Angelina Jolie says she plans to return to work after taking “over a year off” to deal with a complicated “family situation” following her split with Brad Pitt, the actress-director tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Speaking at the Telluride Film Festival, where her new movie about Cambodia, First They Killed My Father, had a well-regarded debut (it’s set to be released in select theaters and on Netflix on Sept. 15), Jolie also said she would one day like to give up acting in favor of directing, if possible.
She said she had not yet committed to her next project, though a Maleficent sequel is likely to happen this year.
Jolie sat down on Sunday with THR, along with Loung Ung, a Cambodian refugee who has been living in America since 1980 and whose book is the basis for Jolie’s movie, which follows Ung’s story as she went through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Loung, where are you from in Cambodia?
LOUNG UNG: Phnom Penh. I immigrated in 1980 to Burlington, Vermont, and moved around a bit and ended up in Cleveland. In 1980 I was 10. My oldest brother and his wife ended up leaving Cambodia and arriving in a refugee camp in Thailand, where we stayed for six months. Then we were sponsored by the Holy Family Church to come to America, having no idea at all where we were going to end up, and were quite surprised when we ended up in Vermont. We didn’t know there was such a thing, because when you are in the refugee camp, they show you America by showing you movies on the big screen, and none of the movies were Vermont — maybe of L.A. or New York or Chicago, I was expecting big buildings and diverse people.
When did you first go back?
UNG: I made my first trip back in 1995; the U.S. and Cambodia did not have a diplomatic relationship until 1993. I’ve made over 35 trips since.
ANGELINA JOLIE: You have a place there.
UNG: I have my sister in a village. So I bought a little piece of land for myself. That sister and another brother still live in Cambodia.
Angelina, what in Loung’s story were you unable to get into the film?
JOLIE: There was a scene where they came to abduct a woman, make her a bride, that she witnessed, a forced marriage.
Did that happen a lot?
UNG: It happened when I was there. It happened a lot in different places of the country, forced marriage of a young girl to a soldier, yes, during that war.
When did you fully come to understand what had taken place there, beyond your own experiences?
UNG: Probably not until I was in high school. I went through the American school system and studied English history and Russian history, Chinese and history and American history, but there was no Cambodian history in any place, and also there weren’t any teachers who could suggest and recommend books and videos. In around 1985, National Geographic came out with a beautiful Cambodian issue that my brother has kept to this day; and I remember being really touched by that, but I didn’t really want to deal with it; I wanted to assimilate and be like everybody else. But I started reading when the war movies came out — Platoon, Full Metal Jacket — and then the boys began making horrible comments to me. There was a line in [one film] where the Vietnamese girls in the movie would say, “For good time, five dollar,” and the boys would think it was funny to say it to me. So I started reading about it to educate myself, because the best way to fight any kind of bullying is to be educated and to have knowledge, and I was able to use that against them and educate them. But it wasn’t until college that I was able to actually get books and look for friends who could read the books with me. It’s been a long time.
Have you had any therapy?
UNG: I’ve had a lot of therapy. It’s tremendous. It’s been a long journey. There are all different forms of therapy. In the West, we look at wanting to get to closure; and I’ve learned through many forms of therapy, there’s no such thing as closure, there’s only a journey to get stronger, to be more healthy, to be more balanced. I have by friends, the therapy with Angie. We talk a lot.
Where do you live now?
[To Jolie:] And you’re in L.A.?
JOLIE: Yes, but we’ve known each other for 16 years. She comes over. We hang out.
UNG: I have my writing therapy. For me, writing and friends therapy is an internal journey where you go in deep, you reflect, you try to heal your inner child. But as an activist, there’s the outward, going wide therapy, where you get to realize at a certain point that talking about yourself gets boring. And it’s also unhealthy to be so much into yourself. At some point, you have got to be able to look at the issue and say, “It’s not about you. It’s about a culture, a people, a nation, a family.” This is why I loved working with Angelina on the film; it is that philosophy in physical form, making it about all of us.
Angelina, you’re now a Cambodian citizen, or have joint U.S.-Cambodian citizenship. When, why?
JOLIE: It was over 10 years ago — I’ve been working in the country for about 14 years. I went for Lara Croft and then very soon after I came back for the United Nations, doing some de-mining work, learning about returnees. I met with Loung, met with the UNHCR [The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], the refugee agency I work with. So I’ve been working there for over 14 years and we have this foundation where we look after 60,000 hectares and many schools — the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation; it’s schools, maternal health, clinics, many, many things. So years into that, I was granted citizenship as a humanitarian.
Why did you want it?
JOLIE: It was offered to me.
I’m sure lots of countries would happily offer you it.
JOLIE: (Laughs) Cambodia made me a mother. Maddox — that’s the beginning of my family: Mad and I coming together was the beginning of so much. So I feel so connected to this country, and I was really honored and wanted to do great things for the country, and work in an even deeper way.
How old was Maddox when you got him?
JOLIE: He was three months old when I met him and he’s 16 now.
Does he speak Khmer? Do you?
JOLIE: I speak very little. Funnily enough, Shiloh speaks the most, my middle girl, born in Namibia. My kids are from different countries, but there’s an understanding, you don’t have to like a country just because you were born in it. You need to respect all countries. And be very open to each other’s, of course. Mad is very proud to be Cambodian; he loves languages. He’s actually focused on German, Russian, Korean and French — he’s a linguist. He speaks a little Khmer, but I’m not forcing it. It’s very important that he does as much as he wanted to do and that he loves it naturally. He was the one who said he wanted us to make the film. We’d had the script for a few years. We said, “When you’re ready — because you’re going to have to work with us — go deep, research, be there.
He’s a producer on the film, right?
JOLIE: Yes. So I said: “I’m ready to do this when you’re ready. We’re going to go deep into your country’s history. You’re going to work with your fellow countrymen and learn and love. This is going to be very immersive and I need you to be ready to understand what this all means.” One day he told me he was ready, and so I called Loung. My other son is Vietnamese, Pax. Very different. Very complex history, the two countries. There’s a scene in the movie where one side of the river is Vietnamese and the other Cambodian and they’re shooting at each other. To have both my boys on set! It wasn’t lost on us.
You spoke of Loung yesterday at a panel where you defended the value of immigrants. What do you think of the Trump administration’s attempts to curtail that?
JOLIE: It’s very important that people understand that for refugees to come into this country is very difficult, it takes a very long time. It is less than one percent [of applicants who get in]; so to get approved, to get even that close, is so much more complex than oftentimes politicians like to make it sound. And people who are refugees are fleeing war and persecution; they’re not coming because they just want to be in another country; they want to be home, in fact they don’t want to have to leave their home. What upsets me about the whole situation is that people don’t know the difference between a migrant and a refugee; they don’t have respect for what people are coming from — the people who against it — and they have completely forgotten this is what built our country, the diversity. When it is put forward that masses of people are dangerous, and the actual numbers and the situation are proven to be completely the opposite of the way they’re presented publicly, it’s horrible. I know these people. I’ve met families in the pipeline on the way here; I’ve met the refugees in the camp who’ve been waiting — the average stay in a refugee camp is 16 years. We have 65 million people displaced — and I’m not somebody who believes the answer is to cross a border. But until we get ourselves together and we can work internationally to end conflict, to use diplomacy to change the world we live in — and climate is now affecting that — the reality of people needing safety in other countries is something we need to understand. This is the world we live in.
Are you going to become active addressing what Trump wants to do?
JOLIE: I’m not going to say how, specifically, but I will continue to speak out about human rights and freedoms. Absolutely. We can speak out about what we are angry about, but the most important thing is to try and help people understand the reality and not be blinded by something that is not the truth. So I want people to meet Loung. She is the Syrian girl right now who is trying to get support. She has contributed so much to America, and that narrative needs to change. So I will continue to try and change that narrative.
Loung, what’s your perspective on this?
UNG: I am grateful to be assisted by an American population that’s generous and kind and compassionate. There are so many Americans who get that. When my family arrived in America, [they] showed us how to ride the bus and where to buy rice — where it was hard to find rice!
JOLIE: Tell him about the Fourth of July.
UNG: We landed in America in June 1980. The church group that sponsored us wanted to share the next big American party. They took us to a Fourth of July fireworks. The only thing that was comparable for me was war and landmines and dead people, and the first explosion, I was so terrified, I was trying to run and hide under a bench. I had complete belief war had crossed into America, that the soldiers had come in, and I could not comprehend why people were standing around and applauding.
JOLIE: Think of how many people that must happen to. To us, it’s normal.
Was it a difficult film to get off the ground, and an expensive one?
JOLIE: Early 20s [million dollars]. We found an amazing partner in Ted Sarandos and Netflix. And I was able to support it. I didn’t receive anything, and anything I put back in.
You got no money, basically?
JOLIE (Laughs) No. The hard thing was, how do you do this in a country where she had death threats when she wrote her first book? How do you take this to a country that doesn’t speak of it, where many people say this didn’t happen? It’s a very, very complex country that’s still fighting for those voices, those human rights. To go in and recreate on the soil where this happened, these horrors, and to shed light on this war at every turn — would the country accept it? Are they ready to tell it? Would the government give us permits?
What do you think of the prime minister and the current government?
JOLIE (long silence) I’m somebody who works within Cambodia, with Cambodians. I work alongside the artists and society to work from within, so that is the focus, and from that I hope everybody who believes in democracy, in certain freedoms, will get louder, will grow their voices.
JOLIE: It’s difficult. Which is why we didn’t think we’d be able to get this movie made.
Have you met the prime minister, Hun Sen?
JOLIE: I live there and work there. I [spent] about four months there on the film. I have a project of about 100 people we work with.
Is your plan now to give up acting and direct?
JOLIE: Right now I don’t have anything to direct that I feel passionate about like this, so I’ll do some acting. I’ve taken over a year off now, because of my family situation, to take care of my kids.
Is that resolved?
JOLIE: When they can have — when I feel it’s time for me to go back to work, I’ll be able to go back to work. I’ve been needed at home. I hope [to work again] in the months to come.
What will you do next?
JOLIE: Maleficent, we’re working on, most likely. And I look forward to having some fun with that. Cleopatra, there is a script. There’s a lot of different things floating around. But I haven’t committed.
But you’re planning to act and not move into directing?
JOLIE: I would love to at some point. At some point, I’ll probably just direct. If I’m allowed to. But you just don’t know if you can have a career as a director. You don’t know how things are going to be received.
Will your film qualify for the foreign-language Oscar?
JOLIE: I believe it will qualify, yes. It’s just, will they choose us? Will we be the country’s selection? We don’t know.