Long before they collaborated on “Unbroken,” which opens nationwide on Christmas Day, Louie Zamperini and Angelina Jolie were neighbors in the Hollywood Hills. When Hollywood decided to make a movie about Zamperini’s life, the star actress was chosen to direct.
“There is a saying: ‘Never meet your heroes,'” Jolie says. “I got the chance to meet mine, and he was an even greater man than I could have hoped for. Meeting him and knowing him changed my life.”
The American Legion magazine interviewed Jolie via email about the experience.
How did you get involved with the project?
I read a brief description and was interested in the themes of the strength of the human spirit, resilience and faith. I read Laura Hillenbrand’s book and became desperate to tell the story, walk in his footsteps and take this journey. It wasn’t as a filmmaker but as a human being that I asked to do this film.
During an interview on NBC’s “Today,” you said that Zamperini has been a help to you. How?
He was a living reminder of what a person could be. He wasn’t perfect or born into a charmed life. He made mistakes. He did the wrong thing many times, especially as a youth. But when it came down to it, he rose up. He fought hard. He worked on improving himself and on giving to others. And through it all, he remained full of that fun and fire that made him the man we all came to love and admire.
Sitting with him in his living room, talking about life, made me a better person. He was always happy to take the time to give guidance. He had such clarity. So much wisdom. And with that was a man with the greatest sense of humor. I was always laughing. I would wake up feeling sad and ask if I could come up for breakfast. By the time I left, I was smiling. Always.
His story is one of survival, resilience and redemption. Did you see those traits as you worked with him?
Even in his hospital bed, he was taking care of others, making jokes to help us all not to feel sad.
You showed him the nearly-finished movie while he was hospitalized. What was his reaction?
It was a deeply moving experience. I felt very privileged to witness this man I admire and love so much watch his own life play out on screen. It was especially moving as he was watching scenes with his family and the friends who he survived the war with. As a man of faith, it seemed he was internally preparing himself to pass away and be reunited with them. He was very peaceful. He smiled when he saw his mother making gnocchi. He jumped a bit when the flak exploded and hit the planes. At one point, he said “Phil” (pilot and fellow POW Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips) under his breath. It made me realize how difficult the last few years must have been, when all his closest friends were gone.
The book and upcoming movie have generated a lot of buzz among veterans and nonveterans alike. Why?
Most people are interested in history, especially when a particular time in history shapes our world, as was the case for World War II. But above all, I believe people are drawn to Louie’s story because it is inspirational. Louie always reminded me that the purpose of the film is not to show how extraordinary he was but to help those watching it discover that they have the same strength inside them.
What was your last conversation with Zamperini?
My last moments with him were two days before he passed away. We held hands and looked into each other’s eyes. The last thing I said was, “I love you.” I miss him.