"Salt" director Phillip Noyce knew he had some serious dedication on his hands when he showed Angelina Jolie the facade of the apartment building that her character climbs in one scene, Spider-Man style, 11 stories above the ground.
"We walked up to the building and I told her, 'So, the double will do it and you'll be back in the studio.' And she said, 'No, I want to do it myself,' " Noyce recalls. "I said sure because I didn't think there was any way it would pass muster with the insurance company anyway. And three weeks later, we were shooting it. With Angelina."
If Angelina Jolie is sui generis — the world's only Oscar-winner who can also sell baby photos for millions, among other traits — Sony's "Salt" marks a new chapter in her already unconventional book. Not only does the actress play the lone lead in a big-budget summer action movie, but she was deemed a suitable replacement for Tom Cruise, the man who once wore the crown of the world's biggest action star and who was originally cast as the film's title character. Instead of Edwin A. Salt, superspy and father, as the initial script had it, filmgoers on Friday will be introduced to Evelyn Salt, superspy (without children).
The film concerns well-reputed CIA agent Salt who is accused of being a Russian sleeper spy. Early on, she goes on the run — a violent spree that alternately assures her innocence and supports her accusers — that pretty much doesn't let up until the final credits. The compact, high-octane film harks back to such twisty Cold War thrillers as "No Way Out" — who works for the Russians and who for the Americans? — but with the pacing and shoot-em-up abandon of a present-day action picture.
Much of what we see, however, is a significant departure from the original plan.
In July 2008, Cruise, weighing his next career move, decided not to make the movie. Sony executives, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Noyce gathered for an emergency meeting on how to save their big summer film. Noyce credits Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal for suggesting Jolie, who at that time was helping carry the action movie " Wanted." A debate broke out, but soon they all agreed to take a flier on the actress — she was interested and had the chops — and audiences just might buy it.
"When you look at it from a dispassionate business point of view, it's a better way to do the genre," Di Bonaventura says, explaining the decision. "With 'Mission [Impossible]' and Bourne and Bond, you're going to be the fourth spy guy. We thought, 'Let's be the first spy girl.' "
Screenwriter Kurt Wimmer ripped up his original script, which he had spent years writing and shopping around, to make sure it fit snugly with a female character. Gone was the man with the endangered wife and child, in was the next MacGyver and Jason Bourne, a resourceful, fleet-footed killing machine in a pencil skirt (and, at one point, in drag as a male military officer).
Jolie does things such as remove her underwear and high heels to dig out of a tough spot in a way that's played seriously; there's no "Charlie's Angels" camp here.
The filmmakers also reconfigured the entire arc of the movie. Cruise's Salt was supposed to rescue his wife and child. Jolie's Salt is married but the filmmakers worried a mother character could read too gentle, so they made her childless and turned her into more of a vigilante with a less clear-cut heroic mission.
In one sense, it's a testament to Jolie's acting skills that, watching the film, you'd hardly guess this was a role that was designed for — and usually played by — a man. But those looking to claim a glass ceiling has been broken may be jumping the gun; unlike their television counterparts, who have repeatedly cast female action leads, several film producers privately say they still wouldn't feel comfortable casting any other actress as an action lead.
Jolie hasn't appeared hugely eager to talk about the switch. She told the L.A. Times at the film's Hollywood premiere (the only time she spoke to the newspaper about the film) only that she thought the movie became "harder and darker" as it went from Edwin to Evelyn. But even as Jolie tried to downplay the issue, it certainly hovered over Hollywood and, perhaps, the production. At the premiere, costar Liev Schreiber had a joke at the ready, saying that he was supposed to play Salt but decided to switch parts with her at the last moment.
The idea of a woman in a spy lead isn't entirely new — film scholars cited parts going back to Marlene Dietrich's turn in 1931's "Dishonored" — but the heavy action does mark a watershed moment for a different reason. "You do see occasional female characters in these roles, but they usually use rather old-fashioned feminine ways, by seducing or being clever," says film historian David Thomson. "What's new is the physicality, the willingness of Angelina to engage in the action herself."
In an era of CGI, many actors see doing their own stunts as a way of proving their acting chops and combating the perception that much of what they do involves gestures in front of a green screen. Noyce, however, says that it wasn't the more straightforward explanation of adrenaline or even authenticity that drove Jolie, who again worked with her trusted stunt-coordinator Simon Crane.
"I'm from a small Australian town and when I was a child, the traveling show would come through. And it would be filled with performers who just liked entertaining," Noyce says. "Angie is the same way. The blood that runs in her veins is to connect with people, to entertain the audience."
It was a goal, producers say, that dovetailed with, and even surpassed, their desire to ratchet up the film's impact. "We wanted to go for it in the most hard-edged way, partly because we wanted to make sure no one would say we pulled a punch because we had a female lead, but partly because of her," di Bonaventura says. "When she takes out someone, it feels hard. You feel the metal against the bone."
Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.