BATTAMBANG, Cambodia — Between bites of spicy Cambodian curry and fried fish with rice, Angelina Jolie Pitt explains how this tiny country with a tumultuous past changed the course of her life.
She first visited Cambodia 16 years ago to portray "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" — the gun-toting, bungee-jumping, supremely toned action hero that made her a star. Soon after, she adopted her first child from a Cambodian orphanage and returned again and again on humanitarian missions. Now, she's back for another movie but this time as a director, and the subject matter is a far cry from Lara Croft.
"First They Killed My Father," is based on a Khmer Rouge memoir written by survivor Loung Ung that recounts the 1970s Cambodian genocide from a child's perspective. The film, which she is directing and co-wrote with Ung for Netflix, is in Khmer, with an all-Cambodian cast and according to Jolie Pitt "the most important" movie of her career. During a break from filming, she talked to The Associated Press about how, more than ever, she feels a satisfying symbiosis between her life and work.
In person, Jolie Pitt is engaging and down-to-earth, dressed in a T-shirt and long black skirt, her hair pulled into a casual bun. She goes out of her way to play down her celebrity, hopping into the back of an SUV and squeezing into the middle seat beside a reporter for a short drive from the set to the crew's outdoor lunch tents. She is relaxed and articulate as the conversation veers from acting and directing, to history, humanitarian work, motherhood and her special relationship to Cambodia.
"When I first came to Cambodia, it changed me. It changed my perspective. I realized there was so much about history that I had not been taught in school, and so much about life that I needed to understand, and I was very humbled by it," said the 40-year-old Jolie Pitt, who grew up in Los Angeles where she felt "a real emptiness."
In this Sept. 17, 2015, file photo, Angelina Jolie Pitt poses for a photo with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Andy Eames / Associated Press
She was struck by the graciousness and warmth of Cambodian people, despite the tragedy that left an estimated 2 million people dead. While shooting Lara Croft in 2000, some scenes required sidestepping land mines, she said, which made her aware of the dangers refugees face in countries ravaged by war. "That trip triggered my realization of how little I knew and the beginning of my search for that knowledge."
It prompted her to contact the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to learn about the agency's work before joining as a goodwill ambassador in 2001. She was then given an expanded role as Special Envoy in 2012.
It was during an early trip back to Cambodia with the U.N. that Jolie had another epiphany — this time about motherhood.
"It's strange, I never wanted to have a baby. I never wanted to be pregnant. I never babysat. I never thought of myself as a mother," Jolie, now famously a mother of six, says with a laugh. But while playing with children at a Cambodian school, "it was suddenly very clear to me that my son was in the country, somewhere."
She adopted Maddox in 2002, and a year later opened a foundation in his name in northwestern Battambang province, which helps fund health care, education and conservation projects in rural Cambodia.
Maddox is now 14 and sporting what his mom calls "a blonde stripe" — a shaggy mohawk with the top dyed blonde. He joined her in Cambodia to help behind the scenes for the project that she sees as a unique merger of her film work and family with humanitarian interests.
"For me, this is the moment, where finally my life is kind of in line, and I feel I'm finally where I should be," Jolie Pitt said.
Her fondness for Cambodia is mutual, according to the country's most celebrated filmmaker Rithy Panh, who says "First They Killed My Father" will be the first Hollywood epic filmed in Cambodia about the country's genocide — a sign that the government trusts her to respectfully revisit the horrors of the past.
"I don't think they authorized Hollywood to come here. They authorized Angelina Jolie. It's not the same. She is special. She has a special relationship with the Cambodian people. There is a mutual respect," said Panh, her co-producer.
"I wonder if she's not a reincarnated Cambodian," he laughed, then thought about it. "Maybe. Maybe in a previous life she was Cambodian."
She expects to return to hold the film's premiere in Cambodia at the end of the year, before its release on Netflix.
Story: Jocelyn Gecker / Associated Press