It’s hard to imagine a time Angelina Jolie did not feel strong. The actress has always seemed, to film fans at least, as tough as can be, with powerful, ass-kicking roles in Tomb Raider, Mr & Mrs Smith, Salt and Wanted. And she is a force to be reckoned with in the Maleficent movies – and even her Oscar-winning turn in Girl, Interrupted.

But life has not always imitated art and Jolie came to her latest film, the thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead – in which she plays a smokejumper, a specially trained wildland firefighter who provides an initial attack response to remote wildland fires – feeling anything but strong.

"I think we all have times in our lives where we just feel broken," she says candidly as she chats on Zoom, dressed immaculately in a cream silk blouse. "And I’m certainly one of those people. And so I came into this not feeling strong at all, and not knowing if I had it even in me to pull through this.

"And, like everybody, I carry my own trauma, my own grief, different things that have happened in my life. And so it was very cathartic. Can I pull myself through? Can I can I get to the other end of this? Am I strong enough? Am I stable enough?"

The 45-year-old has certainly been through a turbulent time over the years. She had a preventative double mastectomy in 2013 and developed Bell’s palsy and hypertension following a particularly difficult time in her personal life. She split from her former husband Brad Pitt, with whom she shares six children, in 2016 after a 10-year relationship – and legal proceedings surrounding their split are ongoing in Los Angeles.

While she first found fame as an actress, she has forged a career as a director in recent years, helming films including In The Land Of Blood And Honey, Unbroken, By The Sea and First They Killed My Father, and she felt trepidation about delving back into a physical challenge.

In the new movie, directed by Hell Or High Water’s Taylor Sheridan, her character Hannah is still reeling from the loss of three lives she failed to save from a fire when she comes across a traumatised 12-year-old boy Connor, played by Finn Little. She helps him flee as he is being chased by two assassins, played by Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen, after a deadly attack on his father, and the pair brave lightning storms and a huge fiery blaze in a bid to outrun them.

"It did feel new," she admits thoughtfully as she reflects on the action. "I’m older, and it’s not just that my body was different, it was just that I’m different. And it’s been about a decade or so since I’ve done anything like that. And then of course there’s that moment at the beginning where you think, ‘What am I doing?’

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Photocall – London
Angelina Jolie during the Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Photocall at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London (PA)

"And my kids (Maddox, 19, Pax, 17, Zahara, 16, Shiloh, 14, and twins Knox and Vivienne, 12) are not used to seeing me do these things because really during the ages they were growing up, I was directing. So it was kind of like Mom did that a long time ago, so Mom doing any of that is almost funny to my children now, but I think actually it was really good for them.

"It was nice to see me survive and be strong. But it was weird, I definitely had it in my mind, thinking maybe I’m not capable of this anymore."

Jolie is joined in the film by co-stars Jon Bernthal, who plays a local law enforcement officer, and his heavily pregnant wife Allison, played by Medina Senghore, who offer a potential safe haven for Connor and Hannah. "One of the things that I love about the movie is it’s set in this small town in the American West, and everyone in the town knows the state of grief and difficulty that Angelina’s character Hannah is in," Senghore says.

Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie (2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved/Emerson Miller/PA)

"But what you see is her colleagues, and everyone, at some point holds space for Hannah in some way and that’s what we need in life from the people around us, when we’re going through it – for them to hold us up and give us grace and give us time."

Also there to hold Jolie up was Sheridan, who was always confident in her abilities. "Angie was game," he says, "She did it all, she did a lot of her own stunts. It’s sort of a requirement of the way that I film because I try to place the audience as a voyeur right in the middle of the action. If it’s not the actor, they’re going to see that, so it requires a real physical commitment."

The story takes place in Montana, outside Cooke City, just north of Yellowstone National Park, a familiar landscape for fans of Sheridan’s other work, which includes Sicario, Wind River and the TV series Yellowstone.

"It’s a part of America that Taylor loves and knows and represents – with respect – the idiosyncrasies, the grandeur of its parks, and the poetry of this part of the world," Jolie says. "I was happy to toughen up and get dirty and sweaty, to do things I’ve never done and feel very capable. Taylor taught me how to chop wood and start a fire. Now he needs to teach me how to ride a horse."

Those Who Wish Me Dead is released in cinemas from May 17.