After 15 years, Tomb Raider is finally back on the big screen—this time with Alicia Vikander assuming the role of Lara Croft, who wants to solve the mystery surrounding her father's death.
Seventeen years ago, it was Angelina Jolie who brought the popular video game character to life, and her quest to get (and keep) the role was almost as daring as her onscreen adventures. At the time, Jolie had a reputation as a Hollywood bad girl, and several other A-list actresses—including Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lopez and Catherine Zeta-Jones—were considered for the part.
But director Simon West felt Jolie could shine, if given the chance. "Angelina wasn't as big as some of the other actresses that were up for the part, who'd done bigger films and had a longer track record and bigger box office grosses. Some of their [images] were safer than Angelina's, whose was quite dangerous. She had all sorts of thing written about her—some obviously not true," he shared with Entertainment Weekly in 2018. "She was a young woman experimenting."
Jolie "lived quite an alternative lifestyle," he recalled, "and didn't hold back her words."
"She spoke her mind, and she had a notorious reputation. It was quite hard for me to get her through the approval process at the studio, because I wanted an actress who was going to bring something to the part, and she brought this great Angelina Jolie mythology with her as this dark, crazy, wicked woman with a very particular and interesting personality," West said Jolie, who was then 24 years old. "I wanted that mythology of Angelina Jolie to fuse with Lara Croft."
West believed in Jolie so much that he flew to Mexico, where she was working on Original Sin, to better explain the studio's reservations. "She said, 'Look, I want to do it, but I know what my reputation is, and I'll do anything you want to prove that I'm worthy. I'll be reliable, and I'll turn up and I'll work hard,'" he recalled in former Paramount Pictures president Sherry Lansing's 2017 book, Leading Lady. "She said, 'I don't care if the studio wants to drug test me every day.'"
And that's exactly what the studio did.
Lansing wanted to meet with the actress face-to-face, just to be sure Jolie was up for the task. "She was beyond beautiful," she wrote in her book. "She was smart. She was strong." West had suggested hiring Bobby Klein, a former photographer and therapist, to make sure she stayed on the straight and narrow during the film's production in Cambodia, Iceland and the U.K. "There were issues with the studio and producers being very nervous about Angelina," he said. "There was a discussion with the group: 'We're looking for someone to oversee or keep an eye on her because we're all making the film.'" So, West said, Klein "was brought in to supervise Angelina."
But Klein was an unwelcome presence on and off set. Calling him "very esoteric," producer Larry Gordon said he recalled being told, "'He's going to be a big help, and he's going to do all these great things,' and so on and so forth." Producer Lloyd Levin said Klein "wanted her to have milk baths and started talking about yoga and meditation and wanted to be the point person in charge of Angelina's training. It was just this bulls--t. It seemed like spiritual hokum."
After Klein was accused of sexually harassing West's assistant, among other issues, he left the production. "I said, 'Angelina doesn't want you around, and I never wanted you around, so your ass is gone. You can get your s--t and go, or I can get security to throw you off the lot. You decide,'" Gordon recalled saying. "He said, 'I still get my expenses?' I said, 'Unfortunately, yes.'"
Jolie, meanwhile, had dedicated herself fully to the film by following a training regimen that included canoeing, kickboxing, street fighting and yoga. "It was such a challenge physically," she told Reel in 2001. Jolie also modified her diet in order to get the character's lean look. "I ate steamed sea bass or steamed beef and vegetables, and I had no sugar and only drank soy milk."
Unfortunately, Jolie incurred a number of injuries throughout the course of filming—hurting her elbow, her foot, her knee, her shoulder and the side of her neck. "I got used to getting injured," the adventurous young actress told Reel. "I got every different possible injury. But what I liked about playing Lara was the things I got to do. I got dirty, scratched and burnt—but those were great problems to have, because I felt like I was actually her in a certain way." As the Academy Award winner later said in Lansing's book, "It's to be expected." One time, due to a partial tear in one of her ankles, "I came back to work with a cane," she said. "Not very Croft."
The blockbuster's stunt coordinator, Simon Crane, was very impressed with Jolie's resilience and did his best to ensure her safety. "I would rate her very highly against all of the actors I have worked with," Crane told Reel. "She did stunts you have never seen a woman do before."
It was for all of those reasons that Lansing finally understood why West had been so insistent on casting Jolie. "In the dailies, she was riveting," she wrote in her book. "She took what might have been a cardboard character and added a layer of mystery and emotion and humanity."
And Jolie relished the chance to play Lara Croft. "She's independent, full of fire and with a strong sense of fun and adventure, and she's not afraid of anything," she told Reel, describing her character as "sensitive, curvy and not trying to be a man. Lara's all woman. She's feminine rather than feminist; she's not fighting the boys because they are boys. She will fight anybody."
To Jolie's dismay, much of the film's press attention focused on her appearance.
Fanboys had long lusted after the character, and to satisfy the audience, Jolie was asked to pad her bra. "I'll make it real simple. I'm a 36-C. In the game, she's a DD. In the movie, she's a D. We split the difference," she told Reuters in 2001. Jolie said she felt the movie version of her character was "more athletic," too. "She has smaller breasts, but she's still Lara Croft. So there!"
Becoming an action movie star wasn't always easy for Jolie, who became upset after seeing some potential product tie-ins. "I was trying really hard not to cry," she told Rolling Stone in 2001. "It was, 'Why has someone superimposed a gun right in between my legs?' or 'My breasts are big enough—why are they enhanced that much bigger?'" For Jolie, it wasn't just about herself—it was about Lara, too. "I don't like seeing her in that position. She's so much like me."
Tomb Raider debuted at No. 1 with $48.2 million, putting sequel plans into motion. "I am going to be Lara Croft again," Jolie said at a press event in London in 2001, not long after its premiere. "They are writing another one. If we can make it a hundred times better, then we will do it." And so, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life premiered in 2003 to even better reviews. However, it only grossed $156 million at the box office compared to the first film's $274 million.
In between films, Jolie's marriage to actor Billy Bob Thornton ended and her estrangement from father Jon Voight began—and she adopted her first child. (Jolie and Voight have since reconciled, and the actress now has six children in total.) "I'm OK," she assured People in 2003. "Actually I'm better than ever. I feel I'm finally living the life I should be living, and I haven't had that feeling before." With her attention now turned towards motherhood and humanitarian issues, the actress' "bad girl" reputation has faded into memory, but her legacy as Lara lives on.
"That is a woman I would love to meet," Vikander told E! News in 2016, not long after she was cast in the role Jolie had made famous in 2001. "She made an icon of that character, of course."
Now, it's Vikander's turn to do the same.