Angelina Jolie: Supermum adopts a tiger mentality

Angelina Jolie's latest turn as an animated big cat is all about family and taking responsibility – two things the Hollywood actress knows plenty about, she tells Gill Pringle

"It's about a search for self," says Angelina Jolie, pondering the deeper topics raised in her latest film about an adopted kung-fu-fighting panda who must save the world from an evil peacock that has weapons of mass destruction.

"I think that who we are and who we decide to be in life is not defined by our parents, our past, the way we look or where we're from. We make the choice." Jolie returns to the role of Tigress in Kung Fu Panda 2, in which she helps Jack Black's lovable panda, Po, to understand that it doesn't really matter whether Mr Ping the goose is his birth-dad or not. The message is that family is what you make it – so who better to cast than the world's most famous adoptive mother?

A vision today in a white St John trouser suit, Angelina Jolie's exquisite loveliness is impossible to ignore. A curious thing happens when she is present, a sort of hushed rapture that no other celebrity is able to generate. She claims, predictably, not to make an effort.

"In my life, I hardly brush my hair very often. I try to be as low-maintenance as possible because of my kids, so I can just get up and get ready and do things and not take too much time." Arguably the natural successor to Elizabeth Taylor in terms of beauty, mystery, passion and using her celebrity clout for advocacy, she's now tipped to remake the most famous of Taylor's films, Cleopatra.

Her journey has been no less dramatic – the troubled youth; the fractured relationship with her father Jon Voight; the grey area surrounding the beginning of her relationship with then-married Brad Pitt; the enduring sorrow at the death of her beloved mother Marcheline four years ago, and the peace found in building her own multicultural family – three adopted children and three with partner Brad Pitt. Has she found peace?

"I don't know if I have found it. But, especially when you have children, you wake up every morning and, if they are happy and they are healthy, then you have peace. You know that that's all that you should be worried about. Then from there you work on all these other things that bother you and you try to fix injustices and the bigger issues in the world. But you kind of start from one simple thing to be grateful for."

At the recent Cannes premiere of Kung Fu Panda 2 she seemed in a less good temper when quizzed about the mounting rumours that she is planning to adopt again. It's little wonder that speculation is high given that she assembled her family of six in as many years. First came Maddox, now almost 10, adopted from a Cambodian orphanage in 2002, then Ethiopian-born Zahara, six, followed by the birth of her first child with Pitt, daughter Shiloh, now five, and the Vietnamese-born Pax who was adopted less than a year later. With the couple's most recent arrivals, twins Knox and Vivienne, now almost three years old, there is frenzied anticipation that Jolie is either pregnant or poised to adopt.

She hasn't ruled out the possibility of either. "We're always open if it feels right, but we have a full house and, at the moment, nothing has become clear to us. It's the same, I suppose, as when somebody decides to get pregnant, there's just a moment where something becomes clear to you and, at the moment, that's not what we're discussing," says the actress who turns 36 tomorrow.

But she has left plenty of time to add to her family. With her Bosnian love story In the Land of Blood and Honey, which she wrote and directed, set for release later in the year, none of her other projects is set in stone, although she's rumoured to be attached to several.

Her brood is the perfect test audience for her latest film. "I brought my kids, aged from two to nine, and after I had to call Jeffrey [Katzenberg] and say: 'We're good. This gauge range is two to nine. It's working!' My children loved it. I was very curious about how they'd react to the family themes and how my character was raised in an orphanage and then was adopted by Shifu, and in this one Po discovers that he's adopted. It's one of the more complex stories and films I've ever been involved in, with characters and themes that I stand by and believe in."

If voicework in a animated kids film is a walk in the park for an actress with an Oscar, three Golden Globes and two Screen Actors Guild awards, then she still brings intensity to the role.

"She is certainly a character that shows a lot of emotional restraint. She's not relaxed. She's the opposite of Po. She is somebody that is very good physically but emotionally is very uncomfortable. Part of her voice and part of her personality is closed in that way. You could imagine she doesn't let herself cry. She doesn't let herself be hurt. She doesn't talk about how she feels. She's quite hardcore. That's part of her personality. It was an interesting voice to play with but it wasn't intended to sound a certain way, it just came out, I think, that way because she is repressed."

As for the Jolie/Pitt jet-setting lifestyle, if it often seems like one glorious adventure, that's because it is. "I do enjoy travelling, especially to any place we haven't been where we can stay for a very long time. We love safari adventures and living in tents, we love to go to Asia. Really any place new, something beautiful that's also physical. We have so many kids that it's nice to have an adventure."

China and South America are next on the list. "I never take pictures, though, and that drives Brad a bit crazy because he's not on any family photos as he always takes them. I often see all these people taking pictures to capture the moment and I think you miss the moment because you are trying too hard to capture it. I want to live it."

She frets, though, about keeping her children's education on track during their travels. "I wish there was a book every parent could read that tells you how to navigate through the school system, and how to tailor the education system for your children and their interests," she says. "I'm personally getting a lot more involved with their different tutors and teachers." They are now in the Lycée programme having enrolled in several different countries – New York, Prague, Venice. "But we have different teachers from different cultures in our house, who travel with us. Not only nannies but teachers. Pax speaks Vietnamese and there's one who speaks to him in Vietnamese every day, and there are people with an African background. To us it's about building a team around us where we can all be enhanced culturally and they can help with following a curriculum legally.

"I do think we live in a different age and the education system hasn't caught up with our children and our way of life. But we travel and I'm the first person to say, 'get the schoolwork done as quickly as possible because let's go out and explore'. I'd rather them go to a museum and learn to play guitar and read and pick a book they love. I feel that there's got to be a new way to tailor things more directly to our children. Considering the amount of information we have today, the internet and online books... we as parents need to think about how we can shake it up and make it better," she says.

Having devoted herself to humanitarian affairs over the past decade, in particular working with refugees as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, she's stuck for answers when asked what kind of hero the world needs today. "That's a complicated one. Unfortunately, I don't know if there is one hero. Maybe it's quite the opposite – we need to find a collective. We need to come together more and find central things between our countries, and between our religions: to try to individually, one person at a time, start working together better."

'Kung Fu Panda 2' opens on 10 June

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