STARRING Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor
DIRECTED BY Phillip Noyce
WRITTEN BY Kurt Wimmer and Brian Helgeland
After kicking butt in Tomb Raider and taking names in Wanted, Angelina Jolie has shown that she can play the action game just as well as Hollywood’s A-list big boys. But with her latest rock-’em-sock-’em thriller, Salt, she may prove that she can replace them, too.
You see, back in the summer of 2008, Salt was a script about a CIA agent who’s accused of being a Russian sleeper spy — a male Russian sleeper spy. At the time, Tom Cruise was attached to play the lead. But as the script evolved into more of an on-the-run espionage thriller, Cruise began to feel that the character was a little too close to his Mission: Impossible alter ego, Ethan Hunt. When Cruise bailed, Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal remembered a series of conversations she’d had with Jolie about creating a female James Bond-style franchise for her at the studio. And voilà, the movie’s hero, Edwin Salt, was rechristened Evelyn Salt. ”We tried to change the name to Edwina,” says Jolie via e-mail, ”but it didn’t quite have the same ring to it.”
Jolie says she wasn’t nervous about the role’s gender reassignment. After all, there’s a long history of Hollywood heroes swapping sexes, including the character of Ripley in Alien. ”I was simply looking for the best action script that was going around,” says the 34-year-old star. With Jolie on board, director Phillip Noyce, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, and writer Kurt Wimmer (1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair) flew off to Chez Brangelina in the south of France to retool the screenplay. But the process was a bit trickier than just changing the hero’s name and adding high heels. ”In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt saves his wife, who’s in danger,” says Noyce. ”And what we found was when Evelyn Salt saved her husband in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little. So we had to change the nature of that relationship.” In the end, Salt’s husband, played by German actor August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds), was made tough enough that he didn’t need saving, thank you very much. Which calls to mind a certain other pair of well-matched wedded warriors on film. Any chance Jolie and her Mr. & Mrs. Smith costar (and real-life partner) Brad Pitt might reunite on screen? Not soon, says Jolie: ”I love working with him. He’s my favorite actor to work with, and the only complicated thing is to find the right project.”
Either way, Jolie seems convinced that the gender tinkering in Salt was more than just skin-deep; it actually improved the story. ”Hopefully we’ve succeeded in making her more emotionally complex and physically meaner.” In fact, the actress is certain that female action heroes can be just as badass as their male counterparts. ”We expect different things from men and from women, both emotionally and physically,” she says. ”For example, a man can have a character arc in which he discovers his heart at the end — that would never be a surprise for a woman.”
Like 1987’s Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out, or any number of classic Hitchcock wrong-man thrillers, Salt kicks into gear when Jolie’s CIA agent goes on the run while trying to clear her name. It’s a cool premise that worked well at the box office for the Bourne films. And there’s something about the old-school Cold War twist that’s refreshingly nostalgic in the age of al-Qaeda.
To help get into the Langley mindset, Jolie says she worked with a CIA specialist, rewatched conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, and did some serious postpartum physical training. The actress had given birth to twins Knox and Vivienne in July 2008. Just eight months later, when production on Salt began last March, she was head-butting bad guys. ”I had just had two babies, and the push to be physically strong was very welcome at the time,” says Jolie, who’s taken pride in doing her own stunt work since the beginning of her career and wasn’t scared straight by motherhood. ”The funny thing about having children is that now I am twice as motivated to do a cool stunt because my kids will like it,” she says.
Her kids may dig it, but her director sure didn’t. ”Personally, a lot of the stuff she did in this, I would’ve preferred to do blue-screen,” says Noyce. ”She was often suspended up to 10 stories high and she’d leap from vehicle to vehicle at high speeds. She doesn’t have to do it, but she has absolutely no fear. Usually when an actor becomes more and more successful, they play it safe. But that’s not Angelina Jolie.”
Role Reversals: Written For a man, But Played By a Woman
Salt isn’t the first time a film role has gotten a sex change.
in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
Yes, it’s one of the worst sequels ever made, but don’t blame Fletcher (who took the role of Linda Blair’s shrink after George Segal was considered). She’s the best thing in it. SIGOURNEY WEAVER
in Alien (1979)
That’s right, the greatest action heroine of all time was originally written as a dude — although it’s hard to imagine Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic being half as good with a male Ripley. HOLLY HUNTER
in Copycat (1995)
In an early draft of this serial-killer thriller, the detective was played by a man — a man romantically involved with a stalked, shut-in criminal profiler played by…Sigourney Weaver. ZHANG ZIYI
in Rush Hour 2 (2001)
The Chinese actress’ role as a Hong Kong assassin in the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker action sequel was conceived as a male gangster. We’re guessing a less sexy one. JODIE FOSTER
in Flightplan (2005)
Sean Penn was supposed to play the parent who loses a child at 30,000 feet. Oddly, eight years earlier, it was Penn who took over Foster’s role in David Fincher’s The Game.