Talk Transcript: Sean Smith on Angelina Jolie

"A Mighty Heart," starring Angelina Jolie, is based on the best-selling book by Mariane Pearl about the murder of her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, by Al Qaeda members in Karachi, Pakistan, in early 2002. The movie details Mariane's struggle—with the help of Journal editors, Pakistan counterterrorism experts, FBI agents and others—to unravel the terrorist network and find Danny. Much in Mariane's life has changed since then, including the birth of their son, Adam, who is now 5 years old. The film opens June 22. Pearl spoke to NEWSWEEK's Sean Smith from her home in Paris about the film, her friendship with Jolie, the politics of terror, and the true meaning of revenge. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Were you prepared for the huge response to your book when it was published in 2003?
Mariane Pearl:
Well, it wasn't something I was writing to be successful, so I had no expectations. It was so personal, I didn't know if it was something people would want to read. But I think you touch people's hearts if you're writing from that place within yourself.

Often people write books about painful experiences to find a sense of closure. Was that your objective?
When I started writing this book I was still pregnant, so it was kind of an emergency for me. I knew I had to write it for my son, Adam, and for Danny. But it felt like I had just came out of hell and now I had to go back in. I've never tried to really "heal." I was more preoccupied with how to un-break my life and how to answer what had happened to me.

In March, the federal government released a statement from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay, claiming, in graphic detail, that he personally killed Danny. How did you react to that?
[Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales called to tell me that he was releasing [the confession] to the press, and I told him, "This is just PR."

Because Gonzales was under investigation for the firing of eight U.S. attorneys?
Right. Gonzales was in trouble, and he was trying to look like he was doing a good job with terrorism, and that's the only reason he released it when he did, and I told him so. This was not news. [Mohammad] had been saying that for a long time. I felt very sad because someone like Khalid Sheik Mohammad can have a gruesome, graphic description of a murder and every [media outlet] is going to pick it up.

What did you do?
I wrote a statement and sent it, but this is a repeated struggle. All you can do to oppose what [Mohammad] does—or what Gonzales does, for that matter—is show dignity. Dignity is the opposition.

Why did you want to have a film made of "A Mighty Heart"?
I didn't want to do a movie. I just didn't think it was right. It took me a while to agree to meet some studio producers.

The only way I was going to do a movie was if someone understood why I wrote this book in the first place. I was also worried that Danny would be turned into a saint, or that everything was going to be oversimplified. I see how people deal with issues related to terrorism, and it's very hard for people to embrace complexity. And, when I started meeting with producers, my fears were confirmed. One told me, "This is a great political thriller." I thought, "No way."

Brad Pitt ended up producing it. How was your meeting with him different?
First of all, we were contemporaries. He understood that this was a serious time in history and that we all needed to do something about that. And he had actually read the book, and he understood why I wrote it. We had the same intention.

Do you feel you and Angelina have shaped each other's worldviews?
We have very passionate conversations. [Laughs.] I always learn from her, and I never walk out of a conversation with Angie without learning something. She doesn't acknowledge borders so much, and neither do I. It's a voluntary view of the world. She's capable of respecting other cultures while remaining herself.

What was your reaction when she said she wanted to play you?
She didn't ask me. I asked her.

We had talked a lot and shared a lot of things. We had known each other for about a year, and I just felt that she understood my heart. That is what I wanted. I thought, "If somebody is going to play me, I don't care that she looks like me." It's about something much more important. I asked her because I trusted her.

When she was preparing to play you, what kinds of questions did she ask?
We had very open-heart talks. We talked about our relationships with our mothers. Everything that was important to me I told her, so it was very intense. But she didn't ask me about anything that's in the book, anything she didn't need to ask me about. She was very protective that way. When she started shooting the film, though, I decided not to go to the set, so she was on her own a lot. The other actors got to talk to their real-life counterparts more.

Why did you not want to go on set?
I felt it would probably be harder for her if I was around, and it would be difficult for me. I absolutely had no desire to control anything. When I decided to trust them, I trusted them entirely.

Angelina said she had a tough time perfecting your accent.
[Laughs.] She said, "I love you, but your accent drives me crazy!" I'm not even aware of all the difficulties she went through, and that's not having to do with skin color or accent. To be friends with someone and then have to embody the most difficult thing in her life, that's not easy.

Speaking of skin color, there was a lot of uproar about Angelina playing you because she's white. Some people think a woman of color should have played you.
I am Cuban, but I'm also Dutch. Should a Dutch person play me? It's not about skin color, it's about how a person behaves that matters. Aren't we past this?

It's ironic that this film hit that particular nerve, considering that it's so much about cross-cultural unity. You had so many different races of people helping you search for Danny after he was kidnapped.
To me, it's a story about Danny being held by extremely intolerant people, 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. That's how I see it. That's how I wrote it. So yes, it's way deeper than the color of your skin.

We talk about the "war on terror" a lot since 9/11. Are we fighting the right battle? Has your view of how we should fight terrorism changed?
That's a complex question, and there are two layers to it. One is political, which is complicated and depressing. With politics and governments there are always compromises. It's just not clean. The second layer is personal. Terrorism is a psychological weapon, even though it uses physical means. 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. That is the only thing terrorists don't expect. Everything else they expect: retaliation, bombing, attacks. All of that is exactly what they want. Deny them fear, and they lose. I know that requires a lot of self-control, but if we don't exercise self-control, I don't think you can secure any kind of peace.

Yes, but how do you get the average person to see that?
I'm not saying everybody has got to start understanding that. It's about the incarnation of that attitude. I write a column for Glamour magazine and I travel the world and write about people who are doing exactly that. I have to say, a lot of them are women—ordinary women, who are role models. It just takes one person, one leader, to do that, and it has the power to make people think.

It's a pretty noble reaction to terrorism, especially considering what happened to you.
I'm not saying this because I'm a nice person. [Laughs.] It's not forgiveness that motivates me. It's revenge. Terrorists expect retaliation. It's very easy to want to hurt someone who has hurt you. 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." But it's not like happiness is something worry-free. I'm in a battle here. A world vision shaped by people who don't want you to claim the world as your own can squelch the purpose of an entire life. Confronting AIDS in Africa or poverty in India, and when you see children suffer—it's hard emotionally—but that's your work as a human being. How could I live all this time without having any idea that it was going on? I'm more afraid of being in a bubble than I am of wide-open spaces.

What was it like for you to see this film for the first time?
Very difficult. It's very, very close to my experience, so it's difficult for me to be objective. But what I can feel is the respect and the friendship that I have felt from everyone involved in the movie, from day one. I was right to have trusted them.

With the book, and now the movie, you have to keep talking about this period of your life. After five years, does some part of you want to put it on a shelf and move on?
It's not that I enjoy talking about what happened to Danny. I don't like to be thrown back into the most difficult moments of our story. But that's not my story with him. I married him, and we had a really beautiful relationship, and we have a beautiful son. So I have much more than his death in my life. I knew that the way he was killed could hijack the person he was. My victory, I think, is that Danny is present, in a lively way, in my life and in Adam's.

You were five months pregnant with him when Danny was kidnapped. Adam is 5 years old now. What's he like?
He's great! [Laughs.] I'm not claiming any objectivity. He looks a lot like Danny. He has the same sense of humor, the same sense of joy, and he's a very wise little boy. Danny was very serious about being silly, and Adam is very silly.

I heard that Brad and Angelina's daughter, Zahara, has a crush on him.
[Laughs.] Definitely. Which is really cool, because I love Z. They look very cute together. It's perfect.