Angelina Jolie does not have a project to promote. She’s neither starring in, nor directing, a March film. Bucking the standard reasons for doing press, the Academy Award–winning megastar is on this month’s cover of ELLE to draw attention to an occasion that doesn’t come with a red carpet: International Women’s Day (March 8).
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For the better part of the last decade, the 42-year-old has devoted herself to shedding light on women’s rights, or lack thereof, across the globe. Serving as a goodwill ambassador and special envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she’s completed nearly 60 field missions, including visits to Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. As cofounder of the British government’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, she’s met with rape survivors in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Days before her ELLE shoot, the Guardian published Jolie’s call to action against gender-based violence, co-authored with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Despite all her advocacy, Jolie confesses she’s always been reticent when it comes to politics. Still, she recognizes that political action can sometimes offer a more direct route to changing things for the better.
To that end, the following story is a thoughtful conversation between her and longtime politician John Kerry. Jolie first met the 74-year-old statesman—a Vietnam veteran, presidential candidate, and, most recently, U.S. secretary of state—five years ago at the London G8 Summit. It’s a frigid December morning when the two reconnect at the Ritz-Carlton in New York. Kerry, who unexpectedly bumped into his daughter Vanessa on the street, brought her along for a brief hello. The four youngest of Jolie’s six children will arrive later. Jolie is in town to accept the Global Citizen of the Year award from the United Nations Correspondents Association and to do some Christmas shopping. They’re both looking forward to 2018, when Jolie will speak to students at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where the former secretary oversees the Kerry Initiative. Kerry, in turn, has agreed to speak at the London School of Economics, where Jolie is a visiting professor.
Here, a small preview of some of the huge issues they are working tirelessly to remedy. Listen in.
Angelina Jolie: Thank you for speaking with me for International Women’s Day.
John Kerry: My pleasure. How’s your family?
AJ: All right. The kids will be here soon. You have grandkids now?
JK: I am having the best time being a granddad. They’re so smart, it’s scary.
AJ: They really are, just their clarity….
JK: I’ve just come back from a climate summit in Paris. I know this is something you feel strongly about, why we need to be engaged globally.
AJ: That’s one of the things I’d love to talk to you about. There is this question of, can you be a citizen of the world and still be a patriot? It shouldn’t even be a question.
JK: It’s something we need to talk more about. What it means to be an American. We need to do a better job of explaining why all Americans should feel proud of the things that we have done in countries around the world.
AJ: I’m very patriotic, as I know you are. For me, it goes hand in hand with being proud of what America stands for. For instance, I’m the only person in my house who was born in America.
JK: I wasn’t aware of that.
AJ: It’s only because we are a country based on people of different backgrounds and faiths coming together that I can have this family. My daughters have the freedoms they have because of being American. And we are at our best when we are fighting for others to have the same rights. Particularly other women.
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JK: The challenge is describing how a conflict in North Africa or wherever else relates to all of us. How it impacts migration, terrorism, the economy.
AJ: The way I see it, even if you are a person who doesn’t want to have to care about international issues, you are still affected. Stepping back is dangerous.
JK: Last year, we had a discussion at the Jackson Institute at Yale on climate change. When you say “Save the planet” to most people, their eyes glaze over. But again, it’s about how it impacts all of us—especially jobs. What if you are a farmer and things won’t grow in certain places? What does it mean to have more frequent and destructive superstorms? [As U.S. secretary of state, Kerry negotiated and signed the Paris climate accord in 2016. Last June, Trump announced that the U.S. intends pull out in 2020.]
AJ: It must be a frustrating time, with America withdrawing from the climate agreement.
JK: The truth is, more than 90 cities, including New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, are 100 percent committed to live by the Paris agreement. The American people have not pulled out. Climate change negatively affects all the issues you’re working on—violence against women, refugees.
AJ: There are already more people displaced by climate change than by war. Was the environment what drew you into politics?
JK: When I came back from Vietnam, I didn’t immediately protest the war. I was still processing it. But I did become part of the first Earth Day, in 1970. We got 20 million people to come out, and from that came the Clean Air Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and the EPA. Guess who signed the EPA into law? Richard Nixon. Why? Because it was a voting issue. Then, in the election of 1974, we targeted 12 members of Congress, labeling them the “dirty dozen.” Seven of them lost their seats. Boom. Everybody was shocked.
AJ: I was quite anti-politics when I was young. I started working on human-rights issues and meeting refugees and survivors mostly because I wanted to learn. I also had this romantic idea that I would get my boots on and be a humanitarian. But at a certain point, you realize that’s not enough. You have to find the root of the problem. And that, so often, brings you back to the law and politics. For instance, I kept meeting refugees who were survivors of systematic rape—rape used as a weapon. Yet there were virtually no convictions. It fired me up to start working with governments and lawmakers. When it comes down to it, we still treat violence against women as a lesser crime.
JK: It’s shameful.
AJ: You have to identify what will make that change. Find the people in politics you can work with, and hold them to their promises.
JK: That’s democracy: It’s about accountability. You have to fight and keep pushing. Do you feel like you’ve been effective?
AJ: In some countries, sexual violence is less of a taboo discussion. It’s something more people expect their leaders to act on. Over 150 countries have signed a commitment to end impunity for war-zone rape. There are new teams in place to gather evidence and support prosecutions. I was in Kenya last summer as UN peacekeeping troops received new training, since peacekeepers have been part of the problem. We’re working with NATO on training, protection, and getting more women in the military. But there is so far to go.
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JK: When I was a young prosecutor, a lot of people didn’t believe that violence against women was a crime. We tried to chip away at that old thinking by expanding counseling programs for rape victims and hiring and promoting more women prosecutors.
AJ That’s exactly it: changing thinking as well as laws. I think of how hard women fought to get us to where we are today. Everything counts, from the way you hold yourself in your daily life and educate yourself on your own rights, to solidarity with other women around the world.
JK: I hope readers understand how important their individual voices are.
AJ: And that they feel their voices are being heard. I tell my daughters, “What sets you apart is what you are willing to do for others. Anyone can put on a dress and makeup. It’s your mind that will define you. Find out who you are, what you think, and what you stand for. And fight for others to have those same freedoms. A life of service is worth living.”
Hair by Adam Campbell at the Wall Group; makeup by Matin; manicure by Mary Soul; grooming by Susan Phear; set design by Bette Adams for MHS Artists; produced by Nathalie Akiya for Kranky Produktions; fashion assistant: Yashua Simmons
This article originally appears in the March 2018 issue of ELLE.