“I cried and cried.” From the moment Angelina Jolie saw Maddox in a Cambodian Orphanage in 2001, she felt a burning need to be his mother.
After filming “Tomb Raider” in Cambodia, she fell in love with the country and visited several times with then-husband Billy Bob Thornton. It was during one of those trips that the pair met Maddox at an orphanage. “I didn’t feel a connection with any of [the children. Then they said] there’s one more baby.” She was led to a box suspended from the ceiling where Maddox was nestled. She laid eyes on him, and in that moment she lost control of her emotions and began sobbing, immediately feeling a deep connection with the infant. They applied to adopt him on the spot, returning to pick him up several months later.
Jolie had been initially hesitant to adopt a Cambodian child; although she was seriously considering adoption prior to her visit, she was afraid that an outsider rearing a Cambodian child might be seen as offensive. So she posited the notion to her newfound confidant, Loung Ung, whom she had 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,” she told Vanity Fair.
Ung encouraged the adoption. “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,” Ung said of her support. Jolie later said that, without Ung’s blessing, she may not have adopted Maddox.
Even though Jolie and her son returned to the U.S. to begin their new life as a family, she never wanted him to forget his roots, so she purchased a home in Cambodia and became a Cambodian citizen. In 2003, she founded the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, tackling Cambodia’s environmental conservation, education, health and infrastructure issues.
The decision to adapt Ung’s novel to film was always on the table, but it wasn’t until Maddox, now 15, pushed Jolie to begin production. Listed as an executive producer, Maddox reviewed the script Jolie and Ung created and would give them notes on his thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Maddox’s adoptive brother, Vietnamese-born Pax, also assisted with the film, taking still photographs of the process.
At first, Jolie was concerned about including Maddox in the project and what that would mean for him if he wasn’t mentally prepared. “[I realized he’d be] watching horrors that his countrymen did to each other. [So] he had to be ready.” Her concern wasn’t only with Maddox, but with the people of Cambodia. She wouldn’t move forward with the film without the consent of the nation she’d come to know and love.
“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,” Ung conveyed to Vanity Fair. “Angie walks in Cambodia with this respect.”
Jolie wasn’t sure about how Maddox would feel of the experience, but she was glad that he could connect with his heritage while there. “It was a way for him to walk in the steps that most likely his birth parents walked,” she said, acknowledging the importance of his presence. She felt particularly thrilled when Maddox began to feel more comfortable with Cambodia, even considering the country to be his home. “Can I go sleep in my house with my friends?” he asked Jolie one day, referring to the house she’d purchased many years ago. “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.”
Jolie dedicated the film to the author (her friend Ung), Cambodia, and to Maddox, “so he learns about who he is and knows who his people are”.