The tagline for Angelina Jolie's newest action/thriller Salt is simply, "Who is Salt?" But from sitting down to talk with this superstar, it's clear that no matter who CIA agent Evelyn Salt really is, Angelina Jolie embodies her from head to toe -- even though the role was originally written for a man. Jolie came on when Tom Cruise dropped out, and Edwin became Evelyn with some small changes. Jolie talked to reporters about building bombs, female action heroes in fantasy versus reality, and making Evelyn even more ruthless than "the boys." [Small spoiler ahoy!]
Can you talk a little bit about the research you did for this role and how you used it to inform your character?
We spent a lot of time with different people who'd worked in the Russia House and the CIA, and I think the biggest note I took from them was how isolated and lonely they felt not being able to talk about their life and their work with anybody in their family, and what a sacrifice that is. And how only when they finally retire do they feel this relief of actually being able to sit around the dinner table and have real conversations and not have to hide anything and not have to lie about anything. And what an unusual type of personality that must be. That informed a lot.
The movie is based in reality, but there are all these crazy action scenes. What's the limit on how far you can push it and still remain believable?
A lot of it was our stunt coordinator, Simon Crane; he's just a genius. And it was him really trying to figure out, okay, if she's going to go up against a guy who's a foot and a half taller than her and a hundred pounds heavier than her, how could she actually do it? And then there was a lot of really slow discussion about it. She's faster, she can get height, she can jump on things, or she's quicker, or she's more agile, or whatever it would be... Everything had to be somehow possible, even if it was stretched, even if the trucks on the freeway were wild. In a stretch, it's still not impossible. Crazy, but not impossible... It would have to be an extraordinary person, but could it be done? It's the opposite of actually every action movie I've ever done, because there's never really been a female action movie based in reality. They're always fantasy. I've done most of 'em.
You have played so many strong female action characters, and for some reason that idea has never really taken off in Hollywood. Why is that?
I think it's down to an audience, and you know, you want to give an audience something that they [want]... You just wait for them to respond to one. So if you do it right, which we tried to do, then you've done it. And then hopefully, then like most businesses, they think if it makes money then somebody else will make money, and then they will make more movies with women in that role, I think, if this one works.
What did you want to change, and what did change about this character when switching it from Edwin to Evelyn?
The big change, the interesting thing was, the most important thing was we said, well we can't start to turn this into a girl movie, because that's where, I think, people have failed in the past. When they write something on purpose for a woman, it's always about being a woman, using your femininity, all these kind of female obvious things. So we said, let's just keep all the things about it that's tough, and it's about being what she is, it's about the journey, and if anything, we have to make it darker and we have to make it meaner than the boys.
[Small spoiler ahead.]
You mentioned not being Edwin, but you are a man for a few minutes.
I am. I couldn't help myself.
What was it like to cross dress?
It was great. Oh, it was great. Well the funny thing is, you realize every lead in this movie [Liev Schreiber in Taking Woodstock and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Kinky Boots] has cross-dressed... It's just the greatest thing. I'm surprised that picture hasn't gone out, of the three of us next to each other in like our matching drag photos. So they were very supportive.
They gave you tips?
They gave me tips. They just basically said, just go fully into it and enjoy it. That's what they did. I loved it. We called him Johnny for some reason. It was really weird; I found... I think I was a bit suave. People had a very, very difficult time talking to me. Philip could hardly talk to me. Nobody could talk to me. It wasn't as much what he looked like, it was when he spoke... And Brad said came to visit me once, and I said, you don't want to come, I'm going to be the man. And he said, it won't bother me, it's you, whatever, it's you. And then he came and I was changing and so I was like half woman and half man. [He was] sooo creeped out by it.
What did you want to add in creating her as a character? And did you have an impact on her being pretty desexualized?
It was extremely important to me. I just felt that she was just better than that, that she didn't have to do that. And not that it wouldn't have been fun to do if it was appropriate in a scene, but it just felt like if we could find a way to not need that, let's not. There was even talk for a long time about adding a scene in the end... because, I mean, if you've seen it, I don't end so pretty. And there was a discussion about, do you kind of catch up with her glamorous again because this is what people would want, this is what audiences would want, and we made a definitive decision of no, it's very, very important that we don't do that to her, so we always angled it back into... trying to make it just harder and more raw and... and I just liked her, I was more interested in a woman like Evelyn than what could have become of her... which is always the scripts that get sent to me for action females. And I've never wanted to do that type of woman.
Your character builds bombs and rewires systems. Did you pick up any skills?
We actually took one or two elements out of the bomb building so it couldn't be recreated... but with a few extra elements, yeah, that's one... You learn the oddest things when you're an actor that you don't even [realize], and you come home and your kids say, what did you do [today]? And you're like, "I built a bomb." I laughed through that whole scene finding it very, like ... I felt like making MacGyver music.
It's such a fun action movie, and I feel it will also appeal to a female audience in some way. Do you think it will?
I hope so. And I think we really tried to do something that we all just thought was a great film, and that I think should appeal to everybody. But I do think it's interesting for women, and it'll be interesting for women; even the women on set, it was interesting because it was this new thing, and again, it's so odd that when we think that it hasn't been done, but it hadn't... Like, it was all the girls that fought for the end to not become pretty. It was all the girls that said, don't do that, that's something you're kind of doing on purpose for a different audience. So we did, we tried to you know keep both the men and the women... We're just very conscious of making it for everybody.
Because Salt is so strong and smart and badass, what do you think it says about women?
Well, I've never underestimated women so I'm not surprised to start seeing women do these things... That's why we didn't actually approach it as Salt's a woman, we just approached it as Salt's a badass and happens to be a woman, and this should be no huge surprise for anybody.
So is it more Salt on the way? Or are you going in a different direction?
No, Brad [Pitt]'s working now, so I'm just home. I'm mommy.
I was just wondering if you were ever bothered by the attention paid to your tattoos, that every change you make is news? Do you find it to be sexist or intrusive?
You know, I just pay no attention to it, but I think Brad gets it as much as I do... I go straight to news when I turn on the computer, and I don't stand in line at the grocery store these days. And nobody tells me about it. So unless I'm here in a room, sometimes I hear a thing occasionally. But I usually totally avoid it and I think that's the only way to kind of respond to it.
Salt opens Friday, July 23rd, nationwide.
(This roundtable was conducted as part of a Sony junket in D.C.)