Attempting to greet Angelina Jolie on the street will be the worst idea I have all day. A paparazzo is in position across the road, so Jolie motions us inside the restaurant. That’s when I notice that there are no other diners here – Jolie has secured the whole place for us. Clad head to toe in black, she wears no apparent make-up, no necklace, no earrings. The effect is simplicity itself; world-class beauty that no longer needs to advertise.
Aptly so, because her celebrated glamour is, for once, beside the point. Angelina Jolie – Oscar-winning actress, siren, tattooed hellion turned United Nations-certified activist – can now add writer and director to her lengthy list of professional accomplishments. Her film, In The Land Of Blood And Honey, unflinchingly explores the horrors of war in Bosnia in the early '90s through the tangled romance of Danijel, a Serbian soldier, and Ajla, a Bosnian woman who becomes captive in a forced-labour camp.
Much of the film is harrowing, because it must be. Jolie scrupulously honours the historical record. The war waged against Bosnia’s Muslims by the Serbs featured all the atrocities of 20th-century warfare: death camps, ethnic cleansing, massacres of civilians, innocents used as human shields, and rape. What the heroine of In The Land Of Blood And Honey, played by Zana Marjanovic, must witness and endure in the first half-hour alone will put any audience on the rack.
"I think it's still hard to understand what happened," says Jolie, "and how it could happen 40 minutes away from Italy in the '90s, at the time Schindler's List came out." Jolie has borne witness to humanitarian crises around the globe, yet it is the fury and barbarism of this war that she found impossible to shake. "You can't make sense; to rape and kill your neighbour with whom you have lived forever."
When Ajla is brought to a forced-labour camp for women, she is surprised to discover her lost love, Danijel, is one of the commandants. The war rages around them, but within the room this couple will eventually share, love, art and tenderness will vie with issues of identity, betrayal and responsibility. "I obviously put myself in the position of what would have happened if I were in this situation," reveals Jolie. "If I were in love with somebody and we happened to be from separate sides of the conflict, but we were in love before the conflict started, how far would I be able to go? How much could I be open to, and when would I start to close off? Is it love, or is it survival?"
Writing the movie, she admits, began as a private exercise, "an excuse to get out some of my frustrations [with] the international community and justice issues. I just assumed nobody would ever see or read it." Before long, the project consumed her. "Some of the very darkest sections were probably conceived in Shiloh’s art class; I was in the back corner, waiting for the kids to finish," she says. "And then somehow it slowly ended up being read by Brad [Pitt], and then friends. There was a discussion of making it, and I was just terrified to hand it over to anybody. It wasn’t that I said, 'I’m going to write something and I want to direct it.'"
Jolie's engagingly informed manner couldn’t be more different from the regal remove the camera seems to catch. But when the subject is her movie, she starts fidgeting. She fervently wants to have gotten it right, less for her own sake than to honour the lives of the people she met from the region who trusted her to tell the story of their shared suffering. In some cases, members of her cast had lived through the moments she was filming: one had been shot; another lost 28 relatives. “For them, it was hard to revisit, but it was something they had the strength to do – a strength that I don’t know,” remarks Jolie, in admiration.
She especially enjoyed the chance to work closely with other actresses. “It was nice for me to play with other girls. I don’t really have girlfriends in movies, if you’ve ever noticed,” she points out, suggesting the same is true off-camera. She quickly corrects herself. “Well, I have a few girlfriends. I just … I stay home a lot. I’m just not very social. I don’t do a lot with them.”
Jolie adopted a stance of extreme solicitousness towards the cast. No stranger to nudity herself, she would leave the room for the couple’s love scenes. Filming a scene of “humiliation and abuse” that “absolutely happened” in real life– in which older women are forced to disrobe in front of jeering Serbian officers – sent her into a paroxysm of concern for the actresses. “I was so nervous. I must have gone up to them four times with the translator to say, ‘We are just going to do this once, and we’ll get a genuine reaction. Please don’t think they are really laughing at you.’ I was such a mess!” But being nude in a group had not upset the actresses; there are public baths throughout Europe. “I told them they should go home to rest and they said, ‘Why? Did we not do a great job?’ I panicked and yet they were so professional.”
The film is in Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian with English subtitles, and Jolie encouraged her cast members to speak up if there was anything they took issue with. They embraced the opportunity. Early in the film, Ajla tosses a breezy “I love you” over her shoulder to her sister as she heads out. Jolie sensed Marjanovic was holding back a little.
She told me, ‘I get that saying “I love you” to the sister is something in America, where you say “I love you” [so easily] and hug when you order a pizza. We don’t really do that,’” recalls Jolie.
It’s hard to know where Jolie might be without that capacity to love. Surely not in a two-parent family with six children, three of them adopted from orphanages around the world and three the biological product of her ceaselessly discussed relationship with 48-year-old Brad Pitt. As for the suggestion that Pitt and she co-star in a film again, as they did in Mr And Mrs Smith, Jolie thinks moviegoers might find it “irritating” to see them playing two people in love. In truth, she sounds more eager to leave acting behind altogether. “That doesn’t mean I’m stopping tomorrow,” she says. “But I woke up one day realising, ‘God, I’m an actor.’ I don’t think I ever intended to be an actor. I think my mother wanted it for me. I loved telling stories and I enjoyed the profession, but is it too late to be something else?”
Jolie asks for some red wine and slips off her jacket. Pitt, she states, “has expanded my life in ways I never imagined. We built a family. I hold that very dear.” As they raise their children, she says, “I suppose what I’ve learnt from Brad is to be able to have the kind of family whose happiness and wellbeing comes before your own. I’m very, very grateful to have such a loving family, and I wouldn’t have that without him.”
Three and a half year old twins Knox and Vivienne are the youngest of their brood. “Knox is very much a dude,” reports Jolie. “Very physical, tough. He loves dinosaurs and swords.” Vivienne is what her mother never was: a girly-girl. “She’s so elegant and delicate,” remarks Jolie. “Vivi will pick flowers from the garden and put them in her hair. She likes to get her nails done and collects stuffed animals. It’s funny for me to have to buy all things pink and watch princess movies!”
As it is, there’s scant room for Mummy and Daddy time, concedes Jolie. At least their children are supportive: “If they see Mummy and Daddy in need of some private time ’cause they’re going to kiss and whatever, the kids get all giggly and happy. Because it gives them some security.” Do the kids want to see them married? Jolie laughs. “They have mentioned it, yes. If you take it in an emotional way you think, ‘Ohhh, the children! They don’t feel secure enough!’ But then you think, ‘Now, wait a minute: they think a wedding is a party with a four-layer tiered cake!’” Just 36, is Jolie all done having kids? “Nothing planned at the moment, but we just don’t know,” she says noncommittally. “I could end up pregnant.”
For obvious reasons – the frequent travelling, the prying eyes – she and Pitt have their children homeschooled. Zahara, seven, has begun horse riding (“She has found her thing”), and five-year-old Shiloh has been brandishing tomboy credentials by riding quad bikes. “It’s very funny to watch Brad try to teach Shiloh,” muses Jolie, “because she doesn’t want to listen. She doesn’t want Dad to sit on the back. She doesn’t want to learn about the brakes. She just wants to go!” Wonder where she got that from. “Yeah, it’s the combination of the two of us,” adds Jolie, grinning.
Eight-year-old Pax is perhaps the most like his mother in temperament. “He’s extremely wild, but has a very, very good heart,” she says. “You know, like those punk rockers – when you really get to know them they’re just pussycats. But at the same time, he’s going to get in some kind of trouble.”
Jolie hasn’t forgotten how her mother dealt with Jolie’s wild-child ways: “My mum couldn’t yell, and she couldn’t swear. But she would cry, and I would hear her because our bedrooms were next to each other. If I was out all night and didn’t call – and I had been doing whatever I was doing – I could see it in her face that she didn’t sleep all night. And that she loved me.”
At the mention of Marcheline Bertrand, who died of ovarian cancer at age 56 in 2007, Jolie drops her gaze. “I wish she were here. I am never going to stop missing her. My mum was born to be a grandmother; she would have just loved it. She did meet some of my children, and she was fantastic. Maddox still remembers everything about her.” Jolie has long been certain that her mother held on, fought through the pain of chemotherapy, until she was confident that all would be well. “As soon as Mad came home, I think she knew that everything was going to be all right,” she reasons. It’s 10-year-old Maddox who looks out for Jolie now. “I’ll be doing something and I’ll be frustrated and he’ll hold my hand and say, ‘Are you feeling tired? Is that why you’re upset?’ He really does take care of me.”
Her relationship with her father, actor Jon Voight, has thawed slightly after years of estrangement. “He’s met the kids. We’re in each other’s lives, but we don’t, as a rule, discuss the past,” she says, alluding to the decades of discord that followed her father’s purported infidelity, which led to her parents’ split. Jolie takes another sip of wine. “When my mother passed, I had to call and tell him. I was going to write it in a letter because I hadn’t spoken to him in six years, but I realised I had to make a phone call. We spoke for about two minutes. I wasn’t calling to take care of him. I was calling to pass on information. So it was a very brief conversation.”
Through two and a half hours of conversation, Jolie has picked at an array of Indian food and not once glanced at a phone, a BlackBerry, or even a watch. Her security guard reminds her what time it is: Pitt is returning home and the family has a go-kart outing planned. Swiftly, she makes her way to the door with me. I receive a couple of continental pecks on the cheek and a friendly smile goodbye. Then she heads to the ladies’ room to freshen up. No wonder: I leave the restaurant ahead of her, stepping into a feeding frenzy of paparazzi. Moments later, behind me, Jolie steps into the safety of her car. The midday clouds are gone and the sun is shining bright. Perfect go-karting weather.