Angelina Jolie Pitt: ‘I’m on fire inside’ https://t.co/mURmgIKTLE— Guardian US (@GuardianUS) November 29, 2015
Angelina Jolie Pitt: ‘I’m on fire inside’ https://t.co/TmSHlB1Xz2— Guardian Australia (@GuardianAus) November 29, 2015
Six kids, two cancer scares, a UN special envoy, marriage to Brad Pitt and now a film about marital break-up… Megan Conner meets Angelina Jolie Pitt
Angelina Jolie Pitt is poised and self-aware, yet she pulls a face when I ask whether her kids think she's cool. There are, famously, six of them (aged between seven and 14). "They think I'm weird," she says eventually.
But then she shrugs: well, alright, they might. "Maddox [who is 14] talks to me sometimes about writing as if he doesn't think I'm terrible at it..."And Vivienne is just happy I'm a tiger in a panda movie. But, ah, she's just the little one - she's all sweet."
She ponders again. "I mean, there are moments when I can be cool, but they like to mess with me. They like to make fun of me. I'm just..." She breaks off. "Little Mommy."
On the sofa in front of me is the consummate professional, sat perfectly upright, in all-black (well, alright, leather trousers and a slip vest), a woman who had serenely but firmly shaken my hand. And yes, here we are, conducting a meticulously planned chat, no time for faffing about. But if we had all day (and we really don't; she keeps a tight schedule) I would wager that Angelina Jolie Pitt would talk nonstop about her kids.
Some have described this actor, 20 years in the business, as a cunning manipulator of her own image. The Guardian once wrote: "The Hollywood star never plays ball with the press, so her detractors claim, unless she is completely in charge of the rules... She seems eternally torn between wanting to blow smoke in the face of her own public and a stronger urge to reveal herself. The tattooed Tennessee Williams quote on her body that reads: 'A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages' is the ultimate attempt at control."
I look at the tattoos - the Williams quote on her left arm, soon to be masked by a cardigan she will shrug around herself in the autumn chill. And later on I will witness a moment when her eyes threaten genuine, unwished-for tears. Yes, she's an actor... but when this moment comes she looks a little horrified at herself. Keeping those tears in - now that requires some control.
Because the woman I meet, I can see, has just come out the other side of a turbulent stretch of time: two terrible years of having to make agonising decisions about her health, and undergoing life-affecting surgery. In 2013, after being told that she had a 89pc chance of developing breast cancer (due to her carrying a mutation in the BRCA1 gene) she underwent a double mastectomy. Then in March this year, after experiencing a cancer scare - and having already been told she had a 50pc chance of developing ovarian cancer (the disease that claimed her mother's life at 56) - she went ahead with surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes.
This is a woman who, at the age of 39, orchestrated a situation that meant she could no longer biologically have children, because she felt she had no option other than to save herself. Who has forced, as explained in an article she wrote for the New York Times, into early menopause. Today, when I ask, she says the physical symptoms have shown themselves "a little. But also your emotions adjust a bit. I feel matured in a way that I'm happy about. I'm at this other stage in my life - and it's not a bad thing at all."
There is a feeling that Angelina has moved into a new chapter. That these days, family - living real life - is at the heart of everything she does, thinks and believes. But she will correct this: "Maybe it's because the women in my side of the family tend to get sick and pass away relatively young [her grandmother and aunt on her maternal side also died of cancer], but I've never been somebody who puts work before life."
In July she turned 40. She admits she thought this was an age she'd never reach. Now that she's made it, she is wrestling with something else. "Being in the everyday. Staying still. Because I've always been very..." She hesitates. "I'm a bit on fire, inside."
In the past couple of years, she’s been working on that. “Sometimes I try to just sit at home and do something calmer and simpler and just be in my life,” she explains. “You know, not trying to solve a lot of things at once.”
Nonetheless her schedule shows no signs of slowing. Today she is in London to discuss By The Sea, a new film she has not only directed and written but also stars in, alongside husband Brad Pitt. It’s a film she admits we’ll find hard to talk about in any depth, because she hasn’t shared it with me (perhaps owing to the negative reviews it has gathered in the US – the reasons still aren’t clear). But what I do know is that it combines what feels like the very ultimate in potentially disastrous challenges: directing yourself, directing your husband, enacting the tumultuous narrative of a couple whose marriage is crumbling, all the while doing this in the very early stages of your own marriage. “On our honeymoon,” Angelina smiles, referring to the fact the film was shot in the weeks after their wedding ceremony in France last year. “It was very strange.”
When it was written “years ago”, By the Sea was partly inspired by the death of Angelina’s mother, the actor Marcheline Bertrand, and what she was going through with her illness. Then when Angelina came to make it she herself had just been through the mastectomy and resulting reconstructive surgery. Scenes she had written suddenly became even more harrowing to enact “because I was exploring my mother’s pain – the theme of not understanding yourself, your body and mind being out of control, not feeling complete. And then my own pain.” Certain scenes, she says, were “very, very exposing”. The character, she explains – perhaps referring to a moment in a bathtub that sees her completely in the nude – is not just emotionally naked but physically, too.
"And then when I was in the editing room..." She trails off. "That's when I got the call to say I might have cancer." This is the moment when she fights back the tears.
At this stage I'm at pains to ask why she has put herself through all this. Why persist with those scenes? Why not delay the project until she felt ready? I get a garbled, heartfelt explanation about wanting to make art.
But there is an explanation that almost makes sense.
“I wanted to do it with Brad,” she says. “There are always so many projects separating us, and this was a nice thing for us to do that felt free – not part of us that’s all the other things.” A pause. “And there’s an openness I think we lose sometimes. That’s when it becomes a business. When you’ve been public a long time, when it’s a career. You do certain films, you sell them.”
Later she will say: “There are many things I do where the centre of it is… It’s almost more my humanitarian work than art. I wanted to remember that person I was in acting class years ago.”
But, I find myself asking, wasn't it dangerous? Didn't she and Brad do what actors inevitably do - take their work home with them? In a behind-the-scenes video I have been allowed to see, he described being directed by his wife as "absolutely challenging. One of the most challenging things I've taken on."
But Angelina says their fallouts are nothing new. "Sometimes it just gets absurd," she says when I ask how they row. "Honestly, you have to laugh at the absurdity sometimes! But I think if you're both strong-minded people, you push up against each other. That's part of what's great about marriage: you want strong dynamics. And fortunately, we have so many children, that whatever our individual thoughts are..."
They're ultimately distracted by the kids?
"Exactly," she laughs.
"At the beginning of the day we're walking them to school, and at the end of the day we go home to the kids."
A year on from family life on set in Gozo, Malta, the Jolie Pitts are now semi-permanently based in London. When we meet, Angelina has only been in the city a couple of days, having just flown in from Cambodia, but she explains that as a unit they've been settled here for weeks, partly because Brad is making a film, War Machine (a satire about America's war in Afghanistan for Netflix).
But there's another reason to base themselves by the Thames: in the last year she has been working on a long-term humanitarian project with William Hague: the launch of a new department at the London School of Economics, a Centre for Women, Peace and Security. The degree programme - the first undergraduate students enrolled in September - will focus on preventing violence against women around the world.
In a few more weeks she’ll be going back to Cambodia to start shooting her own Netflix project, First They Killed My Father, a film that artfully blends her roles of producer, director, writer, humanitarian and also mother: Maddox, a Cambodian native, is co-producing and, she says, doing most of the work. “It’s based on the story of a friend of ours,” she explains. “It’s her experience between the ages of five to nine, when the Khmer Rouge took over. And it’s likely the experience Mads’ birth parents would have had.”
Angelina says part of the reason she wanted to do the project was so that Maddox could learn about his heritage. “I want him to learn what it is to be Cambodian. And I want us to help the world understand what a Cambodian family is like.”
But it was also important to her that he did it in his own time. Although she’d adapted the script from a book some time ago, until recently it had been locked away in her desk. “And then a few months ago, he came to me. He said he was ready to do something – I was quite surprised.”
Now that he’s in his early teens, does she think he has questions he wants to ask? “No, I don’t think so – we’ve always talked so openly. But you know, maybe his countrymen…”
I wonder if she has projects in store for Pax, 12, and Zahara, 10, her other adopted children from Vietnam and Ethiopia, and her biological children Shiloh, nine, and twins Vivienne and Knox, seven. “Humanitarian projects?” she asks. Sure, I say. “Well, Pax and Shiloh have shown a real interest,” she replies. “Shiloh has asked me to come to refugee camps – she always knows when I’m doing an op-ed or speaking. But they’re all aware of the news. They’re very aware of why Mommy gets in a plane. Pax recently came to Burma with me. But I’m trying not to push it. If you push it, it’s like I want to make them humanitarians – which I don’t. I’m just trying to make them all aware of the world. I want them to take the time to go out of their borders and comfort zones – to live a bolder life, do things they might not have thought to try. As a parent that’s the best gift you can give.”
I suggest that her take on parenting is probably very different from how she saw things for herself when she was 14. Does seeing Maddox at this age make her think about what she was like then? "Oh God!" she says, shuddering at the thought. "He can never be as crazy as his mother was."
If I’ve got my facts right, by 14 she’d moved out of the family home. “At 14 my boyfriend was living with me,” she corrects. “At 16 I’d moved out, yeah. But wild as I was,” she adds, “I was very close to my mum. We did have this great, open communication, and that’s all I can ask for. I hope my kids feel that way with me.” She beams. “They’re my favourite friends! They’ve become my best friends. We love sitting up and talking about life.”
She is realistic enough to know that at some point that will change. Right now Jolie Pitt “family sleep time” – a sort of camp out in the master bedroom – is becoming a thing of the past. “Some of them still want to come hang out in our bed, but some are really starting to like their privacy.”
Family life so far has been “very nomadic. So we’re talking more about that,” she says. “They’re participating more in the choices of where we go. And if we have to go somewhere where they’re going to miss their friends, we try to get them back for periods of time – or we try to have their friends come out.”
The thought of a bunch of 10-year-olds being flown out on a private jet for a playdate strikes me as very odd. But what else do you do when you’re home-schooling your kids around the world?
But, as I said, she’s self-aware. “I don’t want this lifestyle to ever be something they don’t want,” she will add. “I don’t want them to feel they don’t want to do that one more trip, or that they can’t handle one more film abroad. So we’ll have to gauge it, make some adjustments.
“But with eight strong personalities in the house,” Angelina smiles, “everybody’s gonna have their say!”
“You know,” she says, perhaps more philosophically, “we’re all figuring it out as we go.”
By The Sea is released in cinemas on 11 December
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