Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie was in New York last week to promote "Unbroken," her inspirational new film starring up and comers Jack O’Connell and Domhnall Gleeson set for release on Christmas Day. Cahir O'Doherty asks the most famous actress in the world what compelled her to direct a World War II prison drama set in Japan, and why she cast two relatively unknown Irish actors in the central roles?
Angelina Jolie is half an hour late for her interview, but what are you going to do, cancel? If one half of Hollywood’s most famous power couple wants to remind the world who’s holding the trump cards, there’s not much the rest of us can do but fold.
Last Friday I was with a small group of journalists waiting on Jolie at the five star Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Columbus Circle.
Finally she sweeps into the room, dressed in a long-sleeved black top and tight black jeans with leather boots that accentuate how perilously thin she’s become. My first thought is that she looks exactly like she does on the world’s magazine covers (and this is almost never the case, so it’s doubly surprising).
When she speaks it’s immediately apparent that she’s considerate, smart and kind, another surprise for a stratospheric celebrity. She even looks a bit bashful, like she can’t quite believe the clucking circus of publicists and handlers that surround her (they never leave the room).
Being arguably the most famous woman in the world (if scoring magazine covers is how you gauge these things) the way Jolie, 39, carries herself suggests she doesn’t know it. There’s something a bit introverted and Lady Diana like about her, as though the sycophantic paparazzi circus that attends her every move is trying on her nerves.
But then when she speaks I realize that whatever she thinks about the mediums, her message is clear and unmistakable. She may look like an ice queen, but her heart is true.
“Like everyone we (meaning Brad Pitt and herself) wake up and we see the news and the events around the world and our communities and we’re disheartened by so much and we feel overwhelmed,” she tells the Irish Voice, explaining why she decided to direct "Unbroken," an epic prisoner of war drama that she’s the first to admit she was surprised to want to direct herself.
“We’re looking for something to hold on to, something to give us strength theses days,” she continues, explaining that for her World War II veteran Louis Zamperini’s remarkable life story was the answer she was looking for.
“I was halfway through Laura Hillenbrand’s book about his life and I found myself inspired and on fire and feeling better and being reminded of the strength of the human spirit.”
Jolie realized that if Zamperini’s tale was having that effect on her – and so many other people around her – wasn’t it really what she needed to put forward into the world?
“I believe it is and I am very happy its coming out during the holidays. I think it’s the right time,” she says.
In this age of racial conflict and endless political gridlock in Washington, it’s hard to point to public figures who seem willing to put principle before themselves. It wasn’t always thus, Jolie reminds me. Time was there were more men and women who put their lives on the line for the greater good.
“I want to remind this generation of – of the sense of community and honor of the World War II generation – and to pay respect to them,” she says.
“I want my children to know about men like Louie, so when they feel bad about themselves and they think all is lost they will learn they’ve got something inside of them because that’s what this story speaks to. It’s inside all of us.
“You don’t have to be a perfect person, or a saint, or a hero. Louie was very flawed, very human, but he made great choices and in the end that made him a great man.”
Jack O’Connell, 24, the breakthrough English actor with a father from Co. Kerry, plays the young Zamperini in the film. He has to lose a dangerous amount of weight alongside Irish co-star Domhnall Gleeson, 31, when the two play castaways adrift on the sea for 45 days.
“Here’s a fun fact: Domhnall lost so much weight that even his eyeballs changed shape,” O’Connell tells the Irish Voice. “His contact lenses suddenly didn’t fit any more.
Jolie adds, “They fit when he was starting to lose weight and when he got to the end of the raft at sea section they wouldn’t fit his eyes anymore. It was the dehydration.”
“He’s also got weird eyes, Domhnall,” jokes O’Connor. “He dropped a contact lens size. Even his eyes were skinny! Now that’s impressive!
In the film Finn Wittrock, 30, another up and comer best known for his recurring role in the current season of "American Horror Story," plays Francis McNamara, the tragic Irish American tail gunner who becomes the third castaway at sea with Louie (O’Connor) and Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Gleeson).
“It was great to eat when it was over,” Wittrock jokes. “We all felt that sense of responsibility in service to a story that was bigger than any of us. That was what I was reminding myself when I was having four blueberries for breakfast. I pushed myself because I wanted the story to be told.”
Asked why she picked O’Connell for the lead role Jolie doesn’t hesitate. “As soon as I met him, I knew he was Louie,” she says, adding that his talent is “a gift.” O’Connell explains that Jolie was under a lot of pressure from the studio to get it right, “so you can imagine what it was like, trying to convince them about this complete unknown.”
Once cast, the parts of Zamperini’s tale to focus on were the biggest challenge.
“The Coen brothers said something to me that really helped – when you put the book down you have a certain feeling and a certain understanding,” says Jolie. “That’s what people need to feel when they walk out of the theater, they told me. That’s your job.”
Sadly Louie’s generation are nearly all gone, which makes telling their story all the more important. O’Connell agrees. “We owe it to them and to ourselves to keep passing their accounts down. They were a sacrificial generation. Everything we get to experience today – I believe – was at a cost.
“It’s key that we remember this so generations beneath ours are also made aware. Louie is just the one account – an incredible account – but there were many heroes of that generation. I consider it timeless. And his ability to find a place of solace and forgiveness and to live to the age of 97 with some version of closure impresses me.”
Meanwhile, Jolie still can’t quite believe she took on the task of bringing this epic to the screen.
“If you had asked me three years ago what kind of film do you want to direct I would never have thought of myself handling plane crashes and shark attacks and that kind of film-making. I wouldn’t have thought I would do that or could do that.
“But I cared about this story and so I had to learn how to do all those things.”