No more wild-child antics as the A-list actress turned Oscar-hopeful director (“I always call her ‘the A student,’ ” says Universal’s Donna Langley) navigates Golden Globes snubs and Sony hack jibes and looks forward to starring opposite husband Pitt 10 years after they first met: “It was time,” she says in THR’s Rule Breakers 2014 issue
“Mom? I saw this thing over there — can I skateboard on it?” The “thing” is a freshly painted cyclorama inside the Los Angeles photo studio where, on a sunny day in November, Jolie is being photographed for her THR cover. And the blond girl in the hoodie who wants to skateboard on its rad curved surfaces is none other than Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, arguably the most genetically advantaged 8-year-old on Earth. Also possibly the most self-assured (“Wassup!” she greets a stranger, flashing a cocky grin). But the answer is no, Shiloh may not skateboard on the cyc wall. Some rules cannot be broken, even if your mother happens to be one of the biggest rule breakers of the year.
“I never had a plan for my life,” Jolie says after breaking the bad news to her daughter, then settling into a sofa with Zen-like calm. “I do what I want to do. And if suddenly tomorrow I couldn’t do anything, I could deal with that. I’d be happy at home being a mom.”
Uh-huh. And Shiloh would be happy in a tutu.
Jolie has been breaking rules for so long that it’s impossible to imagine her ever giving it up. And despite the 39-year-old’s recent nods to conformity, there’s still a flash of iconoclasm in every choice she makes. She made an honest man out of Brad Pitt in August, marrying him in a traditional ceremony in their chateau in the South of France — but her white Versace gown and veil were covered with drawings by her six children, including a tank battle, meerkats and, inexplicably, the words “buttuck fudduck” (“I still don’t know exactly what that means,” Jolie says with a shrug). In May, she starred in her first Disney fairy tale, Maleficent, but instead of playing the sorceress who put Sleeping Beauty to bed as a jaundiced-eyed storybook villain, Jolie turned her into a sympathetic maternal anti-hero (and the movie grossed $758 million worldwide). And then there were the three months she spent in Australia directing and producing the sort of old-fashioned epic — an all-male, $65 million World War II drama for Universal starring unknown British actor Jack O’Connell and even lesser known Japanese rock star Miyavi — that hardly ever gets made these days (certainly not by an actress with only one modest directing credit on her résumé).
Unfortunately, the director had to miss her film’s U.S. debut. It wasn’t the Golden Globes’ surprising snub of her movie that kept her off the red carpet (after all, both Jolie and the film received Critics’ Choice award nominations). Nor was it the snide references to her (“spoiled brat,” “rampaging ego”) made by Scott Rudin in an email exchange with Sony chief Amy Pascal last year and recently revealed in leaked documents from the Sony hack. No, what kept her away from the premiere was a case of the chicken pox. Yes, chicken pox.
“I want to be clear and honest about why I’ll be missing Unbroken events in the next few days,” Jolie announced to the world via YouTube. “I can’t believe it, because this film means so much to me.”
Indeed, Jolie has put herself on the line with Unbroken, promoting it relentlessly in the media and at awards-season events. “I can’t do things I don’t believe in,” she told THR in November as Shiloh settled in for a game of Clue with 9-year-old Zahara. “I’m just not that sort of person — I’m bad at it.”
What Jolie wants to be good at, of course, is directing. But while Hollywood is packed with leading men who’ve made that transition — George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Ben Affleck, the list goes on — you can count the number of A-list female stars who have succeeded behind the camera on two fingers: Jodie Foster and now Jolie. Being a member of that exclusive club gives her a power actresses seldom wield. Power to shape her creative destiny. Power to tell stories she wants to tell. Power even over her husband, at least on a movie set. She spent the fall — right after their wedding — bossing Pitt around Malta while shooting By the Sea, her third directorial effort (which she also wrote), about a couple trying to rekindle their dying marriage during a trip to Europe. Pitt plays the husband in the film (still being edited), Jolie the wife. “Yes, we spent our honeymoon playing two people in a terrible marriage,” she says, laughing. “I’m sure a therapist would have a field day analyzing the films I choose to do. But it’s been 10 years since Brad and I have worked together. It felt like it was time.”
Jolie’s choices are now more than ever her own. She has no publicist (“I had one once, years ago — I didn’t like it”), nor does she have a manager (she split with longtime rep Geyer Kosinski last year), although she does have an agent for directing, writing and, “by default,” acting (Richard Klubeck at UTA). “I like to work very directly with people,” she says. “I don’t want somebody in the middle. I’d rather speak for myself.”
She speaks more softly now than she used to, back in the days when she was famous for sleeping with knives and keeping a rat for a pet, but her words carry a lot more weight. At times she doesn’t need to speak at all. Her expression when she encountered Pascal at THR’s Women in Entertainment Power 100 Breakfast on Dec. 10 — the day after the “spoiled brat” leak — appeared so icy, it’s a wonder Pascal didn’t get frostbite (a photo of the moment instantly ripped across the web — the warm hug between the two women that followed did not). Jolie recently has hinted in the press that she may soon retire from acting. “I don’t want to be in hair and makeup, I don’t want to be in wardrobe, I don’t want to have to stand on a mark or emote,” she says. “It makes me feel like a caged tiger.” But that’s only made her presence on the screen all the more bankable (she reportedly has been offered $20 million to make Salt 2 but still hasn’t signed on officially).
“She defies all of the conventions and all of the norms,” says Universal chairman Donna Langley, who put Jolie at the helm of Unbroken — the studio’s big bid for a best picture trophy this year — despite the fact that the star had not shot anything remotely as ambitious (or expensive) before. “But she’s a visionary. And visionaries are supposed to defy convention.”
The defiant wild child of actors Jon Voight and Marcheline Bertrand, Jolie burst onto the scene with her Oscar-winning performance in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted. Back then, she was better known for wearing then-husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood in a locket around her neck and kissing her brother at the Oscars. On movie sets, she was so notoriously reckless, the mere mention of her name could make stunt coordinators shudder (there was an incident during the making of 1996’s Foxfire when Jolie unhooked her safety harness while shooting a dangerous bridge-dangling scene — “It was hindering me,” she explained at the time).
It was precisely this fearlessness that helped Jolie become an action star: Her two Tomb Raider films in 2001 and 2003 grossed a total of $432 million worldwide and set her up to star in 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the film on which she met Pitt. But more than all that, shooting Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia changed Jolie’s consciousness. By the time she left Angkor Wat — after witnessing the poverty, disease and devastation that decades of civil war had inflicted on the tiny Khmer nation — she was a different person. “When no one knew anything, she was already going to Cambodia to visit with the refugees,” former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing recalled in remarks at the THR breakfast. Addressing Jolie directly, Lansing added: “That’s when I knew about your extraordinary heart.”
Within a year, Jolie was appointed a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador; soon she was touring displaced-persons camps and having refugee apartment complexes in Bosnia named after her. In 2001, she adopted a child from Cambodia — Maddox, now 13 — and later, with Pitt, adopted children from Ethiopia (Zahara) and Vietnam (Pax, 11). Even Shiloh, the couple’s first biological child (twins Knox and Vivienne joined the family in 2008) was born abroad, in Namibia, far from the paparazzi gaze (though Pitt and Jolie did sell her baby pictures to People magazine for $14 million, earmarking the money for charity).
Jolie also started assigning herself “homework,” including a script she wrote about a romance (of a sort) set in war-torn Bosnia of the 1990s. “I had visited war zones and met all these amazing survivors, but I wanted to know how friends and lovers could get to a place where they could actually kill each other,” she says. “I had no plans on directing it. I left it on my desk for months. But then at one point Brad picked it up and said, ‘Honey, it’s really not bad.’ ” It became 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, Jolie’s directorial debut, which grossed only $304,000 — but impressed Langley, who also had worked with Jolie on such projects as 2006’s The Good Shepherd and 2008’s Wanted. “I was really struck by it,” says Langley, who handed Jolie the keys to Unbroken after the star showed up at a pitch meeting carrying homemade storyboards in a garbage bag.
“I always call her ‘the A student,’ ” adds Langley. “She’s always the one who is most prepared. She’s always the one who studies most and works hardest and is in the editing room after everyone else has gone. That may not seem anarchic, but in a weird way it is. Not that everyone conforms to her vision, but she works really hard to make sure everyone sees things her way.”
Jolie’s vision for Unbroken — based on the true story of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner-turned-airman who got shot down over the Pacific in 1943, spent 47 days dodging sharks in a raft and endured two years in a Japanese POW camp — resulted in a two-hour, 17-minute survival story that required shooting B-24 crashes, torture sequences and a re-creation of the 1936 Olympics. “I didn’t plan on directing an epic,” says Jolie. “I just fell in love with the material.”
What will she fall in love with next? She might take an acting job in a Cleopatra movie, the very project Pascal and Rudin were fighting about in those leaked emails. But as usual, she’s following her instincts, adhering to no rules other than the ones she makes up for herself, which is what being a rule breaker is all about. “There have been times in my career when I’ve gotten bored and sloppy,” she says, as her kids pack up the Clue game. “But I’ve done my best to listen to my gut. Because I feel you can do whatever you want in this life. So long as you don’t hurt anybody, you can do anything.”
Anything, Shiloh, except skateboard on that cyclorama.