WHILE HER PROTRACTED DIVORCE FROM BRAD PITT HAS KEPT HER FROM DIRECTING, THE OSCAR WINNER HAS CONTINUED TO ACT, PLAYING A SMOKEJUMPER IN THE NEW FILM THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD
BY JOEL KELLER
During her press tour for the new film Those Who Wish Me Dead, Angelina Jolie didn’t beat around the bush when she was asked why she hasn’t directed a project since her 2017 film First They Killed My Father.
“I love directing, but I had a change in my family situation that’s not made it possible for me to direct for a few years,” she told Entertainment Weekly in April. “I needed to just do shorter jobs and be home more, so I kind of went back to doing a few acting jobs. That’s really the truth of it.”
The “change in my family situation,” of course, is her divorce from Brad Pitt, which has yet to be resolved, despite the fact that the process began in 2016. Much of the protracted situation has to do with the custody of five of their six children, and accusations of domestic abuse.
Even if you’ve just followed the story in the entertainment press, you know that Jolie couldn’t commit to the year plus task of directing a film, which includes planning, casting, filming, and editing.
But it’s not like Those Who Wish Me Dead was a simple acting job. In the Taylor Sheridan directed film, based on the 2014 novel by Michael Koryta, she plays Hannah Faber, a veteran smokejumper who shields a boy named Connor (Finn Little), who is fleeing hired killers who assassinated his father. When the thugs set fire to the forest around where she’s hiding the boy, they have to escape the wildfire and find the killers at the same time.
It’s an action film, requiring physical demands that even challenged Jolie, who is no stranger to the genre. “She got pretty handy at swinging an axe, at both wood and people,” Sheridan said in an interview with Warner Bros., the film’s studio. “She got a pretty good left hook. We ran through some fire, and we [learned to] rappel.”
Running through fire and swinging an axe is Jolie’s version of “taking it easy,” but knowing how much time she commits to her kids and her humanitarian work, it makes sense. Even during the pandemic, Jolie’s thoughts turned outward as much as they turned inward.
“When girls are out of school it leaves many more vulnerable to child marriage, child labor, sexual abuse, and other violations of their rights,” she told the U.K. edition of Harper’s Bazaar in 2020. “The pandemic looks set to have knock on effects on girls in many countries. We know it but still there is inertia.”
She also tried to make sure her children saw her as a source of strength. “Like most parents, I focus on staying calm so my children don’t feel anxiety from me on top of all they are worrying about. I put all my energy into them.”
Even though she didn’t direct Those Who Wish Me Dead, Jolie noted to EW that her directorial skills helped her during the shoot, mainly because she was able to understand why Sheridan made the choices he made. It also helped her focus on her performance, even in extreme conditions.
“Maybe when you’re younger and you’re having a huge day where you have to be cold and wet and emotional and crying, you’re thinking about those things,” she told EW. “Now you’ve directed and you’re older, and you realize that while you are going to be freezing and crying, there’s also pyrotechnics going on, or multiple other situations. It pulls you out of yourself.”
Sheridan, who is also a multi hyphenate like Jolie (he adapted the book into the film’s screenplay and has extensive acting experience), likes the fact that she has that directorial experience.
“She has an understanding of what I need as a director from an editorial standpoint,” he said in a promotional interview for the film. “She understands the emotional arc of her character within the film, and she understands the arc of the film. It allows you to have a real shorthand with the artist as you’re moving forward. Beyond that, she’s game to try anything. She’s not precious about what she has to achieve, whatever the character has to achieve.”
Because Sheridan used as many practical effects as possible when filming, he built a forest in the film’s New Mexico desert shooting location, then set it on fire for the scenes Hannah and Connor needed to escape. While there were firefighters on set to help make sure things were under control, Jolie was well aware of the power of even a controlled fire.
“Of course, the interesting thing about working with fire is that you can’t completely control it,” she said in a promotional interview. “So we had rules that if it jumped or if it got too hot or it grew too much you would just turn and keep walking in the other direction. And it did sometimes do that. We thought we were in charge of things, but it was us versus the fire through most of the film.”
As many adventures as Jolie has had in her adult life, she does express a bit of wonder at those who are willing to jump from an airplane into a wildfire in order to help quell it. “It’s a very interesting group of people,” she said. “You have to have a sense of wild adrenaline” to do such a job.
The next time we’ll see Jolie on screen, she’ll become a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the first time, in the much anticipated film Eternals, directed by Oscar winner Chloé Zhao. Jolie plays Thena, who can form any weapon she chooses just by harnessing cosmic energy. The film is expected to be released in November.
“This is now understanding that you are a part of this greater universe, this greater project, all of these films,” she told Variety in 2019 about joining the MCU, “and you are so much a part of a team. It’s a lovely feeling, really. You have to get it right and do it well, because it’s a high bar that they’ve set.”