Talk Transcript: Sean Smith on Angelina Jolie

Perhaps it wasn't the best idea to dress actors in Pakistani police uniforms, hand them AK-47s and stand them in the dirt courtyard of a Muslim school in India while children were in class. Still, that gaffe would have been fast forgotten if the film being shot on campus, "A Mighty Heart," weren't about the murder of Jewish American journalist Daniel Pearl by Muslim extremists—and weren't starring Angelina Jolie. When parents showed up that Nov. 16 afternoon to pick up their kids, the gates were closed to keep out the paparazzi who had surrounded the school, their telephoto lenses aimed like rifle scopes. The parents became anxious, so the school opened the gates, and the paparazzi flooded in with them. The film's security guards tried to hold back the crowd. A scuffle ensued. No one was injured. But the following morning, two of Jolie's bodyguards were arrested for intimidation. Unnamed sources in local newspapers claimed that the white British guards had shoved parents and kids and called them "bloody Indians" and "bloody Muslims." "People advised me that this movie was politically dangerous," Jolie says. "I thought maybe I shouldn't touch this. Maybe it would do more harm than good." Just like that—in a perfect storm of post-9/11 tensions and celebrity-obsessed media culture—a minor event had escalated into an international incident, and Jolie had gone from being the most famous star in India to its most famous racist.

The next morning, her bodyguards in jail, Jolie is in a 21st-floor hotel suite on the western edge of Mumbai, where she's set to shoot her final scene of "Heart" as Pearl's widow, Mariane. It will not happen. Jolie, wearing a wig of dark curls and brown contact lenses, sits cross-legged on the floor with four of her fellow actors. Her body is still, but there's anger in her voice. "We've become so eager to accuse people of being racist, but I would rather they make up almost any other story—about me sleeping with someone, anything—but that," she says. "It's not only a crazy accusation, but it's the most insulting thing you could say about me, that I would employ someone who would be disrespectful to someone's race or would harm a child. They take care of my kids." On the other side of the city, Brad Pitt, one of the film's producers, has gone to the police station to try to get the men released. Plans are in the works for him to be interviewed that evening by Barkha Dutt, a.k.a. "the Indian Oprah," to de-escalate the situation (Hollywood's version of fighting fire with fire). Jolie sighs. "People can just hate back and forth, and I understand my own country's irresponsibility with our foreign policy sometimes, but can't we please try to be open-minded, and see that there are some of us who are trying?" Within an hour, the hotel management will shut the film down. Protesters have threatened to surround the building. Jolie's square-shouldered security guard appears by her side and tells her, under his breath, "We need to move you now." Calmly she gathers her belongings, and then turns to a NEWSWEEK reporter. "OK," she says with a smile. "Let's run!"

The irony is that "A Mighty Heart" is, in essence, a plea for international understanding. Four months after 9/11, Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was in Karachi, Pakistan, with Mariane, who was five months pregnant with their first child. He was working on a story about a possible Karachi connection to "shoe-bomber" Richard C. Reid when, on Jan. 23, 2002, he was kidnapped by Qaeda members. After releasing a series of increasingly disturbing photos of Pearl in captivity, they beheaded him on a videotape that would be leaked to the media and broadcast to the world. The film is based on the best-selling book of these events, written by Mariane and former NEWSWEEK editor Sarah Crichton. Jolie plays Mariane as she and a team of Wall Street Journal editors, Pakistani counterterrorism experts, FBI agents and others struggle to unravel the tangled terrorist network and find Danny. It is also a film about Mariane's decision, in the wake of Danny's murder, to not seek retaliation or blame Muslims for his death. "To me, it's a story about Danny being held by extremely intolerant people," Pearl says from her home in Paris. "And yet we, in that house in Pakistan—Christian, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim—came together to find him. It's as if two visions of the world were fighting each other."

There's little question that America changed after September 11, 2001. The world, with all its inequities and anger, was suddenly much closer, and we no longer had the luxury of ignoring it. News became more serious and more global, and it seemed for a time that shift would become permanent. Yet paradoxically, the past six years have also seen an explosion in superficial celebrity coverage, as if Lindsay Lohan were a morning-after pill for Iraq. What distinguishes Jolie from every other star of her generation, indeed from every other public figure, is that her journey mirrors both this shift in national consciousness and the schism in media sensibilities. Since 2001, she has evolved from a carnal libertine into a 32-year-old mother of four and good-will ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, visiting populations in crisis in Sierra Leone, Darfur, Thailand, Ecuador, Pakistan and elsewhere. She attends the World Economic Forum. She donates one third of her salary to charity. Oh, and one more thing: she fell in love with Pitt. This combination makes her perhaps the only person alive who is manna to both The New York Times and Us Weekly. She is an unprecedented 21st-century entity, a tabloid star with international credibility, a "soft news" icon commanding respect in a hard-news world.

She also draws a lot of fire for crossing that line. Even after six years, Jolie is suspected of being a dilettante, a "celebrity tourist" to global crises. It's a charge that irritates those closest to her. "What would she have to do to prove that she's sincere?" says Pitt's producing partner, Dede Gardner. "Should she give more money? More time? It's a black-hole debate. When people judge anyone's sincerity, I just think, 'Oh, yeah? What are you doing?' " Still, does Jolie really understand complex global issues, or does she just show up for a photo op wherever the UNHCR sends her? "She's absolutely serious, absolutely informed," says former secretary of State Colin Powell. "Her work with refugees is not something to decorate herself. She studies the issues." Powell has spoken with Jolie several times over the years, and they've been honored together at benefits for refugee causes. There is, he says, no sanctimony about her. "For her, it's not about saving the world, it's about saving kids," he says. "She doesn't need this. This needed her."

It's difficult to spend time with Jolie and remain dubious. "When I first started doing this, I thought I could save everybody," she says. "I was sure that there had to be a simple solution. Now I'm still in the field as much as possible, but spending more time in Washington. You can fight forever to open a tiny shop or vocational training center—and that's fantastic—but if the trade laws stay as they are, it's not really going to help." In April, Jolie and Pitt funded Global Action for Children, a Washington lobby that advocates funding for AIDS orphan programs and education for children in refugee camps. Earlier this month Jolie was invited to join the Council on Foreign Relations, the elite club for the American foreign-policy establishment. It's no room for lightweights. Her fellow members include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Jimmy Carter, Diane Sawyer and Bill Clinton. "She has evolved in her understanding of where she can make the biggest impact," says her philanthropic adviser, Trevor Neilson. "Her strategies have become extremely sophisticated, and it's clear that she is now a serious player on international issues."

Amid all that, it's easy to forget she's an actress with an Oscar ("Girl, Interrupted"). While Jolie's priorities have shifted in recent years, that evolution hasn't been reflected on screen. With the exception of the little-seen drama "Beyond Borders," Jolie has continued to act in fantasy roles that rely on her sexual allure, such as "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "Original Sin," "Alexander" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." These films have helped fund her advocacy work, but they haven't moved the needle on her career. "A Mighty Heart," which opens June 22, does. Shot for less than $20 million by British director Michael Winterbottom ("The Road to Guantánamo") in a raw, documentary style that has become his trademark, "Heart" is a soul-rending depiction of Mariane's struggle to find her husband, and her refusal to let his killers define his life. It is a movie without melodrama or movie-star lighting, and it allowed Jolie to deliver the most delicate, powerful and human-scale performance of her career. This is no fantasy role; this is a real woman. "It's probably the most difficult character I've ever played," Jolie says. "The emotion is so raw and so constant. Mariane was calm, focused, organized, but I would have been hysterical, driving the streets of Karachi like a crazy person."

Driving the streets of Mumbai isn't easy, either, but for different reasons. Jolie is tucked into the back seat of a silver SUV, traveling home to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, across town from the hotel where she and the "Heart" crew were shooting. There's still no word on her bodyguards, and the incident weighs on her. "It just feels like we're drowning in a lot of confusion about each other," she says. "There's so much anger, and then you look around the streets here and there's so much imbalance and sadness. The focus is off." In this city of 18 million—almost double the population of Los Angeles—a reported 43 percent live in shantytowns and slums. Women plead for rupees on every block near the hotels. At stoplights, boys bang on taxi windows, selling trinkets or begging for rice. "I've never been around such extreme wealth next to such extreme poverty, and so much of it," she says. "It's hard to understand how it has gotten so bad." As we wait in traffic, a boy knocks on the window. He's selling books. She hands him a few protein bars. "Did you see what book he was selling?" she asks, as the SUV crawls forward. "Thomas Friedman's 'The World Is Flat'." She waits for the irony to register. "The first chapter is about outsourcing in India."

Jolie has a gift for intimacy. She smiles frequently, and her body language is relaxed and open. Fame tends to erect a scrim between actors and the rest of the world. When everyone wants something from you—an autograph, a photo, a movie, a million dollars, a quote—it's an understandable defense. But there's nothing guarded about Jolie. She does not evade questions or speak cautiously. She seems like a woman who feels safe in the world, and safe in herself. "She expresses how she feels, honestly," Gardner says. "And she expects the same of everyone around her."

That candor caused quite a stir when Jolie exploded into the national consciousness nine years ago playing a self-destructive bisexual model in "Gia." The daughter of actress Marcheline Bertrand, who died in January, and actor Jon Voight, Jolie had a penchant for knives and tattoos and treated every interview as a therapy session. Then there was the marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, the matching vials of blood, the very public sex life. You get the picture. "Yeah, I did have my wild times," she says with a laugh. It can be difficult to reconcile the Jolie of today with the hellion of yesterday. "We all go through enormous changes," Gardner says. "The truth is, who doesn't look back at who they were at 20 and say, 'Who the f--- is that?' " Fair enough. But it's Jolie's duality—the serious advocate and the sexual icon—that is at the crux of the cynicism about her. Good girls—smart girls—aren't supposed to look like bad girls. She's not playing by the rules. Then again, when Paris Hilton's arrest is top news all day on cable, it's clear that serious journalism isn't playing by the rules anymore either. Jolie understands that. She lives it. And years ago she decided that if the media were going to follow her no matter what she did, she might as well do something worthwhile. "When I was famous for being just an actress, my life felt very shallow," she says. "You've done nothing of any social relevance, and yet you have all these people interviewing you. You don't even know what you're talking about. You're just trying to find yourself." She pauses. "Traveling really did save me. I was just ... happier. It was feeling that I was doing the right things with my life."

It's easy to see why Mariane Pearl and Jolie became friends when they met two years ago. "We have very passionate conversations," Pearl says. "I never walk out of a conversation with Angie without learning something." After Danny's murder, Pearl made a quietly revolutionary decision about how she was going to live, and the life she was going to give to their son, Adam. "Terrorism is a psychological weapon," Pearl says. "It stops you from claiming the world as your own. It stops you from relating to other people. It creates fear and hatred. The only way to fight terrorists, as a citizen, is to deny them those emotions. Deny them fear, and they lose." Suggest that this is a noble position, and she laughs. "I'm not saying this because I'm a nice person," she says. "It's not forgiveness that motivates me. Terrorists expect retaliation. The one thing they're not expecting is my happiness. That's true revenge. And when I see Adam, and I see how happy he is, I think, 'I'm winning'."

It was Pitt who introduced Jolie and Pearl. "Being in the room with those two women is great fun," he says. "It's like sitting down with Roosevelt and Churchill." Pause. "Only much better-looking." In 2003, Pitt bought the rights to "Heart" through Plan B, the production company he shared with his wife, Jennifer Aniston. Aniston, in fact, told a Vogue writer that she was considering playing Mariane. But by the time the film was ready to be made in 2006, Pitt had divorced Aniston and fallen in love with Jolie. Pitt thought Jolie would be perfect casting for Pearl, but didn't bring it up. "I knew the part had to be played by someone with Mariane's strength and understanding of the world, but I didn't know how to broach the subject," he says. "It feels a little like Wolfowitz trying to get his girlfriend a job." When the news broke that Jolie would play Pearl, though, the entertainment press—in a textbook example of post-9/11 media bifurcation—took less than 12 hours to turn a film about the terrorist killing of Daniel Pearl into a celebrity soap opera. The story became that Jolie had "stolen" the part from Aniston, just as Jolie had "stolen" Aniston's husband. (For the record, Pitt's publicist said at the time that Aniston was never in line for the part. Aniston's publicist had no comment.)

The second, and more prophetic, controversy had to do with race. Some black actors, including British actress Thandie Newton ("Crash"), were shocked that Jolie would play Pearl, a woman of Afro-Cuban and Dutch descent. Some blogs went so far as to call it "the new blackface." The studio releasing "Heart," Paramount Vantage, insists that Jolie's makeup was not darkened for the role, and that any complexion variation is caused by the film's lighting. If they are lying—which is probable—it's only by a little. In costume and under natural light, Jolie looks, at most, a shade or two duskier than her natural complexion. Regardless, both Jolie and Pearl say they were blindsided by the charges. "I know that people are frustrated at the lack of great roles [for people of color], but I think they've picked the wrong example here," Jolie says. Pearl is more pointed: "This is not about skin color. I wanted her to play me because I trust her." She sighs. "Aren't we past this?"

After a long drive through the streets of Mumbai, Jolie arrives home at her hotel. As she enters the suite, a spectacular view of the Arabian Sea sweeps out before her, as does a much closer view of the debris of childhood—toys, clothes, sofa cushions—strewn across the floor. Jolie says "hello" to the empty room, and Maddox, 5, bolts from the hallway, leaps into her arms, wraps his legs around her waist, and starts talking at record-breaking speed about what a day he's had and how he did a handstand in the bottom of the pool. Jolie's eyes never leave his face.

After adopting Maddox from Cambodia five years ago, Jolie, and now Pitt, adopted a daughter, Zahara, from Ethiopia in 2005; gave birth to their biological daughter, Shiloh, last May in Namibia, and this spring adopted a son, Pax, from Vietnam. They plan to adopt more. "We want to have as big a family as we can," Jolie says. "Our only restriction is making sure we have time for everybody, and we're finding that we have the ability to do that." Pitt laughs when the topic comes up. "Yeaaahhh, we do things in extremes," he says. "But I've always embraced big changes, and this feels very natural. It's just the most fun I've ever had."

It's a bitter irony that a woman with this family, and this life, is accused of being racially insensitive, but there it is: the gift of a 21st-century global media and the gulf of fear and hatred between East and West that continues to widen. But she and Pitt have become quite skilled at using their wattage to their advantage. That night, Pitt will be interviewed by "the Indian Oprah," giving him the platform to tell the country that the charges are false, and—voilà!—the following day, Jolie's men will be released from jail.

It's difficult to imagine that all the noise around Jolie—the paparazzi, the tabloids, the crowds—doesn't take a toll on her, but she insists it doesn't. "People can question your choices, accuse you of things, but your real work and your integrity will [win] out," she says. "All that matters is if I build a strong family, if I'm able to do my advocacy work and if my children are happy." The sentiment is a little traditional, perhaps, for a lightning rod like Jolie. It's no rebel yell. But watching her with Maddox, the two of them standing there, foreheads together, framed by the afternoon light, it seems, somehow, like the most radical thing she's ever said.

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