'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Angelina Jolie ('First They Killed My Father')

One of the most famous and admired women in the world opens up about her love-hate relationship with acting, her gravitation toward directing (her fourth directorial effort, a Khmer-language drama, is Cambodia's entry in this season's best foreign-language film Oscar race) and why being a mom and a humanitarian means more to her than anything else.
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"Your artistic journey always coincides with life," Angelina Jolie emphasizes as we sit down at the Hollywood offices of Netflix to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "And, if you're lucky, your life remains more full than those characters onscreen." Jolie, at the age of 42, is one of the most famous and admired women in the world, but she experienced a rollercoaster of a life and artistic journey en route to this point. She has endured the lowest of lows — the premature death of her beloved mother, battles with addiction, a double mastectomy, the removal of her ovaries and three marriages and divorces, most recently from Brad Pitt. And she has enjoyed the highest of highs — winning a best supporting actress Oscar at 24, becoming the youngest-ever recipient of the Academy's rarely-presented Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at 38 and ultimately directing the film that Cambodia has entered into this season's race for the best foreign-language film Oscar, the Netflix-distributed Khmer-language drama First They Killed My Father. The key to surviving the ups and downs, she explains, has been "perspective" — perspective gained over the last 16 years through her prolific humanitarian work around the globe and through becoming a mother (she has six children ranging in age from nine to 16). "In those years, I would find my voice and find my purpose and, above all, I found [my family]," she says. "And nothing else matters."

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Jolie was born in 1975, to the actor Jon Voight and actress Marcheline Bertrand, in Los Angeles, and grew up in and around Hollywood. Her parents separated when she was an infant, and she was raised mostly by her mother. Often described as a "wild child," Jolie — who acknowledges that she was "very strong-willed" and "didn't blend in very well" — lived at her mother's home with her boyfriend from the age of 14 through 16, at which point they broke up. ("I didn't date again until I got married [to first husband Johnny Lee Miller]," she notes.) Shortly thereafter, she graduated early from high school, moved out on her own and began seeking acting work under the last name Jolie instead of Voight. "I didn't want to walk into a room as 'Jon's daughter,'" she explains. "I wanted to see if I could get the job on my own." In 1993, 17-year-old Jolie landed her first sizable role in a movie — the sci-fi action film Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow — and says she literally threw up when she saw the film, realizing how much she still needed to improve as a performer.

Jolie "quickly went back to acting school" and, by the mid-'90s, was earning strong notices for her work as a hacker in Hackers (1995), a drifter in Foxfire (1996) and a crime boss' girlfriend in Playing God (1997). But, even then, she felt unfulfilled. "There's a lot that's not in my nature to be an actor," she explains. "I'm very happy that I was able to be one — I'm very lucky and very fortunate — but I realized how much it was for my mother when she passed away [in 2007] because I felt very differently about it as soon as she was gone. I think when I started acting, it was a good means to an end. It was a job, and I wanted to help my mom with bills. It was a creative job, something where you get to explore different times in history, different people, different sides of yourself, learn different skills — so it's a wonderful job to have as you grow and as you learn as a person. But you also are not those people and you're young and you don't know exactly who you are, yet you also get a microphone in front of your face, and you're 17, 18, and people are asking you your opinions, and you haven't formed them yet."

Jolie shot back-to-back TV movies, TNT's George Wallace (1997) and HBO's Gia (1998), and then, prior to their airings, moved to New York and began taking classes at NYU. "I thought I had expressed what I could as an actor, and now I wanted to figure out who else I was," she recalls. "I was ready to kind of have a different life. I'd grown up in Hollywood and New York — mainly Hollywood. I'd done what everybody said you should do — become an actor. This is what should make you happy, right? People tell you if you look good enough, if you have money, if you have success, if you're an actor, these are all the things that should make a person happy. I was miserable. I was completely unhappy." Jolie wound up winning Golden Globes, at back-to-back ceremonies, for those TV movies, and reluctantly decided to make another film, James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted (1999), for which she wound up becoming the seventh-youngest person ever to win the best supporting actress Oscar. But not even that changed her mind about acting. "The years that would follow — that I would win awards and lose my privacy — were not necessarily happy years. I was grateful to be acknowledged as an artist, I was grateful to be working, I was grateful to be able to help my mom, but I was very, very lost because I didn't like that life, I didn't like having a public life, so it was weird. It was a strange time."

Jolie's outlook began to change, she says, when she met the actor Billy Bob Thornton — who she calls a "kindred spirit," even though he's 20 years older than her — during the making of Pushing Tin (1999). "I loved the years we spent together and learned a lot from him," she says. After winning her Oscar in early 2000, by which point Gone in Sixty Seconds (2000) already was in the can, Jolie, to the surprise of some, signed up to make a big-budget adaptation of a video game, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). She acknowledges that it was, in some ways, an odd choice at a point in a career when many believe they're supposed to start taking themselves seriously, but she was drawn to the project by the prospect of filming in far-flung locations, as much as anything. "I just wanted life experiences," she says, and she got them. "I traveled the world, and went to Cambodia and my life would then change." Jolie describes her initial visit to Cambodia as something of an epiphany. "I started to do research, and when I discovered how much had happened in this country, I not only realized how much my education was lacking, but I also expected to meet a very broken people," she explains. "But when I met Cambodian people and I walked the land, I felt their resilience, I felt their spirit. I just really, really understood the bigger picture in life. I really understood that I had so much more I needed to learn. And I felt very ignorant and very angry with myself, and yet I was also excited to think, 'There are these extraordinary cultures and people, and I want to get to know them, and I want to learn from them, and maybe this is what I've been searching for my whole life. Maybe this is my journey.'"

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider also provided Jolie with an opportunity to try to mend wounds with her father. They had only appeared onscreen together once before, when she, at the age of 7, made a cameo opposite him in Hal Ashby's Lookin' to Get Out (1982), and since then they had grown apart. When it became clear that the character of Lara Croft would have scenes with her dead father, Jolie suggested Voight for the part, and he signed on. "It was good to do," she says of the weeks they spent together preparing their scenes, in which their characters say some things that they longed to say and to hear from each other, too. "It was one of the first times that I can think of — and probably since, really — where we would do something as a team together," she recalls. "So it was what was said, but it was the doing of it that was a big deal. It was good that we did that. And Jon and I have gotten to know each other — through grandchildren now, we're finding a new relationship, and it's very, very nice. We've had some difficulties, and through art is the way that we've been able to talk. It's the common language. We don't really talk politics well [Voight is an outspoken conservative]; we talk art very well."

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider became a giant hit and turned Jolie into an A-list star, but, apart from starring in its 2003 sequel Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, she spent most of the next few years focused on things other than movies. In late 2001, she returned to Cambodia for the first of many times, and adopted a young boy, Maddox; she made subsequent trips in partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N.'s Refugee Agency, and ultimately was appointed as a U.N. special envoy. "I changed completely with my work and becoming a mother," she says, adding, "the education I have had through the extraordinary survivors I have met around the world has really changed my perspective." She says it prepared her for the next chapter of her life — the stormiest — when she teamed up with Pitt on Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) and then entered into a relationship with him. He had been married to Jennifer Aniston, leading some to portray Jolie as a homewrecker, resulting in media attention and scrutiny for Jolie of a magnitude unlike anything few celebrities have ever experienced.

Somehow, despite that ceaseless media attention, as well as the devastating death of her mother shortly thereafter, Jolie managed to continue to churn out outstanding work as an actress. She received some of the best reviews of her life for her performances in Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart (2007), in which she played a real, living person for the first time, Mariane Pearl, the widow of a slain foreign correspondent; and Clint Eastwood's Changeling (2008), as the mother of a child who is kidnapped. (For the latter, she received her first best actress Oscar nomination.) She also returned to the action genre on multiple occasions. "Action movies, for me, have not just been about jumping around," Jolie explains. "I love to do that. But I tend to do them when I need to feel strong. So when my mother passed away, I did Wanted [released in 2008], because I thought, 'I'm gonna cry and cover my head with a sheet, or I'm gonna do an action movie.' When I had the twins [in 2008] and I had been in a nightgown for months, I decided I would do Salt [released in 2010], you know? So you go through some things. I'm looking for one now, in fact, because at this time in my life I feel like I need to—" "Kick some ass?" I interject. "I do," she admits with a laugh.

The most unexpected and remarkable part of Jolie's evolution was her entree into directing, in 2011, which surprised her as much as anyone. "I didn't plan to direct," she said, but during an illness she wrote In the Land of Blood and Honey, a script about the Bosnian War of the 1990s through which she sought "to understand how people who are lovers and friends can get to the place where they can murder each other," and shortly thereafter was offered financing to make it into a movie. Jolie shot the film in Bosnia; cast many locals, some of whom lived through the events being depicted; and even made a second version of the film, in the Bosnian language, concurrently with the English-language version. "I realized I much prefer giving the spotlight to other actors," Jolie says of her first foray behind the camera. "I much prefer not being in front of the camera. I love being with the team. I love the community. I love the family. And I even like the responsibility of being the director."

Three years later, Jolie directed again — this time, an English-language project, for a major studio, that Hollywood had been trying to get off the ground for more than a half-century. Unbroken, the story of World War II POW Louis Zamperini, captivated her, as did the man himself when she met him shortly before he died. "I had my mastectomy right before I shot Unbroken," Jolie says, "but it was a journey I needed to take. I wanted to know this man. I wanted to know how you go through all of this and then survive that way, with your spirit intact." Then, just a year after Unbroken's release, Jolie — hot on the heels of her 2014 wedding to Pitt, and in lieu of a honeymoon — enlisted her husband to star opposite her in By the Sea, an art house drama that she wrote and wanted to direct about a couple going through a horrible period of grief after the wife suffers two miscarriages. "It may not have been a good idea," Jolie now acknowledges. "I wanted us [Pitt and her] to do some serious work together, and I wanted to see him do that kind of work. So I thought that it could be a good way for us to communicate. And I think in some ways it was. And in some ways we learned some things. But there was a heaviness during that situation that carried on." She adds, "Things happen for different reasons. You know, why did I write that exact piece? Why did we feel the way about it we did when we made it? I'm not sure."

Jolie's fourth film as a director, First They Killed My Father, a story of life in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge that is told "through the eyes of a child," was 16 years in the making. She initially encountered Loung Ung's memoir of the same name during her first trip to Cambodia, to make Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 16 years ago. "It was the beginning of an education for me," she says. On a subsequent visit, she met and performed humanitarian work alongside Ung, and the two have been close friends ever since — through Jolie's adoption of her son, Maddox, from that country, through Jolie becoming a citizen of Cambodia in 2005 and through a joint effort, dating back years, to adapt Ung's book into a script. Jolie wanted to wait to turn the script into a film until Maddox expressed an interest in his homeland; he did so two years ago, and ended up serving as an executive producer of the film. Financing to make the film in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, and in the country, came from Netflix. The current Cambodian government offered its endorsement of the project. ("I was very, very surprised that we had the government's support," Jolie admits.) And, once on the ground, Jolie took every step possible to make sure that the making of the film was "cathartic and not traumatic" for the locals who worked on or witnessed the making of the film, from partnering with the Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh to holding community meetings to engaging monks to offer blessings to retaining therapists on set.

First They Killed My Father had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend, with Jolie and Ung on hand in the Rockies, and it was greeted with better reviews than any of Jolie's previous directorial effects. In the months since, that reception has been reinforced by many others — it currently has an impressive 88 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com — and the film has been chosen by Cambodia to represent that country in this season's best foreign-language film Oscar race. "That means so much to me," Jolie says. "For me to be allowed to be a part of another country, and then for that country to accept me as their own and be able to represent them, is the greatest honor." Jolie clearly has arrived at a good place in her life and is excited about what's to come. "I think I'll enjoy acting more than I did before now that I'm older and I come at it differently," she muses. "I would love to direct again. But, very honestly, I've spent the last year and a half doing nothing but just being a mom, and it's the most important thing for me to do."

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