Her role as Marianne Pearl in "A Mighty Heart" reminded audiences of the Oscar-winning actress' formidable talent. (Photo courtesy of Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Her role as Marianne Pearl in "A Mighty Heart" reminded audiences of the Oscar-winning actress' formidable talent. (Photo courtesy of Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Jolie's 'Mighty' act of friendship

By Gina Piccalo For Los Angeles Times.

January 9, 2008

Angelina Jolie was friends with Mariane Pearl before portraying her. The actress took the role for Pearl's young son.

NOBODY crosses a room like Angelina Jolie. She cut a purposeful stride across the polished floor of a Hollywood Roosevelt suite, a feat especially impressive because she was doing it in 4-inch heels and a pencil skirt.

It was noon on a warm November day, weeks before Jolie's restrained and moving portrayal of real-life journalist Mariane Pearl in "A Mighty Heart" would land her nominations for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards. The role reminded audiences of the Oscar-winning actress' formidable talent, telling the wrenching story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's 2002 kidnapping -- and the race to find him before his killing in Pakistan by Islamic extremists -- from the perspective of his pregnant wife.

Jolie had recently returned from the London premiere of her much-hyped nearly nude role in the computer-generated adaptation of "Beowulf," and had just wrapped two high-profile films: "Wanted," a graphic novel adaptation opening in June in which she plays an assassin, and "Changeling," a Clint Eastwood-directed, Brian Grazer-produced period crime drama.

But her most pressing concern at the moment was timing her day's work to end just as her children needed to be picked up from school. Jolie, 32, acknowledged that no matter who you are, wrangling life with four kids (in her case, Maddox, 6; Pax, 4; Zahara, 3; and Shiloh, 1) is no walk in the park. She said she couldn't do it alone.

"I have a great partner in it," she said of Brad Pitt. "I think you need at least to look at that other person and share the lack of sleep and insanity. And then it becomes fun."

On this afternoon, Jolie seemed to have eluded the ever-swarming paparazzi. It was quiet in and around her room except for the chatter of a few vacationers at the pool below. She perched her very thin frame on a sleek white leather sofa with the careful demeanor of a guest.

The conversation turned intimate as Jolie began charting the emotional, sometimes awkward, process of portraying her close friend Mariane Pearl, during the most heartbreaking moments of the journalist's life. It was the toughest role of her career, Jolie said. Pearl's son Adam and Jolie's Maddox were playmates long before a film was in the works. So when Pearl chose her for the role, Jolie was both honored and terrified.

"It was the one film I've done where I'd lost sleep and didn't think I could do it," she said.

The film, based on Pearl's 2003 memoir, "A Mighty Heart: The Inside Story of the Al Qaeda Kidnapping of Danny Pearl," was directed by Michael Winterbottom. Focusing largely on the frantic search for Pearl (Dan Futterman), the film was shot mostly in India, documentary-style, with no rehearsals, very long takes and, for the most part, in chronological order. The shoot coincided with an especially difficult time for Jolie. The actress had just given birth to her first biological child and then, shortly after, lost her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, to a 7-year battle with ovarian cancer.

But Jolie was clear that her own loss was mild compared with Pearl's story.

"My thought was, 'My God, [Mariane] went through such unbelievable horror,' " Jolie said, the intensity of her gaze almost too intimate. " 'I can certainly get myself in gear and pretend on a movie set.' "

To prepare, she reviewed hours of Mariane Pearl's videotaped interviews and radio broadcasts studying her body language and idiosyncratic accent -- a blend of Cuban and French that changed slightly according to her moods and her environment. During a series of conversations, Jolie said she tried to get at the heart of Pearl's strength, to understand how she managed such grace in the face of such a horrific loss.

"There are certain things I never asked her," said Jolie. "I never asked her -- and I would never ask her -- about the tape [of Daniel's beheading]. I never have asked her to describe how she responded. I just tried to understand what the loss was and then tried to interpret it from what I understood that was."

As Jolie described her friend -- her unwavering political advocacy and commitment to her son, her ability to preserve a private life separate from her public persona -- she could have been describing herself. Indeed, the two share much in common. Pearl's mother also died of cancer and Jolie portrayed Pearl's pregnancy and the birth of the couple's first child just weeks after her own first experience with childbirth. Both women devoted themselves to global politics.

"She knows as a journalist, as a Buddhist, as a very strong woman and a mother that to let something eat you up inside doesn't solve the problem," said Jolie. "Her kind of medicine seems to be her advocacy. . . . As much as she had people around her, she's an individual survivor."

She was interrupted by a knock on the door. Lunch had arrived -- a platter of cheese, some dark, nutty bread and strawberries. When Jolie answered, the shock of recognition was clear on the waiter's face. He trembled as he set down the tray. Jolie must have noticed but spoke to him without a trace of pretension.

SHE is among the most famous actresses in the world, but having grown up inside the star machine -- her father is actor Jon Voight -- weathering a series of very public personal melodramas, she has learned a thing or two about managing her persona. She has no publicist -- which in itself is an act of courage in Hollywood -- working instead with the same manager she's had since adolescence. And she has preserved a down-to-earth demeanor, offering an unguarded smile and surprisingly firm handshake.

On the set of "A Mighty Heart," Winterbottom said, Jolie tried to bring a sense of camaraderie to the shoot. "Taxi drivers who'd never acted before, people from Britain and Pakistan -- she made everyone feel very much a part of the group," he said.

Dede Gardner, president of Pitt's Plan B Entertainment, which produced "A Mighty Heart," said this lack of airs served her portrayal of Mariane Pearl. "There's an honesty to the performance that has to do with who she is as a person, related to who Mariane is as a person," Gardner said. "I like to say they share some DNA. I think they really function similarly in the world. They're two of the only people I've ever met who really truly try to exist in a borderless world and really try to comprehend the globe at large. I think that attitude definitely informed how Mariane handled this tragedy. I think it's how Angie lives as well."

A Mighty Heart's" critical acclaim didn't help it at the box office -- the tragic subject matter proved too dark for summer moviegoers. There was some speculation that it was too soon to revisit those events on screen. But Jolie said she wasn't surprised. It's a story that doesn't lend itself to the theater experience, she said.

Ultimately, Jolie said her intent in taking on this role had nothing to do with the box office or even her own career. She did it for the Pearls' son, Adam, now 5.

"All I could think about," she said, her eyes welling with tears and her voice wavering slightly, "was I have this one opportunity to show this little boy how much his mother loves his father."

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