In keeping with the theme of International Women’s Day, Fabián W. Waintal interviews filmmaker, humanitarian and actress Angelina Jolie
The large crowd outside the Glen Gould Studio in Toronto continued to attract people, knowing that Angelina Jolie was going to walk through those doors (albeit if it was with one condition: no questions about Brad Pitt). The gracious actress is least bothered about arriving fashionably late to the interview, and makes it a point to shake hands with most of her fans and take selfies, on her way in. For Angelina Jolie, fans always come first, interviews come later.
Her six children are here, in the theatre, hearing every word she says. That is why Angelina Jolie doesn’t want to talk about her divorce to Brad Pitt. Since she was born, one of the first words she heard was ‘divorce’, when at the age of two, her father, the Academy Award winner Jon Voight and her mother Marcheline Bertrand, separated. Angie was only 14 when she got her first taste of the marriage life while her boyfriend at the time lived with her and her mother. At the age of 21, she left home to get married to British actor Johnny Lee Miller, after meeting him on the set of Hackers. They separated the following year, although the legal divorce was requested in 1999, one year before getting married to Billy Bob Thornton (they met through Pushing Tin, while he was engaged to Laura Dern and Angelina was dating Timothy Hutton). She later adopted her first son Maddox, in Cambodia in March 2002. And when they decided to get divorced three months later, she went through with the baby adoption papers. Years later, she was the reason for another divorce between Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Angelina Jolie lived the real romance they played in the movie Mr & Mrs Smith. In January 2006, she even confirmed she was pregnant and together they had three biological children and another three adopted ones, when they were finally married in August 23, 2014. The word divorce came up again, when the legal papers with Brad Pitt were signed on September 2016, and Angelina Jolie kept custody of all her children.
Do you remember that day when you thought “I want to be an actress, just like my father” (Jon Voight)?
Well, a funny thing is that I did grow up around films. I grew up around films in a town where it is so important that it’s really all anybody talked about. And when I was growing up, I remember my mom telling me she wanted to be an actress and how my grandmother wanted to as well, and was so excited that I could be an actress. I never really thought I could be anything else and I never really questioned it. I did start to get into acting and did it partially because it had something to do with my mom – it made her so happy. I do love self-analysis and to try and figure out who I am, what it means, what I feel, and I love history. You get to act it. You get to be different people at distinctive times, but I realised when my mom passed away that it was something I was very much doing for her and it changed a little bit when she wasn’t here.
What is it that changes then?
I haven’t done much in front of the camera since she passed away, but now I’m going to do it for my kids. I do love it. It is fun. Who doesn’t love to get silly; I think every parent is an actor. We do things all day long where we act like a crazy person or something, so it’s a great job, but I think had I been told maybe that I could be a writer or I could be something else, I don’t know. Maybe I would’ve found that sooner, but I never had that.
Tell us a bit about your recollections of your training days?
Well, I was with the Strasberg Institute, but I think you really have to grow up first, before you decide to act. There’s a funny thing in the Stanislavski method where they say you’re supposed to pull from something that happened seven years ago, so obviously, I was 13 and it didn’t make much sense, so it took me a while to get that. I think it’s so much life. When I meet young actors and they say to me, “What should I do or study?” I say just have a very full life. Have as full a life as possible. Listen. Spend most of your time acting, by just listening. Listen to the other actor. Be aware of what’s around you and respond. And if you do that in life, you become a better person. Do that as an actor, and you communicate more honestly, and that’s what I think resonates when people watch you.
Is it true that personal moments in life alter an actor?
Well, I did Gia and Wallace and I kind of left and went through divorce at a young age. Then I went to New York to attend film school, with a shaved head and a little backpack. I think six months into film school, I started to get noticed. I wore the same outfits and had to leave film school and the bus was different and the subway was different. I actually got very depressed.
What made you go into depression?
Oh, because I was very young and I loved my freedom and I loved to be with people and I was also very, very aware that I didn’t have very much to say. I didn’t deserve a microphone. I had nothing to say and I was still trying to figure out who I was. I was certainly no different from anybody else and I didn’t want to be on the other side, so it felt wrong. By the time I did Girl, Interrupted, I think it was a strange thing. You’re happy to be able to work and that people think your work is good. At the same time, you just want to be with everybody else. It’s just a strange feeling.
I do remember the film was about somebody who’s not very mentally stable in an institution. I never read any news at that time and didn’t want to know good or bad. I was in Mexico and somebody said, “Oh, there’s a nice thing about it. You might win an Oscar.” I said, “Oh, well, that’s nice,” and then he said, “But it says the only reason you wouldn’t is because people aren’t sure you’re not actually crazy.”
Was that a compliment or…?
I just took that on the chin (Laughs).
Did you ever have your children’s help, for example, to develop one of your movie characters?
Maleficent. All of it, the accent and everything about her I discovered during play time with my kids, so they were my audience. I think I’ve tried 17 different things on them before they asked, “What are you doing?” One day I finally got nutty and just did that accent and they were laughing. And then I did it all night long and got it right. Yeah, I tested it. It was exactly what I knew they would respond to.
Having done three animated movies including the tigress in Kung Fu Panda, what made you pursue Maleficent?
I hadn’t done anything like Maleficent and even though I’m trained in a little bit of theater, I’ve never been confident about being on stage. I’m very much a film actor, I think, where it’s more internal. I’m always in awe when I go to the theater. I love watching the actors and when I knew I was going to do this role, I thought I must train. I’m not good enough. I’m not actually ready for this.
What made you cross paths and become a movie director?
I am one of those actors that was always aware of it simply because I believe strongly that it’s about how we contribute to the whole movie process. We have a responsibility and however small or big our role is or if we’re supposed to be the antagonist or whatever it is that we are, we’re feeding what everybody else needs, so I tried to stay very aware of that. I like working with crews and care about what everybody’s job is. I never thought I could make a movie or that I could write. It never was my plan.
Well, it was kind of an accident. This sounds so strange. Every time I say this, I know it sounds strange. I wanted to learn to become a director. I wanted to learn more about the war in Yugoslavia because when I was a teenager I felt I didn’t understand enough. It was a war I really couldn’t get my head around. I wasn’t planning on making a movie at all. I was sick for a few days. I was away from my kids and I thought I’ll try to write a screenplay for fun, for me. Nobody will ever see it and I’m going to just start with two people that love each other deeply and I’m going to end with one of them killing the other and somehow figuring out how they get from here to there in the study of it, and what I’m going to have to discover about what happened. I’m going to learn something that’s going to help me to come to terms with it. It can help me with my work. I’m going to explore this. I would travel and meet amazing people, learn from them, talk. I’ve met many women who were victims of sexual assaults, and so the (first) film (as a director) grew from there. I gave myself an excuse, a homework to study something. Somebody who saw the script said it wasn’t that bad, and then suddenly very quickly, it turned into I could make it. That was ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’, my first film as a director.
Are you now more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it?
Yes. I love watching other people act. I love performance, emotion, stories. I think I have a whole different relationship to film from dealing with it behind the camera, and I like to champion other people. That’s the nice thing about being a director. You get to find other people’s greatness and highlight it and push it and it’s such a pleasure to do that.
What do you expect as a director after releasing a new movie about the genocide in Cambodia with First They Killed My Father?
We screened it there first and it was amazing because we were all quite nervous and it was really bringing the film back, and people who would see it would be survivors. It would be people who were participating in the next Khmer Rouge. The government, Royal Family, it was going to be everybody and we weren’t sure of the reaction because it’s not often spoken of. We prepared the next day to meet with people and have town halls so we could debate and discuss, but it was really such a moving experience and we premiered it across the country in many places such as the Olympic stadium, also where so much horror happened. The country itself deserves this film and needs this dialogue, and when I heard people driving home at night talking about it and grandparents for the first time telling their grandkids about it because they hadn’t spoken, I realised why.
Your older son Maddox who was born in Cambodia. Did he have anything to do with this movie?
I also made it for Maddox. I really wanted him to work on it, to see it, to live with it. He goes back to Cambodia often, but this was different. He was going to immerse himself in what his birth parents most likely went through and learn about himself as a Cambodian in a very different way.
Do you feel the need to be a role model for your children and so many young women who admire you?
I take it very seriously. I have a lot to learn and certainly I need role models like myself to keep me grounded, but I take it very seriously if I am in any way a role model and I try to be that for my children. If I am that in any way, I do want to take make sure that I’m able to communicate to young people around the world and help if I can. I wish I had more guidance when I was younger, so I’m very happy to be a part of that community discussion.