What I really want is some food!” Angelina Jolie is walking into a big, empty room in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, dressed in a businesslike black suit and high-heeled pumps. And it’s true: The lady needs to eat, her famously lithe frame having become thinner, paler, more birdlike since the last time we talked, a year and a half ago when the action thriller Salt came out.
A generous buffet will appear in the hall outside, but for now Jolie must content herself with a bottle of water while talking about her new movie. Not her new movie in the usual sense that it’s her famously puckered lips plastered on billboards from LA to Lesotho. Rather “her new movie” in the sense that she wrote, directed and produced it.
In the Land of Blood and Honey, which opened Friday, stars a cast of actors from the former Yugoslavia who appear in a story about the Bosnian-Serbian conflict in 1992. It’s a rigorous, sometimes raw look at life during wartime at its most senseless, an often startlingly effective portrait not just of atrocities that included sexual humiliation and gratuitous killings, but of stark international apathy. In many ways Jolie’s film resembles Hotel Rwanda, about a similar instance of collective paralysis in the face of unimaginable violence.
“The crux of the story was my frustration with lack of intervention,” says Jolie. “I spent so much time with people in post-conflict situations where I wish I could just turn back the clock, before they were so scarred, and before so many losses.” She wants audiences to experience her own feelings firsthand, so that “if you’re watching the film,” she says, “you’re thinking, ‘Can somebody please stop this? It’s getting worse, I want to get out of this theatre, I just want to get out of here!’”
But first, of course, she wants to get people into the theatre, not an easy proposition for a subtitled drama in Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, about a war that took place in a faraway place and time, featuring actors unknown to American audiences. After shying away from initially exploiting her celebrity, she’s now a ubiquitous presence on the movie-marketing hustings, showing up for awards ceremonies, interviews and, just last week, when she and her partner, Brad Pitt, attended a special screening at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
“I didn’t do this film because I wanted to direct or be a director,” Jolie says. “I didn’t even intend on doing that when I wrote it. (Brad and I) kind of joked about it, because it seemed so impossible for me to write a film that would become a movie. We said, we’re going to send it to people from all sides of the conflict with my name off of it. If they agree, we’ll consider making a film, and if they don’t, we’ll throw it in the trash... I’ve tried to do the best I could, and I feel this is a representation of who I am.”
It may be surprising that Jolie’s first film would be a subtitled, politically complex war drama rather than a frothy vanity production (imagine if Elizabeth Taylor, at the height of her glamour and obsessively publicised marriage to Richard Burton, had made a little art-house movie about the My Lai massacre).
But to anyone who has tracked Jolie’s career, it’s utterly predictable. Over the past decade, the 36-year-old actress has transcended her beginnings as a creature of Hollywood to become a bona fide global figure — an international superstar, humanitarian activist and matriarch of a family that hails from and roams all parts of the world. (Jolie’s three adopted children are from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam; her biological children were born in Namibia and France, respectively.)
“My family, we met around the world and we were drawn to each other,” Jolie explains, recalling when she was filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia and “just knew my son was in this country somewhere. It wasn’t intentional, it just felt right.”
In 2001, she travelled to Tanzania.
“I was concerned about the situation in Sierra Leone, and I called the UN and asked to go in,” she says. “And I came back very, very different.”
This was also the time that, having won an Oscar for her supporting turn in Girl, Interrupted, Jolie exploded as a huge international box office star, the kind of electrifying presence who sells tickets all over the world. (The middling thriller The Tourist, which Jolie made with fellow global superstar Johnny Depp, was considered a flop in the United States, having grossed a mere $68 million; worldwide it earned more than $275 million.)
At the Cannes Film Festival last year, Jolie accompanied Pitt to the premiere of The Tree of Life and worked the rope line like a consummate pro, patiently waving, smiling and posing for cellphone pictures.
The day before, she had been in a meeting about In the Land of Blood and Honey with Bob Berney, then president of FilmDistrict, the film’s distributor, talking about logistics and details.
“Then the next night she was on the red carpet and it looked like the Red Sea parting,” Berney recalls. “She knows exactly what to do in a crowd. She can put on a show.” Great stars such as Jolie “respect the fans,” Berney continues. “They treat ‘em in the right way and that’s why they’re popular.
I think it’s genuine, and that’s what people will hopefully pick up from her promoting this movie that she genuinely cares about.”
And now, as if her directorial debut wasn’t already at odds with that red-carpet persona, Jolie makes a movie dealing with one of the most complicated, poorly understood episodes in the recent but forgotten past — a story fraught with potential tribal, historical and political missteps that could trip up even the most seasoned international stateswoman. Not only is Jolie taking an artistic leap, she’s risking the considerable store of credibility she’s built up since becoming a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2001 (she’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations).
“If you’re raised thinking you’re the only country that did great things and you’re the only people that do great things, then...it causes isolationism and violence,” says Jolie.
With that, Angelina Jolie is off — to check on her kids who are playing down the hall, then presumably to make a few calls to see if she can turn another frustration into an idea, and that idea into a reality.
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