Angelina Jolie vividly remembers the moment she found her calling. It happened a decade ago, when she was in Cambodia shooting the action movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. “I was on a waterfall,” she recalls, “when they said, ‘Don’t go over there, that’s a land mine!’”
She had to ask herself, “What’s a land mine?” Jolie had an epiphany—and started out on a journey that led to her global humanitarian and philanthropic work.
“I met refugees, and I learned about their situation,” Jolie says. “Before, I had not been given a full education on [the Cambodian civil] war. And I realized— what else don’t I know? That shocked me into understanding so much about things happening worldwide that I am sheltered from. I felt I had a responsibility.”
Jolie recounted this story on Monday morning at a Women in the World breakfast event hosted by Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek/Daily Beast, at her house. During a wide-ranging discussion with Brown, Jolie went into detail about transitioning to director for her new film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and her family of six kids. She brought her partner Brad Pitt’s parents, Jane and William, to the event. Brown noted that in Hollywood, triple threats are actors who also write and direct. “Now we have Angelina Jolie, a quadruple threat,” Brown said, alluding to Jolie’s humanitarian work. “She’s a one-woman Navy SEAL team.”
Jolie wrote and directed In the Land of Blood and Honey, but she doesn’t appear onscreen, even for a moment. “It didn’t belong to me,” she says. The film brings to light the Bosnian war of the early '90s, through the fictional story of a Serbian soldier who falls in love with a Bosnian prisoner in his camp. It’s an ambitious project for any Hollywood director, not to mention one who hadn’t gone behind the camera before.
“I never intended to direct. I always said I wouldn’t,” Jolie says. “After 10 years of traveling around the world and meeting with women who had been traumatized, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I wondered about this question of intervention and what we should do. I wondered if I could do a piece that shows how war takes its toll and warps human beings, warps mothers and fathers and children and lovers. And I tried to make sense of it. And then Brad saw the screenplay, and said, ‘You know, this isn’t half bad—maybe you should show it to somebody.’” The resulting film, out this month in the U.S., is full of powerful emotions that delve deep into war and love, all while providing an unflinching view of combat.
When it came to authenticity, Jolie was a perfectionist: all the actors are from the former Yugoslavia—a mix of Serbs, Muslims, and Croats—and speak in their native languages, as Janine di Giovanni reports in this week’s Newsweek cover story. “I emerged from Jolie’s screening impressed,” says di Giovanni, a journalist who lived through the siege in Sarajevo. “How could a woman who was only 17 when the conflict in Bosnia erupted in April 1992 have so perfectly captured the horror of war?”
Jolie has spent the last few years investigating and learning about conflicts long since forgotten by most people. But it took time for her to become resolute in her mission to bring these experiences to light. When she first began to travel to foreign countries to witness the aftermath of war, she says she would grow emotional. “I cried all the time,” she says. “And then I met a grandmother”—who had lost her children—“and she wasn’t crying. She said, ‘We can do this.’ I thought she’s right, she’s not crying. I need to speak for her, and I need to stay strong for her, and I always remember her.”
Jolie’s travels throughout the world also brought other unexpected gifts into her life—in 2001, she decided to adopt her now-10-year-old son Maddox from Cambodia. “I never thought I’d be good enough to be a mom,” she says. “How could I be someone’s mother? But I had this very strange sudden realization—and I’m not one to believe in signs—that my son was in Cambodia. And then I looked at this little boy and I thought … my family was here.” When she and Pitt adopted Zahara, now 6, from Ethiopia, they first glimpsed their daughter in a photograph. “Brad cried,” Jolie says. “He didn’t know how he was going to feel. It really feels the same [to adopt a child]—and we keep having babies.”
She added: “We confuse them at home. It’s kind of beautiful that I don’t remember who is adopted.”
As her children grow older, Jolie is mindful to instruct each of them about their own personal histories. She’s careful of the information brought into her multicultural household, and her six children are taught by tutors. “I’m very concerned about the way they are taught history,” Jolie says. “I want them to learn about it right. I don’t want Zahara to learn about being an African woman by learning about slavery first.”
She’s able to balance so much, she says, because “Brad is such a wonderful father. We just support each other on a daily basis.”
In fact, the night before Monday’s early-morning event, he took extra precautions to make sure Jolie was well rested. “He came in and said, ‘Everybody, Mommy is asleep, she has to get up in the morning.’ They tried to let me sleep but then they crawled into our bed. At 3 a.m., somebody”—Jolie wisely didn’t specify which one of her kids—“said, ‘Mom, I peed. I wanted to say, ‘Can you take your clothes off and wash them? I have to get up in a few hours and talk to Tina Brown.’”