As a teenager Angelina Jolie
studied embalming. Just a year ago she was wearing a necklace containing a drop of her husband's blood. So it's surprising that inside her trailer on the set of Taking Lives
, the crime thriller she's filming in Montreal, the decor is much more grad student than goth. The New York Times
, The Economist
, various United Nations reports and a book about Nietzsche are strewn about. Still, the brain food will have to wait while Jolie admires the newest painting by her nearly-2-year-old son Maddox, who's playing on the floor. "Mad's just discovered black," she says. "Also red and orange." Another talent? "He can do his hair in a Mohawk if I put gel in his hand," says Jolie. The tyke's most impressive feat, however, is the spell he has cast on his mom. "For me, becoming a parent changed everything," she says. "My priorities straightened out. My life is all different."
Alert the understatement authorities. In the past year the 28-year-old Jolie has undergone a dramatic turnabout, transforming herself from the tattooed, kinda scary, crazy-in-love wife of Billy Bob Thornton to a (still tattooed) single mom and U.N. activist. Having privately weathered all the tabloid headlines, Jolie is now back in the spotlight with Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
, the sequel to '01's nearly $300 million-grossing flick. And once again she is living up to her reputation as perhaps Hollywood's most provocative actress, an image that only deepened after two personal dramas: the sudden collapse of her white-hot marriage to Thornton, 47, and a falling-out with her father, actor Jon Voight, who publicly questioned her well-being last year and again last month. Now Jolie wants to set the record straight. "I'm okay," says the 2000 Oscar winner. "Actually I'm better than ever. I feel I'm finally living the life I should be living, and I haven't had that feeling before."
Thanks in large part to Maddox, a Cambodian orphan whom she adopted when he was 7 months old. Jolie had already been considering adoption when, in November 2001, she went on a U.N. trip to Cambodia, a place she had adored while filming the first Tomb Raider
. "Somebody told me that if you're going to adopt an orphan, you should adopt from a country you love, because that's the only history you're going to share with them," she says. "I went into an orphanage and decided I'd not go for the cutest child but just go to the one that connected to me." Maddox, who Jolie says is from "a very poor village," was the last child she saw. "He was asleep, and he woke up and smiled," she recalls. "As soon as I saw him smile, I felt like this kid wasn't uncomfortable with me. He seemed okay in my arms."
Four months later the paperwork was completed, and Jolie was an instant mother. "I kind of winged it," she says. "I remember his first warm bath. He seemed so surprised. Then I realized he didn't have plumbing, so he'd never felt warm water before." These days Jolie's favorite time is when the two curl up in bed together. "Every night I get a foot in the face or a finger poking me in the eye," she says, "but it's fantastic. When he gets cozy, it's the best feeling in the world."
At first, however, motherhood was bittersweet. When she adopted Maddox, she thought that she'd be raising him with Thornton, who has three kids from two of his four marriages prior to wedding Jolie. After all the public passion and quirky declarations of intimacy—including Thornton's admission that he wore her underwear—what went wrong? "I'd love to know," she says. "I don't have a f-----g clue."
But there were signs that the relationship was in trouble just two years into their union when Jolie began traveling as a U.N. goodwill ambassador for refugees while Thornton hit the road with his band. "We simply didn't know each other anymore," she says. "It was very, very clear that we had nothing to talk about. It made for a very uncomfortable, sad situation." Even more so when she brought Maddox to L.A. for his first visit with Thornton. "Billy and I didn't sleep in the same place that night," she says. "I had that first night of realizing my best friend was gone." So why had Thornton declared his excitement about Maddox's arrival just weeks earlier? "I think he was into saying things that solidified our marriage," she says. Their last interaction, the day before her 27th birthday on June 4, 2002, was ugly: "We got into a big fight. I haven't seen him since." (Thornton's rep had no comment for this story.)
When other stars say they are moving on after a breakup, it might mean changing yoga instructors. For Jolie it has meant constructing a new home—built on stilts in a Cambodian jungle once occupied by brutal Khmer Rouge forces. "They've removed 48 unexploded land mines so far," says Jolie, who also has a home outside London. "I'm sure some people will question why I'm bringing my son into an area with land mines. When I looked around, I saw other families and thought, 'Why shouldn't I?' I'm happy there."
She already has had to contend with more personal hostilities in her hometown of Beverly Hills. On July 21 Voight—her long-estranged father, with whom she had reconciled briefly when he played a role in the first Tomb Raider
—told Inside Edition that Jolie "has found very clever ways to mask her extreme problems"; a year earlier similar comments called into question his daughter's mothering ability. "My father had never seen me—and he still hasn't—with my baby," says the actress, who has dropped Voight as her legal surname. For his part Voight, 64, told Inside Edition, "I'm her dad and I love her, no matter what she says about me." Jolie says her father's views are misplaced. Acknowledging "I've been self-destructive my whole life and had my times when I wasn't healthy," she adds, "Last year was probably the cleanest and healthiest year of my life."
Which doesn't mean that Jolie has ditched her dark side. "From early on I felt a sense of wild, a fight in me," she notes. Jolie says her dad left the family when she was 6 months old; she and brother James, 30, were raised by their mother, actress Marcheline Bertrand, 53, in Palisades, N.Y., and later in L.A. As an adolescent she considered funeral work and took at-home courses on how to prepare bodies for burial. She also grappled with an eating disorder, insomnia and self-mutilation, or cutting. "I had a lot of sadness and distrust," she says. "I came very close to the end of my life a few times." Jolie won't elaborate ("The stories tend to come out with a certain shock value, rather than an explanation that might be helpful to a 13-year-old") but does say, "I think all the self-destruction comes from wanting to disappear, because I didn't know where to put myself."
That nervous energy served her well as an actress. Jolie landed her breakthrough screen role in '95's Hackers; the following year she wed Jonny Lee Miller, 30, her costar in the film (they divorced in 1999). Jolie has recently opened up about another romance: with actress Jenny Shimizu, whom she met when they costarred in the '96 movie Foxfire
(see box). Meanwhile Jolie gained notice as a drug-addled model in the '96 cable movie Gia
. Next came her intense turn in '99's Girl, Interrupted
, the film for which she scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
She met Thornton when they costarred in '99's Pushing Tin
; they eloped to Vegas in May of '00. "I had met someone who understood the darker side of myself," she says of their intense attraction. "Yet he made me laugh. We could drive across country and stay in old, funny hotels, watch TV in bed and laugh hysterically." Jolie chalks up some of their X-rated confessions to goofiness. "A lot of the things that seemed shocking about our marriage," she says, "were just us being silly."
Then Jolie turned serious. Early in 2001, while finishing the first Tomb Raider
in London, she read a book on the U.N.; within weeks she made her first visit to war-ravaged Sierra Leone and then to Tanzania. "The lack of food, the extreme heat—it was the closest to what I imagine hell would be like," she says. The trip was a revelation: "I recognized the ability I had to help. It completely changed my life."
One big change Jolie has not yet embraced is rejoining the dating scene. "I have been asked out for some dinners," she says, "but I haven't said yes." (As the always-candid star recently told Jay Leno, "I haven't had sex for over a year.") Single for now, she is content to enjoy her new life. "It's funny to think that, like, a year and a half ago I lived in a house with Billy in Beverly Hills, and now I have a country home in England and a home in the jungle in Cambodia, and I have a little son," she says. "My life is completely turned upside down, and yet it feels right. It's bizarre." Best of all, for the once chronic insomniac? "I fall asleep hard now."
Todd Gold in Los Angeles