Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
When "A Mighty Heart" was about to be released, some members of Angelina Jolie's camp decided to limit her press exposure. Since this film was about a courageous journalist who is kidnapped and beheaded by Al Quaeda members in Pakistan, the press had a bad reaction to efforts to control them through a restrictive release form—ironic for a story about a journalist's fatal effort to expose the secret world of the Islamist underground.
Daniel Pearl's widow, Mariane, had written her book documenting the events that led up to his death and surrounding it so that the world would know what she experienced. Yet, in order to hear the 32 year-old Jolie—who played Mariane—speak about this painful and provocative film, some journalists had to catch her at various limited special events.
One evening, Jolie was part of a panel with a three other cast members. Out of that discussion came this distillation of her thoughts on this powerful tale of the intersection between the political and personal. As she spoke lucidly about this film, it was obvious even then that she would be nominated for an Best Actress Oscar.
Q: You were told [by director Michael Winterbottom] to use the dialogue in the script as a guideline. What was that process like with the improvisation?
AJ: It was remarkable. It was just such a great way to work, especially for this film. We were all together. We never really left this house. We didn’t have trailers. We didn’t have places to go. We just lived on top of each other.
Michael had the right to come in and film whenever he wanted to, which meant you could go to the bathroom and he would follow you. It was this really open way and it went somewhat in order, so we were all together on the first day and he helped us all. Then the second day, Michael was gone. We were trying to figure out what happened. It flowed from there until the end, so it felt very organic. Then he showed up and it all became [obvious].
It was amazing…It took us all a while to trust ourselves. We all looked at each other and were very, very nervous. We didn’t know what we were doing and felt shy because it was such a new process.
Q: You did much of your own research. How much of the characterization needed to be created or was in the script?
AJ: It wasn’t as much in the script because these are real people. This really happened. We all did have the great fortune to meet them and the other people that knew them. I think our big concern was not to do a caricature of these amazing people, but to try to find out who they were and to know that this was such a heavy time in their lives. Probably the thing that they still lose sleep over and feel was, could I have done more? What was I doing at that time?
Remember vividly what that remaining thought was. So to honor them [we had] to find a way to be organically inside them and just not in any a way that would betray them. It was hard. So we got to know them and what was important to them.
As for Mariane, I did know so much of how much she loved her husband, how much she believes in dialogue and other people. So I guess what they believe in was more important than exactly what they sounded like or exactly what they dressed like.
Q: Was that hard, to not constantly keep that in mind? Was that inhibiting at all or were you able to put that aside and do what you needed to do? In the sense of representing these people?
AJ: I don’t think it ever left our minds—that was the hardest thing about doing it and wanting to make sure, should we be doing this? Are we going to be doing this right? Are we going to do this good enough? There’s a little five-year old boy who will one day see this. We talked about that often. This was going to be a way to have a window into how much his parents loved each other.
So our scenes were not just about let’s have a beautiful scene, or what would these characters do? It was, my God, one day, he’s going to see this and the love, and it’s so much more important than the movie right now.
Q: How did you deal with the script? Did you have the feeling of relying on the script or was it more of a foundation? Was it different with this movie and other movies you’ve done?
AJ: We all read the book. The foundation of all of this is Mariane and her voice. We read Danny’s journals and had gotten to know him. There’s so much research, and we went through the actual scene and interview and everything that was done. There’s so much information about this case, about that time, about these people.
So it was not a normal script. Not a normal film. More like a giant education for all of us—[to know] these people and this time, and the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], and FBI. All these things we were trying not to get lost in. But remember, the essence of the book is the essence of a very good script. And from there, we had a great director.
Q: That was the opposite of what they do in American cop shows. What was the most challenging aspect for you?
AJ: I suppose it was to have the guts to do it. I didn’t sleep the entire night before. I didn’t think I was worthy of playing her—didn’t know if I’d be capable of helping to tell the story as it should be told. I questioned myself through pretty much the whole thing. I had great support from people on this stage and and the director. Because [when] you know somebody, it’s that much harder. It comes from a different place. Suddenly it’s not about acting, it’s not technical. It’s just all very emotional.
Q: Would it have been easier if you weren’t improvising?
AJ: I think the improvising helped. The film itself helped bond us. Because we shot in order, we didn’t know each other at the beginning. And they didn’t know each other very well at the beginning. By the end, we connected. There’s something about the improvising that made us all feel—maybe we felt under the gun. Maybe we felt the pressure of the case, because we’d get thrown things, and things would come up on the computers, the phones would ring.
New information would come to all of us and then we’d have to discuss it. We’d have to remind each other where we were yesterday, and all of that were very much what they were doing. It helped keep us on our toes, and [was] very similar to how they must have felt.
Q: How close did the film stick to Mariane’s book?
AJ: I think very close. There’s so much we had to lose. We had to condense this whole time and this whole book into something very short, in two hours. But from what I understand from Mariane and the people that are close to her and true to the book, they all felt that the message was accurate and that the characters were represented. I think that they were all very happy with that because it seemed to be in such a short time, so much covered, and so many individual people covered and their part of the story.
Q: You knew Mariane a bit before you began shooting; how involved was she in the development and the production process of the film?
AJ: She was [from] early on… It took her a while to decide that maybe it could be a movie. I don’t think she watches movies. But she does believe in the message of [the film] and that was really the reason that she expressed that she wanted to do it. We did meet, together with Michael, to go through the script. Obviously, even that was difficult—just to sit with her and say, was this accurate? Did this happen here when you woke up this morning? So it was very difficult.
Then she came by the day before we all started shooting the wedding with Adam and the kids. She kind of wished us all luck [as to say] "I hope you all know and understand what the message is and why I wrote the book and who we all are." And then she disappeared and never showed up on set and never checked in, and had no vanity about any of this stuff. So it was almost worse. It was almost like she was saying, "I trust you." She’s got faith in us. We can’t screw this one up
Q: Were the people of Pakistan receptive in the making of this film?
AJ: I think it was difficult. I think both governments, even our government [didn't like it]…
Q: After participating in this film, has it informed, altered or supported your thoughts on our country's response to September 11?
AJ: On a bigger scale, on a more emotional scale, Mariane taught me. If somebody did that to the man in my life, I would immediately be so full of anger and hate that I wouldn't be able to do pretty much anything else but want revenge. I couldn't understand how somebody was able to go on camera days after and say, "10 other people died and they were all Pakistani. So they’re all suffering as much as we are." I thought, "How is that possible? Where does that [strength] come from?"
I realized since, that that ability to look at the broader view, to understand that we have to listen to each other, to continue to have dialogue. We have to find a way past [what happened]. We can’t be blinded by anger or fear. That’s not to say these are the political choices that are right or wrong. But that emotional point of view to say we’ve got to understand everybody’s suffering. We've got to understand everybody’s history. We've got to continue to have a dialogue, and we've got to find better ways to have solutions and not be irrational and not jump to hate.
Q: What she says about misery—that this exists where there’s misery. “Wherever there’s misery, they’ll find people.”
AJ: She speaks about poor people and uneducated people. People are vulnerable to ideological capture by extremist groups. They are without any kind of protection. They have no education, they have no food. And somebody says, go over here, and there’s lunch and come on over. That is one aspect of what’s happening in the world. That is a very real thing to address.
Q: Does it matter whether or not this film has commercial potential? Did you do this film as a personal choice [rather] than some other films, maybe other more commercial venues or TV projects?
AJ: The thing about this film is that we don’t have that much to recover [laughs]. It’s one of those projects that you get a chance to be involved in because it says something that you feel is important. It’s important right now, and obviously there are so many, many reasons to be involved and we all really lucky to get the chance.