For Angelina Jolie, the hardest part of making Those Who Wish Me Dead wasn't the scene where she holds her breath underwater as a wildfire rages overhead, or when she has to outmaneuver two approaching murderers as squibs explode around her. It wasn't even the sequence where she races through a tinderbox of a forest, desperately trying to outrun the flames. No, her biggest challenge was being too nice.

The 45-year-old actress stars in Taylor Sheridan's survival thriller as Hannah, a brusque, no-nonsense firefighter tasked with protecting a shell-shocked 12-year-old (Finn Little). As Hannah reluctantly guides the young boy through the Montana wilderness, Jolie — herself a mom of six — found it difficult to suppress her own parental instincts.

"My character is not maternal by nature," Jolie tells EW with a laugh. "Sometimes Taylor would correct me because my behavior towards a child was different from [Hannah's] behavior towards a child. It took me a little bit to treat [Little] badly, but I got there!"

The film marks Jolie's long-awaited return to action heroism: After stacking her career with stunt-heavy flicks like Lara Croft: Tomb RaiderMr. & Mrs. SmithWanted, and Salt, Jolie stepped behind the camera and has spent much of the past few years directing dramas like Unbroken and First They Killed My Father. But 2021 will see a splashy return to the screen — and to stunt work. Those Who Wish Me Dead (in theaters and on HBO Max May 14) will be followed by the centuries-spanning Marvel epic Eternals in November.

Those Who Wish Me Dead
Angelina Jolie in 'Those Who Wish Me Dead'
| Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

"I love directing, but I had a change in my family situation that's not made it possible for me to direct for a few years," says the star, who has been in divorce proceedings with Brad Pitt and custody battles over their children since 2016. "I needed to just do shorter jobs and be home more, so I kind of went back to doing a few acting jobs. That's really the truth of it."

She found herself drawn to films that would allow her to use those stunt skills while also exploring new depths — like Sheridan's taut thriller. A former actor himself, the Oscar-nominated Sheridan has carved out a filmography of tense modern Westerns, both as a writer (SicarioHell or High Water) and director (Wind River). "He has a unique voice when it comes to characters within America, which had not been a prior focus of my work," Jolie says. "I wanted to be in this world with him."

Based on Michael Koryta's 2014 novel, Those Who Wish Me Dead centers on Jolie's Hannah, an expert smoke jumper — the name for the specially trained group of firefighters who parachute into a blazing wilderness — haunted by a past mission gone wrong. She keeps watch at a lonely fire tower and stumbles upon Connor (Little), a traumatized preteen being stalked by two killers (Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen). Together, they're isolated in the wild, trapped between man and Mother Nature.

Although the Oscar-winning Jolie has been acting since she was a child (she made her screen debut at 7 in 1982's Lookin' to Get Out), her directing experience has shifted the way she approaches filmmaking. "In very technical terms, I'm more aware of what the director needs, and what other challenges they're facing, and how many different pieces are moving," she explains.

For Those Who Wish Me Dead, that meant a heightened respect — and patience — for the film's complicated set pieces.

"Maybe when you're younger and you're having a huge day where you have to be cold and wet and emotional and crying, you're thinking about those things," Jolie adds. "Now you've directed and you're older, and you realize that while you are going to be freezing and crying, there's also pyrotechnics going on, or multiple other situations. It pulls you out of yourself."

Those Who Wish Me Dead
Finn Little and Angelina Jolie in 'Those Who Wish Me Dead'
| Credit: Emerson Miller/Warner Bros.

In one sequence, where Hannah and Connor try to outrun the wildfire, the production team rigged an enormous woodland set, which was safely set ablaze. "[Sheridan] must've spent this huge amount of money on this fake forest," the Australian Little, 14, says with a laugh. "It was like, you built this massive thing just to burn it down!" Real firefighters also stayed on set to carefully contain the inferno, and Jolie met with several of them for insight into the perilous world of smoke jumping.

"The first day we were in the fire, [I noticed] the heat and how quickly the winds would change and how quickly the fire would suddenly take to a tree that you weren't expecting," she says. "Our respect just grew day after day for these people on the front lines and how difficult this work is."

Jolie adds that she relished the chance to take a grittier, more down-to-earth action role than she's tackled in the past. "There's nothing about this character that trained in martial arts or did anything special," she says. "I get pretty beaten up through this." But she still took the time to impart some of her action-heroine wisdom upon her younger costar. "She sort of walked me through it and made sure I was safe," Little says. "She went out of her way to make me feel really accepted." Sometimes those mom instincts just can't be stifled.

A version of this story appears in the May issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now or available to order with covers featuring Chloé ZhaoViola Davis, and Regina King. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Related content: