From Girl, Interrupted to Maleficent, Angelina Jolie has long ruled Hollywood in front of the camera. Now, as a director, she may conquer the rest of the film industry as well: Unbroken, which comes out on Christmas, is based on the best-selling Laura Hillenbrand biography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic track star turned WWII bombardier. After his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean, Zamperini survived alone in the open waters of the Pacific for 47 days on an inflatable life raft, surrounded by killer sharks and strafed by fighter planes, only to be captured by the Japanese and tortured for two years in a POW camp. It’s an alternately grueling and gripping tale. The film, which boasts Joel and Ethan Coen among its writers, is already leading to speculation that the Jolie-Pitt family might be battling each other at Oscar time with dueling WWII pics (Pitt’s Fury was released in October). Of course, Unbroken is just one of Jolie’s projects. We caught up with her in Malta, where she was shooting her third film, By the Sea—a raw domestic drama in which she also costars with her husband.
How’s the new film?
We’re halfway through. We’re enjoying it, but that’s a funny word to use, because the story is really so intense and heavy.
You’re the director and screenwriter?
I wrote it a few years ago, thinking about Brad as a character, and extreme behavior for both of us to play or explore. The heart of it is actually about how different people live through grief, and then how they relate and attack each other for it.
Why did you decide to make a war film?
Like most, I’m very curious about World War II. As an actress, I’m limited in stories, because the women weren’t on the front line. As director, I can go right to the front line.
Zamperini’s life story is so amazing that Hollywood’s been struggling to film it since 1956. What broke the deadlock?
I think the challenge in Louis’ life is that it was so full. You could do a whole film just on his experience as a prisoner. Or on his becoming an athlete. Or even his rebellious childhood. The Coen brothers guided me, saying, “You cannot literally tell the whole story you’ll make a terrible film.” And I talked to Louis. [He died last July at age 97.]
What was most important to him?
I would talk about how exceptional he was, and he’d say, “I’m not.” I want people to see the film and know that everybody can be great. Everybody can make a choice to get back up, fight harder, and not let themselves be taken down. That’s the message: It’s in every one of us.
Zamperini admits he was an unlikely hero. He once said, “I was rotten.”
Louie was a little, troubled, immigrant Italian kid who stole and drank and seemed destined to amount to nothing. His choices made the difference. And that rebellious streak. Without it, he might not have been an athlete or survived the war. That fire inside some is a terrible and destructive thing, but if directed in the right way, it can be so powerful.
Zamperini endured gruesome torture. He talks about his jailers forcing him to do push-ups on piles of excrement. How graphic is the film?
I’ve made a film that’s PG-13, and it’s a war film—which is not easy to do! Yes? [Jolie steps away from the phone for a second.] One of my kids just asked me for toilet paper; hold on!
Toilet paper? That’s right on cue!
[laughs] Yeah. Anyway, I think it’s good for young people to see that war is bloody and violent and scary. The trick was presenting it in a way that isn’t unbearable to watch. Louis’ journey is amazing: It has sharks and plane crashes and B-24 bombers!
You turn 40 next summer. You seem to be trying to get so much done, so fast. Why?
Maybe it’s because both my mother and grandmother died young, so I learned to never assume that there will be an old age. Also, I like being busy. When I’m sitting on vacation doing nothing, I’m a maniac, absolutely the worst person! I’m a nightmare! To the benefit of all, I stay busy.
So, what’s next?
I love directing and the work I do with refugees. But the most important thing I must do is get my kids through their teens—which is going to be a huge challenge in my life! If they’re anything like I was…I’m terrified!
Photos by Alexei Hay / Trunk Archive