Angelina the Conqueror

Here’s how Angelina Jolie enters the story: by water taxi speeding across the black water of a Venetian lagoon. She is seen from above, from the window of a very old palace—it had once been the home of a nobleman, then a monastery, then an embassy, and is now a hotel, which is the entire story of Venice.

She sits in an antique chair and sighs. Her tattoos have been covered with makeup. Somewhere in town is Brad Pitt, with the six kids, the nannies, and the teachers and help. Johnny Depp, Jolie’s co-star in The Tourist, is somewhere here, too. 

Venice is the perfect city for Jolie. It is, in fact, the perfect city for movie stars in general. It’s the city that, with its heroic paintings of prophets and saints, paved the way for the pop icon. I have long believed that celebrity, the way we package and sell our pop stars, is what filled the need for gods that was once filled by the pictures in stained glass.

Even if Angelina is only here a short time, she’s exactly where she belongs.

‘It’s just so beautiful. You get a sense of how people used to take the time to make things. They’d take the time to go out. The opera house is extraordinary. It’s just a different way of living your life. It’s slower, more elegant.”

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Jolie and Pitt arrived in Venice at the end of winter. Movie stars followed by six children—Maddox from Cambodia, Zahara from Ethiopia, Shiloh born in Nambia, Africa, Pax from Vietnam, Knox and Vivienne, the twins, born in Nice, France, in 2008—playing in this mock Byzantium. They moved into a house on the Grand Canal, a huge place, white with blue awnings and high windows. 

The Jolie-Pitts settled into a routine, became Venetians, sank themselves into a new life, this being a great pleasure of Angie’s existence, the fruit of all those cities with no permanent home. And now it’s Venice! “It puts you in the perspective of history. You feel like you’re just passing through this place, borrowing it for a while. In a hundred years, it will be the next group, then the next. Big old cities do that.”

In Venice, the kids resumed their scholastic routine, which, according to Jolie, follows a traditional program, but seems more like her own invention. “We have two teachers who travel with us, and we found a wonderful local man who teaches them the history of Venice and some Italian. It’s a nice mix—this is what we do. They go to school every day 10 to 4 at home. They’re on the Lycée curriculum.”

Jolie and Pitt have worked out a program: they alternate, one making a movie while the other stays with the kids. “I keep telling Brad he owes me. He’s had a few months off in one of the most beautiful cities in the world with the children. And he’s such an artist and goes to the stone yards and the art exhibits, and loves being in such a cultural place,” while Jolie’s stuck at work till all hours with Johnny Depp.

Many days, Pitt takes the children on an outing, another boat ride to another church or museum. (One morning, for example, he took them, along with Depp’s kids, fishing for crabs.) He then heads back to the office he set up in his rented house, to talk on the phone and work on his art. “He sculpts and designs. He makes furniture, sculpts things related to houses.”

When I asked Jolie if Pitt still has that wispy beard that had been seen in every tabloid, that strange, Lebowski-like concoction, she smiled sadly. “Yes, he does.”

When I asked her opinion of it, she smiled, again sadly. “I love Brad in every state.”

By the time I arrived, the Jolie-Pitts were so settled in Venice they were, in fact, ready to leave. (From here, they would go to their home in the South of France, then to Los Angeles, where Jolie becomes the stay-at-home while Pitt films Moneyball.) When I asked if she ever got tired of all the running around, she said no, this has always been her preferred way: the life of the high-end nomad. “Brad’s the same. That’s one of the things that brought us together.”

“Anytime I feel lost, I pull out a map and stare. I stare until I have reminded myself that life is a giant adventure, so much to do, to see.”

Salt, with its open ending, seems meant to start a Bourne-like franchise, in this case chronicling the exploits of Evelyn Salt. Most of the time, the thing being sold is of no special interest, but Salt—how it came about, anyway—really does say something significant about Jolie. It goes to character, as they say in court.

“It started with a call from Amy [Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures],” Jolie told me. “She asked if I wanted to play a Bond girl. I said, ‘No, I’m not comfortable with that, but I would like to play Bond.’ We laughed, and then, about a year later, she called back and said, ‘I think I found it.'”

Salt was developed with a male actor in mind, specifically Tom Cruise, who was attached to play C.I.A. operative Edwin Salt. After Cruise, deciding the part was too close to the one he played in the Mission: Impossible franchise, took a pass, the script found its way to Jolie. Writing for a man, then swapping gender, is, as it turns out, the best way to create a character with none of the tropes that writers, even if they don’t mean to, fall back on when creating a role for a woman. “You think it would be easy [to change]. “You just flip the character from Edwin to Edwina. But it was a lot trickier than we thought. For example, the male character had a child. And he knows he’ll be in danger much of the time. And we realized that, as a woman, if you knew your life was at such risk, you’d never have a child. The physicality had to change, too. I’m smaller than everybody, so how do I go up against a bunch of men without looking silly? How do I fight? We made her meaner than a guy, and dirty. She uses the walls, the fact that she’s lighter and can throw herself around.”

In the end, the role seems like part of Jolie’s greater project: to combine beauty with a Harrison Ford—like physicality. In action movie after action movie, she has played against type, creating a new type in the process. She’s a stealth feminist, expanding gender roles from the inside, taking the blockbuster male lead and adding a vowel to the end of the character’s first name, “Edwin to Edwina.” In a larger sense, it’s less about gender than about power. It’s something Jolie seemed to understand from her earliest films: no one admires a lady in distress, no matter how beautiful. 

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Jolie had an hour for lunch. In the afternoon, she would waltz on a ballroom floor with Depp. She was nervous about the dance, or said she was, but in fact seemed at ease. 

Do you have any favorite action movies, anything you used as a model for Salt.
“I don’t like to watch them. I just like to be in them.”

She smiled, then said, “Brad will tell you. He puts a movie on, I’m asleep in 10 minutes. I have no patience. But the kids love action movies with comedy, Jackie Chan and all that.”

Will you and Brad ever make a movie together again?
“I’d love to. We’ve talked about it. We’d have to figure out who’s going to watch the kids, but it’s really about finding the right thing, because we’ve looked. When you’re a couple, there are certain things people don’t want to see you do. It becomes too indulgent, too personal. I don’t think people want to see people who are really together intimate on-screen. Maybe we have to play bad guys that try to kill each other, so it’s just fun and aggressive.”

How about a sequel to Mr. and Mrs. Smith
“People have tried. And it’s strange: do we have kids in the movie? We’ve thought about that, but it becomes personal now that we actually have kids. And if we work on it, we pull from our own life, which is funny to us, but you feel strange sharing too much. We did ask somebody to look into Mr. and Mrs. to see if they could crack a sequel, but there wasn’t anything original. It was just, Well, they’re going to get married, or they’ve got kids, or they get separated. Never great. And it would pull us away from living that at home. We like working together, but we work together every day. We’re building the most important thing together. A family. We have great adventures, we have travel, we’re raising children. So we don’t need to take away from that to express it on film.”

Are you going to get married?
“We’re not against getting married. It’s just like we already are. Children are clearly a commitment, a bigger commitment [than marriage]. It’s for life.”

Are you pregnant?
“You’re really going for it, aren’t you?”

Well, I flew 4,000 miles.
“If I was, do you think I would tell you?”

Do you want to have more kids?
“We’re not opposed to it. But we want to make sure we can give everybody special time. They’re kids now, and can play together, but they’re going to need a lot more talking in the middle of the night, like I did with my mom for hours. We want to make sure we don’t build a family so big that we don’t have absolutely enough time to raise them each really well.”

What do you do if your kid is a moron?
“I had some great advice: ‘You’ll know they’re teenagers when they close the door.’ And when they start closing the door, don’t talk to them, listen. Because there’s nothing you could say. You’re not going to be able to tell them you know better. You’re not going to be able to correct them.”

“You have to raise them right before that. Then you need to listen for a good five years, just keep your mouth closed. Just be their friend—don’t try to always tell them they’re wrong.”

What do you think your kids will do when they’re grown?
“I don’t know. Mad’s a real intellectual, which I can take no credit for genetically. He’s great at school, great at history. He feels like he could be a writer or travel the world and learn about places and things. Zahara’s got an extraordinary voice and is just so elegant and well spoken. Shiloh’s hysterically funny, one of the goofiest, most playful people you’ll ever meet. Knox and Viv are classic boy and girl. She’s really female. And he’s really a little dude.”

What were you like when you were a kid?
“Like Shiloh, goofy and verbal, the early signs of a performer.”

She looked out the windows as she spoke, remembering. “I used to get dressed up in costumes and jump around. But at some point, I got closed off, darker. I don’t remember anything happening. I think you just get hit with the realities of certain things in life, think too much, start to realize the world isn’t as you wished it would be, so you deepen. Then, as I had kids and got older—being goofy, lighter—it all came back.

“There is a period where you’re protected and you feel all the wonderful things we see in our children, and hope we can preserve. But you know they’re going to have their first broken heart, that first disappointment, or learn the horrors of the world. And something develops. It’s a beautiful depth, and it comes at a certain time. Then you get used to those things, or find a way to handle them. And if you’re lucky, you find something that makes you happy. Whether it be work, children, love. And you can play again, enjoy again.”

Have you found this happiness in your work.
“Not so much that if I couldn’t act tomorrow I would be heartbroken. I like acting. It’s not the most important thing in my life. Acting helped me as I was growing up. It helped me learn about myself, helped me travel, helped me understand life, express myself, all those wonderful things. So I’m very, very grateful, it’s a fun job. It’s a luxury. Look, I’m at work today in the middle of Venice. But I don’t think I’ll do it much longer.”

Her satisfaction comes not from work but from her kids and Brad. “Because I have a happy home. I got back from work last night, and everybody was playing music and dancing and I suddenly found myself dancing around with a bunch of little fun crazy people.”

Jolie talked about her upcoming dance scene with Depp. “Funnily enough, I don’t know a lot about him. You think everybody knows everybody in this town, but I had never met Johnny.” 

Noticing a plane passing overhead, talked about her love of flight. “I learned to fly a few years ago in England,” said Jolie, who owns a Cirrus SR22 turbo. (Pitt learned to fly after they met.) “It’s the only place I’m completely alone—up in the air, detached from everything. Brad loves the technical aspects. He loves the checks, loves all the math. I’m terrible at the math, but I love that I can just go anywhere, have that freedom. He’s more patient. I tend to drive it to the ground.”

Jolie hesitated when I asked, “Who’s the better pilot?,” then said, “We haven’t …I am.”

Though she does not like to fly with Brad—if something happens, you always want one parent left behind—they went up together recently. “We made sure that everything was in order. We didn’t go far, and the plane had parachutes, so if anything were to happen—”

“Brad commented on my landing. He thought I was coming in too fast. He thought we were going to crash, but didn’t say anything until we landed.”

When I asked why he didn’t say anything, she shrugged, and I sensed a kind of code: better to go down with the ship than question the captain’s command.

“I feel fortunate to have a relationship where I actually feel safe enough to imagine growing old together. When you’re not in a good place, getting older can be scary. But it’s nice for us.”

Why did you decide to take flying lessons? 
“When Maddox was one and a half, we used to go to the airfield, have lunch and watch the planes. And it dawned on me: I could fly. So I promised him I would fly by his second birthday.”

I asked—because I had now established that she liked to watch planes with her kids—what else they liked doing together.
“Family sleep.”

Family sleep?
“Yeah. That means everybody crawls into our bed. And we actually have a giant bed. We had sheets specially made. I don’t know if it’s twice as big [as a king], but it’s notably bigger. Everybody files in and we watch a movie. It breaks all the rules. Mommy and Daddy are very tired the next morning. We have that in L.A., and when we hang out in France, we’ve got it there. When we had two kids, the nine-foot bed was extraordinary. With three, it was verging. Now, at six, it’s tight. We end up pulling the couches to the sides. We’re thinking of building a room just for family sleep.”

“We took them to Kenya to be with the Masai, and they know Africa, spent weeks there, and kept telling Z. her country was cool, her continent was cool, being African is cool. They all went to Ethiopia, and know Ethiopia, and know what Ethiopian food is, and know that with Z.’s food you don’t have to use forks—you use bread. And they know her music, and know Bob Marley relates to the country. Her middle name is Marley. And they know Bob Marley liked Rasta, and Rasta has something to do with Ethiopia, but they don’t quite know how it all connects.”

All this is the center of her world and explains everything: why she had to change her character in Salt, why she and Brad might get married (“I honestly think we will, if the kids want us to”).

She is completely absorbed in the role of the matriarch, architect of a perfect family. For this role, she will cast aside all others. She wants re-write; she wants to give her kids the life she imagined for herself but never got to lead. It’s a fantasy but it’s a good fantasy, and Jolie is playing it all out. “I want to work, then, as my kids get older, I want to have adventures. I want to visit all their countries, learn and live inside all their cultures. [Brad and I] will do films for the next few years, then we’ll do something else. That doesn’t mean we’ll never attempt another film, but it will be different.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Vanity Fair Aug.2010.

August 17, 2010 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links