As intrigued as Jolie was by the story, she initially balked at signing on for a project whose plot revolved around child abduction. “I was concerned to just even put that in my head,” she says. “I didn’t want the idea of a kidnapping around me.” She adds that for both Pitt and her, losing a child would be intolerable—worse than losing each other. “I love Brad, and he loves me,” she says, “but something happening to the kids…”
For Jolie, who’s become a sort of postfeminist icon, thanks in part to her knack for playing tough chicks who can transcend gender when necessary (next year she will play the lead in the espionage thriller Edwin A. Salt, a role originally slated for Tom Cruise), Changeling was also a strange trip back to an era when a woman who challenged the system risked persecution or, in Collins’s case, confinement in an asylum. In one scene, a state-appointed psychiatrist, while making a house call to Collins, tells her that her feminine emotions are clouding her judgment. “Today, in 2008, my reaction would be to laugh in his face and kick him out of my house,” Jolie says matter-of-factly. “But that’s how it was and still is in many parts of the world.”
For Eastwood, one challenge was making sure that the irrepressibly telegenic Jolie (who possesses, as the director says, “one of the more striking faces on the planet”) could be convincing as a mild-mannered telephone operator. But he says the actress’s interior work took care of the transformation. “Naturally Angelina is more beautiful than Christine Collins was, but that’s showbiz,” he says. On the set, Eastwood found that Jolie’s ability “to just jump right in without too much anxiety and nail it,” put her in a league with a few other actors he’s worked with—namely Meryl Streep, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman.
Jolie’s performance, one of her most nuanced and restrained to date, was partly inspired by her mother, who died of cancer last year. “Her name was Marcheline, and she would joke that she was a marshmallow—just mushy and soft,” Jolie says. “When I was a teenager and she tried to yell at me to clean my room, she just couldn’t. But if someone crossed her children, she was fierce. She would never speak to that person again.”
The last time W interviewed Jolie, just before the release of Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the summer of 2005, it was very early in her relationship with Pitt: Much like Christine Collins, Jolie was still a single mom, living with one son. With characteristic frankness she told the magazine that she wasn’t so great at being part of a couple. “I’m better alone,” she said. If there were a long-term mate for her out there, she theorized, he’d be someone with similar goals and a fervent desire to “accomplish and change” things in the world.