Taming Her Wild Heart
By Dotson Rader
Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier
‘I always wanted a great love affair,” Angelina Jolie says, “something that feels big and full, really honest and enough. No moment should feel slight, false, or a little off. For me, it had to be everything.”
Jolie and I are in a luxury hotel bungalow on a summer afternoon in Los Angeles. Actor Brad Pitt, 46, her companion of five years, has gone off to meetings, and we are alone. The six Jolie-Pitt children are at home at the family’s hillside compound a few miles away.
Jolie is wearing a sleeveless pearl-gray tunic, a small gold watch, and a diamond-and-emerald ring. Tattooed in tiny script on her left arm is a Tennessee Williams quote: “A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.”
At 35, Jolie is the world’s most glamorous movie star—beautiful, elegant, poised, generous, beguiling. An Oscar winner, she has starred in more than 30 films, most recently in A Mighty Heart, Wanted, and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. She is among the world’s highest-paid actors. Her two Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movies were international blockbusters. Her new film, Salt, a double-agent spy thriller, opens next week.
Jolie is also known for her work on behalf of the world’s dispossessed. She is a leading advocate for millions of refugees, the “stateless, homeless people facing slaughter,” as she describes them, “the most vulnerable human beings who have no protection and no voice.” She goes where she is needed and pays her own way. “I have learned how to be a useful person,” she says. She and Pitt give millions to charity every year.
If usefulness is an important part of what makes her happy, as Jolie claims, then it is a happiness that is relatively new and hard-earned. “It’s not a secret that I went through a self-destructive period, self-searching, looking for the extremities,” she acknowledges. “I used to cut myself or jump out of airplanes, trying to find something new to push up against because sometimes everything else felt too easy. I was searching for something deeper, something more. I tried everything. I always felt caged, closed in, like I was punching at things that weren’t there. I always had too much energy for the room I was in.”
Jolie grew up in L.A., the second child of movie star Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy) and Marcheline Bertrand, a sometime actress. They split when Angelina was 1, and she and her brother, James, an actor now 37, were raised by Marcheline. Mother and children were intensely close.
“My mother was an angel, a Catholic schoolgirl raised in a Chicago bowling alley,” Jolie says. “She could bowl like nobody’s business. My grandparents ran the bar and bowling alley. She came to L.A. at 17, hung out on the Sunset Strip, was a hippie, loved the Rolling Stones, studied acting, met my father. After her divorce, we had financial troubles. We never owned a home. We moved from small apartments to even smaller ones. We were always conscious of money.” Voight was their sole support. After years of estrangement, Jolie and her dad are now making efforts to reconcile.
“Mother never put herself first, ever,” Jolie says. “At the end, she said her greatest success was being a mother.”
Bertrand died in 2007 of ovarian cancer. She was 56. “I remember Mother singing in church,” Jolie says. “How pretty she was! I lit candles with her. She said she had missed nothing in life except getting to know her grandchildren. When she passed away, I brought my son to church to light a candle for her.” Jolie’s eyes fill with tears. She pauses. “Forgive me,” she says. “I loved her so much.”
As a child, Jolie took acting classes and modeled, at her mother’s urging. She attended Moreno High School in Beverly Hills. “It’s where the bad kids go. I chose it. I was the punk outsider who nobody messed with. I was fearless. At 16, I graduated and moved out.” Four years later, she landed a lead in the film Hackers, opposite British actor Jonny Lee Miller, now 37. The two wed. The movie flopped. Their marriage died a couple of years later. “We were just too young,” Jolie says. In 2000, she married actor Billy Bob Thornton. That bizarre union—marked by buying his ’n’ hers grave plots and wearing vials of each other’s blood—also failed. That same year, she won an Oscar for Girl, Interrupted. It made her a movie star. She was 24.
“I went through a period when I felt my film characters were having more fun than I was,” she says without irony. “It might partly explain why I ended up tattooed or doing certain extreme things in my life.”
Jolie pauses to show me the inscription on her arm, one of her 13 tattoos. “The wild heart caged.” She smiles, then says, “I unlocked my cage years ago. I want my children to have that freedom. I want that for other people, too.”
In 2000, while in Cambodia filming the first Lara Croft movie, Jolie met victims of war living in refugee camps. She was deeply moved by their plight. She contacted the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and offered to help. The agency sent her on the first of many missions into war zones and other areas of human catastrophe.
“One of the first camps I went to had 400,000 people,” she recalls. “It was a sea of human misery. In Sierra Leone, I saw tens of thousands with their arms and legs cut off [by rebels], orphaned children. I felt completely overwhelmed. I cried constantly. I felt guilty for everything that I had. Then I realized I wasn’t doing these people any favors by crying. I kept getting angry at the injustices until I couldn’t think straight. I took a deep breath and focused on how I could help. I discovered that I was useful as a person. When I met suffering people, it put my life into perspective. It slammed me into a bigger picture of the world.”
In 2001, Jolie was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the UNHCR. The next year, she adopted a Cambodian orphan, Maddox, now 8. She and Pitt have added two other orphans—daughter Zahara, 5, from Ethiopia, and Pax, a 6-year-old Vietnamese boy. She and Pitt also have three biological children: daughter Shiloh, 4, and twins Knox and Vivienne Marcheline, 2. The kids, like their parents, are subjected to an unrelenting media circus. I ask how she and Pitt protect them from being harmed.
“We do everything we can to keep our kids away from it,” Jolie replies. “We travel to places where the kids aren’t aware of that kind of thing. We try to give them a full life where they don’t have to come face to face with that world. With the paparazzi present, we’re careful when we leave the house. Other than that…” She laughs at the absurdity of it all. “We don’t stand in the checkout line at the grocery store looking at the magazines. Our friends don’t tell us about it. And our kids don’t know. I feel if we keep looking out for them, they’ll be fine.”
I ask Jolie if their children are the reason she and Pitt stay together. She looks at me like I am nuts.
‘The children certainly tie us together, but a relationship won’t hold if it’s only about the kids,” Jolie says. “You also must be really interested in each other and have a really, really wonderful, exciting time together. We do.” She grins. “Brad and I love being together. We enjoy it. We need it, and we always find that special time. We stay connected. We talk about it. It’s very important. If Brad and I are strong and happy, then our kids have happy parents, and that’s the best thing we can give them.
“The most important thing is our children,” she continues. “They’re our greatest responsibility. Our privilege is to raise them. It’s our job. That’s who we are. And when we pass away, that’s what we will have done with our lives. When I think about projects I’m involved in, I start to realize that our children are getting ready to take these things on themselves. And if Brad and I raise them right, then they will be taking them on.
“Brad and I make a point to take turns working,” she explains. “He doesn’t work when I’m working. He takes the kids to school; he visits me on set with the kids. I’m home for dinner, or I’m there for breakfast. We’re together all the time. We plan. Brad and I take time off between films to travel, have big experiences, do things together. That’s how we work it out.”
Jolie tells me they have discussed doing fewer movies in the future in order to spend more time with each other and the kids.
“There’s never a period when Brad and I are pulled apart,” she says. “We are not separated for more than three days, ever. We stay really connected. We actually don’t go out much. It’s funny. We’re very homebound. We’re very much Mommy and Daddy in our pajamas.”
It’s all about love, I suggest.
She nods. “I feel sad for someone who has never known love,” she replies. “Love elevates. Brad knows me completely, exactly as I am, every part of me. He loves me. The kids love me. They know all my flaws and all my oddities. And they accept them. And so I can feel complete.
“You know, Brad would joke about me having this conversation about love,” she confides. “Love? It’s such a funny word. Brad can find certain phrases of poetry for it. I’m terrible at it. But I know it means wanting the best for the people you love, putting their interests above your own, always. Love does that. Love is what you live for.”
Keeping audiences guessing in her new movie, Salt.
“It’s a thriller and it has lots of different twists and turns. The biggest challenge of the film was to try to create a character that people would follow and be interested in even though they weren’t sure she was a good or bad person. So she was nicely complex to play. Salt has great action sequences in it. I worked with people I’ve worked with for ten years on action movies, so we had fun.”
A modern take on the female action star.
“Women in action movies, as I’ve done in the past, tend to either be fantasy or something very sexy-cool. They aren’t based in any kind of reality. This is the first one that I’ve tried to do that is not a cartoon. It’s not a fantasy. She is a good, solid character. It’s about the CIA. It’s today.”
Today’s action star, yesterday’s high school misfit.
“I was actually quite a cool kid. I was not tough. I was certainly independent and bold. I was never teased. I never had any trouble from anybody. But I was never satisfied. I had trouble sleeping. I didn’t really fit. I always feel that I’m searching for something deeper, something more, more…You want to meet other people that challenge you with ideas or with power or with passion. I wanted to live very fully. I wanted to live many lives and explore many things.”
Wandering the streets of New York City.
“I went through my time in New York where you think it’s really romantic with the saxophones and the subway and, for a few months, it’s really fun. I had this weird period of quiet where I was completely on my own. I knew nobody in New York. I love my freedom. I used to fall asleep on the train and wake up at the wrong place. I’d walk all over town. I’d get dropped off at the tip of New York and walk all the way back to my apartment on West 74th Street. I learned a lot. But, suddenly, it was very hard and very dark for a period. I didn’t like it. And then Gia came out and I couldn’t ride on the subway anymore and life changed.”
Avoiding the dangers of the movie business.
“There are many people we’ve seen lost in this business because other people haven’t stopped to make sure they’re OK, you know? People are aware when others are breaking, but in this town they don’t tend to stop and help them. In the end, it costs a life. Part of the sadness in this business is that there are a lot of people in it looking for approval and love. I’m lucky because I was raised with so much love that I can take a lot of knocks and not take anything personally.”
Her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, was all she needed.
“She was a proper mother, constant. We never had a nanny or housekeeper. Mother worked every day of her life. I’ve always wanted to be useful, like her. She was our everything. I’ve never needed to be loved because I’ve had my mother. So I’ve never felt the need to be understood.”
Faith has always played a crucial role in her life.
“My mother had a beautiful faith. She loved Jesus. She was Catholic and had a warm memory of growing up in her faith. She loved to go to church. She also knew that there were certain things in the Church that were too extreme for modern life. She didn’t approve of everything the Church was preaching but, instead of going against the Church, she just went with Jesus. I saw her spirituality as beautiful. If we didn’t go to church on Sunday, she’d say, ‘God would want me to spend time with my children, and laugh with my children. That’s what I believe God would want.’ Mother was right and we’d have a wonderful, fun day.”
Her opinion of religion.
“I respect all religions. What I don’t respect is when people use religion to attack others. I’ve met people across the world, in the middle of nowhere, who are just trying to survive and all they have is religion. In some way it helps them, and I wouldn’t take it away from them. There are also people who use it to hate and kill. I don’t consider them religious people.”
What her children are being taught to believe.
“Brad and I are raising our children to respect everyone. We have a bookshelf in the house that has the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, everything. We will take our children to church, temple, Buddhist ceremonies, Mosques, teaching them about all faiths. Whatever religion they choose, the choice will be theirs.”
Raising children with an open mind.
“First of all, as parents, we try not to spoil our children. Because we travel a lot, what it took me until my twenties to learn about life, our children know already. They spend time in Cambodia in a teeny hut and hang out with local children. They help me visit distressed areas. They have friends with no money. They see and live in different worlds. They also appreciate having nice things. They like this house [in Los Angeles] because it has this pool. But they also love Cambodia because it’s got the fun places to throw rocks and cut coconuts and ride on elephants. They love Africa because the kids are really fun to play with and the nature is so beautiful.”
Setting a good example for the kids.
“We’re just trying to show them different sides of life so they don’t just think one way. We’re hoping that, organically, it will be in them to feel for people who do not have as much. We want them to appreciate what they have and be grateful for it. They’ll be inspired to give and help people out because they’ll have close friends who don’t have as much. They won’t whine about things they want. And they won’t want more. We try to raise them with those values in mind.”
Her answer to critics who say she and Brad should adopt American kids.
“Everybody likes to criticize people. It’s an uneducated moral snobbery. It shouldn’t matter where children are born. When I first started working with refugees, people would say, ‘Why aren’t you helping these people and not other people?” I simply looked to help. I make the choices I make because they’re the choices I feel are right. Becoming a mother was the most wonderful thing.”
How she safeguards her children from the media frenzy.
“We don’t pay attention to it now, other than when we know we have to. If we have to [avoid the paparazzi], we go in a van, or we go underground, or have somebody block a car. Neither one of us has a publicist. We don’t go to those gossip sites online. We are really pretty oblivious to it. So that helps keep the kids away from it. We move them a lot. They seem, right now anyway, quite savvy. They are six of the most interesting, toughest people I’ve ever met.”
What she sees as her family’s strength.
“We’re a very close, very connected, very big family. We talk a lot about things. The children talk to each other, and they look out for each other, and they have each other. Yes, they have friends, but they also are very, very closely connected to each other.
Loving Brad and their relationship.
“Brad is a wonderful man. He’s extraordinary, because he really, really stepped out on his own away from what he knew growing up. It’s just such a natural transition. When you really love someone, you evolve. Love trumps everything. It’s like when you have a child. It’s not that you consciously put them before yourself — it’s that doing it is what you instinctively want because you have to come from a place of love. When I think about Brad, there is a lot of love.”
Being true to herself.
“I’m going to be who I am. People can hate me, and that’s fine, because if somebody loves me, he loves me for being me. I am who I am at home and everywhere else in all my life.”