Angelina Jolie sits at a desk, back straight as a rule and rather regal. Her features are cartoonishly beautiful – straight black hair, vertiginous cheekbones, huge blue eyes and lips like a plumped red sofa. She is talking on Zoom to four young activists. It is a horribly apt day to be discussing human rights – the Taliban has just captured Ghazni city on its approach to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
If this were a movie, you might suspect Jolie was playing a divine leader addressing the fortunate few. Yet it soon becomes apparent that things aren’t quite as they seem. The actor and film director is the one in awe, not the activists. The young people talk about the work they have done raising awareness of the carnage in Syria, the environmental crisis, trans rights and food poverty. Jolie hangs on their every word. She tells them they have inspired her children who follow their work, warns them against burnout, apologises for the failings of her generation and says how honoured she is to meet them.
The next evening it is just Jolie and I Zooming. In the background I can hear kids playing. Our conversation is frequently interrupted by the ferocious roar of her rottweiler Dusty, who appears to believe he is a lion. It’s been an even more depressing day for human rights – the Taliban has entered Kabul and toppled the Afghanistan government. Jolie says the only thing giving her hope is the young people we met last night. “They speak about these issues with more urgency and awareness of what is morally right and decent than any politician, any diplomat, any NGOs I’ve worked with.”
She says she can’t stop thinking about Muhammad Najem, a 19-year-old who literally shouted from the rooftops about the Syrian regime’s siege of his home village, Eastern Ghouta. After his father was killed four years ago in an airstrike on the mosque where he was praying, Muhammad and his brother would wait for the daily bombing to stop, film the carnage from their roof and document the suffering of survivors. He and his family soon became government targets, and fled to Turkey from where he spoke to us. It wasn’t just his bravery that was notable; it was the warmth of his smile, his zest for life, despite all he has seen. Since we last spoke, Jolie has Zoomed again with Muhammad and a girl who is campaigning against period poverty. “His relationship to that teenage girl and her activism was more in tune than almost any man I’ve met,” Jolie says. We agree that cloning Muhammad may be the answer to world peace. “He is that evolved man!” Jolie says.
“Grrrrrrrrr!” Dusty roars, apparently in agreement.
I had an experience in the States with my own children and I thought… well, human rights, children’s rights
Jolie has spent 20 years campaigning for human rights, first as a goodwill ambassador and then special envoy for the UN high commissioner for refugees. She has carried out more than 60 field missions, invariably with notepad and pen in hand, bearing witness to people displaced by war and persecution in countries such as Syria, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now Jolie, 46, has written a book with child rights lawyer Geraldine Van Bueren QC and Amnesty International, called Know Your Rights, a guide for young people named after the Clash song whose title is also tattooed on Jolie’s back. The book lays out all the rights children have under the UN convention on the rights of the child, ratified by 196 countries, explains how to claim them and offers advice from young people who have done. Know Your Rights tackles all the big issues in a chatty, accessible way – from the rights to life, dignity, health, equality and non-discrimination, criminal justice, a safe place, freedom of thought and expression, privacy, peaceful protest, play and education, to the right to protections from harm and armed violence.
Facebook Twitter In her work for the UN, Jolie talks to schoolgirls in Afghanistan in 2011…
Facebook Twitter and to former refugee Yoryanis Ojeda in Colombia in 2019. Photographs: Getty Images
I ask Jolie why she has written the book. “I’ve met too many children who live with the effect of their rights being violated – displaced people, young rape victims. I couldn’t understand why they were still fighting for basic things that were their rights to begin with. It made me very angry. How are we going to solve anything if we’re not addressing that, right?” Her explanation is fluent and authoritative – and not surprising.
But the next bit is. “Then I had an experience in the States with my own children and I thought… well, human rights, children’s rights.” Suddenly the fluency is gone. Her language becomes disjointed and elliptical. “I remembered the rights of the child, and I took them out and looked at them and thought: well, these are for when you’re in a situation and you want to make sure there is support for the children in your life.”
She apologises, and says she can’t be more direct. “Then I found out the US hadn’t ratified the rights of the child. One of the ways it affects children is their voice in court – a child in Europe would have a better chance of having a voice in court than a child in California. That said a lot to me about this country.”
To be around all these young people who have a sense of fight and rebellion reminds me of who I was when I was younger
What happened that made her fear for her children’s rights. “I… I’m still in my own legal situation,” she stammers. “I can’t speak about that.” Look, I say, there has been so much nonsense written about you over the years, it’s impossible to distinguish between truth and fiction – you have to help me understand what you are alluding to. Are you talking about your divorce from Brad Pitt and the allegations you have made against him of domestic abuse? She tells me she is sworn to silence. Well, nod if you’re talking about the divorce and allegations. She nods. And did she fear for the safety of her children? This time she answers. “Yes, for my family. My whole family.”
It would be amazing, I say, to spend your life on the world stage, highlighting the abuse of children’s rights, and then discover that these same rights may have been compromised so close to home. “Often you cannot recognise something in a personal way, especially if your focus is on the greatest global injustices, because everything else seems smaller. It’s so hard. I’d like to be able to have this discussion and it’s so important…” She makes a couple of efforts to complete her sentence, gives up and starts again. And now the fluency returns. “I’m not the kind of person who makes decisions like the decisions I had to make lightly. It took a lot for me to be in a position where I felt I had to separate from the father of my children.”
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were Hollywood’s golden couple; so famous that they had a portmanteau moniker, Brangelina. And Brangelina was, aptly, the ultimate celebrity brand. Both are Oscar winners, among the highest paid stars in the film business (Pitt is said to be worth $300m, Jolie $150m), mainstream draws and indie icons, and of course utterly gorgeous (Pitt was twice voted the sexiest man alive by People magazine, while Jolie was named sexiest woman alive by Esquire magazine in 2004). But Brangelina also became a byword for celebrity altrusim and consciousness-raising. Pitt accompanied Jolie on many of her UNHCR trips, they opened schools in war-torn countries, and three of their six children were adopted from countries brutalised by conflict and poverty – 20-year-old Maddox is Cambodian, 17-year-old Pax is Vietnamese and 16-year-old Zahara is Ethiopian. They even managed to manipulate the media to their own ends. Faced with the inevitability of being papped when their daughter Shiloh was born in 2006, Jolie and Pitt auctioned off the photoshoot to People magazine in the US and Hello! in Britain for $7.6m. Two years later, when twins Knox and Vivienne arrived, they sold the shoot to the same magazines for an estimated $14m, making them the most expensive celebrity photos in history. On both occasions, the proceeds went to the Jolie-Pitt Foundation to fund humanitarian projects. As a couple, they seemed too good (or at least too successful) to be true.
And so it proved. In September 2016, Jolie filed for divorce from Pitt, which was finalised in 2019. But they are still locked in a bitter custody battle, after she alleged domestic violence against him. In November 2016, the FBI announced no charges would be brought against Pitt, and cleared him of any wrongdoing, following an incident a couple of months earlier on their private plane in which it was alleged that a drunk Pitt was abusive with Maddox, then 15. Five days after the incident, Jolie filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences and stating that her decision to end the marriage “was made for the health of the family”. Pitt admitted he had an alcohol problem (he attended Alcoholics Anonymous after their separation) and that he had yelled at one of his children, but has always denied being physically abusive to them. Jolie refuses to say anything about the incident due to court proceedings. Pitt’s lawyers declined to comment when invited to do so by the Guardian.
Facebook Twitter With former husband Brad Pitt and their children in Tokyo in 2011. Photograph: Jun Sato/WireImage
Today Jolie is at home in Los Feliz, a residential neighbourhood near the Hollywood Hills. She bought the mansion, which cost a reputed $25m and used to be home to the film-maker Cecil B DeMille, to make it easier for the children to visit Pitt after the separation. For most of the past five years she has had custody, while he has had visitation rights. Although it has frequently been reported that the issues leading to the current court proceedings were about Jolie fighting for sole custody, in fact they were about how a healthy joint custody relationship could be achieved.
I can hear a couple of the children playing in the background, while Dusty continues to make regular contributions to the conversation. “What I know is when a child has been harmed, physically, emotionally, or witnessed the harm of somebody they love or care for, it can cause damage to that child. One of the reasons children need to have these rights is because without them they are vulnerable to living unsafe, unhealthy lives.” She may be talking about children in general, but it sounds personal. In the custody battle, much of the world appears to have taken sides. Some family law attorneys have criticised Jolie for wanting her children to testify against their father, while Jolie suggests it would be a betrayal of their rights for her to let it rest. Meanwhile, Jolie’s lawyers have said three of the children have asked to give their testimony.
I ask Jolie when she first became aware of human rights and she starts to talk about her mother’s values. “She didn’t come at them as if it was a job or a calling, she was just kind. She was a decent human being who was bothered when she saw people mistreated. It was really that simple.”
Jolie’s mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who died of ovarian cancer in 2007, aged 56, trained as an actor, hung out with Jim Morrison when she was young, and by the end of her life was the partner of Native American activist and poet John Trudell. Jolie’s father, the actor Jon Voight, was Oscar-nominated for Midnight Cowboy (1969) and won best actor for Coming Home in 1979, but was a less impressive parent in Jolie’s eyes. She says her mother sacrificed her career to bring up her two children (Jolie has an older brother, James Haven), largely as a single parent. “My mom married at 21, and by the time she was 25 she was divorced with two little kids. She couldn’t be the artist she wanted to be, but she raised her children with art and creativity. Even if it was a birthday party, she found a way to put those talents to use.”
Facebook Twitter Making her film debut, with her father, Jon Voight, and Ann-Margret, in Lookin’ To Get Out, 1982. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
She says what she loved about her mother is that she embraced difference and was open to all experiences. “She didn’t try to make me a mould of her. We were very different as women.”
In what way? “She would always want me to sit next to the stranger on the plane because she was shy, right? While I loved her softness, she loved my strength. She was very still, and I’m constantly in motion. I was very sexual, and she was much more of a lady. But she saw my true self and encouraged it fully, and she taught me to do that for my own children. My children are all very different from each other.”
Her mother always told Jolie to be useful in life, but as a teenager, she says, she didn’t know what she meant. She experimented with drugs, including heroin, drank excessively and cut herself in an attempt to overcome an overwhelming sense of emptiness. She had her first live-in lover at 14. Her mother suggested her boyfriend move in to stop her leaving home and going further off the rails. Jolie was anti-establishment, and outspoken, but she was also a mess. “It took me a good while to feel I could be of use to anyone because I felt for a long time that I was a little crazy, that I was a little unhinged, and not settled. If you would have asked me as a teenager if I could have been anybody’s mom, or of any use to the UN or write a book, I would have said absolutely not.”
With the benefit of hindsight, does she still feel she was unhinged? “Maybe that’s what’s so helpful about meeting with all these young people. They are reminding me that back at the time I felt I was a bit crazy for challenging a system, or being angry about certain things I was witnessing, I wasn’t wrong. To be around all these young people who have, for good reason, a sense of fight and rebellion and willingness to get in there and bleed if necessary for something they know is wrong – it reminds me of who I was when I was younger. And it reminds me that it isn’t something bad.”
Back then, Jolie would also bleed for a cause, even if she wasn’t sure what the cause was. When she married the actor Jonny Lee Miller at the age of 20, she wore a T-shirt with his name inscribed on it in her blood. When she was with her second husband, Billy Bob Thornton, they wore vials of each other’s blood around their necks. She appeared on TV shows, doing outrageous tricks with butterfly knives. It was hard to work out if she was a raging self-publicist, dangerous, or both.
Facebook Twitter With second husband Billy Bob Thornton in 2000. Photograph: WireImage
Looking at Jolie today, it’s hard to connect the urbane woman in the Saint Laurent suits with the punk in the leather jacket. But Jolie says they are very much the same person; she just didn’t know how to focus her energy. “I was rudderless. I was seeking freedom, truth, feeling. I wanted to feel deeply and experience deeply.” She laughs. “Listen, I grew up in Hollywood. This town is disturbing. I was hurt from a lot of different things in life.”
What hurt so much when she was young? Again, she returns to her mother. “My mom was in a lot of pain. My father had an affair, and then there were a lot of challenges with child support and alimony. Then she lost her parents, and was quite broken, so I was determined to help her when I was young.” She was told she could be an actor or a model “as if it’s this great thing”, but now she’s not so sure. She suggests that had she been a boy, other choices would have been offered. “Nobody tells you you can be a director or a lawyer. So I was pushed down a path, and I wanted to be successful to financially help her, and to be able to make more choices in her life and my life.”
She says her mother was not only denied a career, but also a voice. “I realised when I was young, the person who had a public voice had more power than the very kind, decent woman at home doing all the right things and making all the sacrifices.” She is referring to her father, an outspoken Trump supporter who said that the campaign to get the US election result overturned was “the greatest fight since the civil war – the battle of righteousness versus Satan”, and from whom she has often been estranged. Jolie says she was determined that she would not be silenced as her mother had been. “I don’t think I came into this business because I wanted to be an actor. I came into it because that’s where you could have a voice. When you have somebody who controls the finances and controls the family narrative because they are public, you’re all under that person.”
Facebook Twitter With her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, in Los Angeles in 2001. Photograph: Charbonneau/BEI/Rex Features
At the age of seven, Jolie made her film debut in Hal Ashby’s Lookin’ To Get Out, playing the daughter of Voight’s character. By 16, she was modelling swimwear, and at 20 she was starring in Hackers alongside future husband Jonny Lee Miller. In 2000, at the age of 24, she won the best supporting actress Oscar for her visceral portrait of a psychiatric patient in Girl, Interrupted. In 2013, she earned an estimated $33m, mainly from her contract with Louis Vuitton and her appearance as the eponymous witch in Maleficent. Her choice of acting roles suggests she acts primarily for the money – alongside the odd quality film (she was great as Mariane Pearl, the wife of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in A Mighty Heart, despite the controversy of a white woman playing a mixed-race character), there have been any number of stinkers.
Before separating from Pitt, she was establishing herself as a film-maker. First They Killed My Father, the last film she made as a director (released in 2017), is a haunting portrait of life under the Khmer Rouge, in which she coaxed exceptional, understated performances from her actors – particularly the children. Since then, her career has taken a back seat as she has dedicated herself to being pretty much a full-time mother.
Facebook Twitter ‘Often you cannot recognise something in a personal way, especially if your focus is on the greatest global injustices.’ Photograph: Mary Rozzi/The Guardian
Does she feel her rights have always been respected? “Hmm. A good therapy question.” She pauses. “I think my mother did a lot to ensure my rights and empower me. But you know, I started working really young to help her pay bills and stuff. And I wasn’t aware of how I deserved to be treated as a young girl and a human being. I didn’t feel I was born with these rights and protections. I felt that these were things you had to demand or fight for, and sometimes be seen as difficult when you do.” Is she seen as difficult? “I will certainly challenge whoever’s in my way to get to whatever it is I think needs to be done.”
When was the first time she felt sufficiently disrespected in the industry to tell somebody to fuck off? “Erm… well, no surprise, Harvey Weinstein. I worked with him when I was young.” She was 21 when she made the Miramax film Playing By Heart, executive produced by the infamous sexual predator and convicted rapist. She says women often play down an assault if they manage to escape – as she did at the time. “If you get yourself out of the room, you think he attempted but didn’t, right? The truth is that the attempt and the experience of the attempt is an assault.”
What happened? “I really don’t want to derail the book into stories about Harvey.” But that was an abuse of rights? “It was. It was beyond a pass, it was something I had to escape. I stayed away and warned people about him. I remember telling Jonny, my first husband, who was great about it, to spread the word to other guys – don’t let girls go alone with him. I was asked to do The Aviator, but I said no because he was involved. I never associated or worked with him again. It was hard for me when Brad did.”
Facebook Twitter In Girl, Interrupted in 2000. Photograph: Alamy
In 2009, Pitt starred in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, co-produced by the Weinstein Company. In 2012, she says Pitt approached Weinstein to work as a producer for the noir thriller Killing Them Softly, which the Weinstein Company later distributed. In doing so, Jolie felt he was minimising the sexual assault she had endured. “We fought about it. Of course it hurt,” Jolie says about Pitt being happy to work with Weinstein, despite knowing he had assaulted her. She avoided attending promotional events for the film. Weinstein, who is currently serving a 23-year jail sentence for rape and sexual assault, denies Jolie’s allegation.
Jolie is drinking from a bottle as she talks. What is it? “It’s kombucha. It’s not alcohol – not yet anyway!” She giggles and takes another swig. I ask if her children are interested in activism. She tells me that they’re all very different, but it’s hard for them not to be because of the way the family came about.
“Grrrrrrrrrrrrr,” Dusty roars.
“Within the understanding that they are family comes a lot of awareness that has to be born of all the years of them growing up together, learning from each other, discussing adoption, race and family. Having people say: how could you be sisters, you’re not the same colour, when you’re a little kid. Going to each other’s countries and being the only person of their background in that country and feeling outside, yet it’s your family.”
I ask Jolie if she always wanted to adopt. No, she says: when she was growing up she didn’t want children. “I never wanted to babysit, I never had dolls, so it’s hilarious I’ve ended up with six children.” What did you have instead of dolls? “I liked to play office. Then in my late teens I became aware of what adoption is, and the idea that there were children around the world who had been orphaned, and it just made sense to me. I never have had this idea of ‘my own blood’.” Even though she gave birth to three children fathered by Pitt, genetics has never interested her. “It was just family born of being together and growing together, right?” She often concludes a sentence with right – part question, part declaration.
In 2013, Jolie wrote an op-ed in the New York Times revealing that she had had a preventive double mastectomy because she was a carrier of the BRCA1 genetic mutation that had killed her mother and put her at high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Two years later, she wrote another article announcing she had also had surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes. It was unheard of to hear a Hollywood A-lister at the peak of her career discussing these issues. But it proved a gamechanger. A year later a UK report found that her decision to go public on the mastectomy led to a doubling in NHS referrals for genetic tests of breast cancer risk.
Was going public a form of activism, I ask. Well, she says, she certainly wouldn’t use that word to describe it. In fact, she adds, she rarely uses the word full stop. Was it a way of saying to people: if preventive surgery can make sense for me, it can for you, too? “As I’ve gone through my life, I’ve never had that confidence that if I do this it will make a difference. I don’t think of myself in that way. It’s just me thinking: if my mom knew about this and had this surgery and she had read an op-ed like this, she might still be alive. Therefore I really feel I should write this, because maybe somebody’s mom will read it.”
Facebook Twitter Photograph: Mary Rozzi/the Guardian. Styling: Jason Bolden. Hair: Renato at The Wall Group. Makeup: Francesca Tolot at Cloutier Remix. Coat: Christian Dior. Dress (above): Brunello Cucinelli
I tell her I find it fascinating, the binary way in which she is portrayed – either as a saint or a crazy, an arch manipulator. (It has been suggested that she is fighting for custody of the children simply because she wants to move out of America – something she denies.) “I think people sometimes just need people to be what they need them to be. What matters to me is that if people think this or that about me, does it affect my ability to work for children’s rights? Does it affect my ability to work with Muhammad and help him? If you truly think I’m crazy, then that’s a problem, because you may not listen to him as much and may not value me saying how important he is or this book is.”
As she talks, I notice how tired she looks. While refusing to discuss details about her divorce, she has said that the experience has been traumatic and has left her feeling “broken”. What have the past five years taken out of her? There is a long pause. She cups her face in her hands, and looks ready to burst into tears. “I mean, in some ways it’s been the last decade. There’s a lot I can’t say,” she repeats. “I think at the end of the day, even if you and a few people you love are the only people who know the truth of your life, what you fight for, or what you sacrifice, or what you’ve suffered, you come to be at peace with that, regardless of everything going on around you.”
This morning I had a big cry about Afghanistan. Twenty years ago I was meeting little kids, seeing the promises made
Has it proved hard to come out of all this at peace with herself? “I’m not out of it,” she says, quietly. I suppose what I’m asking in a clumsy way is: how are you? She looks even more upset. “It’s really hard to answer.” Another pause. “How am I? I’m realising that sometimes you can survive things, but not know how to feel and live in the same way. So it’s more about being open. I’m really trying to be open as a human being again.”
Discovering that the convention on the rights of the child has not been ratified by the US has given her a sense of purpose: rather than simply fighting for her children, she can see it as a bigger human rights cause. She is trying to put a positive spin on her situation. “It has been so horrific that I almost have to see it as a godsend to be in a position to be able to fight this system. It doesn’t start with the violation [the plane incident]. It’s so much more complicated than that.” She says the lack of ratification has had a significant impact on her battle: “My 17-year-old, for example, has been denied a voice in court.”
Jolie is complex, and at times contradictory. She tells me she wants to talk about all this; the next minute, she changes her mind. “It’s not that I want to talk about anything really, because I just want my family to heal. And I want everyone to move forward – all of us, including their dad. I want us to heal and be peaceful. We’ll always be a family.” It’s not only Jolie who’s complex; so is the situation. It’s hard to see how even she could press ahead with her allegation of domestic violence and achieve a peaceful resolution.
When I mention how upset she looks, she admits she has been emotional today, since seeing the Taliban take over Kabul. “This morning I just had a big cry about Afghanistan. That was the beginning for me, 20 years ago – those first few trips when you meet people and really connect. You meet little kids, see the promises made, the efforts made, the trust given, see everything, then you track them being put on trucks to be sent back, and you track them back in Kabul, and at school, and you get a sense of the pain and fear and death and the horror and the betrayal and the trauma. It’s disgusting. It says too much about the world we’re living in today. It says too much about where we’re at.”
But at the same time, it makes her think about Muhammad and the three other activists we met, fighting so fiercely for a better world. It makes her think of all the terrible trade-offs that politicians make that lead to outcomes such as Afghanistan. It makes her think of her young self, refusing to yield to convention, and all those people who have dismissed her as bats in the intervening years for believing that justice and humanity can win the day rather than realpolitik. “No,” she says, her self-belief restored, “I’m not crazy.”
• Know Your Rights by Angelina Jolie is published by Andersen Press at £7.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
• This article was amended on 4 September 2021 to remove some inaccuracies.