February 08, 2012
First Published: 17:24 IST(8/2/2012)
Last Updated: 19:13 IST(8/2/2012)
It is a drizzly autumn midday, and all’s serene on King’s Road, the main thoroughfare in Chelsea, one of London’s posh neighbourhoods. A parade of stylish young moms push up-to-the-second strollers, their kids swaddled snugly against the incipient chill. So it startles when, on a side street, a sedan pulls up in front of a low-key Indian restaurant to discharge one of the most famous women on earth.
Attempting to greet Angelina Jolie on the street will be the worst idea I have all day. A paparazzo is in position across the road, so Jolie motions us inside the restaurant. That’s when I notice that there are no other diners here – Jolie has secured the whole place for us. Clad head-to-toe in black, she wears no apparent makeup, no necklace, no earrings.
The effect is simplicity itself: world-class beauty that no longer needs to advertise.
Aptly so, because her celebrated glamour is, for once, beside the point. Angelina Jolie – Oscar-winning actress, siren and provocatrix, tattooed hellion turned UN certified activist – can now add writer and director to her lengthy list of professional accomplishments. Her film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, unflinchingly explores the horrors of the war in the former Yugoslavia through the romance between Danijel, a Serbian officer, and Ajla, a Muslim woman who eventually becomes captive in a forced-labour camp.
Much of the film is harrowing, because it must be. Jolie scrupulously honours the historical record. The war waged against Bosnia’s Muslims by the Serbs featured all the atrocities of 20th-century warfare: death camps, ethnic cleansing, massacres of civilians, innocents used as human shields, and rape. What the heroine of In the Land of Blood and Honey, played by Zana Marjanovic, must witness and endure in the first half-an-hour alone will put any audience on the rack.
“I think it is still hard to understand what happened,” Jolie says, “and how it could happen 40 minutes away from Italy in the ’90s, at the time Schindler’s List came out.” Jolie has borne witness to humanitarian crises around the globe, yet it is this war whose fury and barbarism she found impossible to shake. “You can’t make sense of something that innately doesn’t make sense – to rape and kill your neighbour with whom you have lived forever,” she says.
When Ajla is taken prisoner and brought to a forced-labour camp for women, she is surprised to discover that her lost love, Danijel, is one of the Serbian commandants. The war rages fiercely around them, but within the room, this couple will eventually share an emotional and sexual landscape that Jolie navigates with mystery and assurance – love, art, and tenderness will vie with issues of identity, betrayal and responsibility. “I obviously put myself in the position of what would have happened if I were in this situation,” says Jolie, who knows what it means to have loved defiantly. “If I were in love with somebody and we happened to be from separate sides of the conflict but we were in love before the conflict started, how far would I be able to go? How much could I be open to, and when would I start to close off? Is it love, or is it survival?”
Writing the movie, Jolie says, began as a private exercise, “an excuse to get out some of my frustrations with the international community and justice issues. I just assumed nobody would ever see or read it.” Before long, the project consumed her. “Some of the very darkest sections were probably conceived in Shiloh’s art class; I was in the back corner, waiting for the kids to finish,” she says. “And then somehow it slowly ended up being read by Brad, and then friends. There was a discussion of making it, and I was terrified to hand it over to anybody. It wasn’t that I said, I’m going to write something, and I want to direct it.”
Jolie’s engagingly informal manner couldn’t be more different from the regal remove that the camera seems to catch.
(What did she wear while directing? “Ball gowns,” she jokes.) But when the subject is her movie, she fidgets with her ring, rapidly taking it on and off. She fervently wants to have ‘got it right’, less for her own sake than to honour the lives of the many people she met from the region who trusted her to tell the story of their land and their shared suffering.
In some cases, members of her cast had lived through the moments she was filming: one had been shot, while another lost 28 relatives in the war. “For them, it was hard to revisit, but it was something that they had the strength to do,” Jolie remarks in admiration.
She especially enjoyed the opportunity to work closely with other actresses. “It was nice for me to play with other girls; I don’t really have girlfriends in movies, if you’ve noticed,” she says, suggesting that the same is true off-camera, as well. She quickly corrects herself. “Well, I have a few girlfriends. I just... I stay home a lot. I’m just not very social.”
Jolie adopted a stance of extreme solicitousness towards her cast. No stranger to nudity in her own performances, she would leave the room for the couple’s love scenes. Filming an intense scene of “humiliation and abuse” that in real life “absolutely happened” – in which older women are forced to disrobe at a party for jeering Serbian officers and their escorts – sent her into a paroxysm of concern for her actresses. “I was so nervous, I must have gone up to them four different times with the translator to say, ‘We are just going to do this once, and we’ll get a genuine reaction. Please don’t think that they’re really laughing at you.’ I went on and on. I called ‘Cut’ early. I was such a mess!” But being nude in a group had not distressed the actresses; there are public baths throughout Europe. “I told them they should go home to rest, and they said, ‘Why? Did we not do a great job?’ I panicked, and yet they were so professional.”
Jolie shot the film in the Bosnian /Croatian / Serbian language (it is subtitled in English), and encouraged her cast members to speak up if they had an issue with the story or dialogues. They embraced the opportunity. Early in the film, before the war, Ajla tosses a breezy “I love you!” to her sister as she heads out for a date. Jolie sensed Marjanovic was holding back a little. “She told me, ‘I get that saying ‘I love you’ to the sister is something in America, where you say ‘I love you’ [so easily] and hug when you order a pizza. We don’t really do that,’” Jolie recalls.
It’s hard to know where Angelina Jolie might be without that capacity for love, though. Surely not in a two-parent family with six children, three of them adopted from orphanages around the world and three the biological products of her long-standing, ceaselessly discussed relationship with now 47-year-old Brad Pitt.
As for the suggestion that Pitt and she co-star in a film again, as they did in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Jolie thinks moviegoers might find it “irritating” to see them playing two people in love. In truth, she sounds more eager to leave acting behind altogether. “That doesn’t mean I’m stopping tomorrow,” she says. “But I woke up one day realising, ‘God, I’m an actor.’ I don’t think I intended to be an actor. I think my mother wanted it for me. I loved telling stories, and I enjoyed the profession, but is it too late to be something else?” (Not if she’s willing to take a pay cut.)
Jolie asks for some red wine and slips off her jacket, revealing tiny shoulders that look like the back of a child’s rocking chair. Pitt, she says today, “has expanded my life in ways I never imagined. We built a family. He is not just the love of my life, he is my family. I hold that very dear.” As they raise their children, she says, “I suppose what I’ve learned from Brad is to be able to have the kind of family whose happiness and well-being comes before your own.”
Three-year-old twins Knox and Vivienne are the youngest of their brood. “Knox is very much a dude,” Jolie reports. “Very physical, tough. He loves dinosaurs and swords.” Vivienne is what her mother never was: a girly girl. “She is so elegant and delicate,” Jolie says. “Vivi will pick flowers from the garden and put them in her hair. She likes to get her nails done and collects stuffed animals. It’s funny for me to have to buy all things pink and watch princess movies!”
As it is, there’s scant room for mommy and daddy time, Jolie concedes. At least their children are supportive: “If they see mommy and daddy in need of some private time ’cause they’re going to kiss, the kids get all giggly and happy. Because it gives them some security.”
Do the kids want to see them married? Jolie laughs. “They have mentioned it, yes. If you take it in an emotional way, you think, ‘Ohhh, the children! They don’t feel secure enough!’ But then you think, ‘Now, wait a minute, they think a wedding is a party with a four-layer tiered cake!’” At the age of just 36, is Jolie all done having kids? “Nothing planned at the moment, but we just don’t know,” she says noncommittally. “I could end up pregnant.”
For self-evident reasons – the frequent travelling, the prying eyes – she and Pitt have chosen to have their children homeschooled. Zahara, now six, has begun horseback riding (“she has found her thing”), and five-year-old Shiloh has been burnishing her impressive tomboy credentials by riding the four-wheel vehicles known as quads. “It is very funny to watch Brad try to teach Shiloh,” says Jolie, “because she doesn’t want to listen. She doesn’t want to learn about the brakes. She just wants to go!” Wonder where she got that from. “Yeah, it’s the combination of the two of us,” Jolie adds, grinning. Eight-year-old Pax is perhaps most like his mother in temperament. “He is extremely wild, but he has a very good heart,” she says.
she has never forgotten how her mother dealt with Jolie’s own wild-child ways. “My mom couldn’t yell, and she couldn’t swear. But she would cry, and I would hear her because our bedrooms were next to each other. If I was out all night and didn’t call and I had been doing whatever it was I was doing, I could see it in her face that she didn’t sleep all night. And that she loved me.”
At the mention of Marcheline Bertrand, who died of ovarian cancer nearly five years ago, Jolie drops her gaze. “I don’t want to get emotional,” she says. “I wish she were here. I’m never going to stop missing her. My mom was born to be a grandmother; she would have just loved it. She did meet some of my children, and she was fantastic. Maddox still remembers everything about her.” Jolie has long been certain that her mother fought through the pain of chemotherapy until she was confident that all would be well. “As soon as Mad came home, I think she knew that everything was going to be all right,” Jolie says.
It is 10-year-old Maddox who looks out for Jolie now. “I’ll be doing something and I’ll be frustrated, and he’ll hold my hand and say, ‘Are you feeling tired? Is that why you’re upset?’ Yeah, he really does take care of me.”
Her relationship with her father, actor Jon Voight, has thawed slightly after years of estrangement. “He’s met the kids. We’re in each other’s lives, but we don’t discuss the past,” she says, alluding to the decades of discord and heartbreak that followed her father’s purported infidelity, which ultimately led to her parents’ split. Jolie takes another sip of wine. “When my mother passed, I had to be the one to call him. I was going to write it in a letter because I hadn’t spoken to him in six years, but I realised that I had to make a phone call. It was a very brief conversation, we spoke for about two minutes.”
Through two-and-a-half hours of conversation, Jolie has picked at a staggering array of Indian food and not once glanced at a phone, a BlackBerry, or even a watch. Her security guard reminds her what time it is. Pitt is returning home, and the family has a go-kart outing planned. Swiftly, she gathers herself and makes her way to the door with me. I remain inside to receive continental pecks on the cheek and a friendly smile of goodbye. Then she heads for the ladies’ room to freshen up. No wonder: I leave the restaurant just ahead of her, stepping into a feeding frenzy of paparazzi, ready to let their shutters fly. Moments later, behind me, Jolie steps into the safety of her car. The midday clouds are gone. The sun is out. Perfect go-karting weather.