Angelina Jolie was sitting barefoot on the porch of her luscious new home, explaining why she wants to save the world, when duty called. Her youngest son, Knox, 9, poked his little blond head around the screen door.
“Shiloh needs you,” the boy said quietly, referring to his middle sister, who is 11.
Shiloh’s beloved bearded dragon, Vlad, had fallen ill and was now, to Shiloh’s distress, convalescing at the vet.
“That will be the rest of my day,” Jolie said, settling into a cushioned patio chair. “Learning all about the health issues of the bearded dragon.”
Jolie went on to lament the imbalance of a world where Californian pets get cushy care while millions of people the world over lack access to proper medical treatment.
It went unmentioned that she was saying this from her $US25 million ($A31.25 million) two-acre (8000 square metre) hilltop estate, in a gated pocket of the Los Feliz neighbourhood, a home she bought for herself and her six children in the spring, following her split from Brad Pitt.
A life in two worlds
Perhaps more than any other celebrity, Jolie, 42, has kept herself firmly planted in two vastly different worlds. She’s both the glamorous A-lister whose every move is tracked in headlines (“Angie and the kids left Target because it didn’t serve hot dogs,” read one recent newsflash), and the humanitarian do-gooder who has made more than 60 trips to the field as part of her United Nations work.
She is obsessed over, if – in the United States at least – not exactly beloved, and fixed in the cultural firmament as America’s vixen, despite having a half-dozen strong brood.
And even though the public appetite for salacious details of her personal life has long eclipsed interest in the films she has directed, Jolie doggedly brings tough, obscure stories to the screen.
Three of the four movies she has made are set in wartime, including her latest, First They Killed My Father, based on the true story of Loung Ung, who as a young girl survived the Cambodian genocide and is now one of Jolie’s close friends.
Jolie has an indelible connection to Cambodia, not least because it completely reordered her life. Before first visiting in 2000 to shoot Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, she had been a Hollywood wild child, a ravishing Goth weirdo who, at the Oscars that year dressed like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and locked lips with her brother.
She also got publicly hot and heavy with her second husband, Billy Bob Thornton, and wore a locket with droplets of his blood around her neck.
The grace and humility she saw in the Cambodian people, along with the lasting effects of the genocide, threw Hollywood life into unflattering relief.
She adopted Maddox, now 16, from an orphanage, divorced Thornton, and threw herself into humanitarian and environmental work, finding lasting inspiration in wartime survivors and aid workers.
Jolie is as visually arresting as she appears onscreen; the sculpted lines of her face alongside the soft O’s of her eyes and mouth make hers an otherworldly beauty. Though slight as a sylph, she says she doesn’t exercise, beyond dipping into the pool with her kids and vaguely intending to someday jump on a treadmill.
Although it was still August, the children – Maddox, Pax, 13, Zahara, 12, Shiloh, Knox and his twin, Vivienne – had already begun home school. They would be accompanying her to the Telluride and Toronto film festivals – Maddox has an executive producer credit on the film – and were making up for lost lesson time, working with tutors in various corners of the house, learning, among other things, Arabic, sign language and physics.
I asked Jolie if she ever felt like the coach of a small team, and she replied that more often she felt part of a fraternity.
“They really help me so much. We’re really such a unit,” she said. “They’re the best friends I’ve ever had. Nobody in my life has ever stood by me more.”
That last sentence hung in the air, perhaps a subtle allusion to, or indictment of Pitt, who adopted Maddox, Pax and Zahara, and is the biological father of Shiloh, Knox and Vivienne.
The dissolution of their 12-year romantic partnership came last September, after an incident aboard a private jet – purportedly involving Pitt and Maddox – prompted her to file for divorce.
Shortly afterward, Jolie and the kids moved out of Pitt’s estate, living in a rental for nine months as she struggled with the decision about whether to buy a new home.
“It took me a few months to realise that I was really going to have to do it. That there was going to have to be another base regardless of everything,” she said.
The new house, once the residence of the legendary filmmaker Cecil B DeMille, is a beauty, with a library, rolling lawns, cascading fountains that burble into the pool, and a view of the Griffith Observatory. Jolie had an elaborate treehouse built – “more a parkour treehouse”, she said – and the kids helped decorate and pick out the furniture for the whole house.
“It has a lot of moments,” Jolie said of the home. “It’s happy. Happy and light, and we needed that.”
I asked how everyone is doing now.
“None of it’s easy. It’s very, very difficult, a very painful situation, and I just want my family healthy,” she said quietly.
Are they? “They’re getting better,” she said, her voice approaching inaudibility.
Jolie also seemed aware of how she might be beheld by the public; the removed ice queen to Pitt’s affable down-home Missouri boy (his revealing interview in the summer issue of GQ Style helped burnish his image as the more relatable one).
“I never expect to be the one that everybody understands or likes,” Jolie said, walking me down her driveway, “And that’s okay, because I know who I am, and the kids know who I am.”
– The New York Times