LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER, Angelina Jolie, 2001
Credit: Everett Collection

Lara Croft is returning to the big screen on March 16, but the gaming world’s foremost feminist disruptor first sprang from the polygonal trenches of the Sony PlayStation and onto movie screens some 17 years ago.

The titular character — a British aristocrat with a knack for archaeology and an affinity for hot pants — ascended the ranks of pop cultural stardom in the late ’90s, becoming an unprecedented digital celebrity in the age of lads’ mags and Girl Power. And playing her made a bona fide movie star out of a 26-year-old Angelina Jolie. But the videogame-to-Hollywood transition might have looked a bit different if, according to the filmmaker behind the project, he hadn’t pushed for his star.

Director Simon West tells EW that he was approached by Paramount Pictures several times before agreeing to helm the first Tomb Raider film, which landed in theaters on June 15, 2001 after Croft had amassed a worldwide following across five prior gaming ventures. Though Ripley had already flexed her heroic muscles in several Alien titles and Wonder Woman had long cemented her legacy in the pages of DC comic books, West says he was up against a market that wasn’t used to women leading summer blockbusters.

LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER, Director Simon West and Angelina Jolie on the set, 2001
Credit: Everett Collection

“There hadn’t been a female lead of an action-adventure film that had carried a film [by herself recently], and Angelina wasn’t as big as some of the other actresses that were up for the part, who’d done bigger films and had a longer track record and bigger box-office grosses. … Some of their [images] were safer than Angelina’s, whose was quite dangerous. She had all sorts of thing written about her—some obviously not true. She was a young woman experimenting,” West tells EW. He says that names like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ashley Judd, and Jennifer Lopez were thrown around by studio, but he never saw anyone else in the part but Jolie — largely thanks to her “wicked” offscreen persona — and that the casting process “never [came] down to screen tests or level pegging,” but it did take him a while to “argue” Jolie through.

“[She] had a great, dark reputation about her,” he recalls, referencing Jolie’s unorthodox image at the time, which included wearing a vial of then-husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck and causing a stir when she smooched her brother on the lips the night she won her first Oscar at the 2000 Academy Awards. “She lived quite an alternative lifestyle and didn’t hold back her words. She spoke her mind, and she had a notorious reputation. It was quite hard for me to get her through the approval process at the studio, because I wanted an actress who was going to bring something to the part, and she brought this great Angelina Jolie mythology with her as this dark, crazy, wicked woman with a very particular and interesting personality. I wanted that mythology of Angelina Jolie to fuse with Lara Croft.”

A source tells EW the studio never reached out to Lopez about working on the film, while a representative for Zeta-Jones indicated Paramount did not hold formal meetings with the actress for the part. Judd’s camp had no information to add about Lara Croft: Tomb Raider casting, and upon EW’s request for comment, Paramount did not have immediate access to casting details for the film.

LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER, Daniel Craig, Angelina Jolie, 2001
Credit: Everett Collection

Around the time Tomb Raider was released, relatively untested actors like Paul Walker and Vin Diesel were tasked with leading studio actioners like The Fast and the Furious (2001) and xXx (2002),but the fact remains that Jolie had an Academy Award for her supporting turn in Girl, Interrupted (plus three Golden Globes) by the first call of action on Tomb Raider, and had built up a reputation as a credible actress. That, per West, still didn’t matter when the studio was looking to drop a reported $115 million on making the first Tomb Raider movie.

“Nobody had any issue with her acting chops; her likability to mainstream audiences was what the studio questioned. The film she won the Oscar for had a minuscule budget as opposed to what they were being asked to spend on this, so the stakes were on the rise. As in any business, they wanted as many safeties and guarantees as possible, and [they felt more secure] with someone else,” he tells EW. Ultimately, casting Jolie allowed him to show the studio that the character would become much stronger in her assured hands, he says. Thus, he began molding Croft and the film’s script to suit Jolie’s strengths, and an edgier Croft that spoke more to West’s vision was born.

“Angelina came over after I cast her and we were talking about the character being from British aristocracy. She said, ‘So I should take etiquette lessons, shouldn’t I? I should learn how you eat and how you hold a teacup?’ I said, ‘No! Absolutely not!’” West says. “The first thing I wanted to do was make sure Lara’s not taken on face value as a rich, spoiled person. [These types] put their feet up on the table, they do everything they can to dispel the myth that they’re a young princess who should behave like a princess. … That was one of the aspects of the character: She’s trying to shake off all the things she has around her — the money, the opportunity — and she’s trying to prove that she’s a capable person who happens to be a woman. She can go out and do the exploring and the adventuring and robbing and stealing, just as dastardly as a man can.”

To hone his focus on the complexities of Croft as a character, West says he tried to focus audiences on Lara’s prowess and gumption versus her physicality.

“There definitely was [a notion] that Lara Croft in the games was a superficial, visually pleasing character, but in the film, I concentrated on showing her as a real person. All the conversations we’d have would be about Lara would be: How is she feeling, why is she doing this, and is she capable of doing this?” West explains. “[Sexualizing her] probably would have been the death of the film and the character, and if it had been more of a bubblegum approach that was much campier and tongue-in-cheek, it might not have been taken seriously. We talked about the character as seriously as any character in a drama. It wasn’t that we had to pander to any sort of superficial stuff that people were expecting. Once you’re sitting in the movie theater and watching the film, it’s about buying the character as a real person instead of asking if she looks exactly like the video game.”

That also meant bucking tentpole traditions by removing any trace of a romantic interest for Croft — a bold move for a film of this size in general, regardless of the lead’s gender.

LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER, Angelina Jolie, Iain Glen, 2001
Credit: Everett Collection

“I never really considered she’d have romantic interest in this, because we were trying to establish her as an action-adventure role model for girls. … I think that’s what got Angelina interested: being the role model,” says West, acknowledging that the film played a part in laying the foundation for Jolie’s future humanitarian endeavors; she became a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador to Cambodia in 2001 and later adopted her son, Maddox, from the country after filming Tomb Raider on location the year prior.

Continues West: “In some ways, that inspired her for the rest of her life as well, that she could be a role model. She went on to do amazing things with charity and world events. It was kind of inspiring for her, and she really wanted to inspire girls.”

While Tomb Raider collected a stellar $131 million domestically (then the top haul for a female-fronted action film in history), generated a 2003 movie sequel, inspired theme park rides at Paramount parks around the world, and began a new chapter of Jolie’s life as both a charitable celebrity and box office powerhouse, Hollywood didn’t catch on the way West imagined it would.

“At the time, the studio was incredibly nervous at what the outcome could have been. I’m surprised it’s taken so long [for other female-fronted action stories to rise up], because I thought that two or three years after, there’d be 10 other movies like it cashing in on its success,” he says. “But it’s amazing how things work so slowly. But finally The Hunger Games and [Patty Jenkins’] Wonder Woman have caught up!”

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
  • Movie
  • 97 minutes