THE shock in meeting Angelina Jolie is not how strikingly beautiful she is, but how close to that surface she wears her emotions. Sitting down with her, she is frank and unguarded, listening and answering thoughtfully and appearing to enjoy being interviewed. One has to wonder why she bothers. After all, we're talking about the woman who is one half of the world's most famous celebrity couple. Her every move, child and pound lost or gained is pounced upon, analysed and, yes, invented by salivating hacks and paparazzi. She appears on the cover of
glossy magazines every week. She has been painted
as a troubled goth, a marriage wrecker, an anorexic
control freak, and now the eccentric earth mother.
She bothers, I realise, because it's a trade-off. "I was very pleased to have something of value to speak of, something positive to do with the opportunities I have to express things in the media," she tells me. But there is more in it for Jolie than that. Celebrity, even at its most Brangelina-obsessed, has its uses and, since meeting Brad Pitt three years ago on the set of Mr And Mrs Smith, Jolie, 33, has become a master at harnessing them for her own ends, which are to have more children, travel the world, promote her humanitarian work and appear in fewer films.
It is a dangerous business, though, and fading away, as she has claimed she will in coming years, will not be easy. Jolie has made a pact with the devil and for now has it eating out of her hand, whether that means earning enough to appear in fewer films (Jolie is the second-highest-paid actress in Hollywood, bagging $14m per movie), giving a third of her salary to charity, or having the clout to sell the rights for the first images of her twins for $14m earlier this year. They were the most expensive celebrity pictures ever taken: the money went straight into the Jolie-Pitt Foundation. Arguably, Jolie has started to enjoy the influence and sense of purpose all this has given her.
She has recently returned from Kabul, and is renowned for roughing it – pregnant or not – in the same conditions as other UN field workers on such trips. She has visited more than 20 countries since becoming a UN ambassador in 2001. The worlds she inhabits are starkly contrasting; going from a war zone or a refugee camp to the glitzy London premiere of her latest film, Clint Eastwood's Changeling, but she plays all this down. "I don't live in either of those worlds in reality," she says, though sitting in a suite in Claridge's, that doesn't quite ring true. It seems more likely that she is drawn to living between extremes, and perhaps that her humanitarian work allows her to feel more validated in other areas. "In reality I live at home with six children. I'm a mum, and that's what I live with every day."
Acting, in comparison, is simply her profession. "My job is to be here," Jolie continues, holding my gaze. She is very good at unflinching eye contact. "This job allows me to do some good work and bring attention to other areas. I can sit here and talk about those areas and you can choose whether to write about them or not, and whether to put good information out there. It's all of our jobs really.
"I feel fortunate that I travelled early on in my life and had children and was able to understand what the priorities are for us to be discussing. I don't have any answers but I'm hopefully posing a lot of the right questions. I'm trying to learn."
Her latest incarnation, on and off screen, is as the responsible, ultra-feminine mother. First there are the films: last year's A Mighty Heart, in which she was the pregnant wife of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in Pakistan, and now Changeling, in which she plays a single mother whose son goes missing. Jolie, as we shall see, often signposts her life with her film roles, which is what makes her such a compelling actress. It is also what makes her decreasing interest in film seem strange, disingenuous even. Today, she certainly looks the maternal part. Gone, at least for now, is the turbo-charged, pumped-up look of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, or the male fantasy of the trigger-happy Fox in Wanted. Instead she is petite, natural and looks more fragile than I had expected.
Jolie brings every topic we discuss back to her children. On visiting the set of Pitt's upcoming film, Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards: "We keep trying to figure out the perfect day to bring the kids, but what's a good day for children on a Tarantino set?" On the pressure of constantly being under the media spotlight: "When you're pregnant and people are talking about it, I was like every mum, just wanting my babies to be healthy. It's an odd thing, and something you don't like." Pitt, it's worth noting, is mentioned less, and when Jolie does talk about him it's as the father of her children.
Of course, this could just be another phase. Let's not forget Jolie's wild Hollywood past. She has periodically fallen out with her father, the actor Jon Voight, and in 2002 legally dropped his surname. Voight left home before Jolie was one, and has in the past spoken out publicly about her "mental problems". It doesn't take a Hollywood shrink to see why creating her own family, with a very present father, has become such a focus. Jolie has always credited her mother (actress Marcheline Bertrand, who died at the age of 58 from ovarian cancer) as her acting influence and the reason why, at the precocious age of 13, she went to the Lee Strasberg Institute, where De Niro and Pacino also studied acting. Then there was the early interest in knives, drugs, blood, Billy Bob Thornton. Now, Jolie might seem to have moved on from her punk rebel past and become a fully paid-up member of Hollywood society, but perhaps her eccentricity is to be found elsewhere – in her almost compulsive desire to have more children (she has six so far), live out of a suitcase, fly her own plane or talk about the plight of refugees when people are more interested in what she eats for breakfast.
When we talk about the Oscar buzz surrounding her role in Eastwood's film she is low-key. "I'm just thrilled I didn't fail at my job," she says. "It means I did okay, I didn't let the team down." Compare this with the rather sentimental portrait of family life she gives when asked about what keeps her wanting more children. "We're just having the most fun," she says. "I don't know how we've managed to do it but there is just the right balance. Right now the boys seem to be really teaming up and everyone's got each other. Because they're just old enough to be very independent, they're not jealous of the twins. We watch them play and think they're going to be best friends in life. These little people are gooing to be there for each other when we're long gone. It's extraordinary.
"We came home the other day, from LA to Germany, with everyone having jet lag. We tried to get everybody to bed, but at 12am one of them woke up, at 12.30am another one woke up, and we just thought, 'You know what? Let's get them all up'. We all went to the kitchen, got snacks, turned on a movie and were up until four in the morning, laughing our heads off. They're some of the funniest people we've ever met. We just want to hang out with them. So more sounds like a great idea."
In Changeling, we get one of Jolie's most harrowing roles yet. Based on the true story of a working-class woman in 1920s Los Angeles whose son went missing and was replaced with a different boy by a notoriously corrupt LAPD, it's classic Eastwood territory: big emotions, small politics and an expansive, tear-stained, Oscar-friendly performance. And Jolie lives up to it, playing Christine Collins – whom she based on her mother – with a measured combination of stoicism and barely controlled despair.
She even believes that her emotional involvement in her role in Changeling led her to get pregnant. "I was so relieved to step away from this one," she says. "Every time I said the word 'son' it was very emotional. When we started I wanted to get pregnant and I think the high emotion of thinking about children, well, I think that was partially why it happened."
Working with Eastwood, who is famous for shooting scenes in a couple of takes, was extraordinary. "You hear that he's quick and think, 'Oh, he just likes to get things done'. But the fact is he's extremely decisive. He wants to keep things fresh and it's very clever, because when everything takes a long time, actors start thinking."
Jolie's breakthrough role was in Gia, in 1998, playing a damaged model who died of Aids at the age of 26. At the time, Jolie was 23 and still in her dark, outlandish phase. She once spoke about contemplating hiring a hitman to murder her, and the year before Gia she married her first husband, Jonny Lee Miller, wearing a shirt on which she had painted his name in her blood.
Reality would continue to bleed into celluloid, sometimes at a personal cost. Days after winning the best supporting actress Oscar for her turn as the wild sociopath Lisa Rowe in Girl Interrupted, Jolie briefly went into a mental institution. When her social conscience and interest in refugees was awakened while filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in Cambodia (the country in which she adopted her first child Maddox), Jolie went on to star in Beyond Borders, an unpalatably worthy film about a privileged woman who becomes a humanitarian overnight when she gets out into the world.
Jolie has always been very serious about her acting. She is unique among A-list actresses in her representation of female sexuality, and indeed off screen she has always been open about her bisexuality. She is tougher than Jodie Foster – the only other A-list actress who plays major action heroes – edgier than Nicole Kidman, sexier than Cameron Diaz and has a greater range than Julia Roberts. She says her more masculine roles are still just as important to her.
"The next film I'm doing has quite a bit of action," she says, referring to a role originally written for Tom Cruise. "Someone was saying to me it's because I was breastfeeding while I was reading the script and feeling very 'mummy' and thinking: 'I need to get out there and be tough.' I'm excited about it because we have a lot of action movies for women, but they tend to be fantastical. This is more of the original, serious CIA thriller that's intelligent and tough. There is also that side of me, as much as there is this idea of going away from home and working on something serious. My life at home is very serious and sometimes it's good to step away and be physical. Also, when I'm doing easier roles, it's not so hard for the kids to be on set, (unlike] when I'm a bit of a basket case during the production. With action movies, mum's a lot easier to be around."
Eastwood has compared Jolie to Meryl Streep and said her talent is obscured by her beauty. The vigour of Jolie's performances, when she is at her best, is arguably down to her emotional investment in them, the same quality that is disarming when meeting her. She has spoken of tattooing herself as a way of marking out her own body, reclaiming it from her characters' skins, and described acting as a form of therapy in which she has 40 sides, doing away with 39 of them to get into character. It sounds like a dangerous game and I wonder how she would cope without it? She starts laughing. "I have needed it in the past, but I now have a lot of children who teach me every day. I'm learning a lot from being a mum and from my travels. I'm able to do a lot of that in my life. I need film less and I'm needed at home more. You know, I'm balanced… I'm all right now." v
Changeling is released on Friday www.changelingmovie.net