“What I really want is some food!” Angelina Jolie is walking into a big, empty room in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, dressed like a businesswoman prepped for a meeting in a tailored black daytime suit and high-heeled black pumps. And it’s true: The lady needs to eat, her famously lithe frame having become thinner, paler, more birdlike since the last time we talked, a year and a half ago when the action thriller “Salt” came out.
A generous buffet will magically appear in the hall outside, but for now Jolie must content herself with a small bottle of water that she idly seesaws up and down while talking about her new movie. Not “her new movie” in the usual sense that it’s her famously puckered lips plastered on billboards from L.A. to Lesotho. Rather “her new movie” in the sense that she wrote, directed and produced it.
“In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which opened Friday, stars a cast of virtually complete unknowns, actors from the former Yugoslavia who appear in a story about the Bosnian-Serbian conflict in 1992. It’s a rigorous, sometimes raw look at life during wartime at its most senseless, an often startlingly effective portrait not just of atrocities that included rape, sexual humiliation and gratuitous killings, but of stark international apathy. In many ways Jolie’s film resembles “Hotel Rwanda,” about a similar instance of collective paralysis in the face of unimaginable violence.
“The crux of the story was my frustration with lack of intervention,” says Jolie, the bottle of water tipping back and forth in her small hand. “I spent so much time with people in post-conflict situations where I wish I could just turn back the clock, before they were so scarred, and before so many losses.” She wants audiences to experience her own feelings firsthand, so that “if you’re watching the film,” she says, “you’re thinking, ‘Can somebody please stop this? It’s getting worse, I want to get out of this theater, I just want to get out of here!’ ”
But first, of course, she wants to get people into the theater, not an easy proposition for a subtitled drama in Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, about a war that took place in a faraway place and time, featuring actors American audiences have never heard of. After shying away from initially exploiting her celebrity, she’s now a ubiquitous presence on the movie-marketing hustings, showing up for awards ceremonies, interviews and, just last week, when she and her partner, Brad Pitt, attended a special screening at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“I didn’t do this film because I wanted to direct or be a director,” Jolie says. “I didn’t even intend on doing that when I wrote it. [Brad and I] kind of joked about it, because it seemed so impossible for me to write a film that would become a movie. We said, we’re going to send it to people from all sides of the conflict with my name off of it. If they agree, we’ll consider making a film, and if they don’t, we’ll throw it in the trash. . . . I’ve tried to do the best I could, and I feel this is a representation of who I am. Most of the films I do are [about] characters that I have fun with, but are not representative of who I am and what I believe.”
It may be surprising that Jolie’s first film would be a subtitled, politically complex war drama rather than a frothy vanity production (imagine if Elizabeth Taylor, at the height of her glamour and obsessively publicized marriage to Richard Burton, had made a little art-house movie about the My Lai massacre). But to anyone who has tracked Jolie’s career, it’s utterly predictable. Over the past decade, the 36-year-old actress has transcended her beginnings as a creature of Hollywood to become a bona fide global figure — an international superstar, humanitarian activist and matriarch of a family that hails from and roams all parts of the world like its own self-contained G-8. (Jolie’s three adopted children are from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam; her biological children were born in Namibia and France, respectively.)
“My family, we met around the world and we were drawn to each other,” Jolie explains, recalling when she was filming “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in Cambodia and “just knew my son was in this country somewhere. It wasn’t intentional, it just felt right.”
In 2001, she traveled to Tanzania. “I was concerned about the situation in Sierra Leone, and I called the U.N. and asked to go in,” she says. “And I came back very, very different.”
This was also the time that, having won an Oscar for her supporting turn in “Girl, Interrupted,” Jolie exploded as a huge international box office star, the kind of electrifying presence who sells tickets all over the world. (The middling thriller “The Tourist,” which Jolie made with fellow global superstar Johnny Depp, was considered a flop in the United States, having grossed a mere $68million; worldwide it earned more than $275 million.)
At the Cannes Film Festival last year, Jolie accompanied Pitt to the premiere of “The Tree of Life,” poured into a slinky black dress and working the rope line like a consummate pro, patiently waving, smiling and posing for cellphone pictures. Even after Pitt had departed — even after Jolie herself had been pulled away — she came back for more interaction with the fans.
The day before, Jolie had been in a meeting about “In the Land of Blood and Honey” with Bob Berney, then president of FilmDistrict, the film’s distributor, talking about logistics and details. “Then the next night she was on the red carpet and it looked like the Red Sea parting,” Berney recalls. “She knows exactly what to do in a crowd. She can put on a show.” Great stars such as Jolie “respect the fans,” Berney continues. “They treat ’em in the right way and that’s why they’re popular. I think it’s genuine, and that’s what people will hopefully pick up from her promoting this movie that she genuinely cares about.”
And now, as if her directorial debut wasn’t already at odds with that red-carpet persona, Jolie makes a movie dealing with one of the most complicated, poorly understood episodes in the recent but forgotten past — a story fraught with potential tribal, historical and political missteps that could trip up even the most seasoned international stateswoman. Not only is Jolie taking an artistic leap, she’s risking the considerable store of credibility she’s built up since becoming a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 2001 (she’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations).
At a screening in Washington of “In the Land of Blood and Honey” a few days before our interview, a representative of the Endeavor Group, hired by Jolie to help shape the communications campaign around the film, welcomed a group of Bosnian women recruited to share their opinions “so Angie knows how people are reacting to the film and how she should discuss it.”
After explaining why Jolie made the movie (“the conflict isn’t over in her mind”), the representative says, “This is not a documentary, it’s a piece of art, so we hope you keep that in mind,” adding that Jolie “is nervous about how the film is going to be received, and whether people will understand why she did the film.”
Jolie admits: “I am nervous about it, but the cast is representative of this part of the world. So when they saw it the first time, I was terribly nervous. And they’re very supportive.”
Goran Kostic, who plays a reluctant Serbian soldier in “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” grew up in Sarajevo, the son of a Serbian military officer. He recalls that, while they were shooting the film, Jolie “would come to me every now and then and say, ‘Am I stepping on somebody’s toes here?’ And I said, ‘Angie, whatever you do in the Balkans, you will always get somebody [angry], so you might as well step on everybody’s toes just to make sure!’
“I think those whose heart is in the right place, and those who can have enough objectivity, in Serbia and Bosnia and Croatia and in the wider region, they’ll find a value in all these issues having been raised,” Kostic says. “For us it’s a personal story, for Angelina this is a global story.”
Even if “In the Land of Blood and Honey” does wind up stepping on a few toes, Jolie has steeled herself for whatever controversy may ensue. “You certainly don’t want things you do and your good intentions to be misinterpreted, and for it to inflame the situation,” she says. “But there are a lot of people who need to be heard and want to have a discussion, and I feel that even people who disagree with the film will have a bigger voice. So I’m happy for that — that even if they disagree with me, and with the film, they will have more of a platform and we can talk about it.”
Jolie is getting ready to go — but then stops short when a question about American exceptionalism comes up. “I think it’s wrong,” she says flatly, and that leads her to a related thought. “I’m surprised there isn’t a watch on textbooks. . . . I home-school my kids now, and really have cracked down on the history books, making sure that they get not my view, but a balanced view and, because they’re from other countries, that they’re proud of their countries. Because that’s the way to raise people.
“If you’re raised thinking you’re the only country that did great things and you’re the only people that do great things, then . . . it causes isolationism and violence,” she continues, grabbing her bag. “I don’t know if it’s the U.N. or what, but there’s got to be some international check just to make sure you’re not inciting violence.”
With that, Angelina Jolie is off — to check on her kids who are playing down the hall, then presumably to make a few calls to see if she can turn another frustration into an idea, and that idea into a reality.
(127 minutes, opened Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema) is rated R for war violence and atrocities. In Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian with English subtitles.