Angelina Jolie really, really, really wanted to direct Unbroken, the adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 bestseller. It’s the true story of Louie Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and fought in the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, when his plane went down over the Pacific. He survived the crash and spent 37 days adrift on a raft before Japanese troops took him to a POW camp. There, he endured more than two years of near-relentless brutality. He survived that too, and went on both to forgive his captors and to run in the torch ceremony at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan (not far from where he was kept prisoner)—a few days before he turned 81.
Jolie was deeply moved by his story. “It was such a strong reaction: ‘I don’t want to just make a movie—I want to evolve as a human being. I need and want to be near this man,'” the Oscar winner tells EW.
But when Jolie was up for the job, she wasn’t a shoo-in. “I had to pitch really hard,” she says. “I was on fire. There was no stopping me. I was completely insane.”
After meeting with Universal, Jolie had to wait awhile for the studio’s answer. It was a few weeks before Christmas, and she found herself taken over by nervous energy. “Poor Brad—you just couldn’t talk to me,” she says, referring (of course) to her new husband. “I started wrapping everything—even little things that went in the stocking. I couldn’t just sit there and wait for the phone. So I was like, ‘I’ll wrap this whistle! I’ll wrap this candy cane!'”
After Jolie finally got the call, the first thing she did was introduce herself to Zamperini, who lived just up the street from her in Los Angeles. “And then I fell in love with this extraordinary man,” she says.
For more on Unbroken, including how Jolie cast the young British actor Jack O’Connell, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands this Tuesday.