Angelina Jolie is pondering what she’s learned from playing Maleficent, the eponymous evil queen in Disney’s new live-action family blockbuster. “Oddly,” she says, those famous zeppelin lips arranging themselves into a playful smile, “I learned more about myself as a woman. Which is a very odd thing to say about a horned fairy.”
She’s referring to the fact that the film, a Wicked-style re-telling of Sleeping Beauty, adds a new psychological dimension to the child-cursing, cheekbone-sculpted villainess Disney cooked up for its 1959 animated spin on the fairytale.
“There is a study in it of how we are born and what kind of people we become,” she continues. “She’s born with a full sense of justice, but then she’s abused – and that turns her and makes her darker. And then what she does with that is go to the worst side: she becomes cruel and hurts innocent people. And then she has to face that and confront what she has become.”
It hardly needs to be said that this is not the usual chat one expects to hear in relation to the main character in a Disney film. Although the studio seems to have been on a mission of late to subvert its back-catalogue with the likes of Frozen and Saving Mr Banks, it’s fair to say Jolie brings a definite edge to the House of Mouse’s publicity machine, casually dismissing Disney princesses of old (“The girls, the female characters, were not girls I admired”) and relishing the opportunity Maleficent afforded her to “embrace her bizarre” – though not, she adds, to intentionally terrify children. “I didn’t play this with the intent to scare children, but rather to draw them in and make them spend time with someone that’s deliciously wicked,” she says. “They’ll have fun with her evil.”
When I meet Jolie, she’s midway through the film’s London press junket. Dressed all in black, tattoos just visible beneath the sleeves of her chiffon dress, she’s a breezy, relaxed presence and lets out a wicked laugh when talk of hanging out in Glasgow during the World War Z shoot triggers memories of her first visit to the city while then-husband Jonny Lee Miller was making Trainspotting. “That was great,” she says, a glint in her eye, “that was a great time.”
Having already talked up the still-to-be-finished Maleficent at a press conference – all the while feeding anecdote-hungry Euro hacks tiny morsels about her kids and volleying back quips about everything from Maleficent’s potentially iconic status among draq queens (“I think we all share a love of this kind of costume”) to whether she’d ever want to explore her role in Mr & Mrs Smith further (“I feel like I lived out the rest of that one,” she deadpans) – she knows this kind of stuff is only a small part of her life now. Offsetting the banality of the “Brangelina” media construct that kicked into gear while making 2007’s aforementioned Mr & Mrs Smith with Brad Pitt, Jolie’s ongoing dedication to humanitarian causes has started to change the conversation around her. “I do feel like I’m able to do more and accomplish more,” she says, referring to her increasing workload as UN Special Envoy and her involvement in the forthcoming “Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict” G8 summit that’s scheduled to take place in London next month. “And people do tend to talk to me more about global issues or health issues or family, than film. It’s nice because it feels very grounded and human to be talking about important issues.”
Jolie’s convictions separate her from the majority of her Hollywood contemporaries. She’s got a handle on fame and is fully cognisant of its downsides. She’s not keen, for instance, for any of her kids to follow in her footsteps, even though her daughter, Vivien, has a small role in Maleficent (a consequence of Jolie’s costume freaking other toddlers out too much to be able to perform opposite her). “I think being an artist is a wonderful life, but I think today, so much of it is about celebrity. It’s not about honing your craft and telling stories. It’s different from when I started.”
That said, she knows that her own baggage can still impact on a project and she thinks “it’s important to be conscious of when you’re adding to a film or when that thing you’ve become is distracting”. This may partly explain be why she’s planning to step back a little from acting. Though a comment to this effect at the press conference earlier has prematurely generated headlines that she’s retiring from performing at the grand old age of 38, she does confirm that any future roles will have to be quite special to entice her in front of the camera. “I think it has to be something that is very challenging and I’ve never done before and I could learn a lot from.”
I ask if the creative challenges some of her more intense dramatic work offered – films like A Mighty Heart and Changeling – are now being fulfilled by directing. “I do think a lot is satisfied now by directing,” she nods. “I think a lot of what you do as an artist is to tell a story or discuss certain themes or things that are important to you – and find the best way to tell them. And so now, I don’t necessarily feel like I have to be in something, or to express it emotionally myself.”
Jolie’s transition into directing came about quite organically. Although she started with a documentary – 2007’s A Place in Time – she made her feature debut two years ago with In the Land of Blood and Honey, a harrowing, deeply felt drama about the war in Bosnia that did well on the festival circuit – or well enough to put paid to any notions that it was simply a vanity project. “It started simply because I was trying to understand more about the war in Bosnia rather than trying to become a director,” she says. “I wrote something more as an exercise for myself and I just didn’t trust anyone to take it out of my hands, so I ended up, by default, directing it.”
She’s currently editing her second feature, the Coen brothers-scripted Unbroken, and also has a project for her and Pitt, though she’s not sure she will ever make it. “I wrote it three years ago and have been sitting on it and playing with the idea of it. It’s a little independent film. The idea is to give us freedom to be artists; it’s an art film.” She won’t say anything more about it, but is happy to talk at length about Unbroken, particularly its subject, 97-year-old Louis Zamperini, whose incredible life as an Olympic athlete and Second World War hero was documented in Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller of the same name. “It’s so daunting; it’s still daunting,” smiles Jolie of the film, which stars Jack O’Connell as Zamperini. “Sometimes you make a film for entertainment and sometimes you make a film for exploring different things. This film has to be inspiring. The point is to help people with everything going on in their lives. Every time we feel we can’t take any more, you watch Louis’ life and think, I can get back up.”
• Maleficent is in cinemas from 28 May; Unbroken will be released in late 2014 or early 2015.