There is a piece of behind-the-scenes footage, probably locked deep in the Disney vault, that the tabloids would pay millions to get their hands on. In it, a then four-year-old Vivienne Marcheline Jolie-Pitt makes her big-screen debut, as a somewhat reluctant participant in Maleficent, the forthcoming prequel to Sleeping Beauty.
“Her first day, she doesn’t want to put the dress on. Then she wants to have food and she wants to get the dress off. Then she doesn’t want to do her hair. Then she wants to go play in the mud. Then she loses her other shoe,” says the young actress’s mother. “All she had to do that day was chase this little ball on the end of a stick, which would be turned into a butterfly. But we realized on that day that anything you tell her to do, she will not do.” So Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt spent the day acting like rodeo clowns. “I’ve got the stick, and he’s on the edge of the [fake] cliff so that when she jumps, she jumps into his arms. We’re making these faces and singing these songs, anything we can do,” she says, shaking her head with bewildered affection familiar to all parents. “Disney did tell me those were some of the funniest outtakes they’d ever seen.”
Angelina Jolie tells this story in the commissary on the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles, a spot that is remarkable only for being one of the few places in the developed world where Angelina Jolie can unself-consciously eat lunch in plain view. As she stirs honey into her mint tea—they bring it without asking—and talks with openness about her band of six children, clearly her favorite subject, there’s a moment to take in her face, which is a process, in that it is somehow unlike all other faces. Jolie simply has been given more than her fair share: the cheekbones, the pillowy lips, the almond eyes in a placid shade of blue that you can’t quite make out on film. What’s surprising about seeing all that well-documented bounty from just a foot away is the canvas on which it’s composed, which is so very delicate. Jolie is almost wraithlike in her slenderness. The action figure who kicks and claws and shoots and punches her way through Salt and Mr. and Mrs. Smith and all three Tomb Raiders clearly radiates from the mind, not the limbs. Indeed, cloaked in her usual utilitarian black pants and loose black shirt—the tattoos snaking around her arms almost like cave drawings at this point, shadowy reminders of the rebel that once was—there is something nearly uncorporeal about this woman.
This probably has everything to do with the project that she has reluctantly left upstairs for a few hours—editing her second directorial effort, the WWII epic Unbroken, which will come out at the end of the year. All morning Jolie has been studying the flight patterns of America’s lumbering B-24 bomber versus that of the smaller, zippier Japanese Zero. It’s the kind of work that appeals to her dudeish daredevil side (let’s not forget that both she and Pitt are pilots, and they both have airplanes). And it’s one detail in a million crucial to accurately telling the true story of Louis Zamperini, a 1930s delinquent turned Olympic runner turned Army airman who survived an airplane crash at sea, 47 days marooned in a rubber raft, and more than two years of torment in Japan’s notoriously brutal POW camps—only to return to America a national hero. His story is the subject of Seabiscuit writer Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book, Unbroken; it’s also a project that has been in turnaround for the 55-odd years since Zamperini sold the film rights.
“I’m happy that I can do something that has nothing to do with my physical presence or anything but my mind. That makes me very happy. I’m very much more comfortable like this,” she says, gesturing toward herself as if to say, “This is me, the real me, in director mode.” These days she is appropriately grateful for the opportunity to star in movies but freely admits she enjoys that part of her job only “to a point.”
It should come as no surprise that a woman who created a family of six children across multiple continents in six years, who involves herself in the struggles of refugee communities worldwide, who built her own definition of domesticity with the most famous sex symbol in Hollywood, would, upon discovering a new career passion, dive in at the deep end. Her directorial debut, 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, incited political controversy even before it was released, by exposing the brutality of the early ’90s civil war in the former Yugoslavia through the fraught love story of a Bosnian woman and her captor, a Serbian officer. The result was a film told with deep humanity and an evident determination to faithfully represent the truths of the era. It was also gritty, muscular, and uncompromising—instantly gaining Jolie entrée to a rarefied club of female directors.
But Blood and Honey was an indie, made for a relatively modest $10 million. Unbroken, on the other hand, will be a Hollywood epic, with all the advantages, expectations, and logistics that go along with that: “Sharks and shark attacks, two plane crashes, two different stages at sea, cages in the jungle, and two giant prison camps, a rock quarry, 200 extras in each camp,” Jolie says, all of it set in a period that spans from the 1920s through the war years and that includes Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. Brought in to revise the script, veteran filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen called the undertaking “a motherfucker,” joking that they were glad to be able to write the thing and not have to figure out how to make it. Add to that the fact that Universal scheduled the film’s release for Christmas Day 2014 and dropped a prominent trailer for it during the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, and you get a sense of the stakes. Unbroken will be the test of Jolie’s career. A-list actress turns serious director is unusual—who, besides Jodie Foster, comes to mind? A-list actress turns big-budget war-movie director? It has never been done.
Disney’s original Maleficent, being a pre-CGI kind of gal, concentrated her fear-striking powers in that voice, the goose-bump-inducing snarl that has haunted children’s nightmares for generations. Learning to really roar—even for Jolie, with her affinity for firearms and hand-to-hand combat—took training. “Very rarely do women play at their full voice, full power, full strength,” she says. “I realized in my life there was never really an opportunity to use my full voice. I don’t use it in my house, certainly, and I don’t use it in my life.” Finding the locus of that sound, “it’s almost like if someone punched you in the stomach,” she says. “The first time I really did it, it didn’t feel like it was coming from me. I recommend it to anyone, to just go to the ocean or wherever and try it.”
Then came the eerie amber contact lenses, the sweeping robes, “and the staff,” says her costar, Elle Fanning, who, in a brilliant casting move, plays Aurora, the light to Maleficent’s darkness. “That was really part of her character, so she just wanted to walk around with it on set. She comes in with the staff, and she commands the room. It’s like, You are Maleficent.”
But the real pièces de résistance were the prosthetics: chiseled, finlike cheekbone extensions, and just enough around the nose to harden even that innocuous feature—all of it done under Jolie’s explicit instruction. (Roth says the only time he intervened was when the cheekbones got too extreme: “What’s the point of having Angelina Jolie if she looks like the Elephant Man?”) The transformation is surreal—Maleficent is Jolie and yet not her at all, a larger-than-life apparition that took even the actress by surprise. “You get into those horns and those heels,” she says, “and you’re a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall creature, wondering why little kids don’t want to talk to you.” For the cherubic infant playing Aurora as a baby, just the sight of Jolie’s horned shape coming toward her would bring on a meltdown. “This poor little kid—that silhouette is going to haunt her for life,” Jolie says. “She’ll be afraid of goats and not know why.” Even Jolie’s own 10-year-old, Pax (more of a Dumbo man himself), would not come near her until he and his siblings had visited the hair-and-makeup trailer, where they could “literally see my teeth come out, my eyes come out, my prosthetics come off, and understand what it was.”
Thus the casting of Vivienne (twin to brother Knox) was something of a necessity. For young Aurora, they needed a child who wouldn’t be fazed by the Mistress of All Evil hissing “I don’t like children” in her face.
“And my little Vivienne—we call her my shadow, because there’s nothing I can do to shake her. I can be tired, I can be grumpy, I can be in a terrible mood, and she just doesn’t care. It’s ‘Mommy, Mommy,’ and she’ll cling to me,” Jolie says. “We knew that she would still do that thing, she’d still smile at me and insist that I pick her up. So we couldn’t really cast anybody else.”
Pax and nine-year-old Zahara (or ZZ, as Jolie calls her) also appear in the film, in cameos in the christening/cussing scene. (No Shiloh, however. “I asked Shiloh about being Aurora, and she laughed in my face,” Jolie says, with evident pride. “She said she’d be a horned creature.”) But don’t expect a repeat engagement. “Brad and I made the decision that we wouldn’t keep them from sets and the fun of making movies, but we wouldn’t [glorify it either]—we wouldn’t make it a good thing or a bad thing. But I would really prefer they do something else,” she says. Anyway, “after two days of it, Brad and I were so stressed we never wanted to do it again.”
If Jolie takes a certain pride in seven-year-old Shiloh’s burgeoning riot-grrrl attitude—“We do laugh that she’s got our combination of some kind of crazy bravery. We talk a lot about, ‘Mommy gets mad if Daddy builds a [skate] ramp too high’ ”—it’s probably because, like her daughter, she grew up more interested in daggers than dresses. Rubbing shoulders with the rich kids at Beverly Hills High School but coming home to a household with a tight budget—her mother, former actress Marcheline Bertrand, gave up her career to raise two kids without the support of their famous and famously derelict father, Jon Voight—Angelina was hardly the prom-queen type. “In high school, all my friends were always boys. [I was] a lot like Shi,” she says. Girlish distractions held no allure. “I wasn’t very social, I didn’t go to the mall, I didn’t have sleepovers. I was very private.” She had a few friends and by age 14 had a live-in boyfriend.
Jolie adored her mother, who died at 56 in 2007 of ovarian cancer; she has spoken of her admiringly as “a very soft woman,” the kind who never raised her voice at her children. But there were repercussions from watching what could happen to a woman like that, struggling to raise a family alone. “I never thought I’d have children, I never thought I’d be in love, I never thought I’d meet the right person,” Jolie says. “Having come from a broken home—you kind of accept that certain things feel like a fairy tale, and you just don’t look for them.”
So when in her early twenties journalists would interview her, she says she thought, “I don’t have anything to share, I don’t have anything to contribute, I don’t know yet what that is. You start asking those questions—you want to know that you’re a person of substance.” Her path to self-discovery provided the viewing public with some gems: There was the girlfriend, the early marriage to Jonny Lee Miller, the other early marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, the infamous vials of blood, the frequent assertions (in interviews and occasionally on red carpets) of sexual daring. After all that, the revelation that Angelina Jolie was suddenly jetting off on United Nations missions around the world was perhaps the most puzzling of all.
The tumult was “misinterpreted as [me] wanting to be rebellious,” Jolie says. “And in fact it wasn’t a need to be destructive or rebellious—it’s that need to find a full voice, to push open the walls around you. You want to be free. And as you start to feel that you are being corralled into a certain life, you kind of push against it. It may come out very strange, it may be interpreted wrong, but you’re trying to find out who you are.”
What she hit upon was a deep and abiding fear “of a life half-lived,” she says. “I realized that very young—that a life where you don’t live to your full potential, or you don’t experiment, or you’re afraid, or you hesitate, or there are things you know you should do but you just don’t get around to them, is a life that I’d be miserable living, and the only way to feel that I’m on the right path is just to be true to myself, whatever that may be, and that tends to come with stepping out of something that’s maybe safe or traditional.”
On the basis that she doesn’t want to use her health issues to promote Maleficent, Jolie declines to elaborate on the much-parsed subject of her double mastectomy, a doubtlessly painful multiphase procedure that she underwent last year after discovering that she, like her mother, carries the BRCA1 cancer gene mutation. It is actually hard to imagine her being more candid about what she went through than she was in her May 2013 New York Times op-ed, “My Medical Choice,” which both cemented her standing as Hollywood’s living embodiment of conscience and ignited a public debate about cancer screening and treatment. It was a courageous act for any woman, and all the more so for one whose living in part depends on how the public perceives her sex appeal. In the midst of this, Unbroken served as both a metaphor for and a welcome diversion from the ordeal. “I was very happy I had a project I love to center me and focus me, and to get right back to work,” she says.
longer article @Elle Magazine