A Cambodian’s intertwined life with Angelina Jolie and Maddox
LOS ANGELES—When Angelina Jolie bought a $2 paperback on a street corner in Cambodia where she was shooting “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” little did she know that such a simple act would change her life forever.
Struck by Loung Ung’s memoir as a young girl living in the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,” Angelina called the author who was by then living in the Unites States. “At first, I didn’t believe it was her,” Loung admitted to us with a laugh.
By coincidence, the two women were going to visit Cambodia at the same time. The actress invited the author to join her in a motorbike tour of a rural part of Cambodia. One night, before they went to sleep in hammocks in a pagoda, Angelina confided to Loung that she wanted to adopt a Cambodian child and sought her opinion.
Loung not only encouraged Angelina to go ahead and adopt, she told her about this orphanage. That was where Angelina found Maddox, whom she eventually adopted in 2002. Angelina and Loung have since become close friends. Now, the two humanitarians—and Maddox, as executive producer—worked together to adapt “First They Killed My Father” to the big screen.
The result is Angelina’s finest work so far as a filmmaker—a stirring war drama anchored by the portrayal of talented newcomer Sareum Srey Moch, as the young Loung, who witnesses the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.
At 10 years old, Loung escaped from Cambodia, eventually immigrating to the US. The young immigrant coped with bouts of sadness. After an attempted suicide, Loung began to write a journal about growing under the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. The journal became the material for her two books (the other one is “Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind”).
The human rights advocate and lecturer, who is the national spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World, now lives in Ohio. In our interview, Loung told me that she had been to the Philippines when her husband, Mark Priemer, volunteered to work in the refugee camp for Indochinese refugees in Bataan.
Poised and articulate, Loung got emotional when she talked about witnessing Angelina’s re-creation of scenes depicting her family life before the Khmer Rouge tore everything apart.
Excerpts from our conversation:
What’s admirable is that you didn’t allow the Khmer Rouge to break your spirit. How did you achieve that? I’m so blessed to grow up with two parents who loved me. I was one of seven siblings. At times, my mother thought I was a troublemaker. I probably was, but my father always thought I was clever.
I remember when people said horrible things about me. I felt bad about myself. I thought so highly of my father, not only as a man, but as a loving human being. I couldn’t be that bad of a person if my father loved me.
As I grew up, I started to realize how much my mother and my family sacrificed for me. Every time I wanted to give in to anger, hate and rage, I thought, my parents wouldn’t have wanted me to be that. And that the best way I could honor my parents was to be the best human being I could be.
How old were you when all this was happening? I was in the Khmer Rouge when I was 5 to 9. Then, I left the country when I was 10.
You were the one who told Angelina about the orphanage where she found Maddox. And now, Maddox is the executive producer of the film about your life. How was he on the set? Maddox was wonderful. He wasn’t only a producer. He has a very nurturing sense, because he’s used to being a big brother to his brothers and sisters. So, on the set, it was a natural transition for him to become a big brother to the kids in the cast because they were all young. I’m really proud of him.
Angie and Maddox are such wonderful souls. I’d like to think they would have found their way to each other. But I’m glad I was there to have discussions with her that one late night when we were caught in a torrential rain in the middle of nowhere in Cambodia. She asked me about her thoughts of adopting a Cambodian boy.
All I saw was that Angie’s heart was big, her desire to be a mother was real, and her wanting to mother a child was authentic. I actually wanted her to adopt me (laughs), even though I’m older than her.
You met Angelina 16 years ago. Having known her that long, what changes have you both undergone? There are a lot of changes in our lives. I’ve been back to Cambodia over 35 times now. I started going back in 1995, to reunite with my family and work with a program called Better International Cambodia, for which we manufacture prosthetic limbs, orthotic devices, wheelchairs and other devices for land mine victims of war.
Angie had just finished filming “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” She had picked up a copy of my book and gave me a call in my office in Washington DC. We ended up traveling together in Cambodia. We’ve been friends ever since.
What I liked about her from the very first day we met was her intelligence and kind heart. She’s authentic and a fun conversationalist. We both love books. She has an adventurous spirit.
Over the years, we’ve both grown. I’ve been able to see her love the kids with all her heart.
What was your relationship like when you both had to work together on this film? We view it as, it’s my book, so I’ve got my stamp in there. We adapted the film together, so it was a process of working, then going back and forth with the draft. So many writers wouldn’t have this experience—to make a film with one of your dearest friends in the world. I trust her because she has a Cambodian son and does a lot of work to help Cambodia. She has a track record of caring about the things I care about: children, bettering our world and education.
Can you talk about reliving some of your experiences as Angelina shot some of the traumatic days in your life? Angie has met survivors of different wars and genocides. I knew that there were going to be things I was going to be very scared of. But, the beginning of the film, with the family sitting together at the table, still touches me. Watching that scene reminded me [of the time] when my whole family was still unbroken, when we didn’t have to leave empty plates for my parents’ spirits.
Those scenes really broke my heart, including the scenes of the sisters brushing each other’s hair. On the set, every time I’d get emotional, I would put on my sunglasses thinking I was fooling everybody (laughs). Angelina and everybody would come in and see if I was OK.
How is Angelina regarded in Cambodia? She is beloved in Cambodia. Some people forget that her relationship with Cambodia extends beyond Maddox and me. She genuinely loves the country. Something about the land, history, people and their resilient spirit really grabbed her. They love her and Maddox in return.
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