I'm Angie." This is how Angelina Jolie—a woman who needs no introduction—introduces herself. Jolie is many things: a humanitarian who has been a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations since 2001, a doting mother to four young children. And she's an actor—an amazing one at that.
If people forget that last part, it might be because Jolie is also a tabloid staple, through no fault of her own. She has never been one to seek out the spotlight, and yet we understand the world's fascination with her: From the moment she stepped on screen, it's been clear there is something powerfully magnetic about Jolie.
Though she was born into an acting family—her parents are Marcheline Bertrand, who died earlier this year, and Jon Voight—and has been in the business since she was a teenager, it was Jolie's roles in two cable biopics that made the world take notice. First was George Wallace, in which she played the wife of the controversial Alabama governor. But it was Gia, in which she devoured the screen as fierce and needy supermodel Gia Carangi, that made Hollywood pay attention. She won back-to-back Golden Globe Awards for her work in the films and established herself as one of the most exciting young actors to watch. She then earned a third Golden Globe—for Girl, Interrupted, in which she stole the spotlight from Winona Ryder and ended up with an Oscar for it.
The following years would prove to be a mixed bag of commercial blockbusters (Gone in 60 Seconds, Tomb Raider), ambitious failures (Beyond Borders, Alexander), and critical savaging (Original Sin), but Jolie was always captivating. In 2005 she scored her biggest hit with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, an action–comedy that tapped into the actor's smoldering sexuality, charisma, and sense of humor. She can currently be seen (in animated form) in another blockbuster, Beowulf. This year she wowed even her biggest fans with a gut-wrenching turn as Mariane Pearl, wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, in A Mighty Heart. Directed by Michael Winterbottom in a stark, almost documentary style, the film details Mariane's ordeal from Daniel's kidnapping to the birth of their child, Adam. It's a project close to Jolie's heart.
Back Stage: Growing up the daughter of actors, was it a forgone conclusion you'd enter the business?
Angelina Jolie: It might have been the opposite. In some ways it was good, because I remember being very conscious of how human and regular actors were; even though my dad was a successful actor, he was very much a regular person. I suppose the one good thing about being raised in it is that you don't have the illusion of actors being magic or special. You have a real sense that it's just work.
Back Stage: What led you to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute at 16?
Jolie: My mom studied with Lee Strasberg before he passed, and she loved him, so she wanted me to go there. I trained there a little bit, and they put on plays. It was fun. I'm not great at theatre; I think certain people are great at it, and I don't think I have the talent that other people have when it comes to being on stage.
Back Stage: Do you still study acting or work with coaches?
Jolie: I used to work with my mom. She was the most amazing support for an actor. She used to write letters to my characters. For Girl, Interrupted, she bought me the hand puppet that I ended up using. If I'd do a sexy role, she'd buy me perfume. She always read the script, made a bunch of notes, and wrote these letters. She was a great person to talk to about things, and she loved the process so much. So now I suppose I try to hear her voice in my head.
Back Stage: In your Oscar acceptance speech, you thanked your mother for giving up her dream of becoming an actor. Could you ever leave acting behind?
Jolie: Oh, absolutely. I've been really, really lucky to have a career as an artist where I've been able to have the roles where I've expressed a lot and been able to play all different types of women. And I think a lot of actors still feel there's a lot inside them that they want to communicate or something they have yet to discover. And I don't feel that as much now as I did when I was younger. I feel like there's a lot to discover about myself as an adult and as a mother but not as much as an actor. There aren't those roles where I feel I'm the one who needs to do it. I start to read things now, and I think, "Somebody else would be better at this." Oftentimes I'll get a call, and they'll say, "This other person would really like to do this role." And I'm the first to say, "Well, then they should." Because if they really want to, then that's who should do it.
Back Stage: Do you ever have to audition anymore?
Jolie: Not really, but for Good Shepherd I had to meet with Bob [De Niro], and we looked at the scenes and read it and talked about it. Because I think he wasn't convinced I could play somebody light, a debutante. And that's why I wanted to do it. He didn't know me and wanted to meet me and see if I could do it. But I liked it; I don't necessarily want the roles that you'd assume I could do. I think, like most actors, you want the roles that they're not sure you can do.
Back Stage: Are you someone who has always auditioned well?
Jolie: No. I think I was starting to audition around 16, 17, and would be going out for the girlfriend or the girl in high school. And I was just never that girl. I was always told that I was too dark. I went through a period, years ago, when I was told I was too ethnic. Isn't that strange? Now I'm not ethnic enough on occasion. But there wasn't something regular enough about me; it just didn't fit. I went on a hundred auditions; my mom and I actually checked off the hundredth. I think my first job was as a crank addict in a film, and then my second job was, like, a cyborg. So it was clear that my career was going to be full of very bizarre, strange women—which ended up being the ones I liked anyway.
Back Stage: What was your worst audition?
Jolie: I had a really bad one for Wallace, a film I actually ended up getting. It was so bad, in fact, my manager [Geyer Kosinski] had to calm both me and [director] John Frankenheimer down. I read the character was sexy, so I went in and put on bright red lipstick and a black dress. It was a period piece, in the '60s. Now, I don't have big issues talking about my father, but I was trying to find myself. I walked in, and I was nervous, and I did my reading, and the first thing John Frankenheimer said was, "So, Jon's your father." And my heart just sank, and I thought, "He didn't pay attention to anything I just did." He said, "How's he doing? What's he up to these days?" I don't know what it was, but I just got somewhat rude in return. I said, "I really don't know; why don't you call him? I have to go." And I got a call from Geyer, saying, "You stormed out, and you were dressed like a geisha girl!" I said, "He was rude, and he didn't pay attention to what I was saying. He didn't even care about me as an individual." He said, "Please go back." I said, "I'm not getting in a room with him." But he calmed us both down and said, "Don't wear red lipstick, and try to go in with a better attitude." Strangely enough, Frankenheimer and I ended up becoming best friends. We loved working together. He's just a straightforward person who doesn't mean to be rude, and I was overly sensitive. But yeah, we definitely went head to head when we first met.
Back Stage: After you shot Gia, which would prove to be a breakout role for you, you made the choice to stop acting for a while. Why?
Jolie: I didn't feel I had anything else in me at the moment. I shaved my head at the end of it—there were pockets of hair we shaved for the dying scene. By the end of it, I had to actually shave my head. I separated from my husband [Jonny Lee Miller] at the end of that. And I signed up for screenwriting and directing at NYU, and I moved to New York and didn't know anybody and went to school.
Back Stage: What brought you back?
Jolie: I started to get acknowledged for Wallace and Gia, and it became uncomfortable to go on the subway and go to school. It just got weird. But it was a really great time, and it was important for me to step back and re-evaluate and get out from in front of the camera for some time.
Back Stage: Is it true you don't have a publicist?
Jolie: It is. I don't have an agent either. I have one manager, and I've had him for 10 years. He started as an agent years ago, but he's been a manager almost as long as I've been with him. I tried to have an agent for a few months. And I tried to have a publicist for two days. And neither worked out. I'm very specific about what I like to do, and I've been very fortunate that through working it out myself, I can somehow manage something. I'm sure that some people would disagree that I can't handle publicity properly, but I tend to ignore it.
Back Stage: What was the process of doing performance capture for Beowulf like?
Jolie: I think a big misconception about those films is people think you just loan your voice. You have days of the camera mapping every body part and 80 different facial expressions. After you've done your mapping, you get in these jumpsuits and you go in with your other actors, and you're in this big box, and it's like you're doing theatre. So you do everything physically you would do. There are over 300 cameras at every angle, and it's a performance piece. They even have new things that go on your temple so it reads your eyeball movements. Everything is exact.
Back Stage: Was it difficult?
Jolie: It was so much fun. There's something about getting a handful of actors like Anthony Hopkins and dressing everybody in these stupid jumpsuits with balls all over you that takes you immediately back to being in theatre school and playing, and we got so goofy, jumping around. It was reminding you what it was to just be an actor.
Back Stage: You've earned some of the best reviews of your career for playing Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. Was there some sense of irony for you—someone so often in the news—to play a journalist?
Jolie: Certainly the thought of it had some irony. But the more I got into it, the more I realized there's a real divide between tabloid and real journalism. And it was nice for me to get close to people who focus on reporting the truth—that's their life's work, and many of them are willing to die for it. And that's such a noble profession and such a beautiful thing. So in my mind, there was a line, and the two weren't the same at all. And it was good for me to reach that conclusion. I love great journalism. I appreciate and need good reporting, like anybody else.
Back Stage: You had a friendship with Mariane long before you chose to play her in the movie. Did being so close to her make it easier or harder to tell her story?
Jolie: Oh, God. [A long pause.] It was both. The more I got to know her and [Daniel Pearl's] parents and her son, the more pressure I felt. She never came to the set, but she was there the night before we started shooting in France to wish everybody luck. Our kids are great friends, and they were sitting together, and I was thinking, "One day Adam is going to watch this, and from tomorrow on I'm going to try to represent how much his parents loved each other and who they are and how his mother felt about this happening." It just became one of the biggest responsibilities to another person that I'd ever had. So that was very hard. And it was also hard to kind of mimic her, because she became somebody I knew. So it was almost like if somebody said, "Stand up in front of your close friend and do an impression." It's horrible. You don't want to do it. But from the beginning, she felt that I should do it. So I just took her lead and thought, If she has faith in me, I guess it'll be all right.
Back Stage: How important was the mimicry?
Jolie: We thought about that a lot. Michael doesn't like any kind of wig or contacts; he doesn't want touchups on set; there's no trailers. And I didn't want anything that would stop the process. He and I talked about it, and we had actually said if it was going to take too long to get it on or be at all distracting, just forget it. So we had a test, and some people I've worked with for years found contacts in seven different shades of brown, and we tried a wig. The feeling from everybody was if everybody looks at this and is almost distracted by it, then we'll have to figure out something else. But we all felt it was all right.
Back Stage: Nothing can take you out of a movie faster than a bad wig.
Jolie: I remember when I put that wig on. We did the camera test next door to our house, and I came over, and I saw my son, and he said, "Why are you dressed like Adam's mommy?" And I thought, "Oh, we've got it!"
Back Stage: And you did end up going with contact lenses.
Jolie: I think you have to have a long talk. We tested in sunlight; we tested in dark rooms. In Gia she had brown eyes, but we didn't go for contacts. Because at the time, the camera we were using wasn't letting enough light in the eyes, and it was losing life. Ultimately [with A Mighty Heart] we didn't want people to be distracted. There were just so many things that could go wrong, and it was something we all wanted to do so right, with all our hearts. So we were just so happy that it came out all right. All I was waiting for was the call from Mariane and the word from his parents. I could have gotten every bad review across the country, but when they told me that they felt strongly about it, it was—that was the only thing that mattered.
Back Stage: How did you know when she had seen it?
Jolie: I knew Mariane saw it because she called the studio one day and said she was ready to see it. And I had heard that. And then I didn't hear from her for a week. And I thought, "Oh, no." I was heartbroken. And then I got the most beautiful email from her. She's such a gracious, gracious woman.
Back Stage: How did you get to a place of such emotion for some of those gut-wrenching scenes, particularly when Mariane learns Daniel isn't coming home?
Jolie: The strange thing about the film is, because we shot it almost documentary–style and pretty much in order, because this was a story we all knew, there was something haunting about retracing the steps of this real incident. And when the [hostage] pictures came through on the email, it was that odd feeling of, We've seen this in the papers, and now we're sitting in this room, and God, what it must have felt like for her to get these pictures. So that carried us through the whole film. As we were getting near the end, we all started to get very quiet those last few days. The night they had to come back and tell me, we were all very emotional anyway. Usually as an actor, you come forward and think about in your mind something happening to somebody you love. My mom was sick at the time, and I thought, "I'll allow myself to think about that." But something happened on that night where it just didn't seem necessary to think about anything else, and we all just kind of purged whatever it was that we'd been feeling for the months about the horrors of the reality of the situation. And we all just became really emotional. It's a strange experience for an actor. Fortunately, as an actor I knew not to clutter it with something else and allow it. That was the choice.
Back Stage: You've worked with so many amazing filmmakers. What do you hope for in a director?
Jolie: The ability to be decisive. There are so many directors that seem to just not wake up sure of exactly how they're going to do something in a day, and there's a lot of people waiting for them. And it doesn't inspire confidence. I'm having the great fortune of working with Clint Eastwood right now, who's probably the most decisive human being on the planet. He's famous for doing things quickly, and it's not because he doesn't have the energy to do it a thousand times. He's just very clear about what's going to be in the movie, what's not going to be in the movie, what not to waste people's energy on, and can make a decision on the spot about huge things. So even a few weeks into this film, I actually know in my mind what it is we're making.
Back Stage: Acting is only one of your careers. How did you become interested in humanitarian causes?
Jolie: You start traveling around, and you notice there's quite a lot you don't know. I'm fascinated by other cultures and histories, and I realized I didn't quite get the education I wish I had. So I wanted to learn more. Wanting to learn about what's going on with people of the world, you just come across different things. I came across refugees, and I was just really shocked that there could be that many people uprooted. As you do in life, sometimes things just ring true to you and become things you know you're passionate about. So I called Washington one day and went to an office and started to do research. A few weeks later, I was on a plane into Sierra Leone. And grew up 10 years as a woman just being in a situation that I just did not know existed in the world. And was never to want for more after that day. Was never to complain about silly things after that day.
Back Stage: Do you think these interests led to you wanting to become a parent—you adopted your first child, Maddox, in 2002—or was it the other way around?
Jolie: I think it came hand in hand. I think the reality of it grounded me in a way where I suddenly realized that I did care about children in that way. And I was grounded enough at that time in my life that I could give my life to this. I think you make that decision when you're a mother that you will never be that thoughtless again of how you are with yourself. You now live for somebody else, and you can't be self-destructive, and you can't be selfish. I had gotten a little lesson in life to know that I was evolved enough as a person to be ready to be a mom. And then little Mad came, and everything changed. He's been like my teacher in life. And continues to be.