Brad Pitt in '12 Years a Slave'; Angelina Jolie on the set of 'In the Land of Blood and Honey' (Fox Searchligh …
And Brad's not the only member of the household dipping into this dark topic.
Jolie's directorial debut was "In the Land of Blood and Honey" (2011), about an unlikely romance that develops in a Bosnian wartime prison camp. Like "12 Years," it holds a mirror up to the gruesome horrors of such imprisonment, depicting ruthless killings and rape against women.
Now, Jolie is exploring a parallel theme on "Unbroken" (filming in Australia). It's the harrowing story of Olympic track star and World War II vet Louis Zamperini. And the film will cover, in part, the two-and-a-half years Zamperini spent as a prisoner of war inside Japanese internment camps.
A free man is held against his will, and lives to be free again. Sound familiar?
For a pair who have been comfortable for years working in popcorn blockbusters like "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," "Tomb Raider," and the "Ocean's" series, the world has now become a very serious place.
When it comes to "12 Years," Pitt said recently, "It's one of those few films that cuts to the base of our humanity… It's why I got into film in the first place."
With humanitarian causes becoming the household hobby, it seems a natural progression that the pair's choices in film roles would begin to reflect that passion. Particularly as they age out of the young action hero roles, and what with a flock full of children to look after, life becomes more grounded and serious, their relationship seems to be leading each to explorer darker corners of the human experience on the screen.
Pitt argues that his recent career moves, along with Jolie's, don't really reflect a master plan. "We talk about work short term rather than a major game plan," he said in a 2012 interview. "It’s like, 'this interests me, let’s set the divining rod in that direction and see what we can make out of it.'"
But the couple's emerging determination not to just be popcorn bait has driven them lately to do as much work behind the cameras as in front. Jolie's directing career has grown from more than just a sideline, becoming her driving artistic force. As for Pitt, acting isn't the only thing the 49-year-old has done for the buzzy Steve McQueen film — "12 Years a Slave" was made by Pitt's production company, Plan B. And Pitt is one of the film's producers.
"Superstars love to prove their might by succeeding as multi-hyphenates," says entertainment awards expert Tom O'Neil of GoldDerby.com. He points to George Clooney's Oscar nominations and wins for acting, producing, writing, and directing as a prime example. "When you're cool, you've got to prove you can do it all – you've got the magic touch."
Brad Pitt in 'Troy,' Plan B's first film (Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection)
Not too shabby for his first time up-to-bat in the producer's chair.
Pitt calls Plan B "a little garage band" with the mission to get "difficult material, that might not otherwise get made" to movie theaters and to "work with directors we respect."
Now the awards heat is on "12 Years," and Pitt is involved in projects that are a mix of box office successes and awards season darlings. "Brad and Angelina are the ultimate Hollywood hipsters," says O'Neil, who contends they have risen above their steamy, tabloid past.
[Related: Finally, Films About Slavery Have Their Day]
"Right now, '12 Years a Slave' is the Oscar favorite ... and that's largely thanks to Brad. He helped to lure the stars, the big investment capital and to seduce Fox Searchlight executives into bankrolling a monster academy campaign," O'Neil adds.
As "12 Years" expands into theaters nationwide this weekend, one can only guess whether this film would have been made without Jolie's influence. "Angie is a force," Pitt has said. "She cares deeply. I want her to be proud of her man."
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