Angelina Jolie and the Torture of Fame

SHE’S FIFTY MINUTES LATE and I’m starting to walk toward the door when I see her. She’s smaller and thinner and sadder than I expected from that movie-star face and the wild bad-girl spirit she projects onscreen–the best bad girl in movies today. She looks beaten and dogged. I think about keeping on going because I’m pissed off and of course she doesn’t recognize unfamous me but then something in her beaten face stops me and I say, “Angelina” and she looks at me, hesitates, remembers that she shouldn’t stop because I might be a wacko and starts to keep going and by the time I say, “It’s me, John, I’m supposed to meet you,” she’s already figured it out and stopped in her tracks, defeated by all the little hesitations and revisions of decency and expediency.

I don’t remember what we say first but a minute later she’s saying she is sorry, really sorry, we should just give this up and I say, No, it’s okay and she says, No, it’s not okay, that’s what everybody always tells me, ‘it’s okay’ and ‘it doesn’t matter’ and it does matter, nobody should be kept waiting for fifty minutes. Why would you want to talk to me now?

She’s sorry but she also seems to be on the edge of flashing anger because I won’t accept her being sorry and it’s so quick and mercurial. Half of what she says I can’t follow, it’s in some private language about things that happened to her recently and she’s so jittery and raw I say, Don’t be sorry, I would have been mad before but I can see you’re a suffering human being and it’s not that big a deal.

At some point she starts to cry–a tear wells in her eye and leaks down her cheek. We’re standing here in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art behind the ticket booth by the escalator and I suggest we sit down in the sculpture garden but she’s too jittery and convinced it’s ruined and all her fault. She’s very skinny and pale and is wearing no makeup, a few blotches on her face, and I get glimpses of her arms, which are marked with black tattoos and it’s not two minutes in her presence that I check those long arms for tracks. Don’t see any, but every time I step closer to her so I can get into normal human speaking range, she steps back six inches or a foot more than normal.

Minutes go by and we’re still talking and I’m trying to soothe her, changed in a flash from my usual persona as the craziest person in the room to Mr. Zen. She’s wearing black leather pants and a black T-shirt with white sweater fuzz all over it and I catch myself starting to say, I really loved your performances in Gia and Girl, Interrupted (the film she’s supposed to be promoting) but I stop myself because I hate that kind of gushing on principle and it seems particularly wrong right now, completely inadequate.

She says she hasn’t eaten all day and just got through with two interviews and I ask a couple more times if she wants to get something to eat or sit down and she clearly just wants to crawl out of her skin and her dad’s been in his hotel for two days and she hasn’t even had time to call him and finally I ask her to go with me to get my bag because I have something for her.

As we walk to the coat check, I start telling her my now clearly useless idea for an interview based on the brilliant article in The Atlantic Monthly by Sue Erikson Bloland about being the daughter of a famous person and the associated distortions and how weird it was when her dad became the world’s most famous child psychologist and successful, accomplished people would get strangely childlike in his company and I’ve got her attention now, she’s calming down just listening to my voice, and I say, I thought maybe we could talk about that and she says, We’re already talking about it and I feel the nervous antennae of her attention reaching out and twitching back and reaching out again and suddenly it just hits me that this whole thing is wrong and I find myself saying, Maybe you shouldn’t be doing this. You don’t need to be on magazine covers. You have a career on the merits and publicity isn’t for everybody and maybe you should just not do this interview or any interview ever again.

But that seems to set her on the edge of tears again and she tells me, No, it’s all about communication–movies, magazines, it’s all communication and that’s important to her and she’s almost pleading with me and so I segue back to the soothing voice and Bloland’s feeling of being a perfect fake daughter with her perfect fake father and Angelina says she and her dad have talked about that–should they tell the truth about their troubles and have people put an ugly cast on it or just say everything is fine and smileyface?–and it’s so weird because even at the premiere last night, the premiere for The Bone Collector, the photographers told her brother to move out of the shot so they could get one of just famous her and her famous dad and it’s obvious that even the memory gives her pain–she’s all nerves and anything that touches the wrong spot stings.

And I suggest again that maybe we should go have a bite or something and she rubs her arms and looks this way and that and finally I just give her my card and say, That’s my home number and you can call me or not call me, whatever, it’s all good, and she’s twisting and twisting my card into lint and saying how she’s thinking maybe she doesn’t even need acting, maybe she should just move to the country and have a kid and I think, For [goodness] sake don’t do that–thinking of the kid. And some instinct tells me that firmness and authority is the ticket so I say, This is the deal, you’re getting back from L. A. on Thursday and that’s when my wife leaves on vacation and I have to take care of the kids–she smiles at that–so if you decide to call, you have to give me some notice so I can get someone to baby-sit.

And she says, What do you have and I say, Girls and she asks ages and I tell her and the human moment seems to relax her and so I say, Hey, if you want, come up to my house and hang out with us and then she really smiles and says she’d like that a lot. So we talk about where I live and how close it is to where she’s buying her farmhouse where she wants to put her friends in rooms and put on shows and build tree houses and I get the feeling that even though she won’t commit to a meal or a seat somewhere all I have to do is keep talking and she’ll keep standing here forever.

But people are streaming around us and I can’t even use my tape recorder and frankly the whole thing is getting a little wearying, so finally I usher her to the door and outside she perks right up, spots a pretzel stand and gets one and we start walking.

The food seems to steady her. The fresh air seems to steady her. The freedom of movement seems to steady her. She says a friend said something about f** you or she said f** you to the friend and I can’t follow her and she’s upset because they keep moving the star trailers closer to the set, a hundred feet to forty feet and it’s so ridiculous the way they treat the “talent” and I find her pretty hard to follow–some of it’s coherent and some of it isn’t even a little bit. We go up a few blocks and she says, Are you walking me somewhere or am I walking you somewhere?

My office is two blocks back so I say, I’ll walk you to the corner, and then when we get there I point in different directions and say–aware by now of how definite statements soothe her–You’re going that way and I’m going that way, and she smiles and I lean in to kiss her on the cheek because I really do like her now and feel sorry for her and hope it all works out, and her return kiss catches me on the side of the mouth and then she flashes me the most beautiful smile I have ever seen–she’s so grateful to be set free.

SHE DOESN’T CALL, OF COURSE, but when I finally check in with her manager, the office person says she told them to give me her home number. Which is pleasing. But I don’t know, I’ve been reading about female movie stars and this line of Marilyn Monroe’s is stuck in my brain: “Everybody wants a piece of you,” she said (and then fell to pieces). And James Mason said at Judy Garland’s funeral that she gave so much so completely that “she needed to be repaid, needed devotion and love beyond the resources of any of us.” And it makes me feel kind of sick because I know I wanted my little piece of the beautiful Angelina. And wasn’t I shocked and a little thrilled when she came apart in my hands? And if she did a Garland or a Monroe, which seems all too possible on the evidence so far, wouldn’t I end up owning a pretty little piece of that?

But what the hell, we all have a job to do. So I call the beautiful young movie star at home. She sounds sleepy but glad enough to chat and after a while I say, “So, what about us? Do you want to do this thing?” She says she’s going to be near my neighborhood on Saturday with her dad and brother, checking out that farmhouse. She’ll drop by around one, if that’s all right.

Five minutes before one, she calls. I give directions to her driver and thirty minutes later a black stretch limo pulls into my driveway. I go down and shake hands and Angelina’s dad introduces me to his son and the limo driver and then they follow me up the garden path.

Then Angelina asks the kids to show her their room and the three of them run down the stairs and disappear. Her dad and her brother go out for a walk.

It’s almost two and the kids haven’t eaten. I make some ramen and dish out the Greek salad and when Angelina comes back upstairs she sits down and picks at her food–she says her dad was trying to force-feed her in the car and I can believe it, she’s so skinny, file the statement away in the part of my brain where I’m storing the Jon-Voight-is-worried-about-his-daughter material. Then I ask her if she wants some coffee or tea and she goes into a completely incomprehensible story about her marriage and tea and how that was a sign of what was wrong because her ex-husband liked teapots with a whistle and she couldn’t stand the whistle and so they always forgot that the tea was boiling and for some reason this meant that they ended up crawling into the kitchen to get the teapot off the stove. Was the kitchen too small? Did they think it was going to blow up? Was it hurling so much steam around? I never quite get it. And I try. I am a professional reporter and do my best to dig it out of her and each answer is more tangled than the original story–no, not tangled. The right word is vaporous. Her sentences are like sheets of mist that start to evaporate the second they hit the open air. Meanwhile she keeps picking at her salad in that distracted way, as if she isn’t even aware she’s eating.

Finally I take away the plates and Angelina says maybe we should get the tape recorder and do the interview thing–although she’d really rather play Nintendo with the kids. So I say maybe we should do that, play Nintendo, tape recorders being so alienating and all. What I don’t say is that I’m afraid transcribing a tape of her talking will be like trying to unzip fog. But she insists, so I get the tape recorder and we wander downstairs and end up sitting on my daughter’s bed. She’s cross-legged, holding her heels in her hands…

So, tell me. Did you read the article?
“Did I read the article?”

In The Atlantic. That I gave you.
“Oh, no. My brother has it.”

I just say oh and let it slide, but she starts to explain that her brother got upset by the article and took it away from her so she wouldn’t see it. Once again I have a lot of trouble following her. This is what she says:
“That was very–how did he put it? I think he was upset. Yeah. Very upset. I don’t know if he was–he had a weird reaction, I think. It’s a weird reaction to see those things, ’cause they’re pointed out. He didn’t look at it till I came back. And we were both there when he pointed it out. I don’t know why he took it–it meant something. Or if he got rid of it because it upset him. Or–there’s a reason we didn’t want to talk about it. So obviously it was quite a strong article.”

Like I said, I haven’t got a clue what she’s talking about. Hmm. Interesting. Mysterious, but interesting.
“It was just one of those things that was–I started to read it. And I can see why some of that stuff that’s in the title sometimes can–and not even me. But it’s like the two of us now and oh s*, you know.”

I see. Like he’s trying to protect you from that so–
“Well, he just thought that was something that was upsetting. Yeah. It became stronger because the two of us were in the house alone. You know?”

So that’s like a thing that–
“Hovering. The whole parent thing, and–“

The parent-fame thing?
“Um, yeah, it is and it isn’t. It is in a great way. Because, you know, we talk.”

And she goes on. Looking over the transcript now, after I’ve come to know her, it’s very clear to me that it was all my fault, that I was suffering from a failure of imagination and trying to understand her as if she were normal when the only way to understand her is to crawl inside her language as if it were a complex modern poem and link up the elusive meanings and let go of the things you don’t understand. I don’t mean this in a patronizing way, because there are flashes of real poetry and insight and finally an almost absolute consistency in everything she says.

But let’s get there by steps. The next thing she talks about is her father and how she loves him yet feels his image hovering above her, because no matter how far you’ve gone it’s always like you’ve had help, whether you got help or not.

Then she jumps off that train and into the subject of yesterday’s photo shoot, which seems to have become for her a symbol of all that is wrong with being a movie star in the modern world. She tried to explain that she didn’t want to be in lingerie or anything of a cliched sexpot nature and we did get the clothes and makeup and hair people and even the photographer she wanted, but even though they came out with slacks and jeans and leather pants, they threw in some lacy camisoles, “which to me is verging on lingerie,” and because it is a men’s magazine they probably were hoping to get a little bra showing or see-through and it was just generally a disappointment and she’s always tried to be a good little celebrity but she’s getting really tired of it and doesn’t know if she can do it anymore.

Gently, I suggest that when the boss talked to her, he didn’t have a clue what she was talking about and suggest (gently) that maybe if it had been communicated more clearly we could have handled it better. And anyway, sex is a good thing and having seen a fair number of her previous photo spreads, they’re not exactly lust-free zones.

Like the Rolling Stone cover–you were so glammed up.
I wasn’t all glammed up. The cover, I was totally red-faced from crying.

“Because I felt like a whore.”

That picture in the black lace camisole? With her eyes all post coital and her fingertips stuck suggestively into the famous hornet-stung lips? She was crying?

Talking about it, she gets upset all over again. “And I told him that. I told the photographer. And it’s not Rolling Stone’s fault, and it’s not, you know, the wardrobe woman’s fault or anything. It’s–the photographer just had his idea of me being–and I talked to him before and I said, you know, if they wanted to get me free or wild, that–but, you know, they kept saying which–the same as yesterday. I kept saying to them, you know, that I just wanted to–whatever they–just to show me what they want.”

At this point, I realize that the teapot is probably boiling and since we don’t have a whistle either, it’ll just keep on boiling. But I don’t say anything about it because I want to see if she’ll remember and I’m trying to concentrate on figuring out the point she’s trying to make.

“And they would kind of say, ‘Well, we want you to be happy, we want to relate to you.’ And you have to say, It’s not me. I don’t wear–it’s a nice suit with shoulder pads and black leather pants, but I’m on a couch, looking like I’m just lounging or I’ve got smudgy eye makeup so it’s more like I look slightly f**ed up, and it’s kind of the idea of, what are you getting across to people? Are you getting across to people that this is my idea of how a woman is sexual? Like, if it was me being sexy or sensual, you know, it would be some great knitted fabrics and cashmeres, like Sophia Loren. Or if I’m being an actor, you can put me in dress-up, then that’s me. But it’s the idea of just acting like you’re just hanging out with some gorgeous gown on, just hangin’ out–“

Finally I get it. And maybe it’s because pushing through the word mists was so much work and maybe it’s because she’s so sensitive and lovely sitting here on my daughter’s bed under the grrrl-queen posters and fluorescent stars, but getting it seems like a glorious miracle of modern hermeneutics. “It’s like a phoniness,” I say.

She shakes her head. “It’s just the idea of–what is it we’re sharing with people, you know? You think, as an actor, or any kind of an artist, that you’re kind of contributing something. And you don’t always have to be doing that, but definitely not doing something where it’s going the opposite direction. You know?”

I nod but I’m lost again. It’s not the phoniness?

“And all women do have a different sense of sexuality, or sense of fun, or sense of like what’s sexy or cool or tough or–you know, I like to be maybe cleaner. Maybe it would be nice for someone my age to not see someone in like some see-through tank top and jeans, but to see them in a cashmere sweater and slacks. Maybe that would be nice. Maybe they’d go in that direction more.”

Oh! Now I’ve got it. She’s talking about social responsibility. Imagine that! This beautiful young movie star is sitting here in her black leather pants talking about social responsibility and telling the truth and how hard it is to refuse–I’m getting it, I’m getting it–to present some glamorized prefab image that further betrays our inner selves and leads the vast army of lost searchers out there to more loss of self and more commodification and more desperate efforts to buy or copy or otherwise consume all the pretty things we jam into the hole we used to call the soul here in the Supermarket of the Damned! Yeah! Go, baby!

“And that’s why we look at magazines, to see if we like different things, you know? So then you feel like–“

These are the options.
“Really–this is your presentation of what I feel is sexy. This is what I feel is fun, this is what I feel is interesting, and this makes me feel angular and wild and–you know?”

Yes! Angular and wild, exactly!

“I see,” I say. “I got it.”

Man, this feels good. If she’d set out to win me over, she couldn’t possibly have picked a better tack than this peculiarly artless charm. It’s not until much later that I get cynical enough to consider the possibility that her antennae picked that up somehow and that she might be playing to that.

“The tea!” I say.

And we both jump off the bed and run upstairs and while I get the mugs and stuff, she keeps talking about how the Rolling Stone guys were so disappointed because they thought she was so wild and free and I think of her in Gia, panthering around in the same black leather pants I just followed up the stairs and she says yeah, people seem to think that since she did a film about a bisexual junkie supermodel, that somehow translates into her stripping down to a G-string in magazines.

Do you want milk or sugar?
“Mmm. A little bit.”

I give her both. Then we sit back down at the dining table. “You were talking about how your dad and you have had these discussions about how real to be in interviews,” I say. “How much truth to tell. And I’m not sure how much truth to tell either. I was reading about Marilyn Monroe the other night and she said, ‘Everybody always wants a piece of you.’ And I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with that movie-star thing because that’s what you do, you try to take a piece of them.”

She nods, but then she goes and disagrees with me. In fact, she says that it upsets her when actors talk that way because she gets so much from being an actor–she really does, corny as it may sound, so much. And it’s not even giving yourself or allowing yourself to be taken so much as it is throwing yourself open. And if people accept that, then it lets you put the pieces together. And as she talks about this I realize that either she’s getting more lucid or I’m starting to understand her private language better.

“But Jon and I do have this–we’ve talked about it before, ’cause I’m really outspoken and I think he’s been worried about me.”

Jon being your dad?
“Jon being my dad, yeah. ‘Cause I’ve talked about, you know, everything. And just being really outspoken about my marriage and, you know, being with women, and they will take it and turn it into different things. So he’s wanting me to kind of be quiet. A lot of people have wanted me to be quiet. A lot of people wanted me to be quiet during Gia, to not say if I’d ever done any drugs, or had ever slept with a woman, which to me was being totally hypocritical. If I had, and if I could identify with the story that much more, and really saw a beautiful thing in another woman–so I thought it was nice to share what I had experienced, ’cause I thought it was great–I didn’t see why it was so bad. And especially ’cause that’s the movie. And because it’s–I don’t know–it’s honest.”

One thing she’s learned along the way is that when people are cruel or arrogant or cold, the “missing elements” affect their work and when she watches them on film she sees them missing a beat here and there because they’re not really listening to the other people because they don’t really care about them and because “something doesn’t break inside them,” which a couple of hours ago I would have passed right over as just another incomprehensible moment and now seems like such an interesting and poetic and autobiographical way of putting it. “That’s the reason for–that’s the reason we kind of exist,” she says. “It’s like Our Job. To give to each other. And learn from each other. To capture moments of people. So it’s like it’s really strange to have somebody ignore the obvious human being right in front of them. It’s very strange.”

Right around here is where I really start to feel a little flush of shame at the memory of my conversations just last week with friends who told me they’d seen her on Leno and Rosie and she was “not a good talker” or “wacky” or worse and knowing that’s probably exactly what I would have said if I was judging her as a performance of a person instead of this actual human being sitting across the table from me, hypersensitive and confused and struggling to be human under the immense pressure of modern fame. And I say, “But you know, it’s funny, when I first met you at the museum I–I really thought you were like–“

“Losing my mind.”

I laugh. Losing your mind, yeah.
“I was disturbed,” she says. “Just seeing you and seeing that you had kind of accepted it somehow, even though I could tell you were very angry, you were somehow like, ‘That’s the way it is.’ ” She laughs. “You know? Somehow you adjusted to it.” She laughs again, maybe a little nervously this time. “You know? You don’t have an ego about it or something. Which was so horrifying, to think that that would be okay.”

I’m feeling it now myself–she’s making me feel it with her own decency and regret–the sadness of all the adjustments of pride and need and financial desperation and the long history of rejection and humiliation that turned me into the kind of guy who would cool his heels in a museum lobby for fifty minutes waiting for a semifamous beautiful girl.

“You know?”


“So yeah.”

AFTER THE BLACK stretch limo pulls her out of my driveway, I’m so full of good energy. And I don’t think it’s just because she was beautiful and famous, although there’s no way you can get around that. But that said and cynicism served, there was still something pure about her. And it felt like a gift. It felt as soft and innocent as one of my kids’ butterfly kisses. And later when I watch Midnight Cowboy I realize that Angelina’s dad had exactly the same pure spirit–there was so much hunger and tenderness and dumb love and joy just bursting out of him that it wasn’t a performance at all but the voice that is great within us (as an old poetry anthology called it) just shining through. It reminds me of what Pauline Kael said about actors in movies, that when you get past the dialogue and the sets and the silly plots, it’s almost always actors who are the most alive and fresh. Some more than others. And it’s almost always the ones who have that wild innocent purity–the Marilyn Monroes, the Judy Garlands. The ones who “break.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Esquire Feb.2000.

February 17, 2000 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links