Watching Angelina Jolie stride through a restaurant is to be given a lesson in how to avoid attracting attention in public. She looks ahead impassively, her back is straight and she walks at speed so that she will have moved on before any diners, who think they might just have spotted the world’s biggest female movie star, have time to do a double take.
Unlike the other diners in The Grill on the Universal Studios lot in Hollywood, I know she is coming, so although I am seated at the back of the restaurant I notice her as soon as she enters. She is dressed entirely in black – black shirt, black trousers, black shoes – her long brown hair falling over her shoulders, a Louis Vuitton bag clutched at her side. Suddenly she is standing next to me and I am scrambling awkwardly out of my seat to introduce myself. “Hi,” she says, putting out her hand for me to shake, her face lighting up into a broad smile that almost knocks me off my feet. “I’m Angie.”
We squeeze into a booth facing each other and a waiter asks if she’d like something to drink. I arrived 10 minutes earlier and am already halfway through an Arnold Palmer – iced tea mixed with lemonade – a staple of California lunches. She orders a mint tea, flashing another smile.
She explains that she chose the location because she is using an office at the studio to put the finishing touches to her directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, a love story she also wrote, which is set in the Bosnian war. It’s a low budget affair with a little-known cast and today is her final day of post-production. “This is the crazy day,” she says, looking at the menu. “We’re down to the wire. Today at 4 o’clock we make the call and it’s all over. We’re locked and there’s no changing it.”
Lunch has taken a while to pin down. In addition to making films, Jolie, 36, has six children and a raft of humanitarian commitments with the United Nations as an ambassador with its High Commission for Refugees. Over the years her UN role has involved visits to camps in countries such as Sierra Leone, Pakistan and Ecuador.
She doesn’t have a publicist so our meeting was arranged after several weeks of e-mail and telephone correspondence with a mysterious Frenchman called David. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said one day. “The good news is she definitely wants to do it. The bad news is you have to go to Malta.” Her partner, actor Brad Pitt, had been filming in Europe and she and the children were there with him.
We decided it would be better to wait until she had returned to Los Angeles, which is why we are now in a restaurant at Universal, home to Steven Spielberg’s production offices, several soundstages and the sets of numerous television shows. Inside The Grill, framed prints of classic Universal releases such as The Birds and The Creature from the Black Lagoon hang on the walls. I had taken in the surroundings while waiting for Jolie to arrive but now she is here it is difficult to look at anything else. In person, her beauty is amplified; her eyes sparkle mischievously when she laughs, her celebrated lips frame a set of blinding white teeth. She rarely does interviews and is guarded at first – particularly when I broach subjects that she is reluctant to discuss. For instance, she doesn’t want to tell me too much about her new film because she doesn’t want to pre-empt the press campaign which is being lined up ahead of its release. But as she deflects these questions, there is a knowing smile and a shrug that is almost apologetic, as if to say, “Sorry, it’s all part of the game”.
The waiter has returned with her tea, and when it is poured Jolie adds some honey to her cup. We look at the menus again. “There’s a pasta in here somewhere,” she says when the waiter asks if we’re ready to order. “I’ll have that with chicken.” I choose grilled salmon with heirloom tomatoes.
She tells me she has brought her daughters with her for this trip. She explains that she and Pitt tend to travel everywhere with them and the family is never in the same place for long. “We take turns working so one of us can be home with the kids.” They are apart when we meet, though. “It’s been hard – I’ve been [in Los Angeles] for a week and it’s very unusual to separate for this long. I brought the girls so we’re having a special girl trip. All the boys are hanging out with Brad ... he’s filming a zombie movie [World War Z].”
The Jolie Pitt family is a miniature League of Nations. Their eldest son Maddox, who is almost 10, was adopted in 2002 from his native Cambodia. Zahara, aged six, was born in Ethiopia, while Shiloh, the couple’s first biological child, was born five years ago in Namibia. Pax, whom they adopted four years ago, was born in Vietnam and three years ago, Jolie gave birth in France to twins Knox and Vivienne. “They are all learning about each other’s cultures as well as being proud of their own,” she says. “So it’s not like just the boys get to do the Asian thing. They all have their flags over their beds and their individual pride. We owe Vietnam a visit, because Pax is due. Z wants to get back to Africa, and Shiloh too. So everyone takes their turns in their country.”
She has been to Cambodia this year, to shoot an advertising campaign for Louis Vuitton with Annie Leibovitz. An impoverished country might seem like an odd place for a luxury fashion house to shoot an ad campaign but the final decision was made by Jolie herself. “To actually do it there, to highlight the beauty of the country, was something I was very happy to do because it is a place people should travel to,” she says. Indeed, she and Pitt have a house there – “it’s a little place on stilts”. Her fee from the campaign will go towards charitable projects in the country, she says, building on work she began with a foundation the family established in Maddox’s name. “It’s focused on protecting mountains from deforestation, poaching and clearing landmines. We put it together for Mad so when he’s older he’ll hopefully take it over.”
Our food has arrived. Jolie’s pasta is simple, with pieces of chicken in a tomato sauce. But my salmon is a part of an elaborate creation, built into a tower, with an ornate garnish of fennel, heirloom tomatoes and some other diced vegetables that I fail to identify. It looks ridiculous and when she sees my plate she bursts out laughing.
Given how much they travel I wonder where they consider home. “Home is wherever we are.” Does she feel rootless? “Yes, but happily. I’m very bad at staying in one place. I’m also bad at sitting still. I was a terrible student at school. But there’s so much to explore in the world ... so I love travel. If you can travel I think it’s the best way to raise kids.”
This reference to her youth reminds me how much she has changed over the past 15 years since she came to prominence with her role in the high school cyber thriller Hackers. Back then she seemed an archetypal Hollywood wild child. The daughter of actors Jon Voight and Marcheline Bertrand, she talked of self-harming in her teens and by her late twenties she had been married twice – first to Hackers co-star, English actor Jonny Lee Miller, and then to the American actor and singer Billy Bob Thornton. She had an interest in knives, acquired several tattoos – including one of Thornton’s name on her arm (it has since been removed) and wore a locket containing his blood.
The controversies accompanied a rising career. In 2000 she won an Oscar for her startling performance as a patient in a mental hospital in Girl, Interrupted and soon became a fully fledged action star with the role of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (2001) and in films such as Mr and Mrs Smith (2005). It was on that set that she first met Pitt and the pair have since become Hollywood’s premier power couple, their fame magnified to the extent that they are, according to their friend, actor Matt Damon, “like prisoners”. The media scrutiny shows no sign of letting up. Last year the couple sued the News of the World when it printed a false story alleging that they were breaking up; I ask if she shed any tears at the newspaper’s recent closure. “I did hear something about that ... clearly I never read it. So it’s hard to know how much of a loss it is.”
She has spent most of her adult life in the public eye. But the person I have read about before our lunch couldn’t seem more different from the poised woman opposite me. Motherhood has changed her, she says, particularly with respect to her career. “I’ve never not been grateful to be an actor ... but I think when I was younger I needed [acting] more. I was trying to question things in life so you find these characters that help you find things and grow.”
She explains that her relationship with acting has changed over the years. “It’s like being in therapy, in a way,” she says, taking a forkful of penne and chicken. “You’re drawn to certain roles because they question something about life, or about love, or about freedom. You ask these questions as you grow up: am I strong enough, am I sane enough? Do I understand love, do I understand myself?” Now, she adds, “I’m older and I know who I am ... and I’m less interested in the character helping me answer something ... than in being able to answer it for myself, as a woman, as an adult, with my family.” We talk about Salt, an action film released last year in which Jolie punches, shoots and kicks her way through the CIA, Secret Service and a cabal of rogue Russian spies. The title role was initially written for a man but the script was modified when it became clear she was interested. “I’d just had the twins,” she recalls. “I’d been in a nightgown for a very, very long time. And I was sitting in the hospital breastfeeding and reading this script in my nightgown, feeling so soft and mama ... and I was flipping these pages and it was all fighting and shooting guns. I thought, ‘That’s what I need. I need to get out of my nightgown and I need a gun.’ I’m sure many a woman who has been through childbirth has thought ‘It would be nice to get a little physical, get a little wild ... to remember what that other side is like.’”
She says she is not thinking of quitting acting any time soon. “But I don’t love it as much [as I did]. I love being a mom.” She is, however, clearly excited about being behind the camera for the first time. “I prefer it to acting,” she says. I ask if she drew on her experiences with the directors she has worked with. “I think I’ve learnt something from all of them – even the ones I didn’t like.” I try to get her to dish the dirt on the latter but she politely declines. She is full of praise for Michael Winterbottom, who directed her in A Mighty Heart (2007), the story of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was abducted and killed in Pakistan. “I also learned a lot from Clint Eastwood [her director in 2008’s Changeling] about how to appreciate the members of the crew, empowering them to do their job. I never worked with David Fincher [director of Fight Club and The Social Network] but I know him as a friend and have seen how meticulous he is, his attention to detail, how hard he works – even when you’re too tired to go back into the room – to make sure that you’ve got it right.”
Fincher is in the frame to direct her in the forthcoming Cleopatra, but Jolie hints that we may see less of her on screen in future. “As Brad and I get older we’re going to do fewer films. I’ve been working for a long time, he’s been working for a long time ... we’ve had a nice run and don’t want to be doing this our whole lives. There are a lot of other things to do.”
China is on her list of places still to explore, and she would love to see Burma, “but not in the wrong circumstances”, given that the country is under the control of an oppressive military junta. “And Iran. I’d love to go Iran.” Her dream, however, is to “cross the Sahara. It takes 28 days ...it would have to be on a camel. I wonder if I could do it in pieces and station the kids along the way,” she muses.
I tell her it sounds ideal for their nomadic family and we stand to say goodbye. There’s no handshake this time, although she leans forward to kiss me on each cheek. Then she walks away through the now half-empty restaurant, out into the California sunshine, back to work.
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent
Universal Studios, 3900 Lankershim Blvd, Studio City, California 91604
Arnold Palmer $2.50
Hot mint tea $2.50
Pasta with chicken $19.00
Grilled salmon $23.00
Total (including service) $61.11