I was 17 when I became infatuated with Angelina Jolie. It was 2001 and Tomb Raider was about to come out. Hollywood, the media, tabloids, everything seemed a little different back then. It wasn’t so immediate around the clock. There was less internet and no social media. An half hour interview with the celebrity you liked still had to be scheduled on MTV and taped on VHS. Magazine clippings actually mattered. And I settled in to watch MTV At the Movies: Tomb Raider, and I met my spiritual soul mate. I did tape it, and I watched it over and over. It wasn’t just how beautiful she was, or the things she got to experience while filming Tomb Raider in Iceland and Cambodia; it was the tone of her voice when she got excited. It was how she talked about love and her husband Billy Bob Thornton. It was that, for some reason or the other, she had managed to carve out a life for herself in which she was absolutely free, and I had never met anyone like that before.
I’ve always been searching for female role models. I come from a small family and I’m the oldest girl in my generation, so I guess, subconsciously, I’ve been looking for a big sister. The first was Buffy, at 13. But as I got older I needed someone more real. And the universe, in its infinite wisdom, tends to deliver what you don’t know you need just when you need it. Angelina only had a couple of tattoos at the time. One was of a window from the inside looking out, and the other was a Tennessee Williams quote: ‘A prayer for the Wild at Heart kept in cages’. That more than resonated with a girl who used to spend most of the long summer evenings sitting in her bedroom window looking down into a peaceful valley in southern Norway where nothing ever happened, dreaming of being anywhere but here, dreaming of adventure. Angelina had just turned 26. She had loved and learned. She had been married twice. She had won an Oscar. She had a fantastic versatile acting career. She was beautiful, introspective and fun. She was open about darkness and overcoming it, stepping into the light. She was only 7 years older than me. How was it possible to cram so much life into such short time?
In this interview she was asked about Billy Bob; they had been married less than a year. You can tell she is absolutely convinced they are going to stay together forever. I still remember this quote, in her husky, cute voice. “We think we love each other a little too much and one day we’re going to be institutionalized and kept apart, in different rooms. We’re just too crazy about each other. But other than that, we’re gonna be fine.” She giggles, but you can tell she’s serious. And my takeaway from that, even though I had never been in love, was that love is about silliness. Being married is about being sillier than you have ever been in your whole life in front of another person, and feeling only safe and adored. Boy, was she ever right.
Then the interview turned to the subject of Cambodia. Her voice turned warm. “I loved Cambodia.” It’s the first time she had really been submerged in another culture. She meditated and received blessings from monks on camera as Lara Croft. The whole sequence is so beautiful. This interview was taped a few months before she took her first trip with the UN and six months before she became a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. It’s fascinating now, knowing what a humanitarian she has become, to look back when that first seed was planted. That the life that was awaiting her would be completely beyond what this young, free and beautiful woman could ever imagine. I just had this overwhelming sense that where she was going, I wanted to go with her. Talking about her character, she says, “She [Lara Croft] wants to live fully, every second, and I identify with that. I think a lot of people do. A lot of us forget how much we can do in life, a lot of us think the world is just the little world around us, our job or whatever it is, or our school, and we forget that we can just strap on a backpack and go to an another country and learn about people. And that’s what life should be about.”
And for the next 10 years, that quote became my mantra. I never let school or work stand in the way of traveling and exploring because I knew that, at the end of my life, I wouldn’t remember any of that. But I would remember taking the biggest bite out of life as I possibly could. I know what it’s like to really, really love a country or place. I know what it’s like to really miss someone because when the whole world is your playground, it’s impossible for everyone you love to be in the same place. I don’t get angry at people anymore; I get angry at systemic injustice. I obsess and go a little crazy with it all, but at the end of the day, the fight for a better world is what gives life meaning. Even sadness makes me feel alive now. I don’t know if I would be this person if I hadn’t caught that interview and started my love affair with Angelina. In 2008, I was finally able to travel to Uganda. It nowhere near mimicked her experiences, which she chronicles in her book, but it did change me.
“Find out who you are separate from your family and the man or woman you’re in a relationship with. Find who you are in this world and what you need to feel good alone. I think that’s the most important thing in life. Find a sense of self because with that, you can do anything else.”
Because her being so open with the media about her life, her past and her thoughts, I was able to use her as my guiding light because when I level up, she levels up twice so I’ll always find something to reach for. Find ways to embrace my past and mistakes because they make you who you are. To not fear darkness and depression because there is always some light to fight for. In your early 20’s you live entirely in your head. As I entered mine, she was coming out of hers. In 2003 she adopted a baby boy from Cambodia and shortly thereafter divorced Billy Bob. If anything, this only strengthened my belief in love. It doesn’t have to last forever to be true love at the time, and acknowledging growing apart is one of the bravest things a couple can do.
“As soon as I came back [from filming Tomb Raider in Cambodia], I got a bunch of books. That night, I just sat in the bedroom surrounded by books and atlases and UN reports and maps, learning about Cambodia and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and Laos and Vietnam. While I was doing this, Billy was downstairs recording his album. Something about that registered. I actually thought, ‘This will be the moment that our marriage divides.’ And looking back, that was, absolutely, the evening it did. It may seem weird to people who live together every day, but for people who spend months apart doing films, it is possible to wake up one day and realize you’ve changed. The next morning, I called a sister agency of the UN. I said, ‘I just want to learn about refugees.’ So they invited me to Washington. I went down to the studio and told Billy. He said, ‘Okay. Good luck. Bye. Have a nice trip.’ I think he thought it was a nice thing. It wasn’t where he was being called to at the moment. Not that he was in any way not a good person… Later, when I got the call that I would be allowed to travel to Sierra Leone, I remember being really excited and emotional. But he… It was a weird thing. He didn’t want me to go through that door. He said he didn’t think I’d be safe. But he didn’t offer to come along, either. And so I left. And when I came back, I was a very different person.”
She also managed to make single motherhood look fun. Me and my baby against the world, and if any man is going to win me over he has to go through my son. At 28, she said, “I’ve come to realize there’s a very strong possibility I might be raising my children by myself and have great lovers and friends, but not find that one great love. I’m beginning to think I’m really supposed to be alone, and that’s okay. I’m very wary about somebody getting close to my son and then it not working out. What if Maddox spends two years close to a man who suddenly is gone? I’d rather he have no father than a 5 percent father who doesn’t want to be there 100 percent, and who he can’t count on his entire life. In a perfect world, you have a partner. If you’re a child with two parents who look after each other and love each other and nurture each other, and who nurture you together, that’s ideal and that’s wonderful. But it doesn’t often work out that way. I didn’t have that [as a child]. The only hard thing about being a single parent is that you don’t have that other person to look over to at three o’clock in the morning, and you both know you’re going to remember this 20 years from now. I think that’s the saddest thing: that you don’t have somebody to be jumping up and down with together sharing in the excitement of his first few words.” Just two years later, Brad Pitt legally became Maddox’ father.
Given Angelina’s resources I would have done the exact same thing; learned to fly and adopted an orphan child to share this world with. At 24, I was convinced I would spend my life alone. I couldn’t imagine finding someone who could be every thing I needed. And I was fine. I was genuinely, positively fine with it. I had the world and that was enough. So that winter I met the love of my life. Of course. Because I honestly believe that in order to find your soul mate, you have to be totally, utterly fine on your own.
“I have this thing where the world doesn’t quite seem free enough. It started me thinking… I could just fly. I could just go. See the horizon and go. Part of this motivation, I’m convinced, is that every time Mad sees a plane he goes, ‘Ahhhhh! Mama!’ And the idea that I could actually fly a plane by the time he’s four? I’ll be like Superman to him. We could get to Ireland in a half hour. What do you want to do, Mad? You want to go get ice cream in Spain?”
In a very real way, she never stops chasing freedom. As she gets older, she just redefines what it means. Freedom for teenagers means freedom of movement and exploration. Capably flying a plane by yourself to unfamiliar locations is literal freedom. Being in love, being in a healthy relationship and loving your children over everything is freedom of another kind. And finally, feeling like you are of use to others, that your life matters, is maybe the biggest gift of all.
I’ve never been the sort of person desperate to have children, and I’ve never been very good at getting involved or paying it forward. I’ve always kind of been stuck in my little bubble, and all I’ve ever cared about was telling stories that left some sort of imprint in the world. But if I do break out in the world, and if I do have children some day, I know exactly whose light to follow.
“I think children are exactly who they are when they’re born. If you look at baby photos of our kids, the way they were, the way they looked, what their energy was – whether they were a sweet, elegant, private little person, or a funny, open person, or a bold person – they’re still the same. There’s so much they are born with. And we believe you just have to encourage the individual and support them, but don’t get in their way too much. It was my mother who taught me that it’s just as important to listen to your kids as to tell them or instruct them. You want children to know they are absolutely loved so they can become the person they are. You find their differences and let them be free.”
As she matures as a humanitarian she talks a lot about how much meaning it has given her life. In her younger years she was self-destructive, always searching for a way out that window tattooed on her arm, but now she can channel that energy into helping others, and she never feels self-pity anymore. She finally had the window removed. Now she has more than 30 tattoos, most of them loving mementos to her family. In less than 8 years, she and Brad had 6 children. They all seem very happy. In 2014 alone she has traveled to multiple refugee camps, had a hit movie with Maleficent, made an honorary Dame by the Queen of England, wrote and directed a small indie movie with Brad called By The Sea, hosted a Global Summit in London on sexual violence in war zones attended by activists, changemakers, diplomats and politicians from all over the world, got married, and released her second film Unbroken, the biopic of her real-life hero Louis Zamperini, about the greatness of the human spirit.
“I would say there’s a way of being bold when you’re young that seems very brave. What’s perceived as tough is a very funny thing. I think to be a parent is one of the scariest, boldest things to do, as opposed to, um, getting a tattoo… Much more than jumping into a pool when you’re 20. I think I am probably wilder today because I make much bolder choices. Just being self-destructive and lost is not truly being wild. I think we all are lost at some periods in life. We don’t have a sense of purpose, we are too absorbed in our own pain and our own angst. The bold choices I make are a lot stronger today, but the risks and the things I have to lose are much greater. The pressure is harder. Whereas when I was 20, it was quite easy to be angry.”
But it’s almost impossible to take in the scope of her life. It’s not attainable for someone who isn’t famous or have a lot of money and connections. So in a sense, unless you read between the lines, it’s hard to perceive her as anything other than this larger than life character. Her life may seem charmed (or horrific, depending on your view of fame) but her words and the action behind them are genuine. Each time there is a new humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world, she quietly donates $50,000 or more. Her philosophy on her income has long been ‘save 1/3, live on 1/3 and donate 1/3’. Although she now holds an official position with the UNHCR as Special Envoy to the Secretary General, she has never collected a salary and pays for her own trips and security.
“If I can be successful at what I love, then I am very grateful. And if I can use fame to speak about issues and tell stories like the one in ‘Unbroken,’ then I am thankful. But you know, I don’t love having fame and if it went away tomorrow I would be quietly happy just being at home. All of it could fall away tomorrow and I wouldn’t care. If I was just at home with my children, that would be enough. I am fulfilled because I have love in my life – and for that I am very fortunate. I try to see fame as a positive thing, as a gift. I never, ever would complain about it or look at the downside of it, because, well, why?”
“The child I met in Sierra Leone  was the first child that I met who was about to die and who died the next day. It was the first place I went to and it was the first time I saw a kid in that state. He was by himself. And I still to this day – even though I know in the broader picture you can’t save everybody – to this day I feel I should have helicoptered him out and spent the money and done something and saved him. Even though I probably couldn’t have. But I still have guilt about that and I still see his face, I always will. And maybe it’s the first kid, that you feel connected to their death, or whatever it may be. But he’ll always be symbolic to me of that. Of the bigger picture of all those kids.”
Fellow activist Erin Trowbridge on Angelina Jolie: “I was with Angie at the very first Clinton Global Initiative. The most powerful men in the world were there, and yet the world stops for her when she walks into a room. After four hours with her, I said, ‘I’m going to take a break and go into the kitchen.’ She said, ‘I think I’ll go back with you. I need to breathe.’ So we’re back in the kitchen, and this busboy comes up to her. He was really shy, but he said, ‘Do you mind if I take your picture?’ She said, ‘Not at all.’ Then he said, ‘It’s for my daughter. She’s in the hospital. She tried to kill herself.’ And something in Angie changed. She said, ‘I can relate. I know what it’s like to have a hard time.’ And that’s the essence of who she is. She is who she was. She’s that girl. She gets it from the tragic side of things and relates to it from that side. It’s about the underdog, and that’s how she sees herself.”
Angelina is an artist made so much better by her involvement in the world, and she is a great changemaker because of her abilities as a storyteller. “It’s a very particular job that focuses on certain aspects of yourself. I think an actor is a better actor if they’re more complex as a human being – they have more to offer the audience. As an artist, what are you contributing? You can go to acting class all you want, but if you travel, if you have a family, if you have new life experiences, it’ll make you a better artist. Life has to be first. Life before art.”
So what I take away from her example is that you don’t actually need a lot of money to live free. Downsize. Cut back on expenses. Find work that is meaningful to you. If it is also your passion, congratulation, you just won the game of life. Find love by being in love with the world. It works. I promise. (But I still need a reminder every now and then.)
Some pictures and quotes assembled by instagram user @angelinafans. Definitely follow her if you want to learn more about Angelina.