Orignally conceived as a Tom Cruise vehicle with a male protangonist, Salt was radically re-imaged and rewritten by Brian Helgeland to be built around Angelina Jolie as a very different kind of spy. Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent who is captured and tortured in North Korea, but after her release, she is accused of being a Russian sleeper agent and has to go on the run in a desperate effort to clear her name. The plot has definite shades of Mission: Impossible or The Bourne Conspiracy, but Salt has a devastating weapon that neither of those megehits had to deploy: Angelina Jolie in full-on-take-no-prisoners mode.
Ms. Jolie sat down with Buzzine's Izumi Hasegawa to talk about days on set filled with stunts, torture, betrayal and blood... and the dangers of bringing your kids to work...
Izumi Hasegawa: You’ve done films that have been very emotional, and you’ve done films that have been very physical; Do you have a preference as far as which is more draining for you or what’s more exciting for you personally?
Angelina Jolie: I’ve been so fortunate in my career I’ve been able to balance both, and I’ve been allowed by audiences…they’ve accepted me in dramas, and they’ve let me do big action movies and accepted me there. In Salt, this is the first time I’ve really been able to combine both. It’s the first time I’ve been able to do an action movie based in reality and have a really nice depth, backstory, and play with characters and accents and voice and all that, and also just jump off things and play.
IH: Simon Crane knows what stunts you’re capable of doing and what you’re not capable of doing. Having seen this movie, what are you not capable of doing?
AJ: He’ll push me to do it in the next one, whatever it is. I haven’t done a lot of underwater stuff. He got me on the jet ski in Tomb Raider 2, but I was kicking and screaming. So I don’t know, but it’ll come, I’m sure.
IH: What about getting your thrills and adrenaline rush in real life? Are there things you still want to do? Have you ever done the running of the bulls or something like that?
AJ: I haven’t. The difficulty is that we have this line of what we can do, having six children, where if it can break us, that’s okay, but if it can kill us, we can’t do it. So the bulls might be something I have now committed myself to too many children to be doing. But we still fly planes, motorcycles, and things like that.
IH: You’ve been described several times by people working on this film as “fearless”: Is there anything you’re afraid of or that you’re afraid to do on camera?
AJ: Not on camera. I’m only afraid of something happening to people I love. That’s the great fear for everybody.
IH: Melissa Mahle said that you, and I quote, “sucked my brain dry.” How does it help you to play a role like this, to know as much as you’ve learned from her about the real life of the CIA?
AJ: A lot. Part of it was just meeting her. In movies, we think we’re gonna play a tough CIA girl — what’s it gonna be and what’s she gonna look like, what’s she gonna feel like, and then you meet her and she’s so lovely and elegant and against any stereotype of some obvious tough woman. So that immediately helped me transition into what I was allowed to do. We had long talks about the inability to talk to anybody in your family about what your daily life was and what your job was, and how isolating and lonely that was, and only when you’re retired are you able to discuss your life, and what a huge relief that is. The idea that it would take you 20 years until you’re able to have a real conversation with your husband over dinner and not lie and not hide something is an extraordinary sacrifice that all these people make, and it makes for a very specific type of personality. So I drew mostly from that.
AJ: Yes, it was a lot of fun. I’ve never done that before. It’s fun to do things you’ve never done. It’s just odd because you actually start to think about, “What is my internal man?” You start to get really particular about how he does his hair or what kind of an outfit he would wear. It’s just bizarre. And then, when I dressed up and walked on set for the first time, the crew was so uncomfortable. The guys didn’t want to stand near me, just kept staring at me. The girls — some of them I think thought that I was cute but kind of also didn’t know what to do. [Laughs] It was just the most unusual feeling. But the only thing to do was to just get into it and enjoy it, or else you’d feel awkward. So I just got fully into it and loved hanging out as him.
IH: Was there anyone who didn’t know it was you?
AJ: When we were doing a scene where I was entering an area, the extras there were hanging out, just standing near me, and I didn’t talk — they were just hanging out and we’d just stand next to each other and get a cup of coffee next to each other, and we’d spend most of the day, and at a certain point, I think they realized the director was talking to me and they heard me talking, and then they came up and they were excited and very freaked out that they’d been with me the whole day.
IH: It was very provocative, at the beginning of the film, that you were waterboarded. How did you arrive at that scene? Was it in the script?
AJ: No. So much was done on the day. We just researched North Korean torture, and there were lots of different types of things, and some would have been odd cinematically, and that somehow just seemed… Something on your stomach and in your mouth seemed the most invasive, especially for a woman.
IH: It wasn’t a political statement?
IH: There has obviously been a little talk about sequels. We don’t know how the film is going to do… Assuming it does really well, would you consider coming back as Salt again?
AJ: I would. I had a great time playing her, and because she has so many different personalities really, maybe we’ll know who she is at the end of this — maybe we really don’t. There are so many possibilities to do different character work. She’s a lot of fun. It would be different from most films. You do a sequel and play the same character twice, but she could really transform again.
IH: You took some real risks filming this. You were on that ledge, weren’t you?
AJ: I was on that ledge.
IH: How many stories up: 11 or 12?
AJ: Something like that. I’m not sure.
IH: Were you scared when you were up there? How did that feel?
AJ: They kept trying to get pigeons to fly under me, and they kept throwing pigeons out the window so you could see the height, and the pigeons kept wanting to go back inside, so it was me and the pigeons for a period. I like heights. I like to hang out. I think it was more that everyone else was uncomfortable. But there I’m fine. I’m good on a ledge.
IH: Liev Schreiber said that he brought his kids on the set…
AJ: Oh yeah, all the time. Our kids play together. My kids loved hanging out on the set. These movies are always fun for kids. They get to see different disguises or play with the gooey blood in the trailer, get on some of the harnesses themselves and swing around. They watch the helicopter jump… They think it’s fun.
IH: They get to put the gooey blood on?
AJ: It’s important that they understand what it is if they see Mommy with it on.
IH: What did that look like? Did they use it like finger-paint?
AJ: Most kids go vampire or zombie. And then from there, it just gets messy. But they usually start with some blood dripping — the vampire mouth.
IH: Liev was saying that his kids probably wouldn’t have interest in even watching the film. Do you think your kids would like it?
AJ: When they’re older, I think my kids are gonna love this! Madd really wants to see it, but he’s just not ready yet – he’s not old enough.
IH: Actually, a lot of the film hinges on you and Liev, your characters building a believable relationship. It’s all fine and good to have the stunts and things, but there has to be a heart to this. Did you guys work hard on that?
AJ: Yes, we all did. All of our relationships — even with the husband. We spent a lot of time finding a real comfort. We have such an extraordinary actor, and Chiwetel is amazing to work with, so we approached it like you’d approach any dramatic film, and we took our characters very seriously and our work very seriously, and we took our Russian very seriously. [Laughs] And then, when we got to play, we got to play, but we worked hard to try to make it a real story.
IH: Is that one of the more difficult aspects of the film — learning to speak Russian?
AJ: It was harder for me, yeah. I think it came to Liev naturally. I kept practicing over and over because, when you practice an accent or another language, you end up sounding very cardboard, so I was trying to learn it so I could relax into it and speak it with some kind of emotion, so it took me a long time.
IH: How long did that take?
AJ: I had it in my head. I had met with Russians, they told me how to do it; we talked about the lines, the intention, the way it would sound. They recorded it for me and I just listened to it all the time and would occasionally try it out on my children [laughs], just walk around with it. Then you could go back to the Russians and try it and they’d say, “Hmm, little more of this, little more of that.”
IH: Everyone must ask the Russian spy story, what you thought about this weird convergence…
AJ: For us, it feels very strange. There are obviously two feelings. One is our relationship with Russia as a country has improved, and there are many many things that are hinging on our relationship becoming more and more close and working together, so the political/citizen side in me wants to hope that it doesn’t adjust anything relating to that. The side of me that makes a film about this situation thinks, my God, what timing. This is just bizarre. I just looked at The New York Times today, the front cover, on the center — it’s just strange. It feels like we’re walking in some kind of odd reality. Sony marketing should be awarded something.
IH: Being a worldly woman, are you surprised that this would be going on for two decades and you’ve been reading this script, working on this project, and all of a sudden it’s real?
AJ: I’m not surprised because I wouldn’t underestimate anybody for anything, and I’m one of those people that thinks we have to just imagine… This is why we focus on protecting ourselves all the time; it’s why we have our own spies; it’s why we have so much counterintelligence. It’s happened in the past. To believe it’s never happening today, with all the new cyber-intelligence and things that could be going on, there’s probably so much more we don’t know.
AJ: I don’t know. It’s funny — this is a conversation that the CIA has over the water cooler. There’s always the guy who says that’s completely ridiculous, and the other guy says, no no no, it’s coming. So I don’t know what to believe. I think it’s good to be prepared for anything, but I think there are other things we need to be worried about today.
IH: Like what?
AJ: Well [laughs], nuclear weapons. Our relationships with each other as countries and being able to strengthen relationships and strengthen good governance inside countries and help build up capacity in countries before they become failing states, and help them to become capable and strong with decent leaders. I think the growing number of failed states is concerning all of that.
IH: As someone who has put the welfare of children so high on her personal and professional agenda, the one part of the story that I thought was creepy was the children being indoctrinated. How did you feel about that being in the script?
AJ: I think it was something I certainly didn’t want to avoid. I think that has happened in the past and it’s happening in ways today. There are child soldiers around the world, so it was something that, if it’s creepy to people, that’s good — it should be. It should disturb us to see that way of being with children and indoctrinating children. I was interested in it being the story because that’s an interesting discussion to have.
IH: One of the things I read in the Vanity Fair piece was that Evelyn does not have children because she lives this life where she puts her own life at risk. Melissa has daughters, as I understand it. Is that a realistic portrayal of a CIA officer in your mind, or is it that just this particular character is particularly violent?
AJ: This would be my choice, if I was in this position. I think Melissa and Evelyn are a little different about who they really are. If Melissa really had Evelyn’s backstory, maybe she would have made different choices as well. But also for dramatic purposes, when you have a child in a movie, you really have to take care of that child from beginning to end of that movie, and the movie kind of becomes about saving the child. It has to be. We didn’t want that to be what the movie was about.
IH: The Vanity Fair piece also suggests that you’re perhaps considering leaving acting. True? Not true?
AJ: [Laughs] I’m not. They know how to sell a magazine. I simply said in the years to come I’ll be doing less of acting and more of other things. It’s really not that interesting.
IH: I’m sure you get a lot of job offers. What was it about Salt that made you want to take on this movie?
AJ: I’ve done action movies before, but I’d never done one based on reality, and when we started to talk about it, we realized there really hadn’t been one with a woman, and that was very strange to me. It felt like uncharted territory that would be fun to explore and a good challenge. I also hadn’t worked for a year and a half, and I had two babies and I felt very Mommy, and I was sitting in my nightgown reading this script with the little baby cribs and everything, and I started to flip through it and read about jumping off trucks and thought, “That might be really good for me right now.” [Laughs] “I think it’ll be a good balance.” So the physical part of it felt like a really smart thing to do, just to get out and get moving again.
IH: Do you think, because of our blatant sexism, that having a woman in a movie like this is apparently more exciting?
AJ: I don’t know. I think because it’s new, it’s going to be exciting. If it was the first time it was a man, it would have been exciting maybe. I think we made a point not to use her sexuality or her femininity in the film in ways that are usually done in films with women, especially in this kind of genre. I don’t think the film is lacking in any way for it, so I think that was a conscious choice we made — to not let it become anything other than a really good spy movie with a tough spy who happens to be a woman.
Columbia Pictures' 'Salt' is out now in theaters nationwide.