November 28, 2014 at 02:00 PM EST

Jolie never thought she would direct. She wrote In the Land of Blood and Honey to better understand the war in the Balkans while serving as  a U.N. goodwill ambassador. When the script was greenlit, she felt so protective of it that she directed the movie herself—and discovered that she thrived leading a team through the multitasking chaos of a film set. “I don’t know if it’s because I’ve got six kids at home, but it’s normal for me,” she says with a laugh. “I’m ready. Okay, bring it!”

She was hooked, but also knew that her follow-up project would have to be substantive. “It had to be something that I’d be able to walk away from having learned something,” she says. “Also, and this sounds really cheesy, but I see so much horror in my U.N. work, and I wanted something that would help me and others know there’s a reason for hope. Something that can help you know we can fight through even the darkest times.” In 2012, when she saw a description of Unbroken on a list of Universal projects seeking directors, she was intrigued. She picked up Hillenbrand’s book and, about halfway through, realized her search was over. “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.’”

That man, of course, was Louie Zamperini, who not only survived the horrors of the POW camp but went on to forgive his captors and run in the torch ceremony at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, a few days before he turned 81. “The physical endurance, the coming to the light, the handing yourself over and finding something that’s beyond yourself, the ability to face your life… He’s just inspirational,” she says.

Zamperini’s story had been kicking around Universal since 1957, with Tony Curtis originally attached to star, and it languished until Hillenbrand’s book reignited interest. But when Jolie put herself 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. If anyone thought doing the movie was a bad idea, they knew better than to mention it to me.” Once, while in Cambodia with her kids, she woke up at 3 a.m. and made a huge chart plotting out Zamperini’s life, which she then brought to her meeting with Universal. “They pretended to find it interesting and then later told me how crazy it was,” she says. A few weeks before Christmas, she (impatiently) waited for the studio’s answer. “Poor Brad—you just couldn’t talk to me,” she says. (That would be her husband, Brad Pitt.) “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!’ ”

When the call finally came, the first thing she did was introduce herself to Zamperini, who lived just up the street from her in Los Angeles. (“I ran to his house,” she says.) She then faced the daunting task of finding the right person to play him. She conducted a worldwide search, auditioning hundreds of would-be Louies. “I wanted someone relatively unknown,” she says. “It had to be someone with a true masculinity that men would respond to as well as women. He needed to have a genuine strength of character, a toughness, and a great sense of humor.”

At the time, young British actor Jack O’Connell was generating buzz in casting circles for his work in the gritty indie This Is England and on the U.K. version of Skins. In the summer of 2013, Jolie met him for dinner in London. Afterward, she sent an email to her producer Matthew Baer (City by the Sea): “I found Lou.”

The thread between the 24-year-old working-class Brit and Zamperini isn’t immediately obvious. Raised in Derby, in central England, O’Connell speaks in an accent so thick it sounds as if his mouth’s full of broken glass. He’s tattooed and shaggy and kind of rough—a guy you’d happily make bad choices with. Zamperini was a Southern Californian who became, well, a war hero. But Jolie saw a physical connection. Zamperini was an Olympic runner, and O’Connell had hoped to become a professional soccer player. “When I met Jack, there was something about the way he holds himself and something about his own experiences that felt like he understood Louie. He’s a little wild,” says Jolie. “As an actor he’s unpredictable, so he’s fascinating to watch.” It’s a quality reminiscent of a certain someone who, at O’Connell’s age, gave an Oscar-winning, don’t-you-dare-look-away performance in Girl, Interrupted. “I think we maybe both have a restlessness,” Jolie says. “We both want to be doing a thousand other things, and it’s hard to make us still.”

O’Connell understood the responsibility his director had handed him. He shed almost 30 pounds, worked with a dialect coach, and enrolled in the Angelina Jolie School of Film, watching Sidney Lumet’s 1965 prison drama The Hill, a personal favorite of hers and a source of inspiration. But there’s only so much you can do to prepare for the first big movie of your career. “It was stuff that caught me off guard that was the hardest,” he says. “I knew the raft would be terribly difficult. I knew I’d be in prison with a spider—and I f- - -ing hate spiders. But then there’s little things you overlook. Like, I need to stand here in the boiling hot looking like I’m freezing cold.” He bonded with his castmates Gleeson and Wittrock, who were suffering through the same severe diet. “We tried to make each other laugh,” says Gleeson. “We spent a lot of time talking about food and what we’d eventually eat.”

Pizza. Always pizza. On the day Gleeson finished his fast, O’Connell went to his costar’s trailer, stripped naked, and waited for him with a pizza on his lap. “Domhnall came in and cracked up,” O’Connell says. “I knew he was having to deal with the sight of my balls and everything else being very close to his food.”

Unbroken is likely to launch O’Connell to a level of fame that can make or break a young actor. Jolie understands this. So does Pitt, who, at the wrap party for his wife’s film, pulled O’Connell aside and suggested he not make any hasty decisions. “It’s priceless advice,” O’Connell says. “Luckily I took it easy at that party to be sober enough to remember it.” He’ll appear in two dramas next year, 71 and Tulip Fever, and is in the mix for Jodie Foster’s Money Monster with George Clooney and possibly Julia Roberts. “I want to be doing this for a very long time,” he says.

Since wrapping Unbroken in February, Jolie has completed By the Sea, a ’70s-set drama that she wrote and directed about a couple whose marriage is unraveling. She and Pitt costar, marking their first onscreen collaboration since Mr. & Mrs. Smith. “It was a great joy to be back on set with him after 10 years,” she says. “It’s very different from our first. It’s heavy.”

Jolie hasn’t signed on for any new acting projects, but she isn’t ready to give that up yet. “I have a few more in me before I step away,” she says. She’ll next direct Africa, about conservationist Richard Leakey and his battles to ban ivory poaching. The movie will take the Jolie-Pitt brood back to a continent she has strong affection for. (Her daughters Zahara and Shiloh were both born there.) “That project is an example of putting all loves together,” she says. “To keep all the things that matter close.”

She knows it will be hard to top Unbroken. Jolie grew close to Zamperini, staying in contact with him all through production. When he died in July at 97, she was devastated. “It took me a while to function again,” she says. (She was able to show Zamperini some of the film before he died.) To this day, she still gets choked up watching footage of him carrying the Olympic torch through Nagano. “It was such a beautiful moment. His life is so big. That moment is everything—the endurance of the runner, the strength of the human spirit, the coming to forgiveness.” She breaks into a gentle smile. “It’s the best kind of crying.”

( 2 of 2 )

Complete Coverage

You May Like