Angelina Jolie’s back. After a decade out of the limelight, the Hollywood iconoclast plays the lead in the action thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead. It is a welcome return – though it may be a somewhat reluctant one for Jolie. A “change in my family situation” – as she tactfully put it, in an apparent reference to her split from Brad Pitt – meant she had to be home with her family for longer stretches of time. No longer able to commit to the longer behind-the-camera projects she has embraced over the past decade, she returned to shorter-term acting jobs.
Ever since her breakout role in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, Jolie has proven herself a master at branding and reinvention, subverting the mainstream while remaining at the centre of it. The child of two actors – Jon Voight, with whom she’s had a complicated relationship, and Marcheline Bertrand, after whom one of Jolie’s daughters is named – she began her career at the age of seven. She once told Rolling Stone that when she entered the auditions circuit as a teen, casting directors found her demeanour “too dark”. That didn’t stand in her way for long. Jolie was 24 when she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the troubled Lisa Rowe, a companion to Winona Ryder’s Susanna Kaysen in Girl, Interrupted.
The role was edgy, daring, complex – the perfect distillation of Jolie’s earliest professional persona. Before long, darkness was a core part of her brand. In the early 2000s, Jolie was in her mid-20s and married to Billy Bob Thornton, whose blood she carried in a vial around her neck (and vice versa). She had a pet rat named Harry, about whom she recounted the following anecdote to Rolling Stone: “Billy found me one day sitting in the bathtub in my pajamas, the rat on my lap, feeding it pumpkin pie. See, that’s one of those things that only somebody that really loves me is going to think is cute.” The rat, she noted, was “a spoiled little Beverly Hills rat”.
The story of Harry the rat is a perfect example of how early-2000s Jolie played off her rock and roll bent, teetering on the edge of grunge but with both feet still firmly planted in Hollywood. Perhaps she knew, too, what the film industry does to shockingly beautiful women: it fetishises them, while denying them the possibility of depth and refusing to hear what they have to say.
But Jolie grew from there. In 2001, she made her debut as Lara Croft, the adventurous archeologist at the heart of the Tomb Raider franchise. The role was the perfect opportunity for Jolie to retain her edge, while transitioning into the smoother, high-octane world of blockbusters.
The part also planted the seeds for Jolie’s future as an action actor. One Entertainment Weekly explainer published around the 2001 release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider shed some light on her on-set bravado. Jolie, director Simon West said, “had no fear, so some of the time was just spent trying to persuade her to put her safety harness on. I had to say, ‘No, you can’t jump 100 feet across the room, because you aren’t Lara Croft and when you hit the ground you won’t get up’.” Jolie tore ligaments in her ankle during filming, but said of her experience: “It’s like being a boxer. It’s part of the job.”
Jolie reprised the role in the 2003 sequel Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life. Meanwhile, she kept experimenting as an actor – to mixed success. The 2001 erotic thriller Original Sin co-starring Antonio Banderas missed the mark, but critic Roger Ebert praised her performance, noting: “There’s dialogue in this movie so overwrought, it’s almost literally unspeakable, and she survives it by biting it off contemptuously and spitting it out.” The 2002 romantic comedy Life or Something Like It, a standard-issue romcom in which she played an existentially troubled TV reporter, was too prim for Jolie, ridding her of her action-hero-in-the-making boldness and smoothing her into the unlucky-in-love archetype. The New York Times panned the film as a “chalky, stale comedy of second chances”.
Things were rocky, but Jolie kept at it. In 2005 came Mr and Mrs Smith – and with it, the beginning of a new Jolie era.
The film, in which Jolie and Brad Pitt co-star, marked the beginning of a real-life romance between the two leads – and concurrently, Pitt’s divorce from Jennifer Aniston. Prior to the split, Pitt and Aniston were one of Hollywood’s golden couples; the news of their separation made tabloid history. Aniston and Pitt were pitted against each other. Things reached their meta celebrity culture peak when Paris and Nicky Hilton were photographed wearing rival “Team Aniston” and “Team Jolie” T-shirts (Nicky was the former, Paris the latter).
It was all, of course, unnecessary. Couples divorce. Whatever feelings Jolie and Aniston may have harboured about each other was and remains their problem. But this turbulent period birthed a fascinating instance of PR culture as Jolie tried – and to some extent, managed – to wrestle back control of the narrative.
In July 2005, W Magazine published a photo spread headlined “Domestic Bliss: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at Home”. The photos, published months after Pitt and Aniston’s break-up, show Pitt and Jolie as an all-American couple, surrounded by a bunch of fictional kids (Jolie already had a son, Maddox, and was in the process of adopting her daughter Zahara from Ethiopia, but neither of them are in the pictures). Some of them played the “domestic bliss” theme straight – Brad and Angie at the dinner table, Brad and Angie in the garden with their fake kids, Brad and Angie reading in bed. Some burnt it to the ground – Pitt towering over Jolie, Pitt holding both of her wrists, Pitt grabbing at her face while she reclines on a bed. At the time the photos ran, the pair had yet to officially confirm they were dating – and the images, a strange blend of truth and fiction, seemed to be at once laughing at the rumours and confirming them.
In parallel to her Hollywood career, Jolie developed her activities as a humanitarian, beginning her work with the United Nations’ refugee agency in 2001. Her involvement went far beyond photo ops: she joined more than 30 field missions as a goodwill ambassador for the organisation between 2001 and 2011, then became a special envoy in 2012.
In addition to that work, Jolie kept acting. Her 2008 turn in Changeling took her out of the hammy action film world and allowed her to blossom as the indignant, tortured mother of a missing boy. The film showed Jolie’s range as an actor, with much of its emotional and psychological tension resting – successfully – on her shoulders. Her work resulted in her second Oscar nomination.
Jolie returned to action movies as the lead in Phillip Noyce’s 2010 thriller Salt, a twisty take on a tried-and-true action trope: CIA agent is revealed to be Russian spy – or is she? Jolie took full ownership of the part, which was originally written with a male lead in mind. She seemed at home in the movie’s high-octane setting, pulling off the more action-heavy moments and delivering surgical emotional strikes where needed. The LA Times wrote: “With what she does here on top of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, [Timur Bekmambetov’s 2008] Wanted and Mr & Mrs Smith, Jolie has earned the right to be considered not a potent female action star but a potent action star period, end of story.”
There is something endlessly confident and enigmatic about Jolie’s approach to celebrity. The actor has placed herself at a certain distance from the public. She has no known social media accounts and gives rare interviews. The effect, of course, is that when she decides to break her silence, we listen. She took a step back from the limelight around the mid-2010s, when she shifted her interests to directing work, voice parts, and two Maleficent films. The way Vanity Fair put it in 2011, that shift began with a “secret project” Jolie pursued “every evening, after the children had gone to bed, after the nannies had called it quits and Brad had gone off to wherever movie stars go when the world sleeps”.
“After the house had settled into a mellow blue hum, Angelina Jolie fired up her computer and went to work, tentatively at first, then blazing away,” the magazine recounted. “She poured everything she knew into the story, the sting of first love, the winding streets of old European cities, the horrors of war, some of it witnessed firsthand during her work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Within a month, she had completed her first screenplay [for her eventual directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey].”
The move fits with Jolie’s pattern of defying expectations, staying squarely off the conventional path. Her work as a director has seemed a logical companion to her work as a humanitarian, allowing her to further her political engagement. In the Land of Blood and Honey, her first commercial release as a filmmaker, depicted a love story unfolding during the Bosnian War. The 2014 film Unbroken was based on Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book about a Second World War veteran’s experience surviving a plane crash, drifting at sea for 47 days, and being held as a prisoner of war in Japan.
In 2017, First They Killed My Father, based on Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name, tackled the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Maddox Jolie-Pitt – Jolie’s son, who was born in Cambodia – worked with his mother as an executive producer; Jolie herself said she and Maddox had discussed the film for several years before he felt ready to be involved.
While it might be tempting to separate Angelina Jolie, the Hollywood actor, from Angelina Jolie, the committed filmmaker, to her those two facets are part of the same whole. “My life as an artist is about communication and art,” she told Vogue India in June 2020. “Sometimes the focus is more on entertainment, but most recently, as a director, it has been very much about the global issues I focus on. First They Killed My Father is the film that marries those worlds. But at the heart, it is the story of difficult years in my son’s country. So my motherhood also influences my work. And no, I don’t see a division.”
Now, with Those Who Wish Me Dead, Jolie is returning to her acting roots. The role will be followed by an even more high-profile endeavour when Jolie joins the Marvel cinematic universe as Thena in Eternals, coming in late 2021 from Best Picture director Chloe Zhao. Regardless of how you feel about superhero films, it’s impossible not to be intrigued by the prospect of a role combining Jolie’s blockbuster experience, her action hero skills, and Zhao’s skillful directing to boot.
Jolie’s return to the silver screen is wonderful news for Hollywood. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt through her two decades of shape-shifting and reinvention, it’s that tinseltown is much more boring without her.