Angelina Jolie exclusive: “I have many moments of fragility”
A former wild child borne from Hollywood royalty, Angelina Jolie has enjoyed many incarnations in her 40 years. But it's her latest - as a mother of six, humanitarian, genetic-testing advocate and actor-turned-director that she seems most at ease. Here, Nellee Holmes chats to her about her most recent directorial project, By the Sea, a film in which she also stars alongside real-life husband Brad Pitt.
When we first met years ago you introduced me to Maddox and I remember you saying you didn't think you would have any of your own children. But now you are a happy mother of six. By the Sea seems dedicated to maternity. Where did you find that story and how did you create the character Vanessa?
Well, first of all I am glad that you felt the real reason I made this film. Many people think, "Oh, it's about sex" - but the idea is deeper. Vanessa can't stop watching the hotel neighbors because she is so envious of the possibility of this young family next door and their future and the fertility of this young and healthy woman. It's almost like intentionally harming herself and making it worse because she can't stay away from it.
Talking about the origin of the story, I must say it's not fiction. When my mum first found out she had ovarian cancer, she was in the hospital and there was another woman down the hall who was wailing all the time. She was young and hadn't had any children and that was obvious she would never have any because she had the same issue as my mother had. To me, this film is about my mother and that young woman and all women that deal with this tragedy. What I want to speak about is that deep pain of those women who really suffer from inability of becoming a mother.
You dedicated this movie to your mum and I know it's not by accident that you made it exactly last year when you turned 40...
Well, it's true. I turned 40, and I am so happy about it. Most women in my family start getting sick and start dying in their 40s but I am going to be very happy to become 50 and 60. Really, I love getting older. But when I think of how many beautiful things my mother could manage to do if she didn't pass away because of her illness I feel real pain for her.
I remember my doctor calling me in the middle of the editing of this film. He told me I had a cancer scare and it was such a strange cathartic thing. It started so much with the thoughts of my mother and suddenly it became something about myself. And I hope every woman will feel this urge about our vulnerability. We all need some protection. Maybe Vanessa is not so likeable at first but try to feel her inner pain and maybe you'll find something to relate to. She is just a very human.
This movie is a gift for Brad Pitt as an actor and he was really good in his role. Was it somehow difficult or maybe clumsy to direct him?
It was really a very unusual thing to direct him and we had to find a new language. I think our first few days were quite tricky. But he knows me so well, he knows every little gesture when I get impatient or when I am not really happy. But sometimes we stuck and it was challenging to push him. We are open and honest to each other and I believe that ultimately helped us. I tried to give him a safe space and tell him to trust me that I would do my best to protect him in the editing room. I think he worked very hard.
You made this movie after your wedding and practically the next day you had to direct your new husband. How was it?
There were certainly a few days when we thought this wasn't the best idea. Maybe if we were just starting our relationship it would have been a disaster. But we've been together for so long so we knew how to handle many things. In the end we thought it was the best honeymoon in history because no matter how stormy it was we stay together. And that actually was not our personal discovery but also one of the most important messages of the movie.
You chose to have a mastectomy but you show your breasts in
this movie. Was that difficult?
The script was written before I had my surgery and I did feel that I needed to not change anything after the surgery took place. Yes, I thought a lot about whether to show myself or not. And then I came to the idea that the whole film is somehow about accepting yourself and not to hide. I wanted other women to know that surgeries are different and even after them they can still look good and have their breasts. Yes they feel a little different, but you still feel like a woman.
Did you feel vulnerable in that shower scene? What else makes you feel vulnerable and what do you do to overcome it?
I did feel vulnerable in that scene. But I think there is some special kind of beauty in being vulnerable and being human and having scars. How do I overcome it? I just write films like this and embrace other people's vulnerability. We are all going to get sick and we are all going to die, and we all have things that upset us and embarrass us and scare us.
Can you please talk about your decision to push Brad to speak French...
Oh, he worked so hard on it and it was so beautiful! Actually I didn't push him - he wanted to learn French himself. So I added a bunch of scenes where he could practice what he had learned. I love French language, so it was a pleasure to be able to work in it as a director.
In the credits to the movie you are named as Angelina Jolie-Pitt. You used to say that you didn't feel the need to get married. How has your marriage to Brad changed your views?
All my children are Jolie-Pitt and I thought it would be nice to join them. But I still think getting married is not something vitally important. And I really think it's nice to do it when you don't need it. Marriage is not something to complete you or to take to the next level of whatever. For us it was something that we have already known and making it official was just nice and no more. It didn't change anything for us. I'd say the biggest change for me was when I signed over the papers and Brad officially adopted Zahara and Maddox. That was the day when I realised that I will stay forever with this man and that was many years ago.
You said the film might have been harder to make if you didn't know each other so well. But there must be some little things on a lighter note that still make you crazy...
Oh, to be clear, we have fights and problems like any other couple and certainly we have days when we just drive each other absolutely mad. For example, I'm the kind of person that just throws my glasses and other things around and don't take care about it. And Brad finds that extremely irritating.
Your character Vanessa suffers from insecurity and jealousy and I was just wondering whether you are acquainted to jealousy yourself?
Well, I don't think she actually has jealousy but she has a deep personal pain. If somebody says to me, "Oh, I just got off the phone with my mum", I might have a tinge of jealousy because I can't do that. It's those kinds of things. I hope that when women see the film, they see through those layers and exactly what it means.
Do you ever get jealous in your relationship? You are married to Brad Pitt after all...
You know, it's a funny thing. I love him so much and he's the father of my children and he is one of my great friends in life so when somebody says he is attractive, I am happy for him. When you have children with somebody you look at this person and see not only him but also your children. And when I look at Brad I see exactly that mix. I know I am not the only woman that he would ever look at but I have a trust that he understands the value of family.
It's been ten years since you and Brad worked together on a film. What's the difference in working with him as an actor now and then? And you also became his boss as a director. Was there anything that surprised you about him in this new professional relationship?
Yes, lots of things. And of course it was very different when we first worked together. We didn't really know each other ten years ago and we were young and it was a really fun film. But now it was a whole new story and I enjoyed the process very much. It was very sensitive and of course these are very sensitive themes but I know his triggers and I didn't want to guide him. So if anything, I had to step away and kind of just be very, very careful in how he was directed.
I think the strangest scene is when we were both fighting on the screen. In order to shoot it I had to fight with him trying to explain how better to fight with me. One moment I am crazy Vanessa who is so broken and so weird and then when I went to the studio to cut the material I wasn't Vanessa any more but this other person who is a director and who has to have a strong opinion about everything. And then again I went to the set and became Vanessa. It was kind of schizophrenic for all of us.
What happens when you get mad? Do you yell and scream or do you turn inward?
When I am really mad, I get quiet and self-contained. I think when I stop talking I get dangerously angry. And if there is still something to debate, then there is hope. But once you are sure you know that there has been something that is wrong or you are very angry or against something, then there is very little to discuss. But I do like to solve things quickly and I don't sit on anything. Which probably drives Brad a little mad because I do need to discuss it and discuss it right now. Being artists we both do talk a lot and which is very helpful in our relationship.
In your movies you mostly focus on the darkest elements of life just sprinkled with a little bit of hope. What drives you and what is your focus as a director versus as a person and a mother?
I think I am an average parent just trying to be the best of myself with my children. I am playful but I am also very honest with them about life because I don't want them to be disillusioned and walk into a life being unaware of what is to come. And as a director I do films that raise questions and speak about the harder issues in life because that's what we are here to help each other get through.
You have gone through serious health issues recently so did you ever question if you wanted to go on?
Well, I am doing less nowadays. Now I only do movies that really matter to me or something I can enjoy with my children. If something inconveniences my children too much or takes me away from them in a bad way, I won't do it. When I was younger I liked testing myself and questioning everything. Now it's less about that and it's more about my life and my family.
For example, Maddox is working with me in production so when I have my production meeting, he is sitting right next to me. And Pax is going through the photography and Shia is sketching the sets. And that is how things should be now. The film I am doing now is about the history of one of our family's countries. So we talk about it a lot and it's very fulfilling. I have many, many moments of fragility but I don't really allow myself to sit on a bed and cry.
Let's talk about your other film partners. What was your first impression meeting with Johnny Depp?
Sometimes you hear so much about people and then you meet them and they disappoint you but he isn't that kind of person at all. I think he is just as cool as you could possibly imagine and he is as kind as you'd wish for. We spent the majority of our first meeting talking about kids and the school system and we had a great laugh and I think hopefully you felt it in The Tourist. He's a renaissance man, I think. He's that extraordinary artist and one of the rare ones we have today. His paintings are amazing, his music is amazing, his characters are so beyond any kind of thing anybody's doing. He's just such an extraordinary talent and our business would be so different without him. He's very special.
What makes you happy?
In my early twenties while traveling to certain parts of the world I realised how fortunate I really was with all my food, water, hygiene supplies, clothes, etc. Then I became a mother and it is just incomparable happiness. Every single morning I wake up knowing that the most important thing and the only thing that matters is that I raise my children right and that they're healthy and have wonderful future ahead. It's also such a pleasure to be a part of the movie business and have an opportunity to express myself in my work. But you have to have that gift of knowing what really matters.
You're often compared to Princess Diana. Do you see similarities there?
I think anybody would be shy to be compared to somebody who's considered as lovely as she is and was such an extraordinary person, so I would certainly be honored to take that comparison. I personally don't know how I feel about it but I'm honored.
What kind of clothes is there in your closet?
Black. I don't like having to think about clothing so I have pants and skirts and tops and tee-shirts and pretty much it's all the same and it's pretty much all black and not out of a moodiness just out of a practicality. And lots of boots, you know, like most women you have your secret drawer and your high heels but - but that's my closet.
Is Brad's closet bigger than yours?
What films influenced your career choice or social consciousness in some way that was really a game changer for you?
I love Sidney Lumet's The Hill both as a piece of art and as a message it delivers about man and confinement and friendship and the pressures of a certain situation. And I love his "Dog Day Afternoon with Al Pacino. As an actress I love A Woman Under the Influence and anything with Gena Rowlands. And I also love big films like Lawrence of Arabia.
Can give us an update on your humanitarian work with the United Nations?
Well, now there are meetings on Syria and there will be meetings this week on environment and there are many, many other meetings every day. But I think what we really need is meetings that will lead us to real actions and changes. Today there are too many meetings and too few solutions. A lot of people working on important issues but they don't come together and that's why it seems to the rest of the world that nobody does nothing. For my work, now I am doing some environmental projects because our planet really needs help and I believe we can provide it with this help. Dramatic changes progress very fast and so the more we can do the better. Also I am in Cambodia now working on a film about the genocide in this country.
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