Angelina Jolie: Woman of the Year

She’s a newlywed mother of six, a superstar with little trace of the diva, a woman who bears witness to the terrible things people do even as she continues to celebrate the human spirit. Whether advocating for refugees or directing the forthcoming World War II survival epic, Unbroken, Angelina Jolie lets Janine Di Giovanni accompany her around the globe, discussing kids, marriage, war, and the hero she just lost.

Sydney, Australia – December 2013

On an early-summer day on Cock­atoo Island, a slender woman in a sun hat stands on a dusty film set. With one hand shielding her eyes, she stares intently at a gunmetal sky. She’s waiting for cloud formations to pass.

“The parachute keeps landing in the wrong place,” she mutters, half to herself, half to a group clustered around her. “We’re going to do some other takes, waiting for the parachute to land.”

In fact, the woman in slim black jeans and mud-caked boots is Angelina Jolie. She’s surrounded by a legion of rugged-looking guys with stubbly beards, also in heavy boots-mostly Australians hired to work on the set.

Nearby, smoking filterless Camels, are a few dozen actors who at first glance look painfully thin. “We hired a lot of skinny guys,” Jolie explains, partly in jest. These extras are meant to portray American prisoners of war in a Japanese internment camp near Tokyo during World War II. In character, they’re waiting for a food drop, reading wartime newspapers. They look hungry, angry, and anxious.

Jolie, ensconced on this island in Sydney Harbour, is directing Unbroken, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography of Louis Zamperini, a scrappy Italian-American kid turned Olympic runner turned World War II airman turned hero. Zamperini, played by the British actor Jack O’Connell, crashed into the Pacific in 1943. He spent 47 days lost at sea, adrift on a life raft-and was presumed dead by U.S. authorities-before being picked up by the Japanese. He endured virtually unbearable punishment during the next two years, until he was finally released at the end of the war.

Throughout the making of Unbroken, Jolie and Zamperini, who died at age 97 this past July, became incredibly close. “Kind of like a father figure,” says the director. “What I love about Louis is that he is a very regular person. He wasn’t the tallest, the most handsome, or the most confident. He was kind of a mess when he was growing up.” She pauses. “But the main message (of the movie) is about how you choose to live your life-that there is greatness in everyone.”

Jolie is now shooting scenes that de­pict those brutal days. Given the grim realities that the film explores, the atmosphere on the set is subdued, even somber. The skinny guys look haunted.

In their trailers, the lead actors are also deep into character. Louis Zamperini’s real-life nemesis was a vicious sergeant named Mutsuhiro Watanabe. For this role, Jolie has cast Miyavi, a striking Japanese pop star. Miyavi, 33, recalls that Jolie en­couraged him to delve into the mind-set of the guard, so much so that after one particularly intense scene-which required him to beat Zam­perini-he says he felt such physical revulsion he ended up vomiting. “It was awful torture for me to hate the other actors-I had to have hatred for them. When I had to beat them, I had to think of protect­ing my family. At the same time I didn’t want to be just a bad guy. I wanted to put humanity in this role. [Mutsuhiro] was both crazy and sadistic, but also weak and traumatized.”

When Miyavi met Jolie in Tokyo (“At a nightclub!” he says, as a joke), he was unconvinced he could take on the role. “It’s a story that is still painful for my country. But she told me she wanted to make a bridge between all countries that had conflict. She was very persua­sive.” Even so, he confides, after filming some of the more violent tor­ture scenes, “I couldn’t stop crying.”

Unbroken, as it turns out, is a $65 million movie, with Oscar ambitions, and a rarefied pedigree. (Joel and Ethan Coen worked extensively on the script.) It’s an entirely different film from Jolie’s last directoral effort, In the Land of Blood and Honey. That picture, from 2011 – while startling and powerful – was – much more low-key and way less Hollywood.

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This set, in fact, looks like something Clint Eastwood might have devised for his World War II diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. (Eastwood directed Jolie in one of her most stunning performances, as a grieving mother, in Changeling.) Jolie, however, says she sought inspiration less from Eastwood than from Sidney Lumet’s 1965 film The Hill, a gripping wartime drama with Sean Connery set in a British military prison in North Africa.

It was hardly a stretch for Jolie to take on a story as historically complex and politically nuanced as Unbroken. Conflict, battle, and the trauma brought on by war are familiar subjects to Jolie, the special envoy of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (U.N.H.C.R.). She traverses the same perilous dirt roads that relief workers and doctors and foreign correspondents do. In these settings, there are no red carpets, no Donatella Versace gowns. Her job, instead, is to expand the advocacy campaign of U.N.H.C.R. and engage in high-level mediation in complex emergency situations.

In the past 14 years, beginning as a U.N.H.C.R. goodwill ambassa­dor, she has gone on more than 50 such missions, which have become a huge part of her life. She sits in refugee camps for hours on the hard ground, notebook in hand. Studying maps and documents, she can pin­point precisely where Syrian exiles are seeking shelter. She can shift from talking about the famine facing South Sudan to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. These regions, over time, have become her turf.

“You and I know the horror of war,” Jolie says later, sitting in her so-called blackout tent in the middle of the set, looking at a monitor. She’s got a Styrofoam cup of vegetable soup and some fresh juice, which she is sipping. (There’s no time for a leisurely lunch since she’s hoping to shoot before the light recedes.) She wears no makeup ex­cept for heavy sunblock. Her long hair-which has turned slightly blond from exposure to the Australian sun-is scooped under a flop­py hat. “I want young kids to see this film. I want something to take to my children-a life message.”

One of her sons, Maddox (now 13), is wandering around the set, observing the activity and talking to the actors; he will go on to work as a production assistant on her next film, By the Sea, in which she directs her new husband, Brad Pitt. But, for the mo­ment, her five younger children-Pax, who turns 11 this month, Zahara, 9, Shiloh, 8, and twins Vivienne and Knox, 6-are at a spacious rented house in Sydney, a short drive from the set, where she has family dinners with them most nights.

Jolie is not a whiner. I’ve been around her on several visits to conflict zones (partly in my capacity as a consultant for the U.N.H.C.R.), and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed it’s that she has no real diva side. She often arrives at meetings early and sits quietly, waiting with a book or notes. There’s no entourage. She packs lightly and often travels with one bag -­ a valuable lesson from working for humanitarian organizations and having to jump in and out of helicopters in remote locales. She is unfailingly polite and is loath to complain about being tired or feeling sick.

Her priorities have always been clear. She relies on a single personal assistant (who is really one of her closest friends), tutors, and an ex­tended and trusted team, all of whom work on the kids’ education. The children are home-schooled and tend to look after one another.

But often it’s just she, or she and Pitt, and the family in a hotel suite or a villa, eating dinner together and watching movies. It is actually a version of real life. They both are very hands-on parents, with Jolie, on her day off, taking the children to Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, for instance, for one of the park’s public sleepovers.

For their surprise wedding, this past August, at their home in the South of France, everyone pitched in for two weeks to make it happen. “We were all going to have a wedding,” she says. “There was no cake, so Pax made a cake. The kids made little pillows for the rings, and Knox practiced [be­ing a ring bearer] with an acorn that kept falling off the pillow. Brad’s mom [Jane Pitt] went and picked some flowers and tied them up.”

The children also helped write the vows. “They did not expect us never to fight, but they made us promise to always say ‘Sorry’ if we do. So they said, ‘Do you?,’ and we said, ‘We do!”‘

To people who know them, they had already seemed married: they’ve always been close, respectful, and affectionate when together, often calling each other “honey.” But does she sense a new kind of relationship now? “It does feel different,” she muses. “It feels nice to be husband and wife.”

Just over a year ago, Brad Pitt was still her fiancé, starring in an­other World War II film, Fury, half a world away, in England. And the two would exchange handwritten notes-sending them off by regular mail-because that’s what couples did during the war. Such details, and authenticity, are important to Jolie.

In a similar way, Jolie preps thoroughly for her humanitarian missions, getting briefed by trusted advisers at the UN., by foreign-policy experts, and by colleagues from the Council on Foreign Relations, of which she is a member. Not too many people in the Directors Guild of America can say that.

Jolie first gravitated to Zamperini’s tale because of his strength of character, his survival instincts, his faith under horrific conditions, and his strong convictions. Fortuitously, they were neighbors: from where she lives in the Holly­wood Hills, she could see his house from her own. She remembers lobbying hard to direct his story, and, when she finally got the green light from Universal, asking Pitt to go outside and fly the American flag so that Zamperini could see it. She then phoned him, triumphantly, and said, “Louis, look out your window!”

Along with Zamperini’s family, Jolie was at Louis’s bedside for some of the last days of his life. She was proud that she’d managed to show him an early cut of the film, yet their moments together were bittersweet. At first, she was nervous about how he’d react. “I was more emotional than he was,” she explains. “I went in to take care of him-and he was taking care of me.”

Together they sat in the hospital, going through scenes of hardship, resilience, and, ultimately, triumph-all colored by Zamperini’s innate refusal to give in. Here he was as a boy; with his brother, who encour­aged him to focus his talents; running in the 1936 Olympics, in Berlin (where track star Jesse Owens took four gold medals). Here, too, was the terror of the plane crash that ultimately changed his life, his arduous days and nights at sea, his unspeak­able ordeal in the camp. “It was an extremely moving experience,” she says, in tears, her voice sinking, “to watch someone watching their own life … someone so physically strong … and they are at the stage where their body is giving up.”

“And yet we laughed together, and talked about his mom. And being a man of such faith, he talked about all the people he be­lieved he would be seeing on the other side. And that it would bring him peace. After a life of fighting, he could rest.”

At one point, she recalls, Zamperini seemed to be failing. Then, as if from some deep reser­voir of resolve, he rebounded. “[The doctors] said he was training to breathe on his own. And that’s what he always told me-you train, you fight harder than those other guys, and you win. You can take it. You make it.” At this point, she grows more emotional, then collects herself. “Poetically, he stayed 40 days and 40 nights.” And then he passed on.

Zamperini’s death made her even more determined to spread the message of Unbroken. “He did not want people to see how extraordinary he was, but how extraordinary everyone can be,” she says. “His life did not start out as perfect. This is a reminder that the individual spirit-the willingness to do good and stand for something-is very, very powerful.”

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I first met Jolie three years ago when she contacted me about a book I had written on the Bosnian war, Madness Visible, partially based on reporting done for Vanity Fair.

She sent me a note, something to the effect of “we’re on the same page.” At the time, she had just finished her feature about the horrors of the conflict in Bosnia in the 90s. When she and Pitt had gone to Foca, the scene of one of the most violent “rape camps,” Bosnian citizens were baffled. She had also heard that a number of correspondents who had covered the war (myself included) were skeptical. The word on the street was: How the hell was Angelina Jolie – or Lara Croft, which was the way I viewed her – going to translate this incendiary subject into a motion picture?

It turns out that she made one of the strong­est films depicting that war. She used only local actors. She filmed it in two languages: English and Serbo-Croatian (as it used to be known). Some of my most jaded colleagues, who had lived through the siege of Sarajevo, wondered the same thing: How could some­one who was only 17 at the beginning of the war get so much of it so right?

Part of the reason, perhaps, is that her empathy is vast. Like any mother she puts herself in the place of women who are stranded in refugee camps or who have lost their children. And in contrast to how we typically view officials or envoys, she grows emotional and sometimes, when alone and thinking about what she has encountered, becomes tearful-and is not ashamed of it.

I often ask her about the next chapter in her life. (In fact, she has just signed on to direct another feature: Aji-ica, about paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey and his campaign to save Kenya’s elephants.) And yet, beyond such creative passions, I sense another, possibly even brighter one on the horizon. Will she eventually go into politics? Or, say, diplomacy, like actress Shirley Temple Black? (When I mention the child star turned U.S. ambassador, she can’t quite place the name, and I actually send her Temple Black’s Wikipedia entry.) Jolie usually laughs off such questions. She says she still wants to write and direct. But her trajectory is clearer the more she expands her own projects to promote human welfare worldwide.

“When you work as a humanitarian, you are conscious that politics have to be considered,” she says, which l take as a hint that at some point she may try her hand at elected or appoint­ed office. “Because if you really want to make an extreme change, then you have a responsibility.” She catches herself, however. “But I honestly don’t know in what role I would be more use­ful-I am conscious of what I do for a living, and that [could] make it less possible.”

The Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – February 2014

In February, she takes a break from editing Unbroken in L.A. and lands at the Beirut-Rafic International Airport. Upon arriving, there is much hand-shaking, picture-taking, and government protocol. But she is unassuming, dressed in her standard field uniform: slim pants, ballerinas, and a loose blouse. She sticks to black, white, navy, and gray; they travel more easily.

She actually looks cheerful, despite the fact that she has just flown 7,500 miles-after logging long hours locked in an editing suite. She is a tight hugger. When I tell her she looks great, she shrugs and says, “It’s good concealer.”

We head up to the Bekaa Valley. The refugee crisis here is dire, with more than two million (by this writing, in early fall, more than three million) people having fled the war in Syria for Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere-many to Lebanon. Jolie spends the next day with children who have been displaced, seeking ways to cut through the red tape and helping to prioritize their needs for poli­cymakers who are in a position to assist them. The following day, en route to a meeting with the prime minister of Lebanon, she makes a point of stopping off in the U.N.H.C.R. field office to have breakfast with the local personnel. One of the officers, who organizes the cars that shuttle between Beirut and the Bekaa, is longing for a photo of himself and Jolie-for his mother; he says. A sizable gathering of senior staff and local politicians is waiting to talk to her. But the moment she hears his request, she walks over, smiles brightly, and poses.

“For your mother,” she says.

Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina – March 2014

One month later, Jolie and I are on the Queen’s private jet flying from a small air base outside London. For humanitarian reasons, the aircraft has been lent to William Hague, then the British foreign secretary, who is also on board, his head bent over a raft of papers, sitting next to Jolie. (He is now first sec­retary of state and leader of the House of Com­mons.) After a day’s stopover in Sarajevo, we board a military helicopter bound for Srebrenica, the scene of the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys during the Bosnian war.

Hague, a celebrated Conservative Party statesman, became aware of Jolie when his Bosnian-born adviser, Amlinka Helie, prevailed upon him to sit down and watch In the Land of Blood and Honey. Hague is not the most openly emotional of creatures-he’s a Yorkshireman­ but he was disturbed and moved. The two met and began working together on what would be­come the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. They traveled to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013, shortly after Jolie had undergone a preventive double mastectomy. At first, she maintained a stoic silence about her surgery. But a few months later she published an op-ed piece in The New York Times to try to help other women going through a similarly agonizing decision. The beauty of that essay was that there wasn’t a note of self-pity in it. In fact, she offered encouragement to other women. “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman,” she wrote. “I feel empowerment that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.” This meant something, coming, as it did, from one of the world’s sexiest women. It was a defining moment in her public image. If Jolie had ever been a Hollywood wild child, this was the official end of it. (On the Congo trip, she did her job without ever mentioning the surgery. “If she was in pain, you never knew it,” says a colleague who was there.)

Bosnia is important to Jolie, and Srebre­nica is a sorrowful place, even 19 years after what was deemed Europe’s worst massacre since World War II. It seems haunted with the memories of the dead-and the continued suffering of the survivors. Inside a former bat­tery factory at Potocari, where some of the men were rounded up and killed, a museum ­memorial has been created. Accompanied by Hague and a few others, Jolie, wearing a headscarf, moves through the exhibits. At one point, Arminka Helie takes an ashen-faced Jo­lie by the arm and comforts her.

Bosnia has clearly cut into her the way it cuts into many who have seen its horrors linger. The war’s toll lives on in the echoes of rape, trauma, and violence that have been passed on to future generations. Last year, at the Governors Awards ceremony of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Jolie stepped forward to make this very point. The setting may have been jarring, but the sentiment was genuine: upon ac­cepting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, she observed, in reference to the many female refugees she meets, “I don’t know why this is my life and that’s hers.” The sheer weight of having been witness to so many conflicts and disasters sometimes gets to her. Once, while fin­ishing up her Bosnia film, she recalled breaking down in the shower, realizing the enormity of the subject she was taking on and the burdens that went with trying to maintain fidelity toward the people and the events being portrayed.

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London – June 2014

Jolie is in London with Hague, co-hosting the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. She’s brought along the entire family, who take over a suite in a West End hotel. During these four days, she is run­ning around between meetings with represen­tatives from countries such as Liberia, Congo, and Sri Lanka. On the final day of the sum­mit, it is announced that she has been named an honorary Dame by the Queen, one of Brit­ain’s highest honors. The UK. press, nasty in the best of times, is practically fawning.

That evening, there’s a family dinner in a simple Japanese restaurant. Pitt and the kids cel­ebrate Pitt’s godson’s birthday. Throughout the conference, Jolie has given numerous speeches and met legions of delegates, but tonight she looks cool and relaxed, drinking a vodka mojito. She’s thrilled about the new title (awarded, on occasion, to Americans), but there are other issues on her mind. She’s flying to Thailand the following week for another UN mission-this time for World Refugee Day. The country has been rocked by a political crisis after mass protests and street violence, but she seems relatively unfazed. She notes, by comparison, that I am traveling to Iraq in a short time-hardly a playground.

After dinner ­she returns to the hotel, takes off her high heels, and eats tortilla chips while watching the World Cup on the telly: the Netherlands versus Spain. From time to time, Pitt erupts in hoots and shouts. A friend enters the room to ask her about getting the family’s bags ready. Her daughter Zahara wanders in and leans over. “What, honey?” Jolie asks her. With their faces pressed close together, Zahara shares a secret, prompting a laugh. Later, Jolie says, in a mock stage whisper, “She said Mad and his girlfriend are kissing.” In this moment, Jolie as Jolie-not the humanitarian or director or Hol­lywood star-is, first and foremost, a mother.

[link] In 2005 the actress, then 29, gave an extraor­dinary interview to this magazine-extraordinary because the Angelina Jolie of a decade ago is not the same woman who sits before me, serene and intellectually confident. In those days, she talked about sex, about past loves, about her raucous times with former husband Billy Bob Thornton. Today she recites chapter and verse about how to make governments sit up and acknowledge victims of violence, how to tackle impunity so that rape is not used as a weapon of war. She sounds like nothing so much as a senator or a diplomat, albeit one sipping a mojito.

Malta – September 2014

Jolie calls between takes of her next film, By the Sea. She’s multi-tasking as usual. Not only is she directing Brad Pitt (“A few friends asked if we were crazy … [A film about] a married couple going through some difficulties … and I’m directing him”), she is also starring in the film, alongside the French actress Melanie Laurent. It’s her first fiJstf shooting, and the children are there. And over the weekend a U.N. contingent is flying in to Malta to focus on how to reduce the incidents of migrants dying at sea; Jolie will meet with the high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, a man some believe has a chance to be the next U.N. secretary-general.

But still, she wants to talk-about Louis Zamperini, about Unbroken‘s final edits, about the Syrian refugee situation, about ISIS and the brutal murders of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. (She once played slain reporter Daniel Pearl’s widow, Mariane Pearl, in Mi­chael Winterbottom’s film A Mighty Heart.)

And she wants to talk about the future. The question comes up again: Does she see herself, in the years to come, pursuing a life in politics, diplomacy, or public service?

“I am open,” she says, sounding, as always, receptive, bold, and enticing.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Vanity Fair Dec.2014.

December 1, 2014 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links