"We've all had those moments when we can transform something in our lives depending on whether we take this road or that... when something helps us to grow. I feel very fortunate that this place came into my life all those years ago."
Angelina Jolie is reflecting on her first visit to Cambodia in 2000, when she was filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider on location at the Ta Prohm temple in Angkor. That shoot was to be the start of a lifelong relationship with the country where she went on to adopt her eldest son, Maddox, establish a foundation and buy a home whose protected acres have offered a safe haven at difficult moments in her life. "For me, going there was this awakening of many things in the world I didn’t know about, like what it meant to have been a refugee, and I felt very honoured when, years later, I was able to become a mother to a Cambodian son and have citizenship in the country," she says. "I feel at peace when I’m in Southeast Asia."
Her most recent trip to Cambodia, for the inauguration of the latest phase of the Guerlain x Unesco Women for Bees programme, is the reason we are speaking on Zoom today, Jolie dressed casually in a black tank top with loose hair and a fresh face. The interview has been postponed several times already, though not without good reason: Jolie delayed her return to LA from Cambodia in order to fly to Yemen, where she met with displaced families to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis created by the ongoing civil war. Now back in the US, she has lost no time in picking up the threads of the multiple projects she is working on, including the Guerlain initiative, which aims to equip women in selected Unesco biospheres with beekeeping knowledge.
Conceived as a way of addressing threats to the global honeybee population, whose pollinating powers are crucial to food security and ecosystem management, the ambitious scheme also promotes female education and entrepreneurship – a cause that has long been close to Jolie’s heart. "As I’ve travelled around the world, I’ve seen that women are often very vulnerable and always very capable," she says.
Now in its second phase (last year’s pilot was held in France, with further stages planned for Rwanda, Ethiopia, China’s Yunnan province and the Amazon region), the programme is predicated on the concept of sharing expertise – because "when you train a woman, she trains others", says Jolie. "We all have different strengths, but I think there’s something innate to a woman about nurturing and community. They are qualities that come very naturally to us – it’s like motherhood, right?" she adds, smiling sympathetically at me. (It’s 7pm London time, and my one-year-old daughter is mewling audibly in the background.) "The way our bodies respond when we hear a baby crying... I think we just have something in us when it comes to thinking about others and not ourselves, and that really helps with this kind of work."
With six children of her own to care for – Maddox, Pax, Zahara, Shiloh and twins Knox and Vivienne – does Jolie feel her instinct to give back has grown stronger than ever? "My children have an impact on every aspect of who I am," she says, decisively. "The moment you become a parent, your life isn’t yours. You don’t know what “you” is; it’s not really about your life anymore, and so you want to represent them, you want to be that model for them; your best self." If ever she finds herself questioning her decisions or her identity, it is to her children she turns for reassurance. "When I have doubts and I don’t know who I am, I’ll sit with them and feel they know me more than anyone knows me," she says. "And then I see myself, and I see them as good people, interesting people, all very strong individuals, and I think I can’t be all bad, I can’t have made a mess."
Jolie has been open about past struggles with her mental health, including recently suffering from what she has described as post-traumatic stress disorder (an experience she drew upon in her portrayal of Thena, who is afflicted by a psychological condition, in last year’s Marvel blockbuster The Eternals). Since filing for divorce from Brad Pitt in September 2016, she has gone through a complex and protracted legal battle during which she alleged domestic violence against Pitt, who was cleared of any wrongdoing but acknowledged he had an alcohol problem. She now retains sole custody of her five minor children (Maddox is over 18 and therefore exempt from consideration), having successfully argued that the judge who had previously granted Pitt shared custody could not be deemed impartial. No wonder, after such upheaval, Jolie tells me she is still ‘figuring out’ how to lead her life. "All of us struggle, because nobody’s a perfect person, so we’re just putting ourselves in check to ask, are we coming from the right place?" she muses. "And there’s no end to that growth."
There is certainly no divorcing Jolie from her powerful sense of purpose. Far from disappearing from public view in the wake of her separation from Pitt, she has continued to use her star power to advocate for humanitarian causes, joining Instagram in 2021 to raise awareness of the horrors facing women and girls living under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and travelling to Ukraine in April to visit orphaned children in Lviv.
Nonetheless, she is conscious of the need not to over-burden her own sons and daughters, especially in our era of social media and 24-hour news. "They are more connected than any generation has ever been, and with that comes an overload of information about the world we’re living in – some frightening things, and they're exposed to all of them," she says. "They’re being encouraged to do something about it, which is wonderful because it gives them agency, but also, they shouldn’t feel that pressure." While she wants her children to grow up with a sense of civic responsibility, she suggests that "the biggest challenge for this generation is just trying to help them seek joy and find peace... they need some silliness and rebellion!"
If there is one inheritance she hopes to pass on, it is an understanding of the power of community. Projects such as Women for Bees succeed because they are less about charity and more about building supportive networks – hence Jolie’s desire for her sons and daughters to see themselves as part of a global family. "You help them to connect to and learn about cultures and people around the world, and that way they’ll value them," she says. "If it’s the right thing to do, it should be natural." And with that, Angelina Jolie – movie star, mentor, mother – is off to her next engagement, changing the world one connection at a time.