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Angelina Jolie Pitt: a Symbol of Strength

Find this story and more in the Winter 2016 issue of S/, available on newsstands now.

Angelina Jolie Pitt may forever be etched in our minds as the quintessential movie star; from the pouty lips and doe eyes, to the multiple titles as “Sexiest Woman Alive,” and, of course, her memorable turn on the 2012 Oscars red carpet wearing the black, leg-baring Versace dress that launched a thousand Internet memes. But it’s become increasingly clear that a carefully crafted Hollywood image is not a role that defines her—it is but a mere slice of the woman she has become.

These days, Jolie Pitt’s real life looks more like that of a diplomat, serious filmmaker, and, yes, something of a mother of the world, not only to her six children, but to the millions of global refugees whom she champions on behalf of the United Nations. “A lot of people in this life have focused on things that don’t matter,” says Jolie Pitt, speaking on the phone from her temporary home in London, England. “You get in the middle of a refugee situation, and a refugee camp, and you very quickly know what matters and what doesn’t.”

It would seem there’s nothing Jolie Pitt, 40, can’t do, and now she’s taking on yet another multi-hyphenated role: that of writer, director, actor, and co-producer of her newest film, By The Sea (in theatres November 13), in which she stars alongside her husband, Brad Pitt. It’s a challenging role to take on, not least because of the film’s dark subject matter and exploration of grief. In the film, she and Pitt play an estranged couple travelling in the south of France in the 1970s, where they meet various inhabitants of a seaside town, each of whom grapples with various stages of grief.

Jolie Pitt wrote the screenplay for the film back in 2010, just after writing In The Land of Blood & Honey, which she also directed. “I wrote By The Sea very privately to explore grief and explore writing, to see what it is to be a writer,” she says. “As a writer, you challenge yourself with different themes. I wanted to see where it would go and to try and understand my own coming to terms with grief, mainly my mother’s death. It was very therapeutic.”

Jolie showed Pitt the script and they discussed it off and on for a few years, but it stayed on the back burner until 2014, when she found the opportunity to make the film. “If I knew I was going to be acting and directing in it, I would not have written so boldly,” she admits. “So, when I knew I was going to [make the film], I refused to allow myself to change anything because I felt that it was a writer’s truth, because now it’s you in the scene. So, we [with husband Pitt] kind of had to bravely do all those things that were imagined or those heavy scenes that were not written with us in mind, really.”

Jolie Pitt says the experience of being on set for By The Sea— directing and acting with her husband through scenes of verbal arguments, shouting matches, and hints of violence—was like being in a boxing ring. “It was really hard,” she says of shooting these scenes, which coincidentally were filmed during the couple’s honeymoon in Malta, days after marrying in France. “You’re not able to protect each other because a lot of the piece involves the characters closing off or attacking each other. It was challenging to direct myself in scenes—it was not a pleasure,because you don’t have that person to lean on. You have to find a new relationship—a new way of speaking to each other that you hadn’t had before.”

But Jolie Pitt says the couple came out of the experience better for it. “It was a great challenge. Like any great challenge, artistically, the harder it is, the more you connect, and then when you come out the end of it, you’ve been through something together. It makes you closer.”

And the Jolie Pitt family is, without question, a tight-knit group. The couple and their six children, Shiloh, 9, Zahara, 10, Maddox, 14, Pax, 11, and twins Vivienne and Knox, 7, all travel together, with Pitt and Jolie going where their work takes them. The Jolie Pitts have homes in both Los Angeles and France, but the family won’t be going to either in the next while, as Jolie Pitt will be filming in Cambodia for four months, bringing four of the couple’s children with her. She and son Maddox, who hails from Cambodia, are working together on the Netflix original film First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. “It’s his country and history; he’s going to learn about it,” she says. Meanwhile, Pitt will be filming in London, and taking care of the twins. “We home school [the children], and we stay as a group,” says Jolie Pitt. “At worst, mommy and daddy have to separate them for a few weeks. So we kind of hopscotch and then all of us are back together again.”

Photo by Handout / Getty Images.
Photo by Handout/Getty Images.

Of late, the children have been accompanying Jolie Pitt on humanitarian missions. Shiloh recently joined her mother on a mission to Turkey, after becoming interested in her efforts and hearing Jolie Pitt speak about a little girl she’d met on a previous excursion. “I brought Shiloh out to meet her and they hung out and played and got to know each other. Now, we write letters back and forth.” Meanwhile, when Jolie Pitt was prepping for a trip to Myanmar, her son Pax expressed interest in accompanying her to meet the country’s opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. “He understood who she was and that it was an honour,” she says. “I didn’t even tell him how to get dressed or what he should wear, but he really took the time to get dressed up that morning. It was something that he wanted to do.” For her children, she adds, “The most important thing that they understand is that what they see in their own home and what they see on movie sets is one very small aspect of life. Their world needs to be full— more to the balance of what life is.”

Through her humanitarian efforts and role as Special Envoy of UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, Jolie Pitt knows all about that balance. She’s learned that change doesn’t happen overnight and her experiences working in the field are all about gathering information that she can use to fight for specific solutions at the UN Security Council, within her own government, or working on laws that help protect victims of sexual violence. The most rewarding aspect of the work, though, has been the people she has met, particularly among refugee families. “In many ways, they’re a guiding light; some of the greatest people I’ve ever met,” she says. “They’re survivors, and they’ve survived so much and they keep their heads up—they have so much dignity under so much duress. They have taught me so much because, of course, you meet people in certain situations and you imagine how you would handle it, and they always handle it better than I know I would. They are forever inspiring to me. For that, I hate what they go through, but I love being in the field with them.”

Back in Hollywood, which seems a world away from her UN work, is the promotion of her films, complete with press junkets, and, of course, the red carpet. Despite her smouldering turns for the cameras, getting glammed up is all in a day’s work for Jolie Pitt. “There are worse jobs, but it’s not my favourite part of it all,” says the star, whose daily off-duty uniform consists of all black and boots. Her red-carpet strategy goes a little something like this: reach out to a few designers she has relationships with, brainstorm a few ideas and then the chosen designer will bring one or two creations to life. “I might call and say, ‘I’m thinking something black’ and we’ll talk for five minutes about a general idea, depending on what the event is,” she says. “The [designer] makes one or two things and we’ll all pick a favourite.” On the upside, if she and Pitt attend a film premiere or awards show together, it’s an opportunity to spend some quality couple time. “We’re usually busy doing other things, and so it’s an excuse to go on a date night, ” she says.

And so comes the million-dollar question: how does Jolie Pitt, whose life seems to be ever expanding, manage to keep it all together? “I’m an obsessive scheduler,” she says with a laugh. “I must drive my husband crazy with it, but you have to. You have to map out your days. You have to plan months in advance so there’s always room for all things. It isn’t just something that falls into place, so someone has to be on top of the schedule—travelling and moving and birthdays. I spent most of yesterday figuring out Pax’s birthday. It’s something that has to be, logistically, really organized.” And with that, Jolie Pitt is summoned to her next call of duty: visiting her husband on set, just down the road. All is going according to plan.

Feature photo by Peter Lindbergh/Universal Studios.