If there was ever a life less ordinary, Angelina Jolie’s is it. Stylist meets Hollywood’s most multifaceted woman – and hopes her energy is contagious
There is no point in me telling you that Angelina Jolie is beautiful. It’s as much of a news flash as telling you water is wet. And anyway, how this woman looks is not the most intimidating thing about her.
She’s an Oscar winner, director, a humanitarian working internationally as a special envoy for the UN, a mum of six, partner to Brad Pitt and, most recently, a life-changing inspiration to many women after revealing she’d had an elective double mastectomy.
But it’s also her incredible composure. Sitting opposite her in London’s Corinthia Hotel, she’s bristling with so much energy it’s almost shooting from her finger tips, but it is all kept calmly and coolly under control. Her face is relaxed, open and friendly; only a second from a full smile. Her hands, one on top of the other on her lap, never fidget. She touches her forehead only once, when discussing the stress of writing and rewriting her UN speeches. If she needs a moment to think, she turns her head to the side and presses her lips together before turning back to face me and answer. This is not down to glacial haughtiness – she is genuinely warm – she is just exceptionally poised.
Jolie, 38, is also simply too impressive to be ordinary, and her achievements – and lifestyle choices – have had a polarising effect. I’m yet to meet someone who feels ‘meh’ about her. Good or bad, we all have opinions. Me? I like her. Her blood vial-carrying days with ex-husband Billy Bob Thornton, her kids with Pitt (Maddox, 12, Pax, 10, Zahara, 9, Shiloh, 7, Knox and Vivienne, 5), her philanthropy; you don’t get many movie stars like Angelina Jolie. But I am scared of her.
This is the second time I have met Jolie. The first was at Pinewood Studios 18 months ago where she was filming Disney’s latest epic Maleficent, the live-action re-telling of Sleeping Beauty. Fitted with magnetic horns, prosthetic cheek bones, a nose piece, pointy ears, contacts and sharp teeth at the time, she was in true villain mode as the titular role; the ‘female personification of evil’ from the original 1959 animation feature, who curses the baby Aurora to death on her 16th birthday – all for not being invited to a christening. From the sidelines, watched her shoot a flying fight scene against a green screen, and then, like the Disney villain herself, she appeared next to me out of nowhere, only minus the puff of green smoke.
“It was quite important she didn’t look traditionally pretty,” she tells me. “What’s now strange is when I go home at the weekend, I feel like my face is really flat – I feel very dull in comparison to her. She’s so much more fun.” Maleficent is a project of mammoth proportions, with first time director Robert Stromberg – an Oscar winner for his production design on Avatar and Alice In Wonderland – and writer Linda Woolverton (Beauty And The Beast, The Lion King) on board alongside Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora.
Stella McCartney has produced a children’s line of Aurora and Maleficent dresses (selling 50/50, I’m told), and fine jewellery brand Crow’s Nest has created a capsule collection inspired by the film’s key motifs (prices start at £2,500). The film is also a real Jolie-Pitt family affair, with Angelina also serving as executive producer and the couple’s youngest daughter Vivienne (three at the time of filming) playing the young Aurora. Vivienne had just shot her two scenes when I visited the set.
“We never planned on putting our children in the film,” Jolie tells me. “But every other three year old that sees me dressed like this runs off and cries. One little kid even said, ‘Mommy, please tell the mean witch to stop talking to me’.” She goes on to describe a scene where she and Brad are just off camera pulling faces, desperately trying to get Vivienne to smile for the camera. The footage must be, figuratively and literally, priceless.
Much more than getting used to prosthetics, Jolie says playing the part has had a profound effect on her. “I’ve learned more about being a woman. She’s very complicated; she wasn’t born evil. She was born very soft and female in a way that a lot of women will be able to relate to, but then she was abused in a way.
“We’ve all had that experience where something has made us put our wall up and feel like, in order to survive, we need to become tougher.”
Fast-forward to today, it’s been three years since Angelina last did press interviews for The Tourist and Salt. Having always had a good sense of what a movie star should be, she was proffering anecdotes about the chaos of life with Brad and the kids, and her work with the UN. But something significant has happened since then. After her mother Marcheline Bertrand passed away from breast and ovarian cancer in 2007 at the age of 56, Angelina was tested for the BRCA1 gene which showed she had an 87% chance of getting breast cancer and a 50% chance of ovarian. In April 2013, she elected to have a double mastectomy, before detailing her experience, and her plans to eventually also have a hysterectomy, in an open letter to the New York Times called ‘My Medical Choice’.
Angelina Jolie meets with President Michel Suleiman on a humanitarian trip to Beirut, Lebanon
“I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy,” she wrote. “But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87% to under 5%. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer. I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
She is not the first person to have done this, nor did she claim to be. But she is the most high profile to talk openly about it and for a woman who had been held up, and often chastised, for her charged sexuality, the revelation was surprising and brave. For those who disliked her, it wasn’t as easy anymore.
Around the same time, I became a mother for the first time. Within a few weeks my own mother had a mastectomy and then, shortly after that, my father lost his battle with cancer. Inspired to ask for my own genetic test, which will finally take place in a few weeks, I have already made my decision if the results aren’t what I hope for. And that is genuinely down to Angelina.
Now she comes along to play Maleficent, living up to the devilish reputation she can’t seem to shake. You’ve got to admire her spirit. Which brings us back to today in the Corinthia Hotel. Brad and the kids are somewhere here too; by her side as she works. She’s recalling her dinner with Foreign Secretary William Hague last night where they discussed the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.
So before she sets off for the Foreign Office later this afternoon, she sits opposite me to talk multitasking, making movies and being a role model for women.
I’ve seen some Maleficent footage. It looks amazing but I’m not sure I’m going to bring any children to it…
Aww, kids will love me…
The writer Linda Woolverton has made Maleficent a multifaceted woman for the first time. Do you think we are still too ready to categorise women in just one way?
I think there has been a lot of progress. If you look at the original Sleeping Beauty and the original princesses, there’s been a lot of change and a lot of great women making their voices heard. Of course, there is always more to go.
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
It’s the first Disney film to be told from the villain’s side, giving another dimension to the ‘handsome prince comes and saves the princess’ fairytale. Was that element important to you?
Yes. Maleficent is a really complete character and woman. And I loved Aurora; I thought she was certainly an improvement on the original. But it also has Sam Riley’s character, Diaval, who is kind of a partner and a best friend to me – and he’s a man. I think in order to evolve it can’t be ‘one sex is better than the other’. It’s nice to say there are strong women, and these strong women can also have great [platonic] relationships with strong men.
Do you think we are all capable of a little bit of darkness?
You answered that very quickly.
[Smiles] Some more than others... Yes.
What wish would you bestow upon a little girl nowadays?
Gosh. I think of my girls and I just want them to be proud of who they are and know who they are. There is so much being forced upon young people today about what they should be like. You see so much opinion being thrown at young people and everything they do gets sent out into the media and then gets rated. I would like for young girls to be able to find out who they each individually are and be really proud of it, no matter what comes their way.
As your daughters grow, is that something you see happening within them?
Yes. [Smiles] I do. When people meet my kids, they talk about what strong individuals they are. And I like that.
You never deliberately positioned yourself as a role model in your 20s, but that’s exactly what you’ve become in your 30s. Was that a natural development or a decision?
It’s a funny thing. I have been in the public so long, and people have opinions that I was darker or I was this or that. But I never hurt anybody or ever said anything cruel about anybody. I never intentionally did anything to impose myself upon another person or hurt and shock. I just wanted to be very free and I was just... growing up. I feel like I’ve always been the same person; I am my mother’s daughter. But I’m trying every day, like everybody, to be a better mother and a better person. And any time I catch myself being less than I want to be, I want to stop and check myself. In doing that, if I have become a role model for any young women, I hope I’m a good one.
Angelina Jolie pictured with ex-husband Jonny Lee Millar in 1999 at the Baftas
You’ve become known for your humanitarian work as much as acting. Do you have a different persona for each?
I’m definitely the same person but I’m much more comfortable as the person in the field with the UN or at home in my pyjamas with my kids. This [interview] is part of my work – getting dressed up and into hair and make-up. It’s not that it’s not who I am, it’s just not the centre of who I am; it’s a fun thing I do. But I’m much more at home with my boots and my backpack.
You are speaking at a global conference for Preventing Sexual Violence In Conflict (PSVI) in June. Do you feel more nervous speaking at that kind of event than a film premiere?
Oh, absolutely, because it’s so important. I get very nervous. At that conference, I’ll be terribly nervous to make sure I say the right thing on behalf of these women; to move the conversation forward, so that it’s productive and does some good. When I speak at those things I go over my speech obsessively to try and make sure I get it right. I keep changing words and moving things around and rewriting and rewriting. Whereas something like this, I don’t. It’s done with ease because it’s entertainment.
How can an ordinary woman feel she can make a difference?
This conference is open to the public. Just attending sends a message to these women, men and children who are victims that people care and respect them, because there is so much shame and so much stigma that comes from rape.
You said you had dinner last night with William Hague. Was there an agenda to discuss serious matters? Can the talk ever be light and fluffy?
Obviously the centre of our relationship is The Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and we speak about these issues and how to improve our work. I’ll be going to the Foreign Office today.
Along with everything else?
But that will be my joy! Meeting all the different people who will be working on the conference, discussing what we need to do. But yes, William and I are friends, so we are also able to have a laugh and a glass of wine.
Is he good at telling a joke?
I find him very funny. [Smiles at my sceptical expression] He is. It’s been a real pleasure for me to work with someone in government who cares so much and so deeply about an issue. I’ve seen him when nobody’s watching – I can see how hard he works and I can see him with rape victims and children in need. I see him when no cameras are there, I see his personality and I’m very inspired by him and how much good he wants to do. How committed he is to doing it because he’s very strong. It’s one thing having a big heart but you also need someone who has a real strength; who has the stomach to take it on too.
Angelina Jolie and British Foreign Secretary William Hague visit Pootcari memorial centre, Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina in March this year
Considering your current work commitments, how do you cope with the demands of the differing age groups [five to 12] of your children?
You just have to take a lot of time. I come home from work – we have this thing where we do our best to come home for dinner every night – and then you spend the next few hours rotating from room to room to check on everybody. See where they’re at, talk to them then give someone else a bath and talk to them, read someone a bedtime story, then go up and visit the teenager [Maddox is 13 in August] and see if he’s willing to talk. It’s just taking that time and treating them separately and knowing where they are all at because, as you say, they are all at different stages.
You give the impression that the chaos is something you love. Is that true?
It is fun. They are here now. I’m so fortunate that I’m taking this trip to work but I also get to wake up and have breakfast with them and have fun. I ran into them in the hallway. They’re just back from the museum and we’re going out tonight. Life doesn’t just stop [because I’m working]. You never stop being a parent and the fact I can keep them with me keeps me happy and in a good space.
Considering you’ve worked with Brad before, and might do again [something Angelina has hinted at recently], does the dynamic shift when you’re in work mode? Does Brad have a work voice?
Does Brad have a work voice…? [Laughs] I actually think we’re better when we work together. Not for everything, sure – but we met as professionals. And we are in such partnership with our children; every day is just balancing the work of family. We are very united in that and need to be, so I think it will bleed over. But we haven’t worked together for 10 years so it’s going to be interesting. We’ll see. [Laughs]
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt
You’re also in post-production for your second directorial work, Unbroken [about WWII hero Louis Zamperini]. How’s it going?
It’s going great. I’m editing now. I was sent a lot of visual effects this morning so I’m itching to see them.
Compared to your first film In The Land Of Blood And Honey, which was an indie, this is a huge-scale project…
It’s huge. I think that’s why it’s taken over 50 years to make it. When I first read about it and really pushed to make it I kept saying, “Oh it’s easy, it’s this, it’s that. It’s like the greatest story never told,” and then of course when you try and put it all into a script, and get on set and you’re trying to film three prison camps, 47 days at sea, the 1936 Olympics, you think, ‘What have I gotten myself into?! This is why nobody’s made this movie. I get it now!’ [Laughs] But I think we pulled it off. We have such amazing actors and crew and everybody was so committed to it. It was quite beautiful.
You’ve become quite close to Louis Zamperini…
Yes. He’s 97 and I saw him right before I came here. One of the things that is quite beautiful – and sad – is he’s at this place in his life where he is the last alive. His family and all his friends from the war are gone, but in this last year these young men, actors who are similar to the friends and family he lost, are resurfacing and spending time with him. We’re recreating his memories and his life. I can come over and show him scenes of himself with his father or mother. It’s very moving to be a part of such an extraordinary man’s life – at the end of his life. He’s been teaching me a lot.
What’s the most valuable thing he’s taught you?
So many things. I don’t think it’s an accident that when I was deciding to take on his story, I decided to have my surgery. He is somebody who believes. He is a fighter and he takes on life. And he has faith things will be alright. You can’t be around him and be timid about anything. You start to get bold about the choices you make and how you love. I want to live a fuller life having known him.
Angelina Jolie with her mother Marcheline Bertrand
Your actions inspired me to go for the gene test. Do many women get in touch to tell you their own story?
I’ve gotten so many beautiful letters from women who have gone in [for the test]. The most moving are the women who have found out they got checked just in time. But they are home now with their kids and they’re fine. I feel so happy to be a part of that. And also, my mother had breast and ovarian cancer so I have that lingering… I’m getting ready for that one [a hysterectomy] at some point. But at least there are things we can do to try and prevent eventually getting cancer. And anything we can do to prevent it, we have to. I’m so happy you’re going in. Whatever the outcome, you will know there are solutions.
Maleficent is in cinemas nationwide from 28 May