Angelina Jolie Dies for Our Sins

There is a question people ask when they hear you’ve met with Angelina Jolie. It is not about her work in Darfur, her work with children orphaned by AIDS. It’s this: Is she…sexy?  Her sexiness is supposed to be larger than life, but in fact it’s smaller, because it shows through in her gestures and in the details of her beauty. And so it’s not the main thing when you meet her.

“I entered this business before I had focus and purpose in my life. I was very unhappy, very unhealthy, and when I sat down for an interview, I didn’t know why. I felt like I didn’t have anything to share. It was a very empty time.”

Then she grew up. In 2001, she went to Sierra Leone, a country that has won “war-torn” as a permanent adjective, and, she says, “got into some situations that were pretty intense and just realized how completely naive I was to think I had a difficult life. I had no idea what a difficult life was. It was as if someone slapped me across the face and said, ‘Oh, my, you silly young woman from California, do you have any idea how difficult the world really is for so many people?’ I got out of myself pretty quickly, being in the middle of a civil war. I mean, you look around, there are arms and legs.”

She called the United Nations and became a goodwill ambassador for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees. She visited something like thirty refugee camps in the world’s most remote and forbidding and, yes, war-torn places, and in so doing became what she calls “a citizen of the world.” At the same time, of course, she became a mother: first to Maddox, from Cambodia; then to Zahara, from Ethiopia; then to Shiloh, from Brad Pitt; then, most recently, to Pax, from Vietnam. She just kept doing more, and although she didn’t find peace, exactly — it’s hard to describe a mother of four who routinely sends detailed e-mails on policy issues at four in the morning as peaceful–she found meaning.

The idea that Angelina Jolie is still crazy is central to the story told to Americans week after week. Without it, there would be no story; there would be only private virtue and public works and the occasional movie, and she would more or less disappear. She has become both an exemplar and an antidote for the need to create a meaningful life.

Now, it must be said that she doesn’t seem crazy when you meet her in person. She’s frank, she’s forthright, she’s coherent, she’s focused, she’s organized, she’s determined, she eats, she smiles, she laughs… Let’s say she didn’t find a new identity so much as she found a new use for her old one. Let’s say her inborn extremism made it easy for her to choose extreme difficulty. Let’s say she chose to remake the world instead of remaking herself.

Because the thing is, she pretty much admits all the above. She pretty much admits she’s still an extreme personality, but that her extremism has found a purpose. How else could she explain the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Project? I mean, it began as a house — a house in an exotic locale on thirty-nine hectares in northwest Cambodia — and it ended as, well, an entire village, because that’s just the way she is. She bought the house after she adopted Maddox. She wanted to make sure he never forgot where he was born, so she bought what she calls a “traditional Cambodian house on stilts,” right next to the national park that was supposed to be protecting Cambodia’s dwindling population of Asian black bears, Asian elephants, and the tigers that came across the border from Thailand. The only problem was that the national park was a national park in name only, and so the first time she stayed there, she heard that a tiger was found cut in half by poachers not far from where she lived. She had this amazing backyard, but it turned out that her backyard was a refuge not simply for endangered animals but for the very people and the very forces that were endangering them, not to mention land mines and bunkers left by the Khmer Rouge, which got its start in what is now Angelina’s Jolie’s backyard, and made its last stand there, too.

And so, yeah, what she wound up doing was crazy. Who but a crazy person decides to take care of a situation in her own backyard by expanding her sphere of influence from 39 hectares to 60,000, which comes to 230 square miles? Who but a crazy person looks up Stephan Bognar, a guy she read about in National Geographic because he was trying to save the animals in Baghdad’s zoo as well as the lions abandoned by Uday and Qusay, and hires him to run a conservation project involving the better part of northwest Cambodia, and then, when she figures out that it can’t work if it’s just a conservation project, goes to the big policy symposium in Davos so that she can meet economist Jeffrey Sachs and learn how to turn her conservation project into a self-sustaining Millennium Village, in accordance with UN development goals? Sachs has been working to create Millennium Villages in Africa, and there are about eighty of them. But Angelina Jolie doesn’t have a house in Africa. She has a house in Cambodia, so that’s where she — or, to be more precise, the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Project — puts her Millennium Village. It’s the first and only one in Asia, the first and only one outside Africa, and in its purview there are ten villages previously isolated from one another, about six thousand villagers and seventy-two employees — some of them poachers now employed as rangers — drawing their paychecks from Angie and Brad.

Okay: Even she uses the word crazy to describe what she’s wrought. Because one of the things a Millennium Village needs to stay within UN Millennium development goals is a school, so she built a school. But how are the kids going to get to the school? So she started building roads. But how are the kids going to get enough to eat once they get to the school? It’s not just a matter of feeding them out of one’s own largesse. It’s a matter of feeding them in such a way that they keep getting fed, long after one’s own largesse is withdrawn. So she built a soy-milk factory, which makes use of not only the local crop but also the largesse of the local farmers. And so, in the three months since milk from the microfactory started flowing, the number of students at the school increased from 699 to 810…and that’s just one aspect of the village. Four times a week, she’s in touch with Bognar, helping him manage the water-conservation projects and the soil-conservation projects and the biomass-for-fuel projects and everything else that she has so far been paying for out of her own pocket.

The house is still there, still on stilts, except that now it functions as the field headquarters for the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Project. And when she visits, Bognar says, “Angie roughs it. She lives with us in the forest and eats the crickets and cockroaches the locals eat without thinking twice about it. Whenever I read in magazines about her ‘glorious house in Cambodia,’ I think, What? It’s a shack. I don’t think people believe she has the ability to abandon everything in the West and transpose herself to a situation with malaria and dengue fever and the most extreme poverty. I read about her ‘Hollywood life.’ Well, you can’t live a Hollywood life in this part of Cambodia.”

The way she makes it sound, she and Brad function like any other couple, even when — especially when — they’re in Cambodia. She likes to explore, and although they’ve had the place de-mined and installed night-vision cameras on their property, Brad worries. “Brad’s more — well, he doesn’t get angry with me. He just gets concerned. He’s much more — well, maybe he’s smarter about it. The attitude being, Let’s not just be walking around here, let’s be cautious in a healthy way. I’m brave to the point of stupidity sometimes. He’s asking if the property can be de-mined again.”

There are still elephants in their part of northwest Cambodia, and there are still elephants to the south of them, in an area protected by the organization WildAid, and so, Angelina says, “if we can get our section connected with their section, it will be the largest elephant migration in Asia. If we can get it so the animals feel safe, we hope to be sitting in the house when the elephants walk by.”

And so here’s a question. There can be few ambitions more meaningful than saving Asian elephants. Indeed, we’re talking about meaning on a grand, almost impossible scale: the largest elephant migration in Asia! The question is this: Does the meaning change when we realize that the people who get to watch the saved elephants migrate are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie?

It would seem an impossible life to lead — a twisted double life indeed, suspended between extremes of meaning and meaninglessness — except for this: She says she doesn’t lead it. She says that the life that means the most to the American public means the least to her. “I don’t live two lives,” she says. “I have the great good fortune of being able to have a fun job. It’s a job that allows me to travel and that allows me, sometimes, to get out of myself. So that’s my job. But it’s not at all my life. Every day when I wake up in the morning, I’ve been studying international law. I try to make sure that each of my children has enough of my attention to feel equal. I try to make sure that my relationship with the man in my life is solid and complete and we’re very connected and having a great life together and enjoying our children and being part of the world. So that’s my life. It’s not split in half. It’s not one side taking over the other. I have no animosity toward Hollywood or the demands of the red carpet, all that silliness. That’s my job, and I’m happy to have it. But when I die, do I want to be remembered as an actress? No. I recently had an op-ed published in a newspaper. And at the end, it didn’t say I was an actress. It said that I was a UN goodwill ambassador — that’s all. And I was really proud. I said, ‘Hey, Brad, I’m not just an actress anymore.’ “

Sure, reporters’ questions are constantly relayed to her, trying to confirm the latest rumors about her. “The phone rings every day. I say, ‘No, of course it’s not true,’ and hang up. We joke about it, because it’s usually when Brad and I are running after the kids and changing diapers. The fact is, we don’t do anything. We don’t go to parties. We hardly ever leave the house. We try to schedule time when we’re alone. Right now, Pax is sleeping in our bed. It’s kind of nice, him immediately knowing and feeling comfortable with us. Madd slept with me until Brad and I got together. They’re fun to sleep with. We have family sleep on Sundays. Everybody sleeps together. Some people have their lives together and then they have their children. Brad and I are starting with the children and are planning to have our time together in our later years.”

[Angelina Jolie] was in Pakistan a few weeks before [9/11] happened. She was going to Afghan refugee camps, and she apprehended something in the misery she witnessed there. “I was meeting people who had been displaced by the Taliban, meeting people who been displaced since the cold war. People had been displaced for so long that the camps were exhausted. They were destroying the camps and moving into the cities, and there was a lot of unrest, a lot of anger. I’d even gotten a memo from the UN a few days before, warning that Osama bin Laden was in neighboring Afghanistan. I’d had this kind of odd feeling — again, I’m a twenty-something-year-old actress at the time. The fact that I had any of this information is just bizarre.”

She was in Japan on 9/11. “It was this other strange thing for me, because it was obviously a country where if you would have turned the clock back, it was an enemy. And now, on that date, for me as an American, they were my allies, my friends, taking care of me, giving me sympathy for my country. I became immediately conscious of how things shift, how the picture of the enemy shifts. I don’t have any answers, but to be aware of all these things as it’s coming down — it’s not as simple as, Well, this is the bad guy.”

Mariane Pearl published a memoir of her marriage to Danny and the terrible circumstances of his death. It was not a bitter book nor a book of broken faith. It was a book that put forth the notion that Danny and Mariane Pearl did not lose to unimaginable evil but rather triumphed over it by living as citizens of the world to the very end. Brad Pitt bought [A Mighty Heart] while it was still in manuscript and started to develop it as a vehicle for his wife, Jennifer Aniston; and when Brad left Jennifer for Angelina after the filming of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it was Mariane Pearl who suggested Angelina Jolie for the role of Mariane Pearl. They rather startlingly both believed that the story of Daniel Pearl’s death was about good people coming together to fight evil rather than evil guys coming together to destroy good. “I read the book,” Angelina says, “and Mariane and I got on really well as women, and we’ve since become really great friends, and our kids have become friends.” And in A Mighty Heart, they joined forces on a movie that, far from bemoaning the fact that some people are worse than others, celebrates the fact that some people are just better.

All right, then.  Are they?  Is she?

This is the crux of the matter. This suspicion is why so many of us have that they are better and are self-selecting themselves into a natural aristocracy. The salvation once inherent in the power of the people now depends on the power of people who live onscreen or on the radio.

“These are people with the widest reach in the world, and not by accident,” Jeffrey Sachs says, and he should know, because he works and travels with them — with Bono, with Madonna, with Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie — in his campaign to eradicate global poverty through the adoption of UN Millennium development goals. “Not only are they leading artists and personalities; they are great leaders and managers, and that’s part of their success. When you consider what Angelina does or Bono or Madonna — these are real forces of nature. It goes beyond their fan bases. They are able to speak to tens of millions of people, and that goes back to how bright they are, how well they manage across their artistic work, their work in music or film. Their participation has been absolutely essential to the mainstreaming of these global issues into American life, which is why I find so ridiculous the cynicism, the pundits who disdain this. They misunderstand how our society works, and they misjudge these people, their leadership. No good deed goes unpunished, and it’s certainly true of this activity. Angelina goes at it with utter honesty, hard work, and a deep feeling for the common fate of humanity. There’s no doubt about that or about her love for her children. And yet the amount of chattering that goes on about it is endless and preposterous, in my view.”

“For her, the dirtier she can get, the better it is,” Erin Trowbridge — Sachs’s advisor and Angelina’s occasional travel partner — says. “She’d prefer to camp at the village where we’re staying, if it’s possible. She always wants to know what she’s talking about. ‘This is what the morning looks like in this village. This is what nighttime looks like. This is what it’s like to be a woman. This is what it’s like to feed a family. This is what it’s like not to. This is what it sounds like if you can’t.’ We work in deeply impoverished rural areas. It’s a three-hour drive in Ethiopia to the nearest town, and it’s very hard work to get there. The people have no clue who she is. And she’s able to be herself in that situation. You look at her, and you can see what life was like for her before she got so famous. It’s the same when she’s with her children. You know, she’s the one who’s carrying the backpack, she’s the one who’s taking the kids off the plane. She has not chosen an easy life.

“I was with Angie at the very first Clinton Global Initiative,” she says. “The most powerful men in the world were there, and yet the world stops for her when she walks into a room. After four hours with her, I said, ‘I’m going to take a break and go into the kitchen.’ She said, ‘I think I’ll go back with you. I need to breathe.’ So we’re back in the kitchen, and this busboy comes up to her. He was really shy, but he said, ‘Do you mind if I take your picture?’ She said, ‘Not at all.’ Then he said, ‘It’s for my daughter. She’s in the hospital. She tried to kill herself.’ And something in Angie changed. She said, ‘I can relate. I know what it’s like to have a hard time.’ And that’s the essence of who she is. She She’s that girl. She gets it from the tragic side of things and relates to it from that side. It’s about the underdog, and that’s how she sees herself.”

Six days after Daniel Pearl died, Mariane Pearl gave an interview on CNN. The interviewer, after agreeing in advance to refrain from asking if Mariane had seen the video of her husband’s beheading, asked if she had seen the video of her husband’s beheading. The interview is included in the movie of A Mighty Heart, and it was filmed six days after Angelina Jolie’s mother died — six days after photographers swarmed her car to get pictures of the most famous woman in the world crying. “But she lived to see her grandchildren, lived to see both me and my brother in a nice place. She was a real mother that way. She waited till everyone was okay. Then she closed her eyes.”

For a beautiful woman, Angelina Jolie doesn’t necessarily look okay. She looks fragile. She’s been getting thinner and thinner ever since her mother died. But she’s strong, especially in the role she’s chosen to play, and she’s in a hurry. The people who travel with her are always amazed by how she bears up when she’s barraged by photographers. The people who travel with her are always blinded by the flashbulbs and wonder if something’s wrong with her eyes, for she just stares at the photographers as if she’s taking them all in, and then moves forward, as if they mean nothing to her at all.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Esquire Jul.2007.

July 17, 2007 | draft, Interview | this post contains affiliate links