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How Angelina Jolie fought to keep Salt from becoming "pretty"

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Angelina Jolie's spy-fi movie, Salt, was originally supposed to star a man. But after she came aboard, Jolie fought to keep her character from turning into a stereotypical femme fatale. We talked to her about busting heads, MacGyvering and more.

During the roundtables for the spy film Salt, we sat down with Angelina Jolie, Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, and Director Phillip Noyce.

Noyce, of course, was the one who started an uproar a while back, when he said that he didn't want a female hero to mean that the male characters in the film would be "castrated." We asked each Salt contributor what really had to change, to make a female-starring action film appealing to the a wide audience. And Jolie seemed to have the biggest grasp of her character, and what today's audience would root for from a female spy hero.

Small spoilers ahead.

Can you talk a little bit about the research you did for this role and how you used it to inform your character?

Yes. We spent a lot of time with different people who'd worked in The Russia House and the CIA, and I think the biggest note I took from them was how isolated and lonely they felt not being able to talk about their life and their work with anybody in their family. And what a sacrifice that is, and how it's only when they finally retire that they feel this relief of actually being able to sit around the dinner table and have real conversations, not have to hide anything and not have to lie about anything. What an unusual type of personality that must be. That informed [me] a lot.

How much of this film is based on reality? What is the limit as far as the action scenes?

A lot of it was our stunt coordinator, Simon Crane, he's just a genius. And it was him really trying to figure out, okay, if she's going to go up against a guy who's a foot and a half taller than her and a 100 pounds heavier than her, how could she actually do it?

She's faster, she can get height, she can jump on things, or she's quicker, or she's more agile, or whatever it would be. Everything had to be somehow possible, even if it was stretched — even if the trucks on the freeway were wild. In a stretch, it's still not impossible. Crazy, but not impossible. So we tried to always remember that. I think that was our bar – could it be done? It would have to be an extraordinary person, but could it be done? It's actually the opposite of every action movie I've ever done, because there's never really been a female action movie based in reality. They're always fantasy. I've done most of ‘em.

You've played so many strong female action characters. And yet, for some reason that idea has never really taken off in Hollywood.

Well I think it's down to [the] audience, and you know you want to give an audience something that they… you just wait for them to respond to one. So if you do it right, which we tried to do, then you've done it. And then hopefully, like most businesses, they think if it makes money, then somebody else will make money, and then they will make more movies with women in that role, I think, if this one works.

This character was originally written for a man, so what did you want to change, and what did change about this character?

Well, I'm not Edwin. [That name] didn't suit me [laughs]. Didn't have a wife. The big change... was, we said, "well we can't start to turn this into a girl movie," because that's where, I think, people have failed in the past. When they write something on purpose for a woman, it's always about being a woman — using your femininity, all these kind of female obvious things. So we said let's just keep all the things about it that are tough, and it's about being what she is, it's about the journey. And if anything, we have to make it darker and we have to make it meaner than the boys.

Is that why they cut the son or daughter that was written into the original script?

I just didn't feel that a woman would have a child in that position. And that if a woman had a child, I think it would be very hard for us not to imagine her kind of holding onto that child through the entire film. You know, because it would just become all about the child. Which is strange — but I think audiences would allow a man to have a child and the child [could] be with the wife back at home. But it would be very, very difficult to see a woman not be 100% focused on her child.

[SMALL Spoiler} You mentioned not being Edwin, but you are a man for a few minutes. [In the film Angelina makes a quickie disguise by changing her sex]

I am. I couldn't help myself.

What was it like to cross-dress?

It was great. Oh, it was great. Well the funny thing is, you realize every lead in this movie has cross-dressed….So they were very supportive. They gave me tips.

They just basically said, just go fully into it and enjoy it. That's what they did. I loved it. We called him Johnny for some reason. It was really weird; I found… I think I was a bit suave. People had a very, very difficult time talking to me. Philip could hardly talk to me. Nobody could talk to me. It wasn't as much what he looked like, it was when he spoke. Because when it was my voice coming out of him. And Brad [Pitt] came to visit me once, and I said, "You don't want to come, I'm going to be the man." And he said, "it won't bother me, it's you, whatever, it's you." And then he came, and I was changing, and so I was like half woman and half man. So creeped out by it.

It sounds like when you came on, you had some input in reinventing your character? What did you want to add in creating her as a character? And did you have an impact on her being pretty desexualized?

It was extremely important to me. I just felt that she was just better than that, that she didn't have to do that. And not that it wouldn't have been fun to do if it was appropriate in a scene, but it just felt like if we could find a way not to need that, let's not. There was even talk for a long time about adding a scene in the end — because if you've seen it, I don't end so pretty.

And there was a discussion about, "Do you kind of catch up with her glamorous again?" Because this is what people would want, this is what audiences would want — and we made a definitive decision of "No, it's very, very important that we don't do that to her." So we always angled it back into some kind of, trying to make it just harder and more raw. And I just liked her, I was more interested in a woman like Evelyn than what could have become of her. Which is always the scripts that get sent to me for action females. And I've never wanted to do that type of woman.

Your character builds bombs and rewires systems. Did you pick up any skills?

My MacGyver scene?... Apparently, we actually took one or two elements out of the bomb-building so it couldn't be recreated, but yeah. Just so people know. But with a few extra elements, yeah that's one. Yeah, I mean, you do; you learn the oddest things when you're an actor. That you don't even know what, and you come home and your kids say what did you do? And you're like, "I built a bomb." I don't know. But I did, I laughed through that whole scene. I felt like making MacGyver music.

This film seems like it could really appeal to a female audience as well as a male one. What do you think about that?

I hope so. And I think we really tried to do something that we all just thought was a great film, and that I think should appeal to everybody. But I do think it's interesting for women — even the women on set, it was interesting because it was this new thing, and again, it's so odd that when we think that it hasn't been done, but it hadn't. It was all the girls that fought for the end to not become pretty. It was all the girls that said don't do that, that's something you're kind of doing on purpose for a different audience. So we did, we tried to you know keep both the men and the women. We're just very conscious of making it for everybody.

What do you think SALT says about women?

Well I've never underestimated women. So I'm not surprised to start seeing women do these things, I just think it was, and that's why we didn't actually approach it as, "Salt's a woman." We just approached it as, "Salt's a badass and happens to be a woman," and this should be no huge surprise for anybody.

Producer, Lorenzo di Bonaventura

As far as finances, production, everything, was it considered at all risky changing Edwin to Evelyn and not a video game action hero, but a real woman?

I think the biggest risk in making this movie was we played with the audience's affiliation with the lead character. You know, I've been involved in 150-plus movies in different forms and ways, and [in] every single one of those, we did one thing the same, which was make sure you like that lead character, make sure you root for them. And this is the only time where I've been involved in a movie where you purposefully affect how the audience is feeling all the way through, and we've been successful in it because I've talked to people after the movie and there are some people that feel really ambivalent about her at the end of the movie, but they still liked the movie, because usually when you have some ambivalence is when you have a problem. So I think that was the bigger risk. And she has an attitude that I think you know is going to work on an action level.

Is there any way this could have been made as a female lead if it wasn't Angelina Jolie, because she has been the only successful female action star for a decade now?

I can't think of anybody right now you could make at this scale; you'd have to have made a much less expensive movie and tried to launch something. I thought Jennifer Garner was going to do it, but she went [in the direction] of romantic comedy.

Why do you think Hollywood is afraid of casting women in the lead of action movies?

I don't think they're afraid. I think we follow the audience. The audience has not been really receptive to it, you know, and hopefully this will change, but there's nobody else out there right now that has that thing that she has, so it's not easy to be an action star, male or female. There's not a lot of male action stars, if you think about it, right now either.

Has working on Salt inspired you to make more strong female movies in the future?

You know, it's the female audience has been the most fickle audience, so they're harder to make movies for, actually. We constantly have evidence of that over and over and over again. I felt really strongly on this project that it's not a female character; I felt it was a hero. That it's not gender-driven, it is methodology-driven. What do you expect from a hero, what do you expect from an action star? I think they're not a lot different. I think who they are and how they relate in a situation might be different, but I think the consequences and actions tend to be very similar. It was funny because Amy Pascale is the head of the studio, and Angie, they were telling me, "This is going to be gender-breaking," and I kept saying, I don't really think that. I think it's about what you want out of that character, male or female. I don't think the character had very different relationships when it was a male and how they related [different characters]. But fundamentally the action beats that that character had to take went through the same way. I hope it opens up for more female action movies. It'd be fun. They're fun to make. They do bring new decisions to the table.

Director Phillip Noyce

And finally we asked Director Phillip Noyce, who started this whole online uproar in the first place when he commented to Entertainment Weekly about changing the original character.

Here was the original quote that caused all the uproar:

"In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt (the original male protagonist) saves his wife, who's in danger," says Noyce. "And what we found in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little. So we had to change the nature of that relationship." In the end, Salt's husband, played by German actor August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds), was made tough enough that he didn't need saving, thank you much.

I love watching a woman kick ass, punch through walls, all that. But I'm curious, I read that it started off as a man, it was originally for Tom Cruise, so I'm wondering what you had to change for this character.

The story remained pretty much the same, but the relationships were the things that changed primarily — the relationship with her spouse and the relationship with her co-workers, and most of that was positive. For example, Liev Schreiber plays her mentor and boss at the CIA — his bitter disappointment at her being potentially a Russian mole is tinged with a real affection for her that goes beyond the kind of male-to-male camaraderie that the two might have had.

He has a crush on her, you feel between the line and the looks, and that wouldn't of been possible, and arguably that relationship is the heart and soul of the movie. It's the most emotional relationship in the movie. It wouldn't have been possible if it was between two men. So, a lot of things changed along the way, and another thing that changed of course was the nature of the encounters along the way, the fighting and action scenes arguably became more exciting particularly with Angelina playing them. You could argue that the basic appeal of the film is you get to see one of the most beautiful women in the world beat-up an army of guys. And having Tom Cruise or somebody else beat up an army of guys; well, we've seen that before.

You mentioned earlier that the husband role needed to be rewritten, and I read somewhere that it was because they didn't want Angelina's character to emasculate his character. Is that true and why did it need to be rewritten, how and why did that only apply when he became a man?

Without giving too much of the plot away to your readers, we did change the story obviously as you can…. In the original story the last act was about saving his wife and child. We decided that was too conventional storytelling-wise, exactly what everyone would expect to happen.

And we set out, when we started to rework the film with Angelina in mind, to try and make the film, where this was the quest: if you stopped the film at any moment in the movie and asked the audience what is going to happen next, they would be wrong. And secondly, I described to the screenwriter that I wanted a movie that was like a snake the kept changing its skin and its appearance and kept weaving around and around, and you couldn't quite grab hold of it, and you were afraid of where it was going to take you, and what it was going to do with you. I mean, just trying to describe emotionally what kind of movie we should aim for, and that meant we changed the husband's position within the story, the spouse's position, as you can tell because he's not saved — but tell the audience that. So, it was really about reconsidering what kind of movie we were going for, because it seemed as though the original script was far too conventional and it was re-treading too much material that an audience would be able to guess where it was going.

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