Governors Awards Preview: Angelina Jolie, Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin and Piero Tosi Reflect on Careers

Highlights from THR's interviews with each of this year's honorees, as well as with producer Paula Wagner.
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Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, Angelina Jolie

On Saturday night, many of the film industry's biggest names of the past and present -- including dozens of 2013 Oscar hopefuls -- will gather in the The Ray Dolby Ballroom of the Hollywood & Highland Center for the fifth annual Academy Governors Awards ceremony, during which actress/director/philanthropist Angelina Jolie, 38, will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and honorary Oscars will be presented to actress Angela Lansbury, 88, writer/actor/three-time Oscars host Steve Martin, 68, and costume designer Piero Tosi, 86.

These individuals were selected for these honors by the Academy's board of governors in September and, in the time since, each of them -- as well as Governors Awards producer Paula Wagner -- have granted interviews to The Hollywood Reporter. Here are highlights of those conversations.

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ANGELINA JOLIE: Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award

Must-See Films: Girl, Interrupted (1999), A Mighty Heart (2007), In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011, d.)

[interview via email]

How did the plight of refugees become a major focus of yours? And what motivated you to become such a hands-on supporter of their cause?

In Cambodia [while making the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider], I learned about the refugee crisis during the war and met many returned families. Many of those families are now close friends and neighbors. They are extraordinary people. It is my honor to be spending time with refugee families. I have such admiration and respect for them; I refuse to see it as a charity. If anything, I have learned more from them than I could ever hope to give.

How did you first connect with the United Nations, with whom you have worked very closely over the past decade-plus? And what appeals to you about the organization, which is often the target of criticism?

I am a supporter of the U.N. but also a critic. I learn from and work with the most in the field of all U.N. agencies. That helps me to understand the situation on the ground. For all its failings, it's all we have at this time. Some of my best friends are [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] protection officers. They live with the bureaucracy and I know how difficult it can be. But they are there for the refugees and doing the best they can to help improve the situation. I reached out to UNHCR after reading about the history and current refugee crises. I called and asked if I could pay my own way and just watch their work in the field and begin to understand what they do. I did that unofficially for two years and then I officially joined the agency. [After representing the UNHCR as a Goodwill Ambassador and conducting more than 40 field visits around the world in that capacity, Jolie was appointed as Special Envoy of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres in 2012.]

What troubles you most about the world today?

What concerns me most is the inability of the world to stop the suffering and death of innocent people in Syria. After all the lessons of history, after the slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda when we promised we'd never let it happen again, yet again thousands of people are being brutally killed and millions are fleeing, and the world seems helpless to stop it. This is a desperate, urgent situation that simply cannot be allowed to continue. I believe that if people around the world all demand that their governments do more and that the United Nations functions as it should, we can find a way of ending this.

Which of your film projects are you proudest of and why?

In the Land of Blood and Honey because it was the most challenging and because it has been a catalyst in the Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative to support and protect victims of rape during war. Also A Mighty Heart because I believe Mariane [Pearl]'s message of tolerance is important and it was an honor to play her. Brad [Pitt, Jolie's fiancee] produced the film, so that made it also very special as we had the same passion for her story and its relevance today.

You are still very young -- younger than anyone who has ever received the Hersholt Award, by 13 years! Therefore, I am curious to know, at this time in your life, what you see as your primary objectives for the remainder of your life? And will filmmaking always remain a part of it?

My focus will be my children and my international work. Our children are my happiness. Brad is a very loving father. Creatively, I hope to direct films with meaning.

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Must-See Films: Gaslight (1944), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Beauty and the Beast (1991)

How did you learn about this honor?

I was driving back in the car from the Van Nuys Airport and there was this phone call that came through. It was a message from my son Anthony saying, "Please call me. I have some very important news to tell you." And I thought, "Oh my God. Something's happened." You know, with family, that's the first thing you think of. So, I called him back and he said, "Mom, I just want you to know that you are due to receive an honorary Oscar this year, and isn't it exciting?" I was really very moved because I hadn't expected it in my wildest dreams. It never occurred to me, quite frankly. I thought, "Well, the time has gone by and it hasn't happened, but who knows? Maybe I'll get another wonderful part in a movie."

Very few people have ever scored acting nominations for two of their first three movies, as you did for Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray in back-to-back years. Was that very exciting?

I don't know that I really thought I was going to get it. As a newcomer, I wasn't old enough to suss out what the odds were, truthfully. The woman who played the mother [Anne Revere] in National Velvet [in which Lansbury also appeared] got it instead of me in Dorian Gray, and she deserved it, you know? There was no question about that. I think people thought, "Well, Lansbury's going to have other opportunities," you know? "We'll support her another time."

Seventeen years later you scored a third best supporting actress nom for The Manchurian Candidate. Thanks to that movie you will always be associated with the Queen of Diamonds …

Yes, that was a huge one for me -- I was always playing out of my age range, and I think that's a very good test of an actress -- and it was not only huge, but it was my last movie in Hollywood. I didn't do another film there after that. I went from there to Broadway. And I've never been back since, except for Bedknobs and Broomsticks in '71, Beauty and the Beast in '91 and television. So, it was a short, sweet career. You know, I'd been trained to be a stage actress, and yet I was whisked into movies first. The movie career was great, but it was limited. The theater was the thing that really I loved. And that was why, when given the opportunity to go back to Broadway, that was where I really wanted to be and still do.

At the ceremony on Nov. 16, who will be joining you at your table and who will be speaking about you before you receive your award?

I'm going to fly from New York to L.A. on the 12th and go home to my house in Brentwood, and my whole family will be with me, including my brothers and their wives and my children and their husbands and two of my grandchildren. So, the 20 people at my table will all be family — and also, John Frankenheimer's widow, Evans Evans, a very dear friend of mine. Robert Osborne [of TCM] is going to present me. I asked him if he would, for the simple reason that he's really the only person who knows about the early years of my career intimately. He is the original movie database, and he will probably be able to tell the audience a little about my career which they otherwise wouldn't know. And Emma Thompson, with whom I worked on a movie called Nanny McPhee, will also be speaking. I suspect I'll be nervous and very moved.

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STEVE MARTIN Honorary Oscar

Must-See Films: The Jerk (1979), All of Me (1984), Roxanne (1987)

How did you hear the news?

Well, I got the call maybe a month ago from Cheryl Boone Isaacs and I was really, really surprised. I was in Canada and I just couldn't imagine -- you know, she left a message, and I couldn't imagine why she would be calling. I thought, "Oh, maybe Ellen DeGeneres fell out and they're casting about for hosts or something!" It was a real surprise and it's a big honor because all my heroes have been up there getting honorary Oscars.

When you were standing on the stage at the Oscars hosting all of those times, did it cross your mind that there might come a day when you would be the owner of one of those yourself?

No, I just really gave up on that thought over 20 years ago. I really did. I just thought, "This is not really comedy's world." And I never gave it another thought.

Do you remember when you first realized that you were funny? And what do you regard as your most important early breaks?

Well, you don't really realize you're funny. You realize you love comedy. And that was very early on, you know, like from age 10, 11 or 12. But in terms of thinking "I am funny," you never really feel satisfied that you're funny. You just figure out ways to do it, you know? Writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was a big break in my life. And then, after I personally ended my television writing career, I was kind of bounced back to performing in small clubs and colleges and went out on the road. The next stage was being able to perform my stand-up acts on television, including The Steve Allen Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Della Reese Show, The Dinah Shore Show and then, of course, The Tonight Show, which was very important. But it wasn't until Saturday Night Live that things really went sort of nationwide.

How did your transition into films come about?

I was very tired of stand-up and I didn't see a big future as a rock star comedian. I just started thinking in that direction. And I was very lucky to get to work with Carl Reiner, and got with some good script writers like Michael Elias and Carl Gottlieb and we came up with The Jerk and it was a hit. Before The Jerk, it just wasn't done — you didn't do stand-up and then transition into films. Jerry Lewis did it and a few other people did it, but it hadn't been done in a long time.

Of your other films, do you have personal favorites?

I would say All of Me and Roxanne. But also Planes, Train & Automobiles and The Father of the Bride movies. I have a lot of favorites, but I never really rewatch my old movies. I only remember the experiences.

Was the Oscar hosting experience something that you generally enjoyed?

Let's put it this way, I enjoyed it each time more because I was more used to it, because I was more experienced. There's a thing of diminishing nerves. It's its own unique experience, you know? There's really nothing like it in the world. Anything can go wrong, from spontaneous combustion to horrible, horrible press.

You haven't made many movies over the last few years. I know that you do all kinds of other things instead. Is it a situation of not wanting to make movies as much or just wanting to do other things more?

The fact that movies aren't really made in Los Angeles and New York anymore, and the prospect of going away for three months and living in a hotel or a motel does not have that same charm for me as it used to. But I really enjoy what I'm doing now, which is doing a lot of writing and playing music. I'm open to films, but the film business has changed for the type of movie that I make, so those kind of movies aren't being made as much.

Who, if they called you up right now and said, "I'm dying to make a movie with you," would get you out of your seat the fastest?

Well, certainly Mike Nichols or Wes Anderson. I really, really like their films.

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PIERO TOSI Honorary Oscar

Must-See Films: The Leopard (1963), Death in Venice (1971), La Traviata (1982)

What was it like to work on the grand ball sequence in The Leopard, one of several films on which you collaborated with director Luchino Visconti?

Making the 300 costumes for the Il Gattopardo ball scene was a real pain, due to the difficulty of finding fabrics now long gone. The decisive factor was my friend Umberto Tirelli, who at that time was the manager of the costume shop where they were tailored. The shooting lasted the whole month of August in Sicily with a terrible warmth. Everything was melting under my eyes.

Who was your favorite actress to work with?

The most important actresses that I have had the good fortune to work with are Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale, Silvana Mangano, Anna Magnani. All of them beautiful and full of talent.

You've been nominated five times. Did you come to any of those Oscar ceremonies from your home in Italy?

I never ever participated because I am a coward terrified by flying and by planes.

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PAULA WAGNER Governors Awards Producer

How did you become associated with the Governors Awards? It's always one of the nicest evenings of the year on the awards season calendar.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs called me and said, "We would love it if you would do this for us," and I said, "It would be an honor." And you're so right. It is celebrating the art of film. Really, it's the beginning of the Academy Awards season. It's intimate, it's fun and it's an opportunity for people who love film to celebrate film -- to come together and do this together.

What are the big questions that you, as the producer, have to answer?

What is the vision for the evening? What do we want it to be for the people coming to celebrate film? And then it's putting the team together -- and we have the best team working on the details. We have five [film segments] we're working on, we have people who will present and speak on behalf of our honorees, we have writing, directing, there's music involved. And then we have to determine how to structure the look and the feel of the room so that it feels intimate. We have barely a day to set it up!

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Twitter: @ScottFeinberg