She’s already one of the most famous movie stars in the world, but Angelina Jolie is now poised to become one of our most prolific female directors, too. As she prepares to release Unbroken—her film based on the true story of Louis Zamperini, the World War II hero who endured weeks stranded at sea and then spent years suffering in POW camps, where he endured torture at the hands of a cruel Japanese sergeant nicknamed “the Bird”—Jolie is already finishing up By the Sea, an intimate marital drama she helmed starring her husband Brad Pitt and herself, and prepping her next directorial effort Africa, an epic tale of conservationist Richard Leakey. Still, Jolie managed to carve out some time recently in Los Angeles (before she was felled by chicken pox) to speak to Vulture about how she cast up-and-coming British actor Jack O’Connell to star in Unbroken, why she wooed Joel and Ethan Coen to adapt Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name, and the decision to turn Unbroken into a “no-swear” zone.
Recently you were asked whether you’d let your children become actors, and you said that you would but you’d also encourage them find a “real job.” Is that one of the things that led you to begin directing, this sense that acting alone was not enough of a real job for you?
I would say that acting is a real job, but it’s a very particular job that focuses on certain aspects of yourself. I think an actor is a better actor if they’re more complex as a human being—they have more to offer the audience. As an artist, what are you contributing? You can go to acting class all you want, but if you travel, if you have a family, if you have new life experiences, it’ll make you a better artist. Life has to be first. Life before art.
Was it always that way for you? Or did you ever think that art should come first and be all-consuming?
No, not me. I was never one of those. I never got romantic about being an artist.
Why not? It’s a very romantic thing.
I suppose. Maybe it’s because I grew up in this town. [Laughs.] I lost my romance for it when I was little.
Your lead actor Jack O’Connell reminds me of you at the beginning of your career: He’s got the drive, the charisma, even the tattoos. You obviously saw Louis Zamperini in him, but did you see any of yourself in Jack?
I’d love to think so. I think so highly of Jack that I smile at any comparison of the two of us, yeah. I certainly appreciate when I see an actor who’s got all that fire, and I was very happy to think, If I was him, what would I need? To help him through this, I often tried to put myself in his shoes and give him any kind of guidance. Maybe since there was a familiarity between us, I was able to communicate that better.
What made you cast him?
I’d seen so many young men for this movie, and it became very clear to me at a certain point that there are so many great actors out there, but there were still things I continued to look for and didn’t find. I had to find a man who was a real man’s man, who had that physicality, who was an everyman and relatable but also disciplined and willing to go to all these places emotionally. It was hard finding that really capable young actor where you really believed he could survive all that time on a raft or could take 220 punches [as Louis does in a POW camp]. There are not a lot of young men in their 20s like that. Jack has something very unique to him. I challenge you to find another young man full of more fire.
Most of the characters are American, but you cast pretty extensively from the U.K. and Australia.
It was interesting, because a lot of the young American men we did have in the film, like Garrett Hedlund, were from Middle America. We did joke at one point that all the men on the raft were from Irish descent. Lots of three-Irishmen-on-a-raft jokes.
The movie ends when the war does, but Zamperini’s life was eventful even afterwards. Was it difficult to figure out where to end this story?
You can’t fit his whole life into the movie, and the important thing was to know that. What the Coen brothers helped me with was understanding what people feel when they put the book down: They get a sense of the human spirit and his endurance, and that he comes to be a man of faith who understands forgiveness. So instead of seeing it in chapters and thinking, At the end of the war, he went home and felt murderous and wanted to kill the Bird, and came around to forgiveness, we don’t exclude that—we just bring the essence of it into the story earlier.
You had the Coens adapt Laura Hillenbrand’s book, and you brought on their longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins to shoot the film. Is it safe to say you’re a Coen Bros. aficionado? What’s your favorite film of theirs?
Maybe No Country for Old Men? But what I love about them is how diverse they are. I loved when Brad did Burn After Reading, and I was with Billy [Bob Thornton] when he did The Man Who Wasn’t There. They have a signature and a certain flavor, but their films are so different. One can be so full of humor and the next can be so frightening, but you always know going into a Coen brothers movie that it’ll be something special.
You instituted a no-cursing rule for the actors of Unbroken, which certainly presents a different point of view than other, grittier World War II films as of late—including your husband’s film Fury.
One of the things that was very beautiful about the men of that generation is that they were very straightforward. They were responsible young men who’d come through the Depression, who were fighting for their country, and who took pride in the way they held themselves and the way they spoke. It seemed too easy for us to have a film that leaned too heavily on modern aspects of manhood. We wanted to see the classic young man, and celebrate the beauty and nobility of it. Their language was a big part of that. The actors had to find other ways of expressing themselves, so we had a whole list of things to say when you want to say a bad word. A lot of shucks and oh boys. It brought out a different side of the actors, their own self-respect and their respect for the generation before them. They pushed themselves in a different way.
It’s incredible that Louis was able to forgive his captors after the war. Did that change your own feelings on forgiveness or holding grudges?
I don’t believe in blind forgiveness. I believe in justice, and then forgiveness. You have to acknowledge what’s happened, and when you move past that into accountability for the crimes, then I do think it’s important for yourself and your family to forgive so that it doesn’t eat you up inside. Part of Louis being a survivalist was understanding that forgiveness was a tool of his survival, thinking, I’m either going to be conscious of the Bird my whole life and want revenge, or I’m going to embrace the day and find a way to almost feel sorry for him, and to live forward. I think what’s interesting about that is the idea that forgiveness isn’t just a beautiful, lovely thing to do—it’s that it destroys people who can’t move forward, who are consumed with vengeful thoughts and hate.
What kind of perspective does it give you to go off and shoot a film like By the Sea, and then return to finishing Unbroken?
It teaches me that probably nothing will be as hard as Unbroken was. [Laughs.] By the Sea was complicated because I had to direct myself and Brad, but logistically, it was a walk in the park in comparison. It was also a reminder that every film is such a different experience. As a director, it was nice to go from something like Unbroken into something completely different, because it helps you stay fresh. You don’t get mired in any habits, you stay open and keep learning different ways of working.
But I suspect that deep down, you must be attracted to logistical challenges, given that you’re making Africa next.
I can take on any logistical challenge if I’ve got Roger Deakins with me!