As far as Hollywood A-listers go, few can match the long-lived success that Angelina Jolie has achieved. Having made her big screen debut at the tender age of seven and cast in her first leading role when just 20, the 44-year-old Tinseltown thespian has over 50 films and five directorial credits to her name. She’s also received countless accolades, including an Academy Award, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and three Golden Globes.
More than her numerous onscreen plaudits, though, Jolie seems to have found true fulfilment in an entirely different sphere of her life – humanitarianism. Indeed, few actresses have embraced charitable causes as wholeheartedly as the Maleficent star, with women’s rights, conservation, child immigration, education and human rights all falling under the purview of her philanthropic efforts since becoming a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2001. Speaking of her motive for joining the august body, she said: “We cannot close ourselves off to information and ignore the fact that millions of people are out there suffering. I honestly want to help. I don’t believe I feel differently from other people. I think we all want justice and equality, a chance for a life with meaning. All of us would like to believe that if we were in a bad situation, someone would help us.”
This drive to help others likely stems from Jolie’s own troubled upbringing. Born on 4 June 1975 to two thespian parents – US actor Jon Voight and French screen siren Marcheline Bertrand – she first debuted in a bit part alongside her father in the 1982 comedy, Lookin’ to Get Out. Yet, she was already estranged from Voight, who had abandoned the family when she was just one.
During her tumultuous childhood, she seldom showed any real inclination towards acting though. Something of a wilful child, she has said of her young self: “When other little girls wanted to be ballet dancers, I kind of wanted to be a vampire.”
“We cannot ignore the fact that millions of people are out there suffering. I honestly want to help”
Her teenage years turned out to be equally difficult. She attended Beverly Hills High School but felt isolated at the affluent school because her single mother had to make do on a more modest income. After repeated bullying, she dropped out at the age of 14, though she returned to finish her degree two years later. Jolie’s early attempts at modelling – at her mother’s urging – were also doomed to end in failure.
By the time she hit 20, Jolie had tried “just about every drug possible”, including heroin. She also confessed to suffering from depression, self-harming and having suicidal thoughts. Speaking of those difficult times, she reflected: “For some reason, the ritual of having cut myself and feeling the pain, maybe feeling alive, feeling some kind of release, it was somehow therapeutic to me.”
Despite these difficulties, Jolie still managed to get her fledgling onscreen career off the ground. After acting in her brother’s university movies and nailing a few big screen roles, she landed her first Hollywood starring role in 1995’s cult classic, Hackers. Two years later, she finally entered the big league with her Golden Globe Award-winning role in the TV biopic George Wallace (1997) and as supermodel Gia in the 1998 HBO movie by the same name. Her superb performance in the latter even had one renowned critic stating: “Jolie is fierce in her portrayal – filling the part with nerve, charm, and desperation – and her role in this film is quite possibly the most beautiful train wreck ever filmed.”
“I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity”
Yet even as her professional life soared to new heights, her personal life was anything but jubilant. Her first marriage to British actor and Hackers co-star Jonny Lee Miller lasted just three years. Her second marriage to actor Billy Bob Thornton (after a whirlwind romance in which she stole him away from his fiancé, actress Laura Dern, for whom the relationship’s demise came as a shock) was similarly short lived.
Despite the scandalous start to her next relationship with Brad Pitt (she was seen as the cause of death for the marriage of ‘America’s sweethearts’, Pitt and Jennifer Aniston), it seemed to have the makings of a true Hollywood happily-ever-after when she wed her Mr and Mrs Smith co-star in 2014. Sadly, after five years of marriage and six children together – including three biological offsprings and three adopted kids – the relationship once again ended in divorce.
And the misfortunes kept on piling up. Her mother – perhaps the biggest influence in Jolie’s life – suffered from breast cancer and eventually succumbed to ovarian cancer in 2007. After learning that she too had an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer due to a defective BRCA1 gene in her DNA, Jolie made the difficult choice to undergo a preventative double masectomy surgery in 2013 in a bid to avoid suffering the same fate as her mother. While her decision certainly caused consternation in many corners, she had no regrets. In fact, she even wrote: “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
Thankfully, despite her lack of luck in love and her health concerns, motherhood seemed to provide the actress with the stability she craved. Indeed, her fortuitous decision to accept the role of Lara Croft in the 2001 film adaptation of the Tomb Raider game saw her journey to Cambodia for its shooting. It was there that the spark to adopt her very own child began, ultimately leading to her adoption of Maddox, a Cambodian orphan, later that year. Speaking of that life-changing experience, she said: “It’s the greatest responsibility. It’s another life and you have to make sure they’re okay and they’re ready. There is nothing else you’re doing that is more important.”
That very same experience also kick-started Jolie’s interest in humanitarian causes. At the time, Cambodia was still reeling from the effects of war, and the suffering that Jolie witnessed there led her to contact the UNHCR upon her return to the United States. She soon became an ambassador for the organisation, and shortly thereafter, she began to visit refugee camps across the world, using her celebrity status to draw attention to the plight of the people there.
Jolie continues to juggle her humanitarian concern and the care of her six children with the considerable demands of her cinematic career. She has even found a way to combine the two, having made her directorial debut with the 2018 historical thriller, First They Killed My Father, an adaptation of a memoir by Loung Ung, who witnessed firsthand the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge as a child.
That’s not to say that she’s abandoned her onscreen calling either. She most recently reprised her role of Maleficent in the sequel to Disney’s live-action adaptation of Sleeping Beauty (Maleficent 2). Next up, she’s set to star in another fantasy mash up – combining the worlds of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan – in Come Away. Then, of course, she will join the gigantic Marvel Cinematic Universe as Thena in The Eternals (November 2020).
Throughout her career, Jolie has taken on roles that have been as engaging as they are varied – from adventurer to disturbed psych patient (Girl, Interrupted) to the voice of Tigress in Kung Fu Panda. However, it seems to be in the pursuit of her humanitarian passions that the actress has found her true calling as a ‘Guardian Angelina’.