WASHINGTON - Looking like someone a hormonal 14-year-old boy might have made on his computer, Angelina Jolie reflected quite seriously about the intersection of "Salt" - the espionage thriller that opens Friday - and the recently concluded, real-life Russian spy case.
"The citizen in me hopes it won't change anything regarding our relationship with Russia," she said of what had been an improving rapport with the former Soviet Union. "But the side of me that makes a film about this says, 'My God, what timing.' Maybe the Sony marketing department should get some kind of award."
She's kidding - we think - but the feeling around "Salt" is that the misfortune of some ragtag Russian infiltrators is nothing but good news at the movies. After all, it took more than five years for the Kurt Wimmer-scripted project to get from page to screen - its hero morphing in the interim from "Edwin A. Salt" (the original title) to Evelyn, and the putative star from Tom Cruise to Jolie. Why? "I think in part it was because people said, 'The Russians are over,' " said producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. "And we were like, 'Are you guys serious?' "
They were. But good timing does not necessarily make a hit movie. "Salt" will be relying on a two-front attack on the box office. There's the story, of course - Evelyn Salt, an operative for the CIA, is accused of being a long-buried Russian mole, and has to flee the virtual entirety of U.S. clandestine forces to find her hostage husband and clear her name. And there's the action, much of which Jolie performed herself, leaving her collaborators - and hopefully her audiences-to-be - in awe.
"She's fearless," said director Phillip Noyce. "There's no resistance. Her only resistance is to the concept of there being no ideas."
Jolie has certainly seen her share of action - "Wanted" and the "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" films are all motion, all the time. She's also done her share of dramas - "Changeling" and "A Mighty Heart" among them.
"This is the first time I've been able to really combine them," she said. "The first time I've been able to do an action movie based in reality and have a real depth of back story and play with characters and accents and voices. And also just jump off things."
Doing all her own stunts
Among the things she jumps off are moving trucks, onto other moving trucks - on adjoining freeway ramps. Or climbing out on 11-story window ledges. Part of the viewer's mind may write it all off to cranes and cables (erased later, via computer), but there's still a certain visceral thrill, especially when the star is really doing it.
"I was surprised at how much she was willing to do," Noyce said. "But I was thankful, because it gives an extra reality to those sequences - which is something we're starting to lose in the movies, the old-fashioned idea that someone is actually at risk when they do a stunt."
Luckily, given the recent focus on real-life espionage, "Salt" is also rooted in procedural reality. Melissa Mahle, a former CIA agent, consulted on the film. While instructing its various departments on protocol and ambience, she kept in mind some adjoining realities. "Espionage is chess," she said. "And chess makes boring film."
But detail also can make the difference between a rote thriller and a classic. Noyce said he was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" and "North by Northwest," as well as Paul Greengrass' two "Bourne" films, as notable for character development and procedure as car chases and fistfights. To that end, Mahle said, Jolie "sucked my brain dry" harvesting information about life in the CIA.
"A big part of it was just meeting her," Jolie said. "You think you're going to play this tough CIA girl and wonder what she's going to look like, what's she going to feel like, be like; and then you meet her, and she's so lovely, and she's so elegant and counters any stereotype of some obviously tough woman."
What affected Jolie most was learning how one's personal life is constrained when one lives under cover. "We had long talks about the inability of an agent to talk to anybody in your family about what your daily life was," Jolie said. "And what your job was, and how isolating that was, and how lonely that was, and only when you're retired are you allowed to really discuss your life and what a huge relief that is. The idea that it would take 20 years to have a real conversation with your husband over dinner . . . it's a tremendous sacrifice, and it calls for a very specific personality. So I drew mostly from that."
She wasn't alone. Liev Schreiber - who plays Jolie's CIA colleague and eventual pursuer Ted Winter - got to meet outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, who is being played in the upcoming "Fair Game" by Schreiber's domestic partner, Naomi Watts. "What I got from her," he said of Plame, "is that what a good operative does is they stay in the moment." Which is actor speak, and reveals the obvious attraction for the performers in "Salt" - espionage is all about acting. For one, there might be an Oscar; for another, perhaps, deportation.
For the movie? Well, if it doesn't work, you can't blame current events. "The Russians made great enemies," di Bonaventura said. "And we've been missing them."
Grumman makes a comeback thanks to 'Salt'
When "Salt" audiences trip vicariously through the crypt of St. Bartholomew's Church on Manhattan's Park Avenue, or around the Washington apartment of its CIA agent heroine, or in the belly of a boat full of nasty Russians moored off Staten Island, what they'll really be seeing is Bethpage, and the re-created interiors of the old Grumman plant.
"It was an interesting experience," said "Salt" producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. "I think maybe one movie had tried to use Grumman before."
"But we were the ones who spent the money converting the place," said director Philip Noyce. "We spent a million bucks converting it into a movie studio." What was the Australian director most impressed by? "It's where the moon-landing module was built," he said, still impressed. "You walk in there and, whoa, it's just like a movie studio."
For all its loveliness, Bethpage was the beneficiary of larger issues afoot. "The reason we were there was not by choice," Noyce said. "It's because the New York State subsidy has been so successful in attracting Hollywood productions that there was no space in Manhattan or the five boroughs. We had to go out."
"It's a little bit of a hassle because of the traffic," di Bonaventura said. "It's an hour, rough and tough, back and forth, two and a half with bad traffic; 45 minutes if you're leaving at 4 in the morning, But the town itself was incredible, and Nassau County really made every effort to make it an attractive place for us. They went to merchants and said, 'Would you give them 10 percent discounts?' etc., and they worked to make it better for us to go there. They were smart."