DUBAI: It has been two decades since Angelina Jolie, one of the world’s top movie stars, began dedicating herself to helping the people of the world most in need, working with the UNHCR to visit refugee camps across the Middle East and the world.
As renowned as she is for her acting and directing, it is her humanitarian work that is closest to her heart, and through all the tumult that she has gone through in her life, it’s the one thing that has kept her grounded.
“We’re all connected,” Jolie tells Arab News. “A life in service of others makes us better. It makes us grow.”
Jolie’s latest film, “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, may not, on its surface, mirror the mission that Jolie has been following for the most important decades of her life, but it shares those same themes.
In it, she plays Hannah, an elite firefighter called a smokejumper based in the wooded hills of Montana in the northern United States who risks her life at the first sign of a forest fire by parachuting directly into the flames. She’s plagued by the memory of a group of young boys she wasn’t able to save from a fire years earlier. While camped out in the woods, she comes in contact with a young boy on the run from two hitmen, and by helping save the boy, she saves herself.
For Jolie, while the arc of the character is ultimately about the importance of selflessness, she had to keep first and foremost in her mind that Hannah was a troubled character who lacks the maternal instincts that Jolie herself, the mother of six children, has in spades.
“[At first], they are both struggling to be around each other. She doesn't actually hold him closer to her. But it's that interesting moment we see as he says, ‘Are you someone I can trust?’ I think in that moment, she has no idea who she is. If you're somebody that feels like you've failed in your life and you're in grief and somebody comes to you and says, ‘Are you somebody who can help me? Can I trust you? Can you be the person that protects me?’ You want to be, but you can't imagine you are,” says Jolie.
It’s no surprise that Hannah is so broken—after all, she has walked through the fire both literally and spiritually, over and over. While the title of the film seems to be a reference to the hitmen in pursuit of the young boy, Jolie interprets it as being about Hannah.
“It's funny, during filming we used to joke, after Hannah gets hit by lightning, what else can happen to her? It's like the universe is trying to kill her — it’s the universe that wishes her dead. I think most of us have felt that in life. You feel for a moment that you're just completely up against it and what more can be thrown at you or who else can attack? But yes, definitely, we grow stronger. We grow stronger if we survive it,” says Jolie.
While the phrase ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is oft repeated, for Jolie, the concept of what ‘stronger’ means needs to be more deeply interrogated.
“You go through the fire, but how do you come out the other end? Did you come out bitter, angry, broken, at a loss and overwhelmed? Or did you come out of it where your spirit got stronger, you confronted your fears, you protected others? And within that fire you found something that made you stronger,” says Jolie.
The fires were not only both literal and spiritual for her character; they were in fact a real part of the shoot. Director Taylor Sheridan avoided using computer-generated imagery to add to the film’s realism.
“He's amazing. He built a fake forest to light it on fire instead of using CG, because he wants to immerse his actors in what's going on and make them understand what the character's going through,” says Finn Little, who plays Connor, the young boy Hannah protects.
The realism extended past the flames. Through Sheridan’s films “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River,” he has become his country’s premiere chronicler of rural America, with “Those Who Wish Me Dead” continuing that mission with a keen eye and a true heart.
That’s something that has kept actor Jon Bernthal, who plays a police officer named Harrison in the film, coming back to work with Sheridan, with whom he previously worked on “Sicario” and “Wind River.”
“I think Taylor Sheridan is a great American storyteller. He understands the West, he understands the wilderness and what it means to live off the land. If you look at all his films, there’s a richness and authenticity to them,” says Bernthal.