Action figure: Angelina Jolie is out to prove she’s an actress worth her ‘Salt’

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010

 Angelina Jolie: Action Hero

Serious actresses certainly have dabbled in action before, but Angelina Jolie, who at 35 has won an Oscar for her role in the 1999 drama ‘Girl, Interrupted’ and now commands $20 million per picture, has made action a consistent and crucial part of her meteoric rise.

Settled serenely on an overstuffed couch at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, Angelina Jolie doesn’t look like a woman who’s set out to rock the world.

Dressed in a short-skirted black suit, adorned only by a knockout of an emerald ring, matching ear bobs and a few inconspicuous tattoos, Jolie looks both unattainably gorgeous and improbably of-this-world. The sculptural cheekbones and pillowy lips bear only the most scant dusting of makeup (although it’s difficult to fathom the reality of eyelashes that reach all the way to Arlington). The fingernails, however, are cut short, devoid of polish. The face may say Movie Star, but the hands say Mother of Six.

That duality fits right in with “Salt,” the action spy thriller opening Friday, in which Jolie plays a would-be Russian sleeper spy of uncertain loyalties. In the course of what amounts to a pulse-pounding 90-minute chase from Washington to New York and back again, Jolie gets to do a lot of things: jump, shoot, kick the spit out of a cordon of broad-shouldered Secret Service agents, dye her hair, dress in full-on dude drag.

But even in the midst of “Salt’s” most fantastical action, hints of practicality peek through. Jolie might be wearing towering nude heels in real life, but in the movie the first thing Salt does is take off her pumps to run. “There’s no way, running in heels,” Jolie says, laughing at how often women in movies sprint down streets in 4 1/2 -inch Louboutins. “There was no way I was going to do that!”

If “Salt” makes anything clear, it’s that the most superhuman stunt Jolie performs in the movie can’t be found in the over-the-top set pieces, or in her deceptively layered performance as the film’s slippery title character — or even in the marmoreal perfection she has reached as a physically flawless screen object. Rather, by starring in the kind of movie that made Sean Connery, Harrison Ford and Matt Damon household names, Jolie has undertaken no less an audacious feat than redefining female stardom itself.

Women have starred in action movies before: a ripped Linda Hamilton in the “Terminator” movies; angular, square-jawed Jamie Lee Curtis in “True Lies”; and most recently, a fembotic Milla Jovovich in the “Resident Evil” series. And certainly serious actresses have dabbled in action, including Sigourney Weaver, who reprised her groundbreaking tough-girl performance in “Alien” in last year’s “Avatar,” and Halle Berry’s regrettable macha turn in “Catwoman.”

But Jolie, who at 35 has won an Oscar for her role in the 1999 drama “Girl, Interrupted” and now commands $20 million per picture, has made action a consistent and crucial part of her meteoric rise. Unlike Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, Jolie has largely avoided the romantic-comedy ghetto of the highly paid sisterhood (hey, even Kate Winslet did the date-night confection “The Holiday”).

Instead, she’s toggled between serious dramas (“A Mighty Heart,” “Changeling“) and rock ‘em-sock ‘em action pictures (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “Wanted”), managing to carve out a career all her own — and hitherto unseen in Hollywood. Jolie’s success as an action heroine has helped her create a persona that, both on-screen and off-, has transfixed audiences through hits and bombs alike.

“You know, I took kickboxing lessons and all that when I was really young,” Jolie explains in a soft voice. “I was a bit of a tomboy. . . . I just feel like I’ve been so lucky that I’ve been allowed by audiences to do very heavy drama and big action movies, and that balance has been so lovely in my life. I’ve been able to go to those very heavy places and spend months very internally as a woman and explore my emotions, and then a year later, when I’m feeling very soft and want to get out and feel strong, I’m encouraged to do that, too.”

There’s no question that action has been Jolie’s most popular genre since she first made “Lara Croft” in 2001. That movie and its sequel grossed more than $430 million between them worldwide; “Gone in 60 Seconds” grossed more than $230 million; “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” a romantic action comedy Jolie made with now real-life romantic partner Brad Pitt, grossed $478 million; and the pulp-noir fantasy “Wanted” made more than $340 million. By comparison, “A Mighty Heart,” based on the agonizing real-life story of reporter Daniel Pearl’s widow, Mariane, made a little less than $19 million and the period melodrama “Changeling” (this time about an agonizing mother) made $113 million.

Jolie’s embrace of raw, kinetic action has proved canny at a time when action has become an essential part of the film grammar, a guarantor of attracting the all-important teenage male audience. And surely her grit and guts have become an accepted trope in Hollywood, where Cameron Diaz (“Charlie’s Angels,” “Knight and Day”) can engage in more playful versions of Jolie’s harder-edged exploits. The reality that Jolie has acknowledged and helped create is that women are no less feminine for being as brave and agile as men; if anything, mixing it up makes her more limber and believable as a player at a time when no one questions a woman’s ability to lead in any field.

With “Salt,” she’s poised to fuse the nodes that have defined her career — serious acting chops and outsize physical derring-do — more seamlessly than ever before; if filmgoers like what they see, Jolie may even be on the cusp of a spy franchise that will make Evelyn Salt the first female name on a list that has included James Bond, Jack Ryan and Jason Bourne. It’s a breakthrough so seismic that the Hollywood Reporter compared it to Eddie Murphy becoming the first African American to headline a franchise picture with “Beverly Hills Cop” 25 years ago.

It’s a leap Jolie is more than ready to make. “I’ve done a lot of action movies, but with women they’re usually always based in fantasy and sci-fi. They’ve never been in this genre, which is just strange,” she says. “I’ve never been able to do an action movie that had such great drama, real drama.”

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And by real, she means really real: Just weeks before “Salt” was screened for critics and reporters, the Department of Justice and the FBI announced their arrest of 10 Russian sleeper agents they had been tracking for a decade. The existence of deep-cover moles living in the suburbs of New Jersey and Virginia struck uncannily close to the plot of “Salt,” in which Jolie’s character is accused of being a Russian mole clandestinely working in the CIA. For most of the movie, Salt is on the run from her colleagues in the U.S. government as well as Russian agents.

For a long time, Hollywood studios considered Russian sleeper spies so dated and outlandish that they wouldn’t touch the “Salt” script, which was originally written for Tom Cruise. But it was when Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chairman Amy Pascal approached Jolie to co-star in the James Bond movie “Casino Royale” — and Jolie responded that she’d rather play Bond, thank you very much — that “Salt’s” producers considered changing their protagonist from an Edwin to an Evelyn.

“I don’t think a hero is male or female. I think it’s actually non-gender-specific,” says “Salt” producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. “Every action beat [Jolie] takes, every critical decision she makes . . . a guy’s going to do the same thing as she does. She’s going to bring her own skill set the same way a guy would bring his own skill set. But fundamentally the actions are the same. I think that’s where the breakthrough is — that we can stop saying ‘female action’ or ‘male action,’ we’ll just say ‘action star.’ I think she’s really, in a way, gone beyond gender.”

Di Bonaventura compares Jolie to Steve McQueen in the way she combines her athleticism and acting ability: “Steve McQueen wasn’t a big guy. She’s not a big girl. He wasn’t pumped up. She’s not pumped up. But you believed Steve McQueen was going to kick whoever’s ass it was. And you believe she can kick whoever’s ass it is. And that’s attitude, not physicality.”

Once di Bonaventura’s words sink in, it’s telling — jarring, even — that, in reaching back to classic Hollywood stars, he compares Jolie to McQueen rather than, say, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis. Certainly, with her photogenic looks and an off-screen life that includes six children, global activism, a storied romance with Pitt and an ineffable balance of peripatetic adventure and domesticity, Jolie has attained the glamour and mythic fascination of those great stars.

But perhaps even more important, she has done so with precisely the same understanding of her fans. Just as the stars of yore shrewdly knew when to throw in a musical comedy or melodrama to keep their core audience happy, Jolie possesses the same sense of service to ticket buyers. Fans will accept her dramatic gravitas in “Changeling,” but they keep coming back for the whoop-ass in “Wanted.” They’re dazzled by the glamour (those eyelashes) but they can relate to the earthiness (those fingernails).

And Jolie happily gives them both. Says “Salt” director Phillip Noyce, who also directed her in “The Bone Collector” in 1999, Jolie “gets a thrill out of putting on a show. . . . She loves to pitch the tent and draw the audience in, and she loves to entertain them. I’ve noticed that those actors that do best artistically or financially always have that in common, that old-fashioned showman’s instinct that the reason the audience find them pleasing is because they want to please the audience.”

Later, unbidden, Jolie echoes Noyce’s observation. “I’m conscious of an audience and I’m happy when an audience responds,” she says. “I’m not someone who’s doing it for my own pleasure, as much as I also love the communication. I like to tell stories and I hope that people do understand and enjoy them.

“It should be entertainment,” she continues. “There’s nothing wrong with trying something interesting, trying something you’re curious about, but also making sure you give the audience what you know they’ll be happy about and excited about.”

Alone among female stars of her generation, Jolie has asked for and has received permission by filmgoers to straddle two worlds, not only between action and drama on screen, but between an off-screen persona of Globally Conscious Earth Mother and an aggressive on-screen embodiment of Kali, Goddess of Destruction. They’re mythic roles that exert equally primal pulls, and Jolie has proved emotionally adept, physically capable, psychologically mature enough to take on whichever mythology the audience demands. And the more powerfully bifurcated, the better.

“It seems very opposing, but in fact I think it is one in the same,” Jolie says of her dual personas. “Because I think it’s just a commitment and a passion to fight for what you think is the right thing, whatever it may be. So somehow, it’s not as bizarre as it seems.”

In “Salt,” Evelyn Salt fights with a fierceness that, notwithstanding preposterous stunts like driving by way of a Taser or jumping from a bridge onto a passing truck, delivers a transgressive jolt. When the writers made Salt a woman, Jolie explains, “the instinct would be . . . to make it softer, and instead we decided it had to be meaner. She had to fight dirty and darker because that’s what you’d have to do to win against a man who’s much bigger than you.”

The film leaves the door open for a franchise that can age with Jolie, moving from bare-knuckled action into craftier, more psychological realms. (Although as Helen Mirren’s recent foray into the “National Treasure” series suggests, there may not be an expiration date for adventuresome women.)

Jolie admits that Evelyn Salt compels her in a way that her cartoon characters haven’t. She may like pitching the tent, but not just for the money. “I was asked to do sequels of ‘Wanted,’ but that character just isn’t very interesting to me, beyond the fact that she’s dead,” Jolie says. “But there are so many things [Eveyln Salt] has yet to figure out about herself as a woman, as a person. So many things about her parents she’s trying to figure out and also, really, what side she’s on, and the opportunity for more disguises. She’s a great deal of fun if I get to do it again.” She fixes a visitor with a catlike gaze and a knowing smile. And somehow the question doesn’t seem to be if she’ll get to do it again, but when.