Angelina Jolie is in the front room of her apartment in New York, giving what has become the obligatory tour of her tattoos. “OK,” she says, standing up and showing her left arm. “That’s my dragon, upper left.” She presents the inside of her wrist: “That’s an H — there are two people in my life who have this letter who I’m very close to and who I sort of love and cherish. And this is the newest one. I got this with my mom, actually — she came with me. It’s a Tennessee Williams quote: ‘A prayer for the wild at heart, kept in cages.’ ”
She regards her left forearm and smiles her holy-madwoman smile. “This is my cross,” she continues, pulling down the waistband of her black pants to reveal her slender hip, “and this” — she indicates a Latin motto that curves across her stomach just above the bikini line, “means ‘What nourishes me also destroys me.’ And this” — she turns around, pulling up the hem of her black T-shirt to show a little blue rectangle on the small of her back — “is the only color I have. I’m going to turn it black, and it’s a window.” A window on to her spine? “No,” she says, “it’s because wherever I am, I always find myself looking out the window, wanting to be somewhere else.” She smiles again, her loony, beatific smile — religious ecstasy with just a dash of grimace.
It is suggested that the cage thing and the window thing are related to something she had mentioned when we first met, a few years back, about her interest in prisons in general and the Attica riots in particular. (Of all contemporary bombshells, Angelina is the one most likely to be carrying a clipping from the New York Times about penitentiary conditions in her purse.)
“Maybe,” she says of this connection, sitting back down on one of her two big black leather couches. “My mom asked me if the prayer for the wild at heart was for me or if that was something that I thought had pained me throughout my life. But it’s for everybody I know. I don’t think I know one person who I think can be completely who they are every second of the day, who feels completely free. So it’s kind of a prayer for everybody to find their happiness, to break out. And Tennessee Williams also writes that a bird or an animal feels comfortable in a cage it grew up in — it represents security as well as confinement to be in that cage. So anything that makes us comfortable, those things are cages around us.”
She lights a cigarette and looks around the room. She is as pale as a sleepless night in her black clothes on her black couch in the overcast light of a cool gray day filtering in past gray velvet curtains at the room’s actual window.
The last few months, Angelina has been working in Los Angeles, and though her living room is full of all the things a living room should be full of — furniture, a piano, a television, CDs and a CD player, a mannequin of the lower part of a woman’s torso wearing a white 1950s Playtex girdle — it has an unoccupied air. It also has a copy of Penal Law and Criminal Procedure Law of the State of New York. “People do always think that because I have tattoos, I’m bad,” continues Angelina, “or that there’s something very dark about me, or that I think about death. And I’m probably the least morbid person. I’ve kind of discovered that if I think about death much more than some people have, it’s probably because I love life more than those people.”
Besides the tattoos, here’s another reason people might think there’s something dark about Angelina: There’s a little plaque by the sink in her bathroom that says, Some days it’s not worth chewing through the leather straps in the morning.
It usually seems like a waste of time, when writing about actors as compelling-looking as Angelina, to spend a lot of time describing their looks, surely the one thing with which anyone who has seen their movies is already familiar. And even if not, there are bound to be some pictures right there on a nearby page. But it must be said that although she doesn’t coast on her looks, as an actress or a person, Angelina is exceptionally beautiful, even among the professionally good-looking. It’s not just that she has the unlikely proportions — huge eyes, tiny nose, little elfin ears, long legs, no hips, high breasts — of a Japanese animé character. It’s that, physically, she has a little ripple of energy to her, like a pulse, even when she’s sitting still.
Angelina laughs at the idea that she’s considered a bombshell, but the term could have been invented for her — F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces a character in The Great Gatsby as having “an immediately perceptible vitality about her, as if the nerves of her body were continually smoldering,” and that description goes double for Angelina. When she speaks, she puts just the tiniest bit of torque on the forward motion of the word, just the ghost of a trace of an echo of a Mae West drawl, and it makes her sound as if her batteries have just been recharged. Or maybe need recharging. Either way, it’s very sexy. It seems fitting that one of her uncles, Chip Taylor, wrote “Wild Thing” — with her huge eyes and long fingers, she often has the look of a slightly startled nocturnal animal, just rousted from an orgy in the rain forest.
Everyone I know, male and female, who hears I’m writing about her expresses a desire to have sex with her, and one e-mails a love poem:
You don’t need no stinking eyeliner.
Those eyes are dark enough,
Portending much mystery and more pain
And unspeakable pleasures which we might as well spend a lifetime trying to articulate.
Oh, those eyes.
And the lips, too, have I mentioned your lips?
Furthermore, while many children of a famous parent (Angelina, who uses her middle name, Jolie, professionally, is the daughter of actor Jon Voight) might still, in their twenties, be struggling to emerge from the shadow of someone else’s myth, Angelina, almost from the start of her career, jumped right into the sunshine with both feet and started talking about things that other people find, well, dark. She collects knives and has talked freely about using them in sex play. When she married actor Jonny Lee Miller (best known for his role as Sick Boy in Trainspotting), with whom she co-starred in her first theatrical release, the 1995 cyberthriller Hackers, and from whom she separated amicably last year, she wore black rubber pants and a white shirt with the groom’s name written on it in her blood.
She is openly bisexual. The performance with which she is most associated is her eponymous role in the 1998 HBO biopic Gia, in which she played a crash-and-burn heroin-addicted lesbian supermodel who dies of AIDS. She once told an interviewer who had remarked that she is the actress most straight women want to have sex with that she was the actress most likely to have sex with them.
Yet you have to grant the logic of Angelina’s argument about her love of life rather than death. These things may raise eyebrows, but they’re signs of a passionate temperament, not a dark one. Except possibly the knives. But she mostly keeps those in a drawer.
Angelina was born in Los Angeles in 1975, but after her parents separated, when she was two, she moved to various places in and around New York with her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, and older brother, James Haven Voight. (Both children were given middle names they could use as stage names if they needed them; Angelina’s brother is an aspiring director.)
When she was just a little embryonic bombshell in kindergarten, she was part of a little group called the Kissy Girls. “We would chase the boys around and kiss them a lot and they would scream, and there were a few boys who stopped,” she recalls. “I had two good friends who became my boyfriends, and I think the school called my parents because we were in front of the school grabbing each other, and obviously that was disturbing to the parents and the people driving by. And I played dress-up — I used to wear costumes all the time. I had this black velvet frilly little showgirl thing with sparkles on my butt, and I used to love those plastic high heels. There’s a picture of me having my five-year-old birthday party: I had curled my hair and put lipstick on, very girly.”
The family returned to Los Angeles when Angelina was eleven. “When we moved back from New York, I had gotten really into leather,” she says. “I think I loved Michael Jackson or something. I used to wear the leather jackets with the zippers, or collars with studs on them, and I used to ask if I could go to school wearing studs.”
Although Angelina has studied acting since childhood, at one point she wanted to be a funeral director. “My grandfather died when I was about nine,” she says, “and I’ve — well, not always hated funerals, but I’ve always felt that they were so not a celebration of the life of the person, and that the crossing over could be a beautiful thing and a time of comfort where people could reach out to each other. And I think there’s also just that it’s a tradition. Like, I never had a house growing up, I never had one home, I never had an attic that had old stuff in it. We always moved, lived in a lot of different apartments, and nobody ever owned anything, so I was never rooted anywhere. And I always really dreamed of having that attic of things that I could go back up and look at, or just anything, really — marks on the walls. And I feel like I’m very comfortable now living in hotels and not having that. But I also think I’m very drawn to some things that are tradition, that are roots, and I think that may be why I focused on funerals.”
Maybe this longing for stability is also why she got married at twenty?
“Maybe,” she agrees. “That also had a lot to do just with committing very completely. Because it’s like I don’t have any pictures around of anybody else or of myself; I don’t have anything that represents the past, so I commit very much to things that are probably very sentimental to most people. Like committing very much to marriage and having that bond, that means a great deal to me.” So she is not the wild tattooed slut people think she is? “A slut?” she repeats, sounding shocked. “Oh, no. You know, people always say, ‘Well, what if you regret having tattoos?’ And there are just so many things to regret in life that if there’s ever a day where I regret having a tattoo, I can certainly live with that.”
Angelina remains very close to her mother and brother. Of the perils of following in her father’s footsteps, she says, “I think it’s probably healthy not to put too much thought into that. It’s an interesting thing, because I think we speak to each other a lot through our work. You don’t really know your parents in a certain way, and they don’t really know you. Like, you know, he met my husband and we’d go to dinner, but he still had his opinion of me as his daughter. So he can kind of watch a film and see how I am as a woman, the way I am dealing with a husband who’s been injured or the way I am crying alone. And it’s the same for me: I can watch films of his and just see who he is. But not growing up in the same house and feeling that he really did belong to the world … as I’ve gotten older I learned to communicate with him as a person.”
The movie Angelina is shooting in Los Angeles is a remake of a Seventies B picture about car thieves called Gone in 60 Seconds, co-starring Nicolas Cage and Giovanni Ribisi. She has recently finished the movie of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of life in a genteel mental institution for young ladies, Girl, Interrupted, in which she co-stars with Winona Ryder. Right before that, she wrapped up work on the cop thriller The Bone Collector, with Denzel Washington. In the fall, she goes into a period piece written and directed by Michael Cristofer, with whom she worked on Gia. She has won a number of awards, including two Golden Globes: one for Gia and one for her supporting role as George Wallace’s second wife, Cornelia, in the TNT biopic George Wallace. After she won her second Golden Globe, she jumped into the pool of the hotel where the awards ceremony was being held, wearing her Randolph Duke dress.
Earlier this year she did a critically praised turn as a sort of club-kid screwball heroine in the ensemble romance Playing by Heart, and she starred with Billy Bob Thornton, John Cusack and Cate Blanchett in this year’s Pushing Tin. She has also strolled, memorably, through the video for the Rolling Stones song “Anybody Seen My Baby?”
That’s quite a bit of work, especially considering that it’s just a partial list and that Angelina is only twenty-four. She considered taking a few months off between Girl, Interrupted and the movie she starts in the fall, but decided to do Gone in 60 Seconds because it was a fun project and she loves cars. As anyone might have predicted for a girl whose parents gave her a name that means pretty little angel, Angelina drives a Ford truck, although someday she’d like to get a real hot-rod kind of a car, a crazy car that’s just chrome metal, all sleek lines and really sexy, with a great engine.
Except that she’s not made of chrome metal, this is not a bad description of Angelina herself. “We were looking for a very specific actress for The Bone Collector,” says director Phillip Noyce. “She had to be young, in her midtwenties, with the strength to play a New York cop, as well as a very special vulnerability. The character is really the heart of the story; she comes into the life of the character played by Denzel Washington and reignites his will to live. And what I saw in Angelina’s performance as Gia was all those qualities: the strength and the vulnerability, and also a fearlessness, both in the character she portrayed and — I realized when I met her — as an artist. Funnily enough, the studio didn’t want her — they said, ‘Angelina who?’ Because as soon as the script came out, a lot of female actors came forward, including some very big names, who were willing to cut their fees to do the film. What finally happened was, in order to secure Angelina and Denzel, the studio put a cap on the budget and said the director and producer will pay the overages, to which we agreed. I put up a million dollars. But there was no one else.”
Angelina seriously committed herself to her career at age sixteen, when she got her own apartment and began studying acting in earnest. Her first big part was a stage role as a German dominatrix. Even then, some six years before her first Golden Globe, she was no stranger to awards shows. Jane magazine recently devoted a full page to a picture of Angelina, at eleven or twelve, all mouth and eyes and Eighties hair, decked out in enough pearls and white lace for an entire congregation’s worth of brides at a Tom Thumb wedding, accompanying her father to the Oscars.
“I’m surprised I went to another one of those things after that,” she says, looking at this picture. “Just because, as a kid, it’s hard to sit still that much. But I remember going to the mall with my mom and trying to find something nice we could buy. When I look at this, it’s sort of like it was almost a character thing, like I was doing my impersonation of one of those women, looking really girly and picking what I thought my dad would like. My dad still has his opinions about how I dress.”
Angelina is, at the time she says this, wearing black leather pants, a white T-shirt with nothing written on it in blood and black sandals. She has very long, graceful monkey toes that almost look like fingers, and if she were not an actress and a bombshell, she could easily make a living having them worshiped. She also has long fingers. She has an article from the New York Times about penitentiaries in her bag. We are in a restaurant, and she is eating rib-eye steak. “I eat nothing but red meat,” she says, picking up her steak knife and looking fondly at its serrated edge.
Angelina seems about a zillion times happier than the first time we met, when she was promoting Gia. “I probably wasn’t acting when I met you before,” she says when I mention this. “That was a really bad time, because I didn’t think I had that much more to offer. I didn’t think I could balance my life and my mind and my work. I was also very scared of getting public after doing that part and seeing how undernourished her private life was, how malnourished she was, though her exterior was very glamorous. So I’d be working and doing interviews, and then going home by myself and not knowing if I’d ever be in a relationship or be really good in my marriage or be a good mother one day or if I’d ever be … I don’t know, complete as a woman. It was a really sad time. But I think it was really good that I did that now, that I spent all those months on my own, having a very regular life, going to school at NYU, studying the different levels of how to get into this business, riding the subway back and forth and just being on my own.”
This was also the beginning of her separation from her husband. “We knew that we married young and that we needed to keep growing and that there would be times when we’d grow in different places and spend time apart,” she says. “But it was very difficult to separate from him.” There is a silence punctuated by a clatter from the kitchen and the faint sound of steak knife grinding on plate. “I don’t know how good a wife I was,” she says. “And that’s the one thing that made it possible for me to be somewhat OK with us separating.”
And what is a good wife? “Oh, I don’t know. Or maybe I actually do know now and I don’t know how that affects my thoughts of him. I’ve actually learned a lot about myself. But then I wasn’t sure what compromise was or what freedom was when you were always sharing everything — what was the positive and the negative side of that. We were working separately a lot, and maybe now I understand that it is good to have your individual journeys and it doesn’t have to separate you. And I think that probably because I just wasn’t feeling very good about myself, I just couldn’t imagine that I could be what somebody needed. And I think if you lose that kind of confidence, then you can lose your passion for someone. You don’t want to pursue them and say, ‘Be with me,’ because you think maybe they shouldn’t. I just wasn’t whole as a person, I guess, and now I know that you never are completely, and it doesn’t matter.”
“Angie always says the difference between her and Gia is that she has the outlet of acting as a way of making some sense of herself,” says Gia director Michael Cristofer. “And that if she hadn’t had that craft to help her deal with who she was, she feels that there would have been every possibility she could have had the spiral-out-of-control existence that Gia did have. But she’s serious about acting, in a very real-life sense. It’s a big part of her existence and her identity; it’s not a show-off thing or a look-at-me thing with her, although there is always that element in acting. But I think she really does use it as a way to understand and know herself. She’s a hunter, you know, a real adventurer.”
Angelina is giving a tour of the cluttered little office room between her bedroom and the kitchen. There’s a big spear in the corner. She has taken down some of the pictures she doesn’t keep out from a shelf with some art books: one she took of her mother — near a mirror, so the image is twinned — looking beautiful and a bit serious, and one of her husband as a little boy, wearing a cape and tights with his chest stuck out in a superhero pose as he stands next to his older sister, who is dressed as a ballerina.
Taped up by the desk, there are some color Xeroxes of corpses in situ at crime scenes that she put there when she was doing The Bone Collector, because she wanted to get used to having them there while she worked at the desk, like a cop would, without having them bother her so much, although some were just too upsetting, and she almost threw up when she first looked at them, just to see what people will do to each other. She takes some paintings and drawings she did down from a high bureau and spreads them on the floor and kneels among them. A friend of hers, who has been housesitting while she’s been in California, comes in to say goodbye. Are there any secrets about Angelina she’d like to share before she goes?
“Yes,” she says. “She tap dances. Day and night.”
“You’re not supposed to tell anybody,” Angelina says and smiles down at her artwork as if she’s just unwrapped a pile of gifts and it’s still early Christmas morning.
Asked the same question — if there are any secrets about Angelina he’d like to share — Cristofer says, “She plays with knives,” and laughs, because, of course, this is not a secret. “I’m telling you, she’s a hunter. I think most of us are cowards; we live at home in our nice little worlds, and the artists are the ones who come along, the adventurers, who go out into the dark away from the campfire, and then they come back and tell us the story of their adventures. And she’s one of those people. I think life is an adventure for her.”
Just as a little coda, so as not to leave you in the dark, this is Angelina’s personal Hot List, which she phones in after returning to Los Angeles:
For all to be master and slave, male and female
And not judging others.