Angelina Jolie: Sitting pretty

Hollywood's favourite rebel has grown up – UN ambassador, domestic bliss with Brad Pitt, and now a powerful new film about the murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl. Angelina Jolie talks to James Mottram. Portrait by Yariv Milchan


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The life and death of Daniel Pearl by Rupert Cornwell


This is what you call a Hollywood moment. I'm sitting in the grounds of the Hôtel du Cap, a venue so reassuringly expensive even A-list stars probably think twice before ordering the lobster for lunch. In front of me is Angelina Jolie, she of the bee-stung lips and body so lithe it could make the beautiful people feel the need for a nip-tuck. In the background are the azure waters of the French Riviera, a calm counterpoint to the maelstrom that is the Cannes Film Festival a few miles down the coast. There, Jolie's new film A Mighty Heart, the harrowing story of the kidnap and murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl, has just been unveiled to considerable acclaim.

Such a film deserves serious and sombre consideration, something that's reflected in Jolie's outfit for the day – a cream skirt, translucent blouse and beige heels that lend her a commanding and elegant air. Yet as I look up, a procession of Hollywood's crème de la crème rolls past. Flanked by a gang of burly security guards, the Ocean's 13 stars are all being led off to press some flesh. It's like being front row at the Oscars, as a dapper looking Don Cheadle is followed by the boyish Matt Damon. Then I see him. Wearing a beige suit he seems to have lifted straight from the wardrobe of his Ocean's character Rusty Ryan, Brad Pitt walks by, turning his head briefly to glance at the woman who turned his world upside down.

I'm half expecting him to come and pull up a chair. After all, he produced A Mighty Heart for Plan B, the production company he originally shared with his wife Jennifer Aniston, before splitting from her in January 2005. When Jolie and Pitt finally went public with a relationship rumoured to have begun on the set of Mr & Mrs Smith the previous year (when Pitt was still married), "Brangelina" was born. And be it to cover their high-profile philanthropic work or their ever-swelling "rainbow" family, the media circus has not stopped following their every move ever since.

As Pitt strolls on by, it's the sort of scene that fuels our fantasies about the glamorous lifestyle of the A-list. But perhaps because she's the daughter of the Hollywood heavyweight Jon Voight, or because she attended the infamous Beverly Hills High, where so many stars have been schooled, Jolie has never been one to buy into such fairy-tales. She knows exactly how "fortunate" she is, as she puts it. "We have a nice place here," she says, slightly underselling the opulence. "The kids are running around on the grass, and we've got to hang out with them all morning. Then we do some of this, and then we're done at four, so I get to hang out with them again." After being estranged from her father for years, and following the recent death from cancer of her mother, the French actress-model Marcheline Bertrand, family is evidently her number-one priority.

Still only 32, Jolie has matured immeasurably since she adopted her first child Maddox from Cambodia in 2002. Perhaps not so coincidentally, it was the same year her second marriage, to her Pushing Tin co-star Billy Bob Thornton, fell apart after just two years. Up until then, whether it be her knife collection, penchant for S&M, or her ever-growing number of tattoos, she cultivated a reputation as Hollywood's bad girl du jour. With behaviour that would make Lindsay Lohan blush, she famously married her first husband Jonny Lee Miller, whom she met on the set of 1995's cyber-thriller Hackers, in a white shirt with his name daubed in her blood on the back. When she and Thornton wed, they wore vials of each other's blood around their necks.

The archetypal Hollywood rebel, then, it's surprising to note that just a few years later, comparisons are now being made with other film-star campaigners, such as Jane Fonda and Mia Farrow. Ironically, Jolie began this transformation to respectability when she was cast as Lara Croft, the living embodiment of every teenage boy's favourite cyber fantasy, in Tomb Raider. Her experience shooting the film in Cambodia changed her life irreparably. "I knew nothing about refugee camps," she says. "I knew very little about Pol Pot – only that by reference he was a bad guy, but I didn't understand what that meant. I did one scene and they said, 'Don't go over there – there are land mines.' And I thought, 'That's insane!' I had many, many moments like that."

Almost overnight she shed her punk snarl as she took on a role as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees goodwill ambassador, travelling to such danger zones as Sierra Leone and the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. " I think with anybody, as we grow up, there's a certain time in your life when you realise that if you're not useful to others, and not being actively involved with the world, then you're not doing anyone a great service," she says. "You're just making entertainment and it doesn't feel very good at the end of the day to go to sleep like that and feel that this is all you are. I wanted to get a great education in the world. I felt I didn't get one growing up, so I wanted to travel and be in these countries. I just wanted to be a student of the world."

If anything has suffered during this period, then it's been the quality of her work, as if she was so spent giving her time to charitable causes that acting became an after-thought. Long gone were the days when she won a Golden Globe for playing the Aids-ravaged supermodel Gia Marie Carangi in TV movie Gia. In came terrible genre movies such as Original Sin and Taking Lives, or experimental flops like CGI-heavy Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Some choices were downright bizarre, like her extended cameo as the mother of Colin Farrell in Oliver Stone's period flop Alexander. While Mr & Mrs Smith, with a worldwide gross of nearly $400m, kept her stock high, even recent prestige projects, such as this year's Robert De Niro-directed CIA drama The Good Shepherd, failed to impress.

But with its title sounding like a movie-of-the-week bio of Jolie herself, A Mighty Heart is different. Offering her most important work since 1999's Girl, Interrupted, when her blistering performance as an asylum inmate, Lisa Rowe, won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, she is undeniably an early front-runner for a statue next year. She plays Daniel Pearl's wife, Mariane, who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. At the time, Daniel and Mariane, then pregnant, were journalists based in Pakistan. After covering the American bombings of Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, Daniel, a bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, was researching a story about the shoe bomber Richard Reid when he was kidnapped in January 2002 by Islamic militants. His subsequent beheading, just over a week later, shocked the world.

Directed by Britain's Michael Winterbottom, A Mighty Heart is seen through the eyes of Mariane during those horrendous days, as she waits and worries while attempting to track down her husband (played by Dan Futterman) with the help of the Pakistani authorities. Shot almost like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, Jolie does her bit for verisimilitude, donning brown contacts and a wig. While it's undeniably a gruelling watch, it's also a stirring tribute to Mariane's indefatigable spirit and dignity in the face of such trauma. "She's not blinded by hate and fear," says Jolie. " You can hardly get her to talk about that. She will not bend to self-pity at all. And I think – not just in this situation but as a woman – that's a remarkable thing to watch."

As it happens, Jolie has known Mariane Pearl for years, after the widow had read an interview with the actress and sent her a note out of the blue, asking if she and Maddox would like to make a play-date with her and her son Adam. "It helped in that I was able to study her and [get] a very good, clear idea of who this person was that I was playing," says Jolie. "But then at the same time when you are that close, it makes you very hesitant when you feel like you're mimicking a friend. You feel very shy about it. I came to care about her and her son: it's harder when you do know the person, in a different way, in an emotional way. And the film becomes very, very secondary to the realisation that there's a woman and this is her life and it's a responsibility." She pauses for a second. "I didn't sleep well many nights, taking this on."

In a bizarre twist of fate, Pitt had bought the rights to the book before he knew Jolie. "Before Brad and I were together they had talked about it, and she had mentioned that I'd be a good choice," she recalls. " Then we ended up being together as a family, Brad and I, and I'm sure that was funny for her." By this point, their family had grown considerably, after they adopted two more children – the Ethiopian-born Zahara Marley, two, and Vietnam-born Pax Thien, three – as well as Jolie giving birth to Shiloh Nouvel, now 16 months old. Pitt, it seems, was more babysitter than producer on A Mighty Heart, when they were shooting in India. "I was working on the set every day and Brad was figuring out how to entertain the children in a hotel room in Puna – which was hard."

Curiously, the last time I met Jolie was for Beyond Borders, the 2003 film about a refugee worker who falls in love with a renegade doctor. At the time, she was about to head off and make Mr & Mrs Smith, a comedy about two married espionage agents who both had no idea the other was a spy. " It's about marriage," she told me, "which is interesting because he [Pitt] has a great one and I have had some bad experiences." A purely innocent comment, it nevertheless took on far greater resonance when Jolie was branded a home-wrecker in the wake of Pitt's split with Aniston. By the time it came to promoting Mr & Mrs Smith, interviewers were reputedly asked to sign a document, which stated questions about their still unconfirmed romance were off-limits.

Given the intense speculation, this was hardly surprising – though Jolie has always been tremendously open with the press. "I don't want to be somebody who thinks about what they say, and censors it – ever in my life," she told me in 2003. When we meet again, nothing has changed: Jolie is frank, forthright and as freewheeling as ever. Nothing is off-limits, so it was something of a shock when, a few weeks later, it was rumoured that US journalists were again being asked to sign a document outlawing personal questions. Hardly the done thing when promoting a film about freedom of the press, she was branded "a mighty hypocrite" by one interviewer before it was swiftly revealed that, unbeknown to Jolie, such instructions had come from her rather over-zealous lawyers.

Whatever the truth, there can be no denying that – like Tomb Raider before it – the innocuous Mr & Mrs Smith sent Jolie's life spinning off in a new direction. "We talk about that," she admits. "We look around at our kids. I'm not somebody who thinks about destiny and fate, but I don't walk away from it when something unfolds. It's like my children. Especially when you adopt: Maddox had a bit of a say when I met him but all my other children were just, 'This is the child that's been chosen for you'. And I suppose it's like a child you give birth to, as you can't have a say in it. I see that when I look at my kids. They're so ... it just seems so right. It's hard to understand how it could unfold so beautifully; at certain times things do feel that way."

Only last month, rumour had it that she and Pitt were planning to adopt a fourth child – a baby girl from Ethiopia, though this was quickly doused by their PR machine. Still, Jolie laughs when I suggest that she's building up her own football team. "We're heading there!" she says. "Ever since I was about 12, I've always wanted to adopt – I don't know why. We want to have a big, big family. But we're taking it in layers to see how much we can handle to make sure we have time. Right now, we just about have time to give every single one of them special time daily. And that's the important thing. We want to make sure we can do that." How does she cope, juggling career and kids? "Sometimes it gets hectic, but it's a lot of scheduling. I'm a manic scheduler."

Doubtless, her craving for a stable family life comes from her own upbringing being anything but. Goddaughter to the actors Jacqueline Bisset and Maximilian Schell, she was just two years old when her father, an Oscar-winner himself with the Vietnam story Coming Home, separated from her mother. Her childhood was, by all accounts, a liberal one; at 14, her regular boyfriend was allowed to stay over in her room. Two years later, she took acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute before embarking on a brief modelling career. It was at this stage that she dropped "Voight" and adopted her middle name, Jolie. While she remains close to her brother, James Haven – whom she notoriously kissed on the lips when she won her Oscar back in 2000 – her relationship with her father has been tempestuous at best.

"Family Friends" have come out of the woodwork to claim Voight was a serial womaniser during Jolie's childhood. After playing father and daughter in Tomb Raider, it appeared as if the pair had, at long last, patched things up. But shortly after Jolie's split from Thornton in 2002, Voight went on US TV show Access Hollywood and said he wanted his daughter to "get help" for "serious mental problems". At the time, she responded by saying, "I don't want to make public the reasons for my bad relationship with my father. I have determined that it is not healthy for me to be around [him]." A year later, she told the veteran US interviewer Barbara Walters that the reason Voight's TV plea angered her was because it may have affected any future adoption plans she had – and their relationship has remained in limbo ever since.

With a house now in New Orleans, which the budding architect Pitt designed, she makes their life sound faintly domesticated. "After the kids are asleep, we'll hang out together and relax – take a bath or something," she smiles. While she has a glut of projects coming up – from a retelling of Beowulf to the comic book thriller Wanted – she says that last year she worked only two-and-a-half months. "I take big chunks. I've taken six to nine months, and then just been home. I do have a lot of time off, actually." She tells me that she and Pitt have made a pact that if any must-do project comes along, then the other will support the family. " We take turns," she says. Even if she doesn't believe in them, it still sounds like a genuine Hollywood fairy-tale.

'A Mighty Heart' opens nationwide this Friday

****

The life and death of Daniel Pearl

By Rupert Cornwell

Daniel Pearl was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on 10 October 1963, but moved to California to take a degree in communications at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He cut his journalistic teeth at a string of regional papers in Massachusetts, the North Adams Transcript, the Union News, and the Berkshire Eagle. But his talent clearly demanded a wider canvas.

In 1990 he joined the Wall Street Journal, serving first in the paper's Atlanta bureau before moving on to Washington DC in 1993, where he covered transport policy. In both places he delivered more than his share of fine stories. Pearl was a skilled journalist and a notable master of the "A-head", the off-beat feature pieces that enliven the Journal's austere front page. Throughout his career, Pearl demonstrated an intense interest in people and the sharpest eye for detail.

He had the reporter's priceless knack of giving an easily accessible human dimension to a complex story. His style, a colleague once put it, was "laid-back, sleepy-eyed Californian", enriched with dollops of charm and a quirky sense of humour.

He also indulged his musical talents, on the violin and the bluegrass electric fiddle. In Atlanta, as lead violinist for a group called Ottoman Empire, he had the thrill of opening a bill headed by the Kinks. Years later in Washington, he was a frequent sight in jam sessions at small bars in the Adams-Morgan restaurant and night club district.

In 1996, Pearl became a foreign correspondent for the Journal, moving to London and then Paris. Though based in Europe, he developed a special interest in the Islamic world. His stories covered topics ranging from the vagaries of pearl diving in the Persian Gulf to Osama bin Laden's use of gem trading to finance his terror operations.

Pearl also investigated the US missile attack on a drugs plant in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1998, concluding that some of the evidence "becomes murkier the closer you look". As that observation suggested, Pearl was no cheerleader for US strategy and policies in the region.

It was at a party in Paris that he met his future wife Mariane Van Neyenhoff, also a journalist. The couple married in 1999. A year later, Pearl was named the Journal's South Asia bureau chief and the family moved to Mumbai. In late 2001, Pearl began to travel to Pakistan to investigate the case of Richard Reid, the British shoe bomber, and alleged links between al-Qa'ida and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

Had she not been pregnant and feeling unwell, Mariane would have accompanied Daniel to the fatal rendezvous in Karachi on 23 January 2002. As it was, he arrived alone for an appointment with contacts who he had been led to believe would take him to a meeting with a prominent radical Islamic leader.

Instead Pearl was abducted and within days a previously unknown group, the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty, had issued a statement demanding the release of Pakistani prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, along with an e-mailed photo of Pearl, chained and with a gun to his head.

Intense efforts to rescue him were in vain. Nine days later, on 1 February, Pearl was murdered and beheaded. His body was found in a shallow grave in the outskirts of Karachi on 16 May.

Three suspects were caught after the e-mail addresses for the ransom demand were traced. On 21 March 2002, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and three other suspects were charged in Pakistan with kidnap and murder. They were convicted on 15 July 2002 and Sheikh was sentenced to death.

During his trial, Sheikh told investigators he had kidnapped Pearl to "strike a blow at the United States and embarrass the Pakistani government". But on 10 March 2007, however, the leading al-Qa'ida operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed claimed responsibility for the murder during his appearance at a Combatant Status Review Tribunal in Guantanamo. In a confession read during the hearing, Mohammed stated: "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl, in the City of Karachi, Pakistan."

Two days before his abduction, Pearl learned that the baby Mariane was expecting was a boy; he chose the name Adam for their son. In May, just three months after his murder, Mariane Pearl gave birth to Adam.

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