Copyright 2001 David Gritten Source: LA Times

[ January 21st 2001 ]

The Los Angeles Times today published an exclusive interview with Angelina Jolie from the London Pinewood Studios set of Simon West's action adventure movie Tomb Raider...

"I took this role, and then I got worried," Angelina Jolie confided. "Lots of people were telling me I should do things that are considered to be more serious. At first, I thought I'd ruined my entire career and my entire life." She sighed deeply. "Then I thought, OK, I can't start worrying about that and not doing what I feel drawn to do. And I wanted to go on this adventure." Thus Jolie became the flesh-and-blood embodiment of Lara Croft, virtual heroine of the video game Tomb Raider. As Lara, she is the star of "Tomb Raider," an all-action extravaganza with a budget of just under $100 million that Paramount hopes to position as one of the must-see summer movies for 2001.

Yet one sees her point. To play an action-adventure character (especially one based on a video game) hardly seems a logical step for an Oscar winner for best supporting actress only last year, for "Girl, Interrupted." Jolie mused on this apparent contradiction as she sprawled on a director's chair in a quiet corner of a sound stage on the "Tomb Raider" set; she knows the tradition of adapting video games for movies is hardly a distinguished one. In status terms, such movies are near the bottom of the totem pole; all to date have been critical bombs, and most have failed to find the same massive audiences as the video games that inspired them. "Super Mario Bros." (1993), a monumental flop, later inspired star Bob Hoskins to explain: "I only did it for the money. It was appalling, a joke. Such an unhappy experience." As for "Street Fighter" (1994) and "Mortal Kombat" (1995), it's hard to find moviegoers prepared to express affection for them. Yet Jolie has gambled on bucking this trend and is happy to be playing the world's leading cyber-babe: pneumatic Lara Croft, the energetic adventuress, perennially clad in a body-hugging T-shirt and microscopically short shorts, who is loved by millions of devotees of Eidos' Tomb Raider games.

The series has shipped more than 21 million units since it first appeared in 1996. And on this 80th day of a long, grueling shoot, Jolie has emerged as the main ambassador for the film, and for Lara herself. She rejects any idea that she's playing some cyber-cipher, a virtual character: "There's an image about Lara, something she represents that people like about her and we hope to capture. Lots of people love this game. We didn't want to dismiss that." So what does she think people like about Lara Croft? "She's got a great spirit of adventure. She's also a lady. It's funny, this is me doing an action movie, but I'd never done such a lady. She was raised properly in England, she's very well-bred, but not uptight or stuffy. She has all the great gadgets a Bond would have, she's wicked and wild, with the same sense of freedom of an Indiana Jones. Lara doesn't use her sexuality in a silly way. She's completely sensual--sexual, open, free, primitive--but it hardly comes into play. She's just human, she's alive. She's like a wild animal."

Good casting, then. For Jolie, 25, has a reputation, quite apart from her acting talents, as something of a bad girl. Since she first attracted notice about five years ago, she has been known as one of the most candid of interviews, discussing her private life with indiscreet abandon. Then, of course, her famed tattoos (cosmetically hidden for this movie), her alluring body (scarcely less curvaceous than the cyber Lara Croft) and her extravagantly full lips all reinforce her image as a sultry young woman. Her first marriage to English actor Jonny Lee Miller just fueled the flames; at the ceremony, Jolie wore black rubber pants and wrote her new husband's name in blood across the back of her shirt. They split up after 18 months, and last year Jolie married actor-writer-director Billy Bob Thornton (who only shortly before the wedding had been engaged to actress Laura Dern).

As if defying anyone who might accuse her of restraint, Jolie then gave interviews detailing the delights of her sex life with Thornton. And of course during last year's Academy Award ceremony, Jolie expressed--both physically and verbally--a degree of affection for her brother rarely seen in public. It may seem odd that such a powerful, almost overwhelming personality would be drafted to play someone who has hitherto existed only in cyberspace. Jolie, looking fit, toned and lithe in a track-suit top over Lara's trademark T-shirt, bit her famous lip as she considered the proposition, then shrugged. "You know what?" she said at last, her enthusiasm unmistakably genuine. "I love Lara, and everything she stands for. And this," she gesticulated with both arms to include her surroundings. "I love all this!" By "this," she meant the extraordinary sets--the two most spectacular of which have been constructed on Pinewood's huge 007 sound stage, so named because many films in the James Bond series were shot here.

High above Jolie and filling this half of the sound stage is an orrery--a traditional form of planetarium. It consists of an enormous flickering metal orange globe, surrounded by smaller globes revolving around it; these represent the sun and the planets in our solar system. The entire contraption is mounted in water bubbling like hot springs. This arrangement is set in the middle of a circular stone temple, its walls marked by intricate stone carvings, from which steam rises; mock stalagmites and stalactites confirm the impression of a subterranean lair. If anything, the other half of the 007 stage is an even more jaw-dropping sight. It is named the Temple of Ten Thousand Shadows, and is a huge hall lined with stone statues of monkey warriors; these come to life in the film's action sequences. At one end, in murky darkness, a huge gilt-covered Buddha with six arms can be discerned.

Fake trees with thick twisted branches have grown through the temple's floor, thus emphasizing its great age. Above an ornate tomb at its center, a huge cylindrical piece of carved wood protrudes. This can swing along the whole temple's length; in some sequences, Lara Croft stands upon it, brandishing sundry weapons and warding off bad guys. The sets took 20 weeks to build, utilizing a crew that numbered up to 160. They are underground interiors to match exterior shots filmed over seven days in Cambodia, at the historic Angkor Wat temples. (Five more days were spent in a remote part of Iceland for scenes in which Lara drives a team of wild huskies in a thrilling race across a glacier.) Clearly, then, "Tomb Raider" is a project of enormous proportions. Yet the principals share a reluctance to divulge too much of the film's story. "The story has a slightly dark edge," offered director Simon West ("Con Air," "The General's Daughter.") "She gets to solve, umm, the world's puzzle," Jolie reflected enigmatically. And producer Lloyd Levin added: "Lara gets to save the world, but there are quite a few twists along the way."

What's not unclear is the amount of physical exertion Jolie has undergone during the filming of "Tomb Raider." Before shooting even started, she spent 2˝ months getting fit. "I went on a protein diet and bulked up as much as I could," she explained. "I wanted her to be about sweat and muscle and yet still feminine. "Her boots are heavy, and so are her guns. I spent days practicing reloading them and flipping them. I went through a military style of training, from target practice to combat maneuvers. I learned martial arts, about shooting with different weapons. Lara picks up everything she comes into contact with and fights with it." Jolie related all this with relish. She had already ridden motorcycles and honed her expertise for the film. She also learned to handle a variety of vehicles, ranging from a Land Rover to an Aston Martin. For pleasure, Lara indulges in something called "bungee ballet," pacing around the high walls of her father's baronial mansion while attached to a bungee rope.

And Jolie has found herself hanging from chandeliers, as well as bestriding that huge carved log above the underground tomb. Ironically, then, given the dubious status of video-game movies, she has been more stretched as an actress playing Lara Croft than in any of her other roles to date. For one thing, she speaks her lines in a posh (and creditably accurate) English accent. And, above all, she has had to rise to unprecedented physical challenges. "So many nights I've gone home with injuries, soaked in the bath, dealt with different injuries and tried to get through to the next day," she recalled. (An ankle injury kept her from working for two days.) "I've felt broken, exhausted, yet excited by the challenge. My days aren't about pretending to be her, they're about being a young woman waking up in England, saying OK, today I have to do the bungee ballet, fight with this person and drive the motorcycle off that thing. And then come home and get a few hours' sleep because tomorrow is the next fight."

Still, Jolie has proved to be both tough and resourceful. The action scenes require several dangerous stunts, and Jolie has volunteered to do most of them herself. "I've become blasé about all the things she does," said director West with a dry smile. "I'll say, 'OK, Angelina, you're going to be on top of that sun, dive off and hit the water.' And she says, 'Fine.' We have a stunt double lined up who does it fine, then Angelina goes up and does it 10 times better. "On the Temple of Ten Thousand Shadows set, you've seen that log that sweeps across. We had two stunt doubles. The first couldn't do it at all. Then, because we've been short of time, Angelina hadn't had time to rehearse. I asked her to get on and do it, and within 10 minutes she was standing up, swinging on it, doing it better than the stunt girls." West shook his head in disbelief. "And she's an Academy Award-winning actress!" West, in fact, thinks Jolie is such a revelation that he has joined her in asserting that he would happily be involved in a "Tomb Raider" sequel. "She's so totally right for it," he said. "It's just like finding Sean Connery in 1962 for James Bond--the actor and character became so close you know you've hit gold.

"Once I had Angelina and saw her the first couple of times in the role, I felt it almost doesn't matter what I do. As long as I keep on pointing the camera at her, the film can't fail. I now can't see how I'd have done the film without her." Given Lara Croft's extraordinary popularity, "Tomb Raider" has had a long gestation period. About three years ago, producer Lawrence Gordon and his partner, Lloyd Levin, first approached Eidos to discuss an adaptation of the company's game. "They were definitely open to the idea," Levin said. "There was a sort of prolonged courtship between us and Eidos. "From when we started pursuing rights to the point of obtaining them, just about every studio in town became interested. We were really straight with them about it. We told them it wasn't going to be fast-tracked, there would be hardships and pain, but we wouldn't give up."

The first hardships, according to West, involved early drafts of the script: "When I got hold of old scripts, it occurred to me this could be a great character. But the scripts were appalling. I'd turned this film down over a two-year period. "Each time it came up, I never considered it. I thought: a video game? What a stupid notion, we must be bankrupt of ideas. I was a total snob about it. I finally said I'd do it if they let me change every single thing apart from her name and the title. They said yes. So over Christmas [1999], I had to come up with this story. And such a flood of ideas came out of it, I could easily do a sequel right now." Clearly West has tried to raise the bar for video game movies. He has surrounded Jolie with mostly British actors of the serious rather than starry species. Iain Glen, a stage and screen actor, plays Lara's nemesis, the villain Manfred Powell, while the rapidly emerging Daniel Craig (he had a small role in "Elizabeth") portrays Alex Marrs, one of Lara's accomplices.

The nerdy technological genius, Bryce, is played by Australian actor Noah Taylor, who appeared as a roadie in "Almost Famous." The experience of shooting "Tomb Raider" has certainly been a heady one for those cast and crew members who visited Cambodia. It is the first English-language film to be shot there since "Lord Jim," starring Peter O'Toole, in 1965. Jolie in particular was overwhelmed by the experience of visiting the temples at the Angkor Wat complex. "The monks there gave me a blessing, which was so amazing," she said. "The best thing about my time [on this movie] has been that I'm now able to look at the world differently. I've realized Hollywood is such a tiny place, and there are things in the rest of the world that are much more important. You're in somewhere like Cambodia and see the things that are held up as important--the temples, the monks, the sense of family. We went there and we changed, we were humbled and thankful they let us be there. It's odd to come back and have to listen to people spreading gossip from Hollywood, while we're trying to say we learned something in Cambodia."

Jolie has another reason for finding her "Tomb Raider" experience memorable; her father, Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight, was cast as Lara's father, Lord Croft. At the age of 5, Jolie had a small role with Voight in the forgettable Hal Ashby movie "Lookin' to Get Out," but he was absent for long periods in her formative years, and this marked their first real acting work together. "Our scenes together were special, for so many reasons," Jolie affirmed. "You get to that place where your parent has truly become a great friend of yours, and we sat up all night talking about our characters and the things they'd want to say to each other. "So much of this story is about Lara reconnecting with her father. All my life my dad was always there for me, but I was very independent as well, and he'd always send me letters, books and information. And in the end we did the same thing with our lives--acting. So our scenes ended up becoming very personal."

Everything seems to be going rather well then, with one small exception--Jolie's lack of competence at the Tomb Raider game. "I'm terrible at the game," she confessed. "But there are people on set training me, getting me better." Is she at a certain level? "I'm not telling you. But people are giving me all the secrets to the next level, so I can whisper them to kids who want to know." And she bounded off eagerly to her next scene, which involved standing on one of the smaller planets in the orrery, then diving from it into the hot bubbling waters. West watched her go. "She's a true movie star," he said admiringly. "And I plan to ride her coat-tails just as long as I can." *

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