Angelina Jolie: Drawn to darkness

Angelina Jolie, who prefers villain roles, opens up on how her six kids have changed her life

Angelina Jolie (above) plays Maleficent, who curses Aurora to prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Angelina Jolie (above) plays Maleficent, who curses Aurora to prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Angelina Jolie plays Maleficent (above), who curses Aurora to prick her finger and fall into a deep sleep. -- PHOTO: WALT DISNEY STUDIOS MOTION PICTURES, SINGAPORE

One of the unspoken rules of celebrity journalism is to proceed with care when asking about someone's life off screen, especially when it comes to family and relationships.

Hollywood publicists' default policy is to say, "No personal questions allowed", knowing full well this rarely works in practice because no one really wants to hear actors go on and on about their work and nothing else.

Another rule is this: The bigger the star, the more she can do whatever she wants. And stars do not get much bigger than Angelina Jolie.

The 38-year-old Oscar-winner does not even have a personal publicist, for that matter - very unusual for an actress of her stature, much less a major public figure the actress, director and humanitarian has become in recent years.

Even more surprising is how freely she speaks about her children and their father, her actor fiance Brad Pitt, as Life! discovered when she talked to a group of reporters about her new movie, Maleficent, in Los Angeles last week.

The fact that Jolie is appearing in a film at all is a bit of a novelty these days - her last proper acting job was 2010's The Tourist, a thriller co-starring Johnny Depp that flopped in the United States.

So there is a charge of anticipation in the air as reporters wait to speak to her.

Her face when she enters the room does nothing to diffuse this: serious, intense and inscrutable, as it often seems to be on screen or on a page. It does not help that she is dressed like she is going to a funeral, her fondness for a wardrobe of blacks and greys on display yet again today with a lacy black mini-dress.

This, together with the razor-sharp angles of her stunning features, lend a touch of severity to her beauty and the effect, though impressive, is slightly forbidding.

Despite this, she is asked right off the bat a question about her children. Whereas many actors would flinch or freeze, she answers with alacrity and her demeanour softens instantly.

She reports that the kids - Maddox, 12, Pax, 10, and Zahara, nine (whom she adopted from Cambodia, Vietnam and Ethiopia, respectively), along with Shiloh, seven, and five-year-old twins Knox and Vivienne - have all seen an early cut of the film, which is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale from the perspective of the evil Maleficent.

Life! asks if they are tough critics and she grins. "They can be," she says with a laugh. "They are."

She then proceeds to speak fondly about her brood for the majority of the interview, right down to the nitty-gritty of how strict she and Pitt are as parents (no Facebook, no Twitter and no phones at the dinner table).

It is no different from the sort of thing you would hear from any mother, but it is highly irregular for a Hollywood star, many of whom behave as if the mere mention of their offspring invites all sorts of invasions of privacy.

Of course, it would be hard to not talk about her children at all, given that one of them, Vivienne, appears in this movie as a younger version of Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty character played by Elle Fanning.

The other kids were tickled pink by this because the character is glued to Jolie, much like Vivienne herself is in real life. "They think it's hysterical because she's that kid at home - she's my shadow. She's one of those little girls who want to know where mummy is at all times, she has to hug mummy. And so when my kids see her kind of stalking me in the movie, they all fell over laughing."

The actress even volunteers the fact that Vivienne demanded to come and see her while she was giving interviews that day. "She's here now because she wanted to come see me right now, so I had to take her from school," she says fondly, melting again when a reporter tells her there was a collective "awww" from the press during Vivienne's scenes.

Jolie has said that she and Pitt, 50, whom she met when they made the movie Mr And Mrs Smith (2005), do not really want their kids to become actors.

But she had no choice but to allow Vivienne to do this film because she was the only child they could find who was not terrified of Jolie in her scary Maleficent make-up.

Still, it was challenging to pretend that she hated her own daughter, who plays the child Maleficent has cursed.

"It was tough to stay in character, but we made it a game where I was going to try to be as mean as possible and she was going to keep using the power of her smile.

"She did know that it was a game, but it was a little hard. It's hard to hold your child up and say right into her face, 'I don't like children', and then hope that that doesn't leave a lasting impression."

Like Vivienne, she made her screen debut opposite her parent - she was just seven when she appeared in the 1982 movie Lookin' To Get Out with her father Jon Voight, the Oscar-winning actor best known for the 1969 movie Midnight Cowboy.

Years later, she would show that she had inherited his dramatic talents with her first major screen role, the acclaimed 1998 television biopic of model and drug addict Gia Carangi, which earned the young actress the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Mini-Series or TV movie.

In 1999, she played another troubled character, a patient in a mental institution in the film Girl, Interrupted, which won her an Oscar as well as a Golden Globe.

Jolie says she has always been drawn to dark characters and misfits - and to the villains rather than the princesses in fairy tales. So she is the first to admit it was not a stretch for her to play the evil fairy who curses Sleeping Beauty to prick her finger and fall into a death-like sleep, although in this version of the story, Maleficent turns out to have been a bit misunderstood.

Early reviews for the movie, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, have been largely positive, with Jolie singled out for praise.

Yet the actress has had a rather spotty resume, with big action films such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Mr And Mrs Smith (2005) doing well at the box office but going down rather less well with critics, with Lara Croft earning her a Worst Actress nomination at the Razzies, as did the historical drama Alexander (2004). More recent blockbusters such as Salt (2010) and The Tourist, meanwhile, have underperformed commercially.

Still, Jolie's star has only grown brighter, fuelled in part by the public's fascination with her off screen. Her unconventional persona has set her apart from other celebrities, as has her stunning reputational transformation - from the wild child who once wore a vial of former husband Billy Bob Thornton's blood around her neck to the dedicated humanitarian who now travels to war zones in aid of refugees.

Her romance and subsequent family with Pitt, whom she met while he was married to actress Jennifer Aniston, have also been a dream come true for the tabloids.

Thus, despite an uneven track record at the box office, she was still the highest-paid actress in Hollywood last year, when she took home about US$33 million.

She has also made the transition to director, graduating quickly from independent film - In The Land Of Blood And Honey, a 2011 romance set against the Bosnian War - to big-budget action drama with the upcoming war movie, Unbroken.

Even without a public relations team behind her, she is often praised as one of the most media-savvy celebrities around, whether she is skilfully negotiating the sale of the first pictures of her twins to the tabloids, or announcing her preventive double mastectomy with an editorial in The New York Times last year.

Similarly, her openness about her family in interviews she has done to promote this new film has perhaps allowed her to control the narrative, rather than leaving it open to media speculation.

And she continues to be frank about how parenthood has transformed her life, linking this back to the character of Maleficent, whom she says is very similar to her. "In my life, I think I was born quite open-hearted, trusting and loving. Then like everybody, there are different things in my life that have made me trust less and become more alone and more angry and more careful."

It was her family with Pitt, she says, that "helped me to be light again".

Her eyes darken, however, when asked about her thoughts on betrayal and revenge, which are also themes in the movie.

Is she a turn-the-other-cheek kind of person herself? "No," she says emphatically. "I think it'd be different if maybe somebody hurt me. But if somebody hurt my children, I don't know if I could."

She adds that she is also trying to teach her children that bad people need to be punished, especially in the context of her work with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, first as a goodwill ambassador and now a special envoy, with a focus on helping those affected by conflict.

In fact, she has used the publicity tour for Maleficent to draw attention to the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls by terrorists, which she attributes to a "culture of impunity" that has seen perpetrators of atrocities getting away with them in the past.

"My kids know that I work a lot on justice issues and they have travelled with me when I visited different courts or tribunals. They understand what impunity is and the need to end it, that people who do bad things sometimes get away with doing those bad things, and that in order for us to stop those bad things, we have to stop letting people get away with them.

"So I am hoping to instil a strong sense of right and wrong, but also that there's actual active things that they can do, to combat that, that it's not just something that they have to live with in their lives."

She also confirms that she is cutting back on her acting to focus on her humanitarian activities and work as a writer and director instead.

"But I am not retiring, I will do one or two if they come, the right ones. I have been in front of the camera for so long in my life and it's nice to step back."

Stepping behind the camera is far more rewarding, she says, but once again, it is all about the kids.

"Directing takes longer, but you have more flexibility. Like, I am editing Unbroken now and the kids are always there and they come on set and I can be there for breakfast, I can be home for dinner, they can come to work with me and I can take days off if they need me to take them to the dentist.

"It's a different kind of work and also a more fulfilling kind of work because you are just more involved in the story in such a deep way and you are involved in the crew.

"And the kids are getting into their teens, so they are going to need me to be ready to do less and be there for them."

Maleficent opens in Singapore tomorrow and will be reviewed by Life! on Friday.

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