Magnificent Villains

Angelina Jolie goes head-to-head with Michelle Pfeiffer in the Maleficent sequel, Mistress of Evil. The megastars talk to Letterboxd about their new Disney blockbuster, their favorite villains, and learning to let go of your children.

You have to know what you’re willing to fight for or die for.” —⁠Angelina Jolie

We haven’t done specific data on this, but it’s no secret that, from Tinkerbell and Wendy to Mother Gothel and Rapunzel, Disney in particular excels at pitting women against each other and messing with concepts of motherhood. Times change, however, and in 2014, with Angelina Jolie in the title role, the studio’s live-action blockbuster Maleficent revisited the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, taking a refreshing spin on the villain from Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty.

It worked: Maleficent became Jolie’s highest-grossing film, and holds a particular kind of appeal for the Letterboxd members who love it. For Rookie Bear, it is “…a journey from girlhood to motherhood and maturity, and in many respects, is exactly the film I would have liked Sleeping Beauty to be.” Aly C agrees: “I love that so many distinctly feminine themes are layered into this story, from non-traditional motherhood to recovering from sexual assault. It’s so smart; [writer] Linda Woolverton is a genius, and that must be part of why Angelina was so enthusiastically behind this project (besides looking absolutely iconic). I hope the sequel stays on this same path.”

Pedro Paixão is a little more succinct: “I have a weakness for bad bitches in leather.” He’s gonna love the follow-up, which sees dark fairy Maleficent (Jolie) drawn out of the moors, a verdant land in which fantasy creatures flourish, by the impending nuptials between surrogate daughter Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty herself, played by Elle Fanning) and her beloved Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson, replacing the original’s Brenton Thwaites).

But this is Disney. With Maleficent and Aurora happy in their non-traditional family unit, the sequel needs a new bad bitch. Cue Michelle Pfeiffer, the ideal grande dame to go head-to-head with Jolie in lavish new sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.

Pfeiffer plays Aurora’s mother-in-law to be, Queen Ingrith; outwardly welcoming of Maleficent, but secretly plotting against her, setting the stage for an epic showdown in which expensive special effects are entirely outshone by two of Hollywood’s most legendary actors throwing down. It’s misunderstood-villain versus actual-villain, and the star power on display is truly something to behold.

Jolie and Pfeiffer recently joined press in Beverly Hills to talk about the film, and we took the opportunity to ask them for any iconic movie villain performances that they may have taken inspiration from.

Angelina Jolie immediately named the performance given by her co-star in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns: “I like Michelle as Catwoman,” she told us.

Pfeiffer brought up a different Batman film, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, in her response: “I think the first thing that came to mind was Heath Ledger as the Joker. I didn’t take that as inspiration, but that’s my favorite villain.”

Read on for highlights from the rest of the conversation.

On being associated with the character of Maleficent:
Angelina Jolie: The strange thing as an actor, you’re kind of always figuring out who you are, how people see you. Now with social media, everybody has an opinion. As an actor, it’s strange, you put yourself forward [for a role] and somebody says: “Oh, that’s very you.” And you think: ‘Really, is it?’ When I got a call and they said: “We thought you’re the only person who could play Maleficent. It was so obvious.” I was like: “What was so obvious?” I’m never quite sure how I’m supposed to take that.

And yet, I love her. So maybe I just need to fully embrace it at this time in my life. Maybe when I first did it I thought I needed to find the other aspects of her; she’s a bit wild and full-on and a bit much. Now I have different things in my life and I’m just so happy to feel strong again and have some fun. I adore being her.

On whether or not she was channeling screen legend Bette Davis in her performance:
AJ: When I was little, I saw the animated film. Clearly she was drawn with that inspiration, and the original voice, and the original way she was, and I was so drawn to it. All of those women. There’s so much to learn from them. Any comparison I’m very grateful for.

On how the film plays with notions of good and evil:
Michelle Pfeiffer: It’s a very unusual fairy tale, which I also loved about the first film, it was so surprising. What I loved is that it played in this grey area and it talked about good-versus-evil, and how all of us have a little bit of everything in us. I think in terms of strength, and how that manifests itself, it’s different in everyone. One of the things we loved about Aurora is that in many ways she is ultimately the strongest and wisest of all of us. My character is really brilliant and diabolical, but I wouldn’t consider her terribly wise.

I mean, everybody has vulnerability, and I think, [Queen Ingrith is] damaged. Nobody behaves that way unless they’re incredibly damaged on some level. She just doesn’t wear it on her sleeve, I guess. And it some ways, what she resorts to is really, truly out of a very deep fear.

On the central themes of the film:
AJ: It is about family. Aurora and Maleficent were brought together and they became a family and they weren’t really expecting it. Maleficent was harmed in her life and she lost herself and lost her ability to, I think, be soft and feel love. Being a mother brought out something in me that really transformed me. But we’re different creatures in the film. There are metaphors in the film, not to be heavy about it, but always I think a good film for young people has these messages, and I think there’s real questions in the film: [Aurora and Maleficent] get pulled apart, people tell us, because we’re not the same. “Because you’re not exactly like her, you’re not gonna love her.” That certainly strikes a chord with me. I think Maleficent does wonder if she’s good enough to be a mother.

Then there’s a real push to say “this is not how it should be, and this is not how to live”. Diversity makes us stronger. There must be a better way forward, and we have to come together. We do that in the film with the humans and the creatures and moor-folk coming together. We do that as a family, we come together and we fight against this separation. We unite and we say “this is the world we choose to live in”. I think that that is a really important message.

On Aurora and Maleficent’s relationship:
AJ: I see her exactly as she is, and I don’t want her to be any different than she is. And she sees me as I am, and she accepts me as I am. It is to say to everybody: “Be yourself, be your true self. You don’t live forever.” Say to children: “No matter how people see you and how they say you should be, you’ll suffocate. Be your true nature, whatever that may be, and you’ll find acceptance, because you have to.”

On the film’s elaborate dinner scene, when Maleficent and Ingrith first encounter each other:
MP: Tension-wise, nobody wanted to be the one to wreck the take, because it was so long. Every angle, every shot was a master. The tension is really good, you’re kind of just being there for each other.

AJ: I was just happy we were sitting. I felt like I was having dinner with friends for a week. I thought it was great.

On the challenge of performing inside such gargantuan costumes:
AJ: You get so supported in these roles with the magic, everybody working towards this idea of [bringing together] costumes, visual effects and make-up to help bring you into a creature. It’s a big team. Some of my costumes were half there, and we had to be flying with rigs and things. The trick with Maleficent sometimes is that I need to look stronger on the ground, but then I have to float when I’m up in the air.

On what the film has to say about self-sacrifice:
AJ: When you talk about love, we spoke about knowing your true self, but really I think the core of is: we’re not here just to exist. You have to know what you stand for. You have to know what you’re willing to fight for or die for. If you live that way, then whatever pain comes with it and whatever sacrifice comes with it, you embrace it and it actually fills you with purpose. That’s hopefully represented in the film.

On whether or not she was trying to top her previous villain performances:
MP: I didn’t actually look at it that way. I certainly enjoyed playing this, I was really delighted and surprised when I read the script. I was excited just by the notion of working with [Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning].

You approach them all differently. I had a lot of fun doing this. I felt like I had a lot of freedom to try and bring some other colors, you know, try to play the humanity. It may not appear at first blush that Ingrith is willing to sacrifice anything, but she’s willing obviously to sacrifice her son. I think that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love him. (Laughs.) It’s complicated.

On relating to Maleficent having to let go of Aurora, given that she just sent her oldest son off to college:
AJ: To be very honest, Maddox was so ready and he’s doing so well. He spent these days with me as I thought I was preparing him to go. You work so hard as a mother, you think: ‘I’m really helping him.’ And then at the airport, he could’ve left but he stayed with me a bit longer, I kept thinking: ‘He wants to be with me a little longer.’ And then at some point he looked at me and said: “Are you okay?” and I said “Yeah I’m fine” and I realized the entire week was all for me. He was just making sure I was okay. And he gave me a really big hug because he knew that I needed it, and I knew that he was okay because he was the kind of man who knew what I needed and he gave it to me in a loving way. So I left feeling really proud. I did cry a few times.

There’s a part of this movie where I have to let [Aurora] go. It wasn’t in the script, but I didn’t quite let her go. And Diaval (Sam Riley) has to come in and say: “Let her go.” And that got me every time. Because I would think of… all of the kids. That moment of having to let them go. But it’s also exciting.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’ is in cinemas from October 18. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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