Friday, December 12, 2014








Angelina Jolie: 'Many times I haven't wanted to watch my movies at all' 

In an exclusive interview with The Telegraph, Angelina Jolie tells Mick Brown about her political aspirations, quitting acting, and directing Unbroken, the story of Olympic runner turned war hero Louis Zamperini


Let’s get this out of the way first. Angelina Jolie herself would no doubt be the first to admit that, frankly, it is absurd to describe her – as often seems to be the case – as the most beautiful woman in the world. Who knows? But few people I have ever interviewed have excited quite so much curiosity and prurient interest among friends and colleagues, male and female. And suffice it to say that the first question almost everyone asks is, ‘And is she really as beautiful as…?’ To which the simple answer is, yes. 
What is less often remarked on, but more striking still, is her poise, her air of serenity and her serious-mindedness. Perhaps it is something to do with having been made an honorary dame by the Queen earlier this year in recognition of her humanitarian work, perhaps it is her position as the closest thing Hollywood has to a deity, but sitting in the Knightsbridge hotel suite where we meet, Jolie, who in her early career was more usually referred to as a ‘wild child’ and, as Rolling Stone once described her, ‘tattooed love goddess’, has a bearing that is almost regal. ‘Oh my…’ she says when I tell her I enjoyed her new film, Unbroken, leaning forward and fixing me with a radiant smile, as if dozens – possibly scores – of people, had not said the same thing in the weeks since it emerged from the cutting room. 
Unbroken, which tells the story of the American Second World War hero Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini – and which at a cost of $65 million packs the budget and heft of a Hollywood blockbuster – is Jolie’s second film as a director. Her debut was In the Land of Blood and Honey, a film about the mass rapes committed by Bosnian Serb forces during the 1992-5 Bosnian war, which she says she came to direct only ‘by default’. She had come up with the idea and written the script after visiting Bosnia in her role as an ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). ‘I was nervous another director might be less sensitive about the material, so I volunteered myself. But I didn’t think I’d be any good at it. I just wanted to do my best.’
That film received mixed reviews, but Jolie’s appetite had been whetted. ‘As an actress, you learn about your character, and you understand the overall picture of any film you’re working on, but there’s so much you’re not a part of,’ she says. ‘And there’s many times I’ve felt frustrated with the films I’ve been in, or seen them and not felt connected to them, or haven’t wanted to watch them at all. I’m much happier directing, but I would never, ever have imagined that I would be able to do a film of this scale, and what I feel is such an important film.’
Zamperini’s story is a truly extraordinary one. The son of Italian migrants, growing up in California he was an incorrigible juvenile delinquent, constantly in trouble with the police, until his elder brother, Pete, encouraged him to take up running. Nicknamed ‘the Torrance Tornado’, he b ecame the fastest high-school runner in America and in 1936, at the age of 17, competed at Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Zamperini enlisted in the US Army Air Forces. As a bombardier he took part in several missions in the Pacific theatre. On one occasion his B-24 Liberator was riddled with 594 bullet holes yet against all odds managed to keep aloft and struggle back to base (a scene in the film that Jolie captures with a gripping veracity).
In 1943 another plane in which he was flying crashed into the sea. Eight members of the crew died. Zamperini was trapped underwater in the wreckage, but somehow floated free. With two other surviving crew members he spent 47 days adrift in a flimsy life raft in the baking equatorial heat, living off a handful of fish, the liver of a small shark and whatever rainfall they could capture from the occasional shower. One man died. 
Eventually picked up by a Japanese warship, Zamperini then spent two years in a succession of POW camps, suffering beatings and starvation. Much of the time he was under the charge of a psychopathic guard nicknamed ‘the Bird’ who, learning of Zamperini’s fame as a runner, named him ‘number one prisoner’, and subjected him to a singularly brutal regime of violence and psychological torment. 
When Zamperini returned to America he was lionised as a hero, but traumatised by his ordeal, he turned to drink. In 1949, after attending a rally by the evangelist Billy Graham, he became a born-again Christian, and in 1950 he returned to Japan to meet, and forgive, some of his former tormentors. The Bird refused to meet him.
Zamperini originally sold the rights to his autobiography to Paramount Pictures in 1957, and Tony Curtis was lined up for the role. But that film was never made, and the idea gathered dust until Universal presented Jolie with a list of available projects. The minute she read the four-line precis she was hooked, but it was only when she read Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography of Zamperini, that Jolie was convinced she had found a way to approach the subject. 
‘We kept joking that it was the greatest film never made, the most obvious,’ she says. ‘But his life was just so full, and the challenge was how does one film encompass all that. But Laura’s book was meticulously researched and she really brought it to life, so it wasn’t just a story of events and heroics – it was what that life meant, what it added up to, and how that can inspire us to be better people.’ 
Much of the attraction in making Unbroken, she says, was the opportunity it afforded her to get to know Zamperini, who it transpired was a close neighbour in Hollywood, and she saw him often over the two years it took to bring the film to fruition. He died in July, aged 97, as she was completing the edit of the film. 
‘Angelina knew and understood the man better than anyone on the set, and constantly had this vision of who we were striving to pay tribute to,’ Jack O’Connell, the young British actor who plays the role of Zamperini, says. O’Connell, who made his reputation in the television programme Skins and recently the film Starred Up, says the film was the most physically demanding thing he has ever done. He had to lose 22lb for the POW scenes, which were the first to be shot – ‘It was the first time in my life I had health advisers [telling] me to smoke and drink coffee’ – and then quickly to build his body back up to play Zamperini the Olympic runner. Filming a sequence where Zamperini was forced by the Bird to hold a heavy 6ft plank above his head, O’Connell actually passed out. Zamperini managed to hold the plank aloft for an astonishing 37 minutes, staring down the Bird until his captor finally snapped, ramming his fist into Zamperini’s stomach so that he collapsed with the beam falling on him.
Unbroken is a powerful testament to the indomitability of the human spirit. But following his religious conversion Zamperini was in no doubt that his survival had some deeper meaning and greater purpose. Jolie’s film ends with his return to America, and his conversion is confined to a footnote in the end titles. ‘But I do think it’s impossible not to be open to the possibility of miracles when you read about this man’s life,’ Jolie says. ‘Five hundred and ninety-four holes in a plane and not one bullet hits him or the gas tank. He survives after being trapped under the water, passes out and then he comes to and he’s free. There are so many things. But what was important for us is that there’s nothing in the film that preaches. We simply present these things as they happened, and people will come to their own conclusion. But certainly for Louie, he felt that he wasn’t alone in the world, that there was something greater than himself, watching over him.’
Towards the end of his life, when Zamperini was in hospital and fading quickly, it was suggested to Jolie that she should visit to say her final goodbye. 
‘I won’t tell you what he said; it was personal and it was funny. As I left the room I was laughing, and I realised, look at that! He was taking care of me! In this moment he didn’t make it about himself; he didn’t make it about goodbye; he didn’t make it about pity. He wanted to lift me up, because that’s the kind of man he was.’ Two days later he was in a coma. ‘They said, “He’s gone.” I went to whisper in his ear and say, “I love you”, and I couldn’t do it. I thought, it’s crazy, but it’s Louie and I don’t know whether he’s ready to say goodbye yet; if anybody can turn around it might just be him, because there’s something so extraordinary about this man. And he did. From the time they said he wasn’t going to make it he lived for 40 days and 40 nights. I’m not a particularly religious person. I don’t look for these things, but neither do I deny them when I see them. 
‘It’s very hard to explain, but it was watching Louie be Louie; you could see him training his lungs, against all the odds, to a place where… he came back. And he gave us all a hug, and his love, and he was able to write notes and smile and laugh, and then went out on his own terms.’
Angelina Jolie is the first to admit that the subtext of Zamperini’s story, about how a life might change, has a particular resonance. Her father is the Hollywood actor Jon Voight; her mother the actress Marcheline Bertrand, who died in 2007 of ovarian and breast cancer. Voight left the family when Jolie was two – relations between them have always been fractious – leaving Bertrand to sacrifice her own acting career to bring up Jolie and her elder brother, James, on her own.

Jolie’s first big acting role, at the age of 16, was on stage as a German dominatrix. It set a certain tone. She became Hollywood’s favourite punk misfit: a girl who liked black leather, had a fondness for knives; who had a little plaque by the sink in her bathroom reading 'Some days it’s not worth chewing through the leather straps in the morning'; and whose relationships brought a new meaning to the word ‘consanguineous’. When, at the age of 20, she married the actor Jonny Lee Miller, she dressed for the ceremony in black rubber trousers and a white shirt with the groom’s name written on it in her blood. She marked her second marriage, to the actor Billy Bob Thornton, by wearing a vial of his blood around her neck.

If there was a single Damascene moment in Jolie’s life it seems to have come in 2000, when she went to Cambodia to film the adventure movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Not only she did fall in love with what she has described as ‘the most beautiful country in the world’, but the visit also awoke her to the horrific legacy of war. ‘It changed me completely,’ she says. ‘I grew up with a very loving mom, in a safe home and environment. I thought I knew what the world was. Like every young person, all my concerns were focused on myself, my own growing pains, and desires and frustrations. I was shocked at how little I knew. And the plight of refugees really took my attention. I thought people should know more about them, and I felt I wanted to get an education.’

On her return from Cambodia, she contacted the UNHCR and offered her services as an ambassador, and the following year she spent 18 days in Sierra Leone and Tanzania. ‘I don’t know why I think I can make any kind of difference,’ she wrote in her journal of that visit, Notes From My Travels. ‘All I know is that I want to.’

‘At the time,’ Jolie says, ‘in Sierra Leone the crisis with “the short sleeves” and “the long sleeves” was going on [rebel soldiers brandishing machetes would give their victims a choice, ‘short sleeves or long sleeves’, before hacking off their limbs at the elbow or the wrist]. It was very brutal, and very horrifying. And then in Tanzania I visited camps where there were more than half a million displaced people.’
She shakes her head. ‘I’d never seen half a million displaced people, and what it was like to manage that and for people to live like that – the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years; that’s a lifetime.

‘I remember when I arrived back calling my mom from the airport in tears, so ashamed that I’d ever taken my life for granted. And the fact that I had food on the table and I knew my family was safe, and that I had opportunities and an education. I just felt so angry, and I made a promise never to be that person again. But I was also really deeply inspired by the people I’d met. So one part of myself was overwhelmed with shame and guilt for not having known these things and for being so selfish, and the other side was excited to be connected to these people who would later in my life teach me to be a better person, a better mother, who would remind me every day of what it is we all are alive for – to help each other and to work together. They’re my inspiration.’

 
Jolie on location in Australia: 'I'm much happier directing, but I would never, ever have imagined that I would be able to do a film of this scale'

Since her first visit to Africa, Jolie has undertaken more than 50 field trips on behalf of the UNHCR – to Cambodia, Ecuador, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Croatia. In 2012 she was promoted to the rank of special envoy to the High Commissioner, António Guterres, representing the UNHCR and Guterres at diplomatic level; she has accompanied Guterres on trips to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq to assess the situation of refugees from neighbouring Syria.

In 2003, after adopting her Cambodian-born son Maddox, she bought a home and some 150,000 acres of land in the country to establish a wildlife reserve for the threatened populations of Asian black bears, Asian elephants and Indochinese tigers, later expanding the project to develop a ‘Millennium Village’, including schools, roads and a soya milk factory, all of which she funds. In recognition of her conservation work she was awarded Cambodian citizenship by King Norodom Sihamoni in 2005. Additionally, through the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, she has funded 10 schools in Cambodia, and a care facility for children affected by HIV; she also funds a children’s centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – the birthplace of her adopted daughter Zahara – as well as two girls-only schools in Afghanistan, and a girls-only boarding school at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

Her association with the former foreign secretary William Hague in establishing the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) in 2012 is instructive in just how effective Jolie has been as a campaigner. That collaboration was initiated by Hague’s Bosnian-born special adviser Arminka Helic, who had seen In the Land of Blood and Honey and been deeply impressed by Jolie’s understanding of the conflict in Bosnia. ‘She just got it,’ Helic says. ‘The situation in Bosnia is very complicated, but it was obvious she really knew what she was talking about.’ Helic, who fled Bosnia in 1992, suggested to Hague that they should arrange a private screening of the film for officials at the Foreign Office. ‘We started negotiating for her to come over, and the first question she asked was, “What is going to come out of this?”’


Jolie: ‘I was nervous another director might be less sensitive about the material, so I volunteered myself. I just wanted to do my best'

Jolie arrived unannounced – ‘We wanted people to come and see the film, not her’ – and afterwards met Hague, Helic and Hague’s adviser and speech-writer Chloe Dalton to discuss the plight of survivors of sexual violence in warfare. By the end of the meeting the PSVI was born. ‘People say you can’t do anything about rape in war – it’s a breakdown of discipline and so on,’ Helic says. ‘But it actually isn’t. It’s a terror tactic used in war. When someone is raped, whether it’s a woman or a man, it brings unbearable shame – upon them, their family, their community. They are stigmatised, whereas those who have committed the crime often go on living their normal lives. The idea of the initiative was to take shame from the survivor and put it on the perpetrator. And she was very much the driving force behind that. She’s brought this incredibly passionate belief that there has to be accountability; that rape victims are not outcasts and have to be brought back into their community; that they deserve respect.’
‘She is a force to be reckoned with,’ William Hague told me by email. ‘She brings the will and determination of someone who believes that change is possible, and that helping others who are less fortunate is incumbent upon all of us.’

In 2013 – shortly after she had undergone a preventative double mastectomy – Jolie and Hague travelled to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to lobby for the PSVI; Jolie has addressed the G8 and the UN Security Council on the issue, and earlier this year the pair co-hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence. The initiative is supported by 155 countries, and teams of experts under the aegis of the Foreign Office have worked in Libya, on the borders of Syria, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, training judges and health professionals on documenting and prosecuting crimes of sexual violence, while UN and EU troops in Somalia and Mali now receive training in how to recognise rape victims and ensure that they are properly documented so that evidence can be assembled for prosecuting the perpetrators.

On the day I met Jolie she was embroiled in a round of media interviews that began at 10am and ended at 2.45pm. At 3pm she was at Hague’s office, in a meeting with him and representatives of a British university, discussing how to build bridges between governments, NGOs and academia over the sexual violence initiative. ‘She’s massively professional,’ Helic says. ‘She didn’t come in and say, “I’ve just done 20 interviews; I’m exhausted.” It was, “Yes, I like these ideas. We need to be more focused on this. What do you want me to do?” She knows the brief inside out. And she wants to always make a difference.’ Three hours after her meeting with Hague, Jolie was on the red carpet outside a West End cinema for the premiere of Unbroken.

Those who have worked in any capacity with Jolie talk of her as being someone who takes whatever she does very seriously – but herself very lightly. Andrew Eaton, who in 2007 co-produced the Michael Winterbottom film A Mighty Heart (in which Jolie starred as Mariane Pearl, the wife of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan), describes her as the easiest actor he has ever worked with. ‘She was completely committed to the role, but she could just flip in a second to being very funny. It’s so refreshing to work with someone who takes what they do seriously but at the same time realises that, really, we’re just making a film.’

She and Brad Pitt, whom she married earlier this year after nine years together, have somehow managed to construct a sort of perpetual-motion machine of professional work, humanitarian work and family. Each year they set a target for what they need to earn from film work to support their various causes. And they make it a point that when one is travelling, for whatever reason, the other is at home with their six children.

Jolie has just completed her third film as a director, By the Sea, a drama about a couple struggling to save their marriage, in which she also stars with Pitt. Her next project, Africa, is about the life of the palaeontologist Richard Leakey. She plans to do ‘much less’ acting in the future, and concentrate on directing films with what she describes as a ‘positive message’. ‘If it all went away tomorrow and I was a mother and was able to do my humanitarian work, and possibly political work, then I’d be very happy.’
So she would consider a life in politics?

‘You just don’t know if you’re good enough to do certain things and where you’d be of use. I don’t know whether it’s better for me to be in the field, or making art that brings these kinds of discussions and messages forward, or is it in politics? I’m not actively seeking anything at this time. But if I can find a film, like Unbroken, that I feel puts something out in the world that I think is good for people, then I would love to do that. I think it’s good for us to acknowledge people like Louie, who rose above hate. These are the people we should aspire to be.’

Shortly before Zamperini’s death, Jolie was able to sit at his bedside and show him a rough cut of the film on her laptop. ‘I think I imagined he would give me some kind of review – which he didn’t,’ she says. ‘But of course I found myself at this very profound moment of watching a man at the end of his days reflecting on his life. He jumped when he saw the flak, and he said “Pete” under his breath when he saw the scenes with his brother; he smiled at his mom making gnocchi… It was extraordinary.’ She pauses. ‘It was his life. And it was one of the most deeply moving moments of mine.’
 
Unbroken is out on December 26 

 
Read the original at the telegraph















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