Angelina Jolie loved Maddox Jolie-Pitt the moment she saw him.
After twice visiting Cambodia, while filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and on a UNHCR field trip, the actress returned the country in late 2001 with her then-husband, Billy Bob Thornton; they met Maddox Jolie-Pitt and subsequently applied to adopt him. And in March 2002, Angelina picked up 7-month-old Maddox from an orphanage in Battambang. The actress had been toying with the idea of adopting a child for some time, but didn't proceed until first talking it over with Loung Ung, whom she quickly befriended after reading her memoir, First They Killed My Father.
"I asked her as a Cambodian orphan if she would be offended for somebody like me, an outsider, [to do that], or if that would be a nice thing," the Oscar winner recalls in Vanity Fair's September issue. Loung, of course, was thrilled by the proposal. "Angie was maternal to everybody around her, not just children, but adults included. I wanted her to adopt me. I was orphaned when I was 8 years old, and so I think, when you've gone through experiences like that, there's always a part of you that craves to have full parent figures in your life," Loung says.
If Loung had responded differently, Angelina says it "might have changed" her adoption plans. As she toured the orphanage, she recalls, "I didn't feel a connection with any of them"—until she met Maddox, that is. "They said, 'There's one more baby.'" Maddox was lying in a box that was suspended from the ceiling. They looked at each other, she recalls, and "I cried and cried."
In the years that followed, Angelina bought a house in Cambodia and became a citizen. In 2003, she started what would ultimately become the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, focusing on the Asian country's environmental conservation, education, health and infrastructure. Along the way, she fell in love with Brad Pitt and welcomed five more children—two via adoption and three biologically—all while continuing her work as an actress, filmmaker and U.N. ambassador.
Maddox, now 15, is following in his mother's footsteps; he knew "Auntie" Loung's story and wanted Angelina to tell it. "He was the one who said, 'It's time to do it,'" she tells the magazine. Just as Maddox trusted his mother to do the historical thriller justice, she trusted him to help her on set. Once Maddox confirmed he would participate in the production, she realized that he'd also be "watching horrors that his countrymen did to each other. [So] he had to be ready."
(Pax Jolie-Pitt served as a still photographer, while the other Jolie-Pitt kids were on set daily.)
So, Angelina and Loung got to work on the script for First They Killed My Father, as Maddox—credited on the film as an executive producer—reviewed multiple drafts and gave them notes. Angelina took it to Netflix, and chief creative officer Ted Sarandos bought it on the spot. "In the room, she created a visual experience of what this film could be. The film is in many ways about the death of beauty, about the way the Khmer Rouge had killed all things beautiful, color itself, which becomes part of the joy of life," he recalls. "That's what hooked me more than anything."
Angelina, who produced the film with Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, only agreed to move forward with the project if the locals supported it. "In a country like Cambodia, respect is very much elevated—respect for each other, respect for the culture, respect for the history, respect for the elders," Loung tells Vanity Fair. "Angie walks in Cambodia with this respect." Cambodia gave the movie its blessing, providing location permits and loaning 500 officials from its army.
"It's not a poetic thing to say—[this film] was made by the country," Angelina says; between the cast and crew, about 3,500 locals were involved in the film. "There wasn't a person who was working on the movie who didn't have a personal connection. They weren't coming to do a job. They were walking in the exodus for the people whom they had lost in their family, and it was out of respect for them that they were going to re-create it…It completed something for them."
During the shoot, everyone was watching Maddox, as he's just as famous in Cambodia as his mom is. "It was a way for him to walk in the steps that most likely his birth parents walked," says Angelina, who wasn't sure how he'd feel about the experience. She was thrilled one morning when Maddox asked, "Can I go sleep in my house with my friends?" He was referring to their house in the jungle, which she'd bought in 2002. "I hadn't heard him refer to it that way. You can't push it. You can't say, 'Isn't this great?' You just have to kind of keep bringing them there, putting it in front of them and hope that they find the pride and find the comfort."
Though Maddox acted as his mother's right-hand man on set, the same isn't true at home—at least not since Angelina's split from Brad. "I do not want my children to be worried about me. I think it's very important to cry in the shower and not in front of them," she explains to Vanity Fair. "They need to know that everything's going to be all right even when you're not sure it is."
And while her eldest child has taken on more responsibilities than most boys his age, he's not in a rush to grow up. "I'm conscious that the boys are teenage boys, and maybe they'd rather be watching TV with their friends, and they've been to Africa, and they may not be as excited as the little ones," she says of their philanthropic trips. "But they don't really challenge me. They just kind of sit on the edge of my bed and say, 'What are we going to do there?'" So, she also planned fun activities for them, like sandboarding. Either way, she says, "They know that it's important, and they know that mom thinks that it's going to be important when they're older."