearly had a profound influence on Pitt, whose interest in Third World relief parallels Jolie’s longtime work as a UN ambassador. Following his getaway with Jolie in Kenya, the actor jetted to Ethiopia and South Africa on back-to-back humanitarian missions (see box). During his Ethiopia visit, “he just mucked in with everybody else,” says Francesca Stuer, Ethiopia director of Family Health International, a group that provides help to children with HIV/ AIDS. “I really got the impression that he likes the fact that few people know who he is in Ethiopia.”

No such luck in most of the rest of the world, where news of Hollywood’s newest supercouple—Brangelina, anyone?—is sure to keep Pitt and Jolie squarely in the white-hot glare of the spotlight. With Pitt continuing his humanitarian work in Africa—and preparing to shoot the drama Babel in Morocco with Cate Blanchett—and Jolie stateside for her Actors Studio appearance, the pair are maintaining their public silence for now. All that may change, however, when publicity gears up for the June release of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (see box)—and audiences can judge the Pitt-Jolie combustibility for themselves. “They have amazing chemistry onscreen,” says a source who worked with them on Smith. “They are insanely hot people.”

Michelle Tauber, Jason Lynch and Chris Strauss. Todd Gold, Mike Fleeman, Julie Jordan, Sandra Marquez and Brenda Rodriguez in L.A., Bryan Alexander and Sara Hammel in London, Xan Rice in Kenya, Neil Michael in Addis Ababa and Lisa Ingrassia and Courtney Hazlett in New York City

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