Her toughest role

Times Staff Writer

IF you believe the tabloid press, or even if you don’t, Angelina Jolie hasn’t lacked for experiences in her life. However, her relationship with Mariane Pearl, widow of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, brought her in contact with something completely new.

“It’s the first time,” the actress says, an indefinable expression crossing a face so striking it can be difficult to look at straight on, “I’ve had a friendship with a journalist.”

To have attended the afternoon news conference after the well-received screening of “A Mighty Heart,” the Michael Winterbottom-directed film about the Pearls’ story, is to glimpse why this is true. Bizarre even by Cannes’ elastic standards, the event featured an argument between journalists as to whether Pearl should answer in French or English as well as a public apology by another reporter for a question he’d asked Pearl in Pakistan in the aftermath of her husband’s death.


It is now several hours later and Jolie, whose forceful, immediate performance as Mariane Pearl is the heart of Winterbottom’s taut, involving film, is seated on the nearly deserted terrace of the Hotel du Cap, displaying the same level-headed focus and intelligence that enables her to survive the Cannes madness without a glove being laid on her.

Jolie’s friendship with Pearl, as it turns out, considerably predates the film. “Like most people in the world, I assumed Danny would be returned,” she remembers of Pearl’s 2002 kidnapping and execution in Pakistan. “When he wasn’t, I was moved by Mariane’s strength, I was shocked by it. To be able to speak about her love for that country, her thoughts about the other Pakistani men who lost their lives in the same period, I didn’t know where that came from. I didn’t think I could have done it.”

United by an interest in Buddhism and motherhood, the women scheduled “a play date” and a friendship began. When Pearl’s autobiographical book came out and Brad Pitt’s Plan B became the producer of the film, “when actor choices came up, it was Mariane who happened to mention me to him.” At that point, the future romantic companions “were just getting to know each other as friends.”

Because of this connection, Jolie (who said during the news conference that as late as “the night before shooting began, I didn’t know whether I could do it”) had great worries about the project.

“My fear,” she says, her hands playing with a small plastic water bottle, “was whether we could find any possible way to do this and make it feel close, make it feel real. If not it would be some melodrama, some woman’s story. We used to talk about the day Mariane hears about Danny’s death with the camera slowly coming in for a close-up. And I’d say, ‘I don’t see how this is going to work.’ ”

Because of these fears, Jolie considers “A Mighty Heart” “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. To represent somebody you truly respect, who has a very strong public presence and a lot of private pain, to try to embody all the elements of her in the right way, so people would feel a connection, it was something I really worried about.


“To get this wrong ...,” she concludes, almost shuddering as she remembers the possibility. “It was really horrible.”

That Pearl pronounced herself pleased with the result is in part because of the decision to hire Winterbottom, the British director whose previous films include “In This World” and “The Road to Guantanamo.” Winterbottom is known for an ability to bring the texture of reality to dramatic stories, and his rigorous sensibility enhances the film’s emotional content.

One of the curious places Pearl’s story connects with Jolie’s are the moments when both have had to deal with hoards of insistent journalists camping out at their front door. “It did feel familiar at moments,” Jolie admits a bit reluctantly, adding “my immediate thought was, ‘My God, I know what it’s like to go through that on an everyday basis, but I have no idea what it feels like to go through it when your husband has been taken or killed. And when you’ve never seen it before.’ ”

Asked about her methods of coping with the media madness that follows in her wake, Jolie gestures toward a small building on the hotel grounds. “Right behind you I’ve got four kids, and there it’s quiet, peaceful, it’s a lovely day,” she says. “I focus on all the luck I have, and nothing else matters. We [she and Pitt] have a very full life, they keep us well distracted. When you know the truth of your life, when you know the person you are, there is very little that can affect that.”

Though she was raised by her mother, also helping is Jolie’s experiences as the daughter of movie star Jon Voight. “I did know from an early age that a celebrity, an actor, is very much just a human being,” she says. “You shouldn’t believe the hype, you shouldn’t believe the criticism, you shouldn’t get lost in the hype. There were no rose-colored glasses.”

There are, in fact, even more connections between Jolie’s life and Mariane Pearl’s. The actress relates that one of the last scenes in “A Mighty Heart,” Mariane’s first TV interview after Daniel’s death, ended up being shot in the United States. “By some strange twist,” she says, “my mother passed away just before we shot that. It was such a great reminder of Mariane’s strength in that moment and how lucky I was to have had all those years with my mother.


“When I went on set, everyone was saying, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ to me, and then they were saying the same thing to me as Mariane in the scene. It was really strange.”