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Angelina Jolie says the message from her new film Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is about having the world accept you for who you are

'Parenting is the greatest responsibility... there is nothing else you're doing that is more important'

Angelina Jolie with her children at a premiere. From left, Maddox, Pax, Vivienne, Knox and Shiloh
Angelina Jolie with her children at a premiere. From left, Maddox, Pax, Vivienne, Knox and Shiloh

By Aine O'Connor

There is famous and there is Famous. Even well-known actors are not well-known to everyone: you always have to explain to someone who the person is and why they might know them. That's famous. Angelina Jolie, however, is Famous. Everyone knows Angelina: first name suffices, no one needs an explanation. Actor, director, activist, mother and lover, she has covered a lot in her 44 years.

Sitting before her is daunting. I am to meet her with her Maleficent co-star Elle Fanning and they are deep in conversation when I arrive. She is just as physically perfect in the flesh, wearing very little make-up and something elegant and floaty and designery. I'm introduced, fangirling already, so when she opens with a compliment, "I love your colours", I make some kind of a whimpery noise and mutter incoherently. She smiles benignly.

The first Maleficent, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, was the backstory which explained why the evil godmother (Jolie) had become evil. It showed her softening through her love for Aurora (Fanning), learning to feel like a mother to her despite the absence of a genetic link. When the curse struck and Aurora could only be woken with a kiss, it wasn't the prince's kiss which woke her but Maleficent's. It was a love story between a mother and daughter, and the second film picks up where it left off. This time that love is challenged when Maleficent's insecurities are awakened when Aurora seeks to marry a human, Prince Phillip. It is a film about diversity, strength versus power, duty versus personal choice and respect for our planet, but to me it remains a film about love .

"I think it is about many things," Angelina says, "and maybe not just about love for your own but really love and understanding of others. But really the heart of the Maleficent story is the mother-daughter story."

She has often said that she identifies with the character of Maleficent; this time round she still does, but in a slightly different way.

"When we become a mother we go through things. In the first film it was about how life hurts you and you lose yourself and a child helps bring back this love and understanding of yourself and you return to your softness in a very different way. In the second film I think you can sometimes also lose yourself, and you can question whether you're good enough. Whether you have done good enough, who you are… I think she really questions what kind of mother she is because she is different, but she will die for her daughter and that's her motherhood. It may not be traditional but she loves her with everything she has."

I suggest that nothing makes you question yourself more than parenting. "Because it's the greatest responsibility," Angelina answers. "It's another life and you have to make sure they're okay and they're ready. There is nothing else you're doing that is more important."

It's an opinion she has lived. After her parents, actors Marcheline Bertrand and Jon Voight, separated when she was a baby, she lived with her mother, mostly in LA. A skinny kid with braces and glasses, she felt like an outsider and has spoken openly about self-harm, suicidal plans, drug use, insomnia and an eating disorder. Her first marriage at the age of 21 was to fellow actor Jonny Lee Miller, her second to Billy Bob Thornton was four years later; she also had a serious love affair with actress and model Jenny Shimizu, but the relationship she credits with changing her for good was when at 26 she adopted her son Maddox from Cambodia, saying of it: "I knew once I committed to Maddox, I would never be self-destructive again."

She now has six children, and that first baby, now 18, has just left to study biochemistry at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. She has spoken of her pride in her son, who she says has grown "into such a good man", adding that she feels that the sadness at his leaving the nest was slightly tempered by having younger children still at home - Pax (15), Zahara (14), Shiloh (13), and twins Vivienne and Knox (11); she had Shiloh and the twins with Brad Pitt.

There is another mother in the story, Prince Phillip's mother, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. She too has her child's best interests at heart, but that involves getting rid of Maleficent and her realm forever. As the two older women resort to prejudice and battle, the wisest person there is Aurora. Elle Fanning feels that was a key element of her character.

"It was really important to show Aurora grow into this young woman that has stayed true to all of those qualities and not changing herself; ultimately this film is about not changing your true nature. And having the world accept you for who you are. She has this strength in her own femininity and she is not afraid… she wants to be a wife and have babies and she is still strong," Elle says.

She and Phillip are millennial royals then? "Exactly! I feel like her and Prince Phillip both represent the younger generation of looking at things in a different way - the true acceptance of seeing that everyone can live harmoniously and that difference is what makes you stronger, and 'different' isn't a negative word."

On-screen, the Jolie-Fanning relationship has evolved, and off-screen too. Elle was 14 when they made the first film, she is 21 now.

"They are very, very different conversations we have in this set!" laughs Angelina.

They haven't got round to having a glass of wine together yet but on-set kept themselves entertained with table tennis and paintball. Elle mostly won the table tennis but not the paintball. In fairness, she was up against Lara Croft. When filming wrapped, Angelina gave Elle a vintage three-stone diamond Cartier ring as a gift, which probably helps her forget a few paintball bruises.

On-screen battles are not the only ones Jolie has fought. In an interview when she turned 40, she said she couldn't wait to turn 50 "and know that I made it". She told Vogue: "Both of the women in my family, -my mother and my grandmother - started dying in their 40s." Both women died of ovarian cancer, and when she learned she too carried the BRCA1 gene mutation that meant she had a high risk for breast and ovarian cancer, she chose to have two preventative surgeries: a double mastectomy and the removal of her fallopian tubes and ovaries. She wrote about it in a New York Times op-ed, including the line "I know my children will never have to say, 'Mom died of ovarian cancer'."

Her decision to go public created a recognisable 'Angelina Jolie effect' with a surge in women coming forward to have themselves assessed for risk. Ovary removal means sudden-onset menopause, but Jolie said she has not had severe menopausal symptoms and credited then husband Pitt with helping her through it. Their 12-year relationship ended in 2016 but their charitable foundation continues. It too was born of parenthood, when they sold the first pictures of their biological children for charity, raising almost $20m. Her own extremely active humanitarianism has been ongoing for over two decades.

It's really not for nothing that Angelina is Famous.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is in cinemas now

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