By Alex Bilmes
Photographed by Yariv Milchan
Her new film, Mr And Mrs Smith, has suffered delays, disputes and digs in the press. Her love life is a source for constant tabloid speculation. And her plans to escape the movie industry are still on the drawing board. But the lady is unfazed. As she prepares for her 30th birthday this month, Angelina Jolie tells GQ why she’s sitting pretty.
It’s 35 miles, bumper-to-bumper-sticker, from the Hotel Bel-Air to City of Industry. Over freeway, under bypass, down off-ramp, up on-; from the 405 south to the 10 east, then the 60 towards Pomona, exiting at Azusa.
It’s a journey from the echt to the ersatz: from the cloistered entitlement of Stone Canyon Road – where you might find yourself, as I did, sipping iced water at the table next to former Secretary of State Warren Christopher – to the exurban sprawl of the San Gabriel Valley – where, again like me, you’ll sit in your SUV, hopped-up on a Coffee Bean Mocha Freezer, changing lanes just for the heck of it.
At last, City of Industry: ten square miles of strip malls, factory outlets and trading estates. Fifty years ago, all this was farmland. Now it’s a tangle of access roads, a low-rise, drive-thru approximation of a town. It’s also the location of the only fully functional McDonald’s I’ve ever heard of that has never served a Happy Meal – like lots of things in Los Angeles County, it’s just here for the movies.
Angelina Jolie is just here for the movies, too. She lives in Buckinghamshire, New York and Cambodia, and only comes to California to work. She sleeps amid genteel splendour at the Bel-Air and shuttles back and forth to City of Industry each day, making a right from Azusa on to Gale, and then left into the car park adjacent to the hangar where director Doug Liman is busy filming the final scenes of Mr And Mrs Smith, this summer’s action- comedy from 20th Century Fox.
Today is the last day of production on a film that has been bedevilled by delays, disputes and dithering executives. What began life as “a little romantic comedy”, to quote its leading lady, has turned into “a big summer action movie”. Principal photography began at the beginning of 2004, but repeated setbacks mean that more than a year later, the film is still unfinished.
Mr And Mrs Smith is not a remake of the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, which was about an uptight couple (Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery) who discover that, due to a clerical error, their marriage is invalid. Instead, this new film takes the rather more far-fetched premise that a bored husband and wife. John and Jane Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina) are actually both assassins for hire, each of whom has been commissioned by a separate outfit to rub out the other.
At its inception, the project was envisioned as closer in spirit to Prizzi’s Honor or maybe The War Of The Roses – the first a black comedy about a Mafia hit man (Jack Nicholson) who falls in love with a fellow killer (Kathleen Turner); the second a hysterical dissection of a divorce, in which a once happy couple (Michael Douglas and Turner again) slug it out for ownership of their house. Neither film is notable for its car chases, shoot-outs or pyrotechnics.
Ominously, Mr And Mrs Smith is now being mentioned in the same sentences – this one, for instance – as True Lies, the rather less successfully realised James Cameron blockbuster in which a spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) take on a cabal of nuke-toting terrorists.
The film is due for release in June. The trailers are already running in cinemas across the world, and yet here we are in late March watching preparations for a climactic shoot-out.
What’s going on? “We kind of didn’t have a decisive resolution,” says Angelina. “It’s complicated, the relationship of our characters. Are they fighting? Are they friends? Should it be funny or should it be really dangerous? So we’ve made a decision – it should be more dangerous – and we’re changing it.”
So now it’s a black-comedy-action- blockbuster, with shoot-outs and explosions and all the rest of it. “Except I’m not supposed to say ‘black comedy’, apparently,” says Angelina, “because they don’t do well financially. But, I mean, we try to kill each other. That’s not a normal comedy as far as I’m concerned.”
Happily, the CV of the film’s director, Doug Liman, encompasses both comedy and action – he made the inspired LA hipster flick, Swingers. as well as the definitive spy thriller of the last few years, The Bourne Identity – so if anyone can amalgamate the two genres, it should be him.
And, in truth, he’s looking pretty relaxed, sitting impassively in his director’s chair under our protective canopy; rubbing his stubble and studying the angles on the video wall in front of us; chatting to one of the film’s many producers, Lucas Foster, and his stunt co-ordinator, Simon Crane, who worked with Angelina on the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider films and with Pitt on Troy.
We’re inside the hangar now, in a vast, slightly larger-than-life-size recreation of a supermarket, aisles full of garishly packaged products. High above us, dangling from the ceiling on ropes, are eight gun-toting Navy SEALS in full combat gear. In the near-distance, a crane juts high above a central aisle. Men and women wearing earpieces and utility belts are busying themselves with technical things I don’t understand.
Later, sitting opposite me in her rather anonymous trailer, Angelina looks just as relaxed as her director. I ask if she’s sad that after today, the film is finished for her.
“No,” she says, arching an eyebrow. “I’m ready for it to be over. This one has gone on for a really long time.”
Frankly, she seems a bit bored. Is she? “Yeah.” Bored with this film, or with films in general? “I guess I just don’t care as much as I used to. I’m happier doing other things.” She’d rather travel, she says. And pursue her work as an ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). And spend time with her son, Maddox, now four. And fly her plane. Really, her films are just a means to an end. They pay the bills and they maintain her profile, which she needs to draw attention to the causes in which she’s interested.
Anyway, there are so few worthwhile, challenging films. And then you sign on for something only to find it changes during production and it’s not now what you hoped it would be then. “That starts to get really frustrating,” she says.
“Why would I want to spend so much time making a film other than as a means to an end?” she asks. “There’s so much drama that comes with films – bickering with studios, directors fighting for their script. There’s too much stuff about what product we need to get out to make this much money on that weekend. There’s not a lot of stuff that is exciting or fulfilling.”
Can she see a time when she’ll quit? “Yes.”
Is that time coming soon? “Yeah. I think I’ll probably do a lot less. And then just occasionally I’ll do something.”
I read her a list of the films she’s had out in the past two years – Tomb Raider. The Cradle Of Life, Beyond Borders, Taking Lives, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, Shark Tale, Alexander. Not one of these could be called an unqualified success. Is she pleased with them?
“I don’t put much thought into it.”
And how about Mr And Mrs Smith? Angelina purses her famously full lips. “It’s cool. I saw it and I actually like it.” she says. “And that takes a lot for me to say.”
Then she steadies herself. “Look, this is an easy job. Acting is a nothing job. And financially it means I can do so many things. The positive side of celebrity is that you can bring attention to things you think are important. I have a romantic image of myself in a few years quitting acting and travelling the world and doing good things, but I’m practical and I know I can do more good keeping my foot in…”
Many of these observations are probably not quite what the studio publicists were hoping for when they agreed to let me interview their star. Still, serves them right for hiring Angelina Jolie. “I’m pretty straightforward,” she says. “People know I’ll tell the truth.”
When last I interviewed Angelina for GQ. over a few glasses of red on a balmy evening in Montreal, in July 2003, she was defiantly single, having recently divorced Billy Bob Thornton; newly installed in her house in England; enjoying the early days of motherhood (she adopted Maddox from a Cambodian orphanage in May 2002); evangelising about her work for the UN and batting away questions about whether or not she was having an affair with a co-star.
So, what’s new? “Not much,” she says. “Two years later I’m still single, still living in England. Everything’s pretty much the same, other than that I’m more settled into it all. I think I was excited to be single then, it was so new. Now it feels more comfortable.”
As for those rumours about her leading men: last time, I remind her, it was Ethan Hawke, her co-star on Taking Lives, with whom she was supposed to be sleeping.
“And Olivier [Martinez],” she says, appropriately incredulous, “and Keifer [Sutherland]. Apparently at the same time! I guess I was getting around.”
Then, on Alexander, it was Colin Farrell. “And Val (Kilmer),” she says. “And Oliver [Stone]. There was even a story about Oliver.”
This time, for those of you who don’t follow these things, it’s Pitt whom Angelina is said to have been romancing, just as his marriage to Jennifer Aniston began to unravel. Is she having an affair with him? “No,” she says, quietly.
Later, in early May, the tabloid speculation surrounding Angelina and Pitt’s alleged relationship having apparently reached critical mass. I e-mail her manager to ask whether she wants to change her story. He says he’ll contact his client – at the time visiting Afghan refugees in Pakistan – and get back to me. Word returns almost immediately that Angelina has nothing further to say on the subject.
This kind of fevered media prurience doesn’t dog every actress. Why does she get picked on? “It’s because I’m outspoken about being a sexual person and having lovers, so people assume I pick up lovers on the sets of my movies,” she says. “Actually, I’m careful about who I sleep with. I’ve never had a one-night stand. I’ve had the same lovers for going on three years now.”
I’m curious how she manages these lovers. Don’t they ever get jealous of each other? “No!” she says. “Mind you, I haven’t seen either of them for a few months because I’ve been travelling, so… I think that two adults deciding they want to have a sexual relationship, and that they can respect each other and be friends – as long as they understand what they can and can’t give each other – is not that difficult.”
What’s difficult, and foolhardy, and perhaps even impossible, is to make a judgement on a person based on just a few hours – spread out over a few years – in their company. But I find Angelina refreshingly direct. She makes no attempts to disguise her colourful past, and none to cover up her unconventional present, but she does seem fated to be forever Hollywood’s bad girl. Like that other movie man-eater, Jessica Rabbit, she’s not bad. she’s just drawn that way.
“In this business,” she says, “it’s like, are you girl, the homemaker? It seems impossible for people to absorb the fact that somebody could be sexual and wild and a bit dangerous – maybe to the point of stupidity – but also really take seriously and love being a mom and a person who has a conscience and is compassionate.
So, for good or ill, she’s saddled with the beautiful nutter role. Does it matter, years after the outlandish behaviour that made her so famous, that people still think she’s bonkers?
“I think that deep down, people – even people who judge me – know they’re not that much different from me,” she says. “But I don’t mind being out there. Early on. I realised that either I could try to present the most perfect portrait of myself, or I could be honest. I may sometimes seem like I’m exposing something really private but at least it’s totally me. I don’t have some secret, some skeleton.”
Back on set, we’re all wearing earplugs and safety goggles. All except Brad and Angelina, who are sitting on the floor of the fake supermarket, semi-automatics at the ready, prepared for action. “Action!” yells an assistant director, and the Navy SEALS begin to rappel down from the ceiling, guns blazing, as the two leads race up and down aisles, firing on the run. It’s tremendously exciting: glass shatters, squibs pop, spent cartridges fly and, watching on the bank of monitors along with the director, the producer and sundry other crew members, I can’t work out what on earth is going on.
“What on earth is going on?” I ask Angelina when the scene is over (at a guess, ten seconds after it started) and she wanders over to talk. She starts to explain the plot, but it’s hard to concentrate on what she’s saying. I can’t take my eyes off her weapon, which she kindly allows me to stroke. Meanwhile, she looks fantastic in her tight black pants, her bullet-punctured shirt and her yellow-tinted aviators; long, black hair pulled back, almond eyes flashing. Our reluctant heroine sure looks like a movie star and she’s grinning a movie-star grin.
That looked fun, I say.
“Yeah,” she says, “it was fun.”
So there are upsides to film acting, after all. It’s just that Angelina has so much else to do. On 4 June, so probably before you read this, she turns 30. Over the phone a few days after our meeting, I ask her how she’ll be celebrating.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t usually plan things. My last birthday, I was with the UNHCR at a refugee camp in Chad. So I guess I hope I’ll be doing something like that.”
She can’t talk long this time, she says, because she’s about to fly a plane to New Mexico, where a girlfriend of hers lives. Angelina has a pilot’s licence. Flying, she tells me, apropos of very little, is better than sex.
“Oh, come on!”
But she insists.
“Is that really true?”
“That’s really true. Flying solo in an airplane? Are you kidding me?”
It strikes me that these days Angelina likes doing things alone. “Yeah, for sure,” she says. “I mean, I don’t have a lot of friends. I’ve been alone a lot. You know what it is? I think when you’re alone, when you go someplace and you’re by yourself, you end up meeting new people and you develop. I think people who travel in a pack don’t often end up meeting new people.”
She gets lonely sometimes, but Angelina likes meeting new people, so it’s a trade-off. “Anyway,” she says, “I’ve been in the wrong place with the wrong person a lot in my life and wanted to be free of it, so I’m happy to be away from that.”
In the next few months, she hopes to travel to Burma, or Myanmar, as she’s learning to call it. Then she’ll be in Cambodia, at her and Maddox’s house in the jungle. She was recently offered – and has accepted – citizenship there, and is glad that she and her son now share a flag. And she wants to return to Darfur. in Sudan, again with the UNHCR.
Some people. I say. would find it upsetting, spending so much time among the extremely impoverished of the Third World. “I like to be in that situation,” she says. “I feel closer to real life than where I was raised. I feel closer to people who are really connected to each other and to survival. Just real things, real problems.”
I’m reminded of something that one of Angelina’s predecessors, Jane Fonda, said recently. “I would have given up acting in a minute,” she told an interviewer, referring to her early days in Hollywood. “I didn’t like how it set me apart from other people.”
In her trailer back on the Mr And Mrs Smith set, I asked Angelina if she felt any sense of kinship with someone like Fonda, another beautiful child with a famous – and famously remote – actor father (in Jane’s case Henry Fonda, in Angelina’s Jon Voight); another bright young woman who stumbled into movie stardom before deciding that actually she might be rather more interested in other things; another girl who married an older, more experienced man, only to see the relationship fall apart: another sex symbol given to making rash statements to the press; another woman much misunderstood…
But she cut me short.
“I think we’re very different,” said Angelina. “I don’t have models or a plan. I don’t see myself from the outside. I haven’t quite figured it out yet.”
Haven’t quite figured what out?
“You know, life.”