LOS ANGELES — On a sunny day in Australia, Angelina Jolie herded 200 of Unbroken’s actors, rail-thin and covered in soot, into a seaside water reserve netted to protect them from sharks — only to watch her brave soldiers fan out in unison, thanks to one deadly jellyfish.
“There was a moment when all the guys kind of spread around this little thing,” says Jolie, chuckling.
“Trying to play heroes,” says Jack O’Connell wryly. The British actor takes on the titanic role of Louis Zamperini, a troubled Italian youth and athlete who would become a brutalized POW in World War II.
Zamperini’s tale, immortalized in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book of the same name, is larger than life: A bombardier downed in the Pacific, he survived in shark-infested waters for 47 days only to sustain two years of brutal torture at the hand of a maniacal prison guard (played by Japanese musician Miyavi in his first major acting role).
But it’s unclear at the start of the interview if the present will overtake the past. Gossipy e-mails have emerged from the Sony Pictures hack and feature Jolie unflatteringly. Today, initially formal, she carefully steers around commenting on the matter, but warms in the presence of her three stars (including Garrett Hedlund, who plays a POW).
They soon begin to tease each other. Like the time O’Connell was terrorized by a giant spider placed in his cell one day on set — which Jolie failed to tell him they lost track of.
“I had to work up (to that shot),” O’Connell says. “I had to meet and hang around littler spiders.”
Jolie grins. “He had spider therapy.”
Jolie and Zamperini bonded over his story. She sent the actors to meet him with some sage advice: “Angie had said don’t come empty-handed, so I brought a box of cookies for him,” says Hedlund.
“Initially, I was anxious how he would react (to me),” says Miyavi, who is in his real life “a combination of Jimi Hendrix and Sid Vicious,” Jolie says.
“He was so charming. And sharp. He was so welcoming,” Miyavi says. He acknowledges that fans “are scared” about him embodying Japan’s darkest days. “But they’re really supportive.”
Jolie rejects any concerns about backlash to Unbroken in Japan. “Of course not, because it’s a beautiful film that has a beautiful message,” she says. She notes that Zamperini’s relationship with Japan came full circle: Later a born-again Christian, he forgave his captors and returned to the island in 1998 to carry an Olympic torch, running past the former camps where he had been imprisoned.
“We were very conscious of showing all sides of the war, including the bombing of Tokyo. But this is Louis’ experience and he was in fact a POW,” says Jolie. “And he had a very difficult time as a POW, so we want to pay respect and show that all people suffer in war.” History, she adds, “has dark aspects to it.”
To play the starving POWs, the actors shed a spectacular amount of weight, eating only tiny portions of protein: a single boiled egg for breakfast (“That was a treat,” says O’Connell) and miso soup.
“Everyone is sort of complaining, about what they’d eaten or what they looked like,” recalls Hedlund. “And Angie walks in and goes, ‘You guys look amazing!’ It just (took) out all the hunger. And Jack’s like, ‘Cheerio, mate!’ ”
The key, says Jolie, was remembering why they were doing it. “For all of us, it was that reminder, all anyone needed to do was click for a second on the goal at hand to re-create the lives of these men.”
Jolie showed the unfinished film to Zamperini before his death in July. She says she wasn’t ready to let him go when she left town to shoot By the Sea with Brad Pitt in Malta.
“In truth, maybe I wasn’t locking in the picture because I was saying goodbye to Louis,” she says. “Even though it was done, I couldn’t quite do it.”
After nine years together, six children and a two-year engagement, Jolie finally married Pitt in August. Working on By the Sea was part of their new chapter, she says. “I wanted to spent time with my family. And to work with Brad was a great thing for our family.”
The overarching lesson of Zamperini? A reminder to “focus on what you can do,” says Jolie. “And you embrace every day, you’re grateful for what you do have. That’s what you learn when you have hardship.
“And if you really learn that, you can face many things in a different way.”