The Japan Times gets close and personal with Hollywood’s hottie-cum-humanitarian on making films with a message, being hounded by the media — and life with Brad Pitt.
LOS ANGELES Angelina Jolie can be quite the chatterbox on certain topics — like the need to bridge the gap between the developed and developing worlds, or the challenges faced by women.
“We order a plate of food at a restaurant, and it may be overpriced, but too often the portion’s too big — more than one person needs — encouraging obesity, which is a luxury, but also a negative condition,” she blurts out partway through a long monologue on the issue. “And then we leave half or more of what’s on the plate, to be thrown away, when women and children — people — are starving in so many countries.”
Jolie’s social concerns are genuine, and even her latest films are serious, fact-based works tackling issues of humanitarianism, terrorism’s causes and freedom of the press — one a documentary she directed on the plight of poor people around the globe, the other an account of the 2002 kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
But while critics laud both Jolie’s convincing portrayal of Pearl’s wife, Mariane, and the film, “A Mighty Heart,” its lackluster performance at the box office since it hit U.S. cinemas last month has been taken as a sign that the public is tiring or even turning against Jolie. Of course, slow ticket sales also could be explained by the movie’s grim, less than commercial topic (and the film might have been more wisely released in the fall, to compete with other Oscar contenders — rather than action-oriented summer blockbusters). What is certain, though, is that it is Jolie’s public image as a powerful, liberated feminist “supermom” that provokes the most chatter in the media — and she canceled further interviews shortly after talking to The Japan Times amid accusations of hypocrisy over nondisclosure forms her lawyers asked reporters for U.S. publications to sign.
Jolie grew up close to fame as the daughter of movie star Jon Voight but was raised by her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, after her parents separated in the first year of her life. A former fashion model who was once so insecure about her looks and unhappy with her life that she regularly cut herself, Jolie became a film superstar with the “Tomb Raider” movie series, in which she played action-heroine Lara Croft, and then became a media sensation via her relationship with Brad Pitt. Today she is in the constant gaze of the media, a target of paparazzi wherever she goes, with or without Pitt, with or without her children.
Is the media attention that much more intense — and difficult to handle — since she became half of an overpublicized celebrity pair?
“It really is,” she says wistfully. “It’s about money (for the paparazzi and periodicals). It isn’t even about curiosity.
“I can understand curiosity. You know, how someone looks, or spotting somebody famous, let alone two famous people. I can relate. . . . When I was growing up, I was close to fame, through my father, when he was there, and I’d be curious to see stars — people he knew or worked with.
“When Jane Fonda would show up, I’d always want to see what she looked like. I found her fascinating.”
What was it about Fonda, as opposed to other celebrities around her, that she found so striking?
“Well, being a woman, she looked a certain way — that is, she was beautiful, had a beautiful face and figure. I think my father had a crush on her, too. But it’s always more interesting to see how women look, because we can vary our hair and clothes . . . all a man can pretty much do is a beard,” she says and giggles. “But beyond that, it was Jane’s courage and convictions, her standing up and speaking at a time when she was supposed to just keep quiet and look like a successful actress — that’s what I admired about her then.”
Today, Jolie is herself a noted activist, particularly for children’s rights. She and Pitt have a child of their own, but they are also the adoptive parents of Maddox (from Cambodia), Pax (from Vietnam) and Zahara (from Ethiopia), and she has been going through the legal process of giving them the surname “Jolie-Pitt.”
She has also legally dropped the last name “Voight,” becoming officially Angelina Jolie. Although her father had a role in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001), father and daughter are estranged, and they have exchanged words in public — harsher on his part; he once said Jolie had “emotional problems.” After she adopted her first child, Maddox, she declared she was severing relations with Voight because she didn’t want her son raised in an argumentative atmosphere. Today, all she will say is: “We don’t choose our parents . . . (but) for parents and children to get along, through their adult lives, they have to choose to mutually respect each other. Otherwise, what kind of healthy relationship can survive old wounds?”
Husbands and wives
Jolie’s adoption of children from underprivileged countries has done much to soften her persona, particularly an image that threatened to make her publicly unpopular: homewrecker. When she and Pitt costarred in the 2005 box-office hit “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (as paid assassins, a theme that worked well for Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner in “Prizzi’s Honor”), he was married to girl-next-door-type actor Jennifer Aniston. Rumor had it that the star of TV’s “Friends” was losing Pitt because he wanted to have children and she didn’t. Then Pitt and Jolie became a romantic item, with Jolie continually denying that they were a couple until she became pregnant by him. She angrily denied breaking up the marriage, explaining that her parents’ union had ended via her father’s philandering and that she would never do that to another woman. But not too many years before, she’d come between actor-director Billy Bob Thornton and his fiancee, Laura Dern, daughter of actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dean (who costarred in “Coming Home,” the Vietnam-era love story that earned Academy Awards for Fonda and Voight).
Thornton was Jolie’s second husband. She remains good friends with her first, British actor Jonny Lee Miller (they appeared together in the 1995 film “Hackers”). She offers: “That isn’t unusual. It isn’t if you were friends, and we were friends. Not just marrieds. . . . We just married too young. We were meant to stay friends, not get married or stay married.”
She has said she doesn’t wish to marry Pitt and that their relationship is fine as it is. “The people who insist we should marry aren’t into us. They really aren’t. They’re more about trying to get other people to follow their lead, to follow the (marital) tradition.”
Pitt has famously stated that he doesn’t want to marry (again) until all people who want to get married but aren’t allowed to (especially gay people in the United States) can do so.
At one point. Jolie admits that though she’s not a fan of interviews that specifi- cally advertise one’s latest movie, Brad is even less enthused. “Brad doesn’t like having to explain himself,” Jolie says, adding that he’s somewhat less talkative, and “rather shy, at least with the press. I was shy myself, growing up skinny, and wearing glasses and all that, but when you have a famous parent, absent or not, you’re sort of under a microscope. So sooner or later you realize that being shy — in our culture — is a drawback. Plus it is a part of maturing as a female, to go from shy girl to being a woman who’ll speak her mind.”
At which point Jolie is asked if she’d like to win an Oscar for Best Actress (she has a Best Supporting Actress award for “Girl, Interrupted”)
She answers immediately, “Sure. My father has one. I’d like one too.”
Back when Jolie was a supporting actress and appearing in television projects (she has three Golden Globe awards), she was even more outspoken, admitting that had she not met and married Miller, she would have married some-time model Jenny Shimizu, on whom she had a crush and with whom she intimated she was having an affair. Shimizu, an attractive Japanese- American who also worked as a part-time mechanic, was openly lesbian. Now that Jolie has become half of “Brangelina,” a term she reportedly hates (this writer was told by Jolie’s press agents not to use it with her) and has two contractual marriages behind her (each lasting about three years), her current heterosexual image deflects media questions or reporting about her being openly bisexual. If anything, her image is more that of a man-trap. She confides: “I do like romance. I like that soft, protected side of things. But I’m not a consistent, or maybe I should say one-track, kind of individual. I like the edge, you know? I like a bit of danger in life. . . . I’d like not to lose some element of wildness in my nature and in my future. I just don’t want to become stodgy or to conform to everyone’s expectations.”
One method of going her own way and expressing herself is her recent directorial bow with the documentary “A Place in Time,” shot in 2005 and released this year by the National Education Association. The film takes a look at the daily lives of people in more than two dozen countries around the world during the course of a week. Why did she do it?
“Because not everyone gets the chance to see how other people in other nations live,” she says, shifting gear and launching into an impassioned speech. “TV doesn’t really show that, because it won’t get high ratings . . . and the news is about very, very short segments, usually focusing on a trouble spot.
“Many of the people I’m interested in live in troubled areas, but the major trouble for most people in the world — and most of the world is the developing world — is poverty. Getting enough to eat . . . and so many other daily problems, things that we (in the modern world) take for granted . . .
“Another enormous problem is the lack of rights for women, the very women who raise these children. . . . There’s also the problem of so-called foreign aid, which too often lands and stays in the pockets of the men in charge.”
Jolie then adds her own edge to an old maxim: “When a man is taught how to fish, one person learns how to fish. But when a woman learns how to fish, so do her children.”
Although “A Place in Time” has received publicity due to her being its director — and has won high praise from critics — it won’t be seen by a fraction of the audience that may attend her latest movie, the studio release “A Mighty Heart.”
Directed documentary-style by Michael Winterbottom, the Briton who has also helmed two other fact-based films about Middle Eastern politics — “In This World” and “The Road to Guantanamo” — the film was coproduced by Pitt for his company Plan B Entertainment and was inspired by widow Mariane Pearl’s memoir “A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl.” Costarring actor-writer Dan Futterman (who penned the screenplay for “Capote”), it opens with Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, leaving the couple’s home in Karachi and catching a cab to meet a source about a story on shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Pearl does not return, and the film follows his wife’s efforts to find him.
Mariane was six-months pregnant when the couple’s nightmare began, but her book has been praised for not spreading the sort of cultural antagonism and religious fanaticism that Muslim terrorists specialize in.
Jolie greatly admires Pearl’s wife, who moved to Paris after the tragedy, and says that as a woman she connected “instantly to Mariane’s story” and to her being able to survive the horrific ordeal with hope and with loving memories. “The story is so wrenching. It’s so totally dramatic. You’re drawn into it at first from the point of view of a thriller: What happens next? But it’s about much more than that.
“I cherish stories that go beyond one place or time, stories that are universal and have a lesson to teach us.”
Hollywood’s usual position is that messages belong in telegrams. So how does Jolie balance what she prefers to portray, as an actress and director, with what will keep her a box-office movie star?
She sighs for the first time. “That can be a dilemma. (Pause.) The first dilemma is spending time with our children. I work because that’s what I do, not because I have to do it. I don’t feel a need to do two or three movies a year just to stay in the public’s view. I’m also doing pictures that I think will be commercial and that Hollywood thinks will be commercial. But I don’t always do the obvious thing.
“Some (films) I have to do. I’m compelled to . . . like ‘A Mighty Heart.’ I had to do it, and Brad loved the script and the whole story and what it led to. It’s about doing what you believe in.” Jolie hopes the movie is successful so “it can show the studios that many audiences worldwide do care about more than escapism or exploding automobiles. . . . I’d like to see more movies that focus on women, about how women can lead the way out of misfortune and even turn tragedy into . . . a spiritual triumph.”
“We’ve had enough movies that divide the country or the world into good guys and bad guys. We need more which reflect the world as it is,” she emphasizes. “And we need more pictures showing us how to survive and how to live with dignity and serenity, not more pictures showing everyone killing or fighting or exploding anybody they hate.”
What about having more children, biologically or by adoption?
She pauses. “Somewhere I read that the heart is a house with many rooms. There’s room in my heart for more children. But right now? I don’t want to go into that right now — say yes or no. And it is a busy time.”
Jolie has said she plans to take a break from acting in 2008. Does she worry that her star-status might diminish if she’s off-screen for too long?
“Of course not!” She sounds, perhaps justifiably, annoyed. “Julia (Roberts) took time off with her twins. And (she laughs) I hardly think, for better or for worse, that I’m going to fade out of the public eye in the near future.”
“A Mighty Heart” is due to open in cinemas in Japan in December.