Few interviewers can claim to know Angelina Jolie as well as Will Lawrence, who has witnessed the remarkable changes in her life over the years. Here, as her latest film hits cinemas, he presents a candid portrait of the world’s busiest, most beautiful star.
There are plenty of powerful women working in Hollywood today and innumerable great beauties. But there is, arguably, only one actress whose glamour can bear comparison with the screen idols of 1950s Hollywood: Angelina Jolie.
Johnny Depp, her co-star in her most recent film, The Tourist, called her and Brad Pitt ‘the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton of our era’, a not entirely outlandish description.
It’s not just that the 35-year-old actress’s every move sets off an explosion of flashbulbs, as Taylor’s did.
Her partner is, as Burton was, perhaps the most desired male A-lister working in Hollywood, a man she met on the set of a film and lifted from the arms of another woman.
Some might even point to the similarity between the two women’s difficult relationships with their fathers.
Jolie smiles when I pass on Depp’s observation. ‘Did he really say that?’ I can’t tell if she’s pleased or not.
‘Well, I’ll take it as a compliment. When we made The Tourist we hung out constantly, although we were boring and just had play dates with the kids. [Depp’s boy] Jack and Maddox played the computer the whole time.’
Jolie and Pitt lead far more sedate lives than did Taylor and Burton (although Jolie has had her share of tempestuous relationships in the past), but the comparisons will inevitably be made again when Jolie stars in the remake of Cleopatra.
The 1963 film, on the set of which Taylor met Burton, was the most expensive of its day, a $44 million behemoth that put style before substance.
Jolie’s version, directed by David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) aims to paint a more accurate portrait. ‘She has been very misunderstood,’ Jolie tells me.
‘I thought it was all about the glamour, but then I read about her and she was a very strong mother, she spoke five languages and she was a leader.’
The producer, Scott Rudin, conceived the film with Jolie in mind. Taylor herself was reportedly not pleased. Insiders have said that she rebuffed Jolie’s attempts to get her blessing for the project and hated the idea of the film being remade.
‘My performance will never be as lovely as Elizabeth’s,’ Jolie says. ‘We are trying to get into a different truth about her as a pharaoh in history and not as a sex symbol, because she really wasn’t.
‘Even this idea of her having many lovers – it was possible that it was only two. She is very interesting, but she wasn’t a great beauty.’
To talk to, Angelina Jolie is far more candid than many of her peers, and oozes self-confidence. Some might say that she’s a manipulator, a PR ace. They may be right.
I’ve had several meetings with her over the past decade, and she becomes more beguiling with each passing year.
It is difficult to know whether I’m seeing an ever-more-refined public persona or a living rebuttal of the tabloid reports about her wild passions and unhinged rages.
Our most recent interviews unfold in France, first at a smart hotel in Paris and then amid the glamour and clamour of this month’s Cannes Film Festival, where Jolie was promoting her latest film, the animation Kung Fu Panda 2.
Jolie is no stranger to Cannes and has a strong personal connection with France. In 2008 she and Pitt paid $35 million for Château Miraval,a 35-bedroom mansion in the village of Brignoles on the French Riviera.
The couple are restoring the 16th-century chapel, prompting rumours that they will marry there this summer. ‘We are obviously extremely committed to the children and as parents together,’ is all she will say on the subject.
That and that she ‘loves France. I can’t move about Paris as much as I’d like to but the children go out with other people sometimes so that they can have the experience.’
The couple have six children under 10: Maddox nine, Pax, seven, and Zahara, six, who are adopted, and their biological children, daughter Shiloh, five, and the two-year-old twins Knox and Vivienne.
The American magazine In Touch recently put the couple’s childcare bill at $10 million a year. Each child has its own nanny and tutors and travels by private jet with its parents.
An eye-popping sum, but it should be noted, too, that their charitable donations via the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation are even more substantial.
‘When Brad and I decided to have a large family we decided we’d only do it if we could be really hands-on and take the kids with us, seeing them every day,’ says Jolie.
‘I am always there on weekends, I only ever work a five-day week, and I am often there for breakfast or dinner. When I’m working they come up at lunch.
‘It’s a special time for Daddy when Mom works for a few months. And Brad is such a great dad. When I’m working he’s putting in the extra dad time, and that’s special for their relationship, too.’
With her six children, Jolie’s proclivity for extremes has clearly never left her.
She may no longer be the leather-wearing bisexual vamp of her twenties, but she is still something of a thrill-seeker. She loves heights and speed, taking trips on her motorcycle whenever she can.
‘I have an MV Augusta,’ she says. ‘But Brad is the real rider. He’s really good.’ She also flies a plane.
‘But that said, I love being a woman. I love that I can have children. I love feeling soft, I love being with Brad, I love all the sensitivity and natural emotion.’
This dichotomy extends to her work, too.
She is as comfortable playing a kick-ass action heroine – the Tomb Raider films (2001 and 2003), Mr & Mrs Smith (2005), Wanted (2008) and Salt (2010) – as she is delivering subtle, heartfelt performances, such as a pregnant Mariane Pearl, wife of the journalist Daniel Pearl, tracking her missing husband in A Mighty Heart (2007) or a grief-stricken mother in Changeling (2008).
Her Oscar-winning turn in Girl, Interrupted (1999) remains Jolie’s most celebrated moment as an actress.
She has recently turned to directing.
Her forthcoming debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, was originally being filmed in Bosnia itself but had to move to Hungary when protests broke out over a rumoured inter-ethnic rape scene, which Jolie denies.
‘That was a misunderstanding,’ she tells me.
‘I sat down and decided I would write one day,’ continues Jolie. ‘I didn’t intend on writing anything or directing anything but I wrote a piece and Brad read it and said, “You know what, honey, it’s not too bad. It’s pretty good.”
‘We joked about it, but then the next thing I knew I didn’t trust anyone else with the material and I was directing the movie. I had such a great experience and Brad was so supportive.
‘I am very lucky with Brad,’ she goes on. ‘He is a real gentleman, but he is also a real man’s man.
‘He’s got the wonderful balance of being an extraordinary, great, loving father, a very, very intelligent man and physically he’s a real man,’ she says, blushing slightly, ‘in all things that it means.’
There is an element of protesting too much in Jolie’s insistence on the perfection of her relationship.
Indeed, there seems to be an endless queue of ‘sources close to the couple’ dishing out stories indicating that Jolie and Pitt may be more like Taylor and Burton than they care to admit.
Whatever the truth, she has evidently achieved greater stability with Pitt than in any of her previous relationships.
At 20, she married the British actor Jonny Lee Miller, walking down the aisle in black rubber trousers and a white shirt with her groom’s name scrawled in blood. The union lasted barely two years.
‘It was weird to be married; you kind of lose your identity,’ she said at the time. ‘You’re suddenly somebody’s wife. And you’re like, “Oh, I’m half of a couple now. I’ve lost me.”’
More recently, in 2008, she commented, ‘I’ll always love [Jonny]; we were simply too young.’
Her three-year marriage to the actor Billy Bob Thornton had an even more gothic bent.
The couple covered their bodies with tattoos declaring their passion for one another (Jolie has gone on to acquire 14 pieces of body-art) and hung a framed canvas reading to the end of time, written in Jolie’s blood, over their bed.
During that relationship she said, ‘If there was a safe way to drink his blood, I’d love to.’
Jolie grew up in New York and Los Angeles with her mother and younger brother, Jamie. Her parents, the Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight and the French actress Marcheline Bertrand, split up when their daughter was just a baby.
Jolie’s eyes fill with tears when she tells me about her mother, who died in 2007 after battling cancer.
‘That will never heal,’ she says, softly. ‘But somebody gave me great advice. They said to me: “You’ll never get over it and you’ll never want to.”
‘My mum was my role model. People called her Marshmallow because she was so soft. But also she was so strong of heart and fiercely protective of her kids. Her integrity was unbreakable. The world couldn’t darken her.
‘And now my daughters are very strong, too.’
Her relationship with her father has not been as easy (for many years they were completely estranged) and her teenage years were unhappy.
Her school exercise books were brimming with morbid inscriptions about death. In a previous interview she said that ‘when other little girls wanted to be ballet dancers I kind of wanted to be a vampire’.
She added, for good measure, ‘I also wanted to be a funeral director.’
She smiles when I remind her. ‘When I was younger, and the reason a lot of people go dark, is that you don’t know where you fit in this life,’ she explains.
‘It’s not that their world is not enough; it’s just that they can’t find answers to the questions and feelings they have.’
Jolie says that her world view changed when she began travelling. ‘When I first went to places where people were suffering from war and persecution, I felt ashamed of my feelings of sadness.
‘I could see more possibilities in my life.’ Hence she is keen to expose her children to as many experiences as possible, even if it means expensive childcare and tuition bills.
‘If I raise my children in a way that they’re able to explore other cultures and sides of themselves, maybe they won’t feel trapped.’
Once Kung Fu Panda 2 is released she’ll work on the distribution of her Bosnian War love story and begin developing a film about Churchill and Roosevelt (Sir Anthony Hopkins may take on the role of Churchill).
‘This summer she’ll also star in the new Louis Vuitton advertising campaign, at about the same time as beginning pre-production on Cleopatra. ‘I love my job and I love my family,’ she concludes.
‘But I’m not 20 anymore and I’m going to want to do a lot of other things with my life. At some point I will slow down.’ Just not yet.