As an 11 year old schoolgirl, Angelina Jolie Voight wore mostly black clothes and wanted to be a funeral director when she grew up. Thirteen years on she has numerous tattoos, including the Japanese word for death, several crosses and two dragons, one above her "sex". She has a passion for bladed weapons, is scarred in five places and likes to use knives in "safe" sex play. On her wedding day four years ago she used one to cut herself open and scrawled the name of her fiancÚ, Jonny Lee Miller, in blood across her white shirt. She loves men and women and eats nothing but red meat.
"I think my father's always been afraid of a darker side of me," says Jolie, as she sits perched on the bed of her Los Angeles hotel room wearing a crumpled grey suit and smoking a cigarette. Her father, Oscar winning actor Jon Voight, has just popped by to visit and was saying goodbye as Empire arrived.
"Y'know, whether it's getting tattooed or my marriage," she continues. "Just the way I live: the way I'd go out and do characters that are in that darker space, or disappear for days."
At 24 years old, Angelina Jolie is already one of the most talked about Hollywood actresses, renowned for her striking beauty, her performances in some of the toughest roles and her refusal to censor herself, on and off screen. She has already been nominated for two Emmy Awards, for her part as junkie lesbian in Gia (1998) and for her role as Cornelia Wallace in 1997's TNT biopic George Wallace, which earned her a Golden Globe. In the last few years she's made nine movies, including Pushing Tin with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, and Playing God, as David Duchovny's insane girlfriend, Joan. But it is her part as Amelia in The Bone Collector that has proved most challenging.
Her character is the heart of the story, a young NYPD cop who comes into - and re-ignites - the life of quadriplegic forensics expert (Denzel Washington), becoming his eyes and ears as they track down a serial killer with a particularly grisly work ethic. Jolie admits it was hard going. "I went a bit nuts," she says. "Just from feeling, 'I'm not capable of doing this, of leading a film and being responsible for this. I'm not capable of handling it physically, or saving a life and being a cop. I'm not useful as a human being... am I a good person?' Which is what Amelia has to go through."
Despite her worries, Jolie plunged into the role with enthusiasm of the truly ghoulish, befitting her own fascination of the dark and sinister. "I went to the police academy. I saw a lot of pictures of crime scenes in New York and that shook me up a bit. I was surprised that a lot of it was close to my neighbourhood, like the Central Park murders."
Although most of them made her retch, she was so dedicated that she even took home photocopies of the gruesome pictures and pinned them up around her desk, like a real cop would. Jolie's interest in crime and punishment also came in handy. Her current reading material, which is lying on he bedside table next to a squashed packet of cigarettes, is a book on penal reform. "I've always been fascinated by the law," she says brightly. "The whole premise of the book is the Billie Holiday line - 'I never hurt anybody but myself and that's nobody's business but my own'."
Angelina Jolie has hurt herself often in the past. She lead a fairly rebellious youth - leaving home at 16 with purple hair - and has the scars to show for it. "You're young, you're crazy, you're in bed and you've got knives," she once said by way of explanation. "So shit happens." But Jolie has a problem keeping it her own business. She's open and upfront, and talks candidly about her personal life, including her recent amicable divorce with Miller ("We knew that we married young and that we needed to keep growing. But it was difficult separating from him").
As the daughter of Voight and former actress Marcheline Bertrand (they split up when she was two), she's used to publicity. She made her acting debut when she was seven in Hal Ashby's Looking To Get Out (1982), and accompanied her dad to the Oscars when she was 12. Yet she possesses a straight forward, no-nonsense air, rare in Hollywood kids.
"People have often said to me, 'Be careful what you talk about. Don't talk about things that are weird,'" she says, frowning. "But a lot of the things I talk about I don't think are weird. I talk about them because I've learned some things from them."
Jolie finds it hard to stop, whether it's a role or a sentence. While it gives her work a frightening intensity, it doesn't exactly make her a laugh-a-minute in real life. She seems unable to do anything half-heartedly. "I don't just like to be touched," she informs Empire. "See, I like to be grabbed or held if someone genuinely wants to hold me, and if I'm not really touched, then I hate it. It's like a handshake - I don't like a light handshake. If you want to shake my hand, then shake my hand."
Although Jolie has been busy as of late, her workaholic habits led her to premature retirement after she finished making Gia in 1998. The true story of 70s supermodel Gia Carangi, who died of an AIDS-related illness, left her severely twisted. "I didn't feel like I had much to give," she says, lighting another cigarette. "She was so much like me - she just gave, and it broke me. I kind of died with her. I moved to New York away from my husband, because he didn't want to go there, and I stopped going to auditions."
Instead she enrolled at New York University to study film-making. "I knew nobody in New York," she recalls. "And suddenly I was there with a backpack, on the subways by myself and fixing my damn heater. Then I realised how much I wanted to be in this business and what a blessing it was to have a job. So I wound up doing Pushing Tin because I wanted to do a comedy and play a heterosexual. That was very important because I'd gotten scripts that were just tough, gay girls."
Angelina Jolie has actually had more sex on-screen than off, and once revealed Miller was only the second man she'd ever slept with. As an actress she's had convincingly fantastic sex with both men and women. "I haven't figured it out yet," she says when questioned about her own preference. "I think who you fall in love with has nothing to do with physical attraction." Jolie was once told she was the actress most straight women would choose to sleep with; she replied that she was, "The actress most likely to sleep with them."
Since her marriage broke up, Jolie has spent most of her time working. "Do you think I have a commitment problem?" she jokes. "I haven't been home for, like... I don't even know how long. I don't even have a personal life. I mean, I have one, but right now it's not my focus."
This year Jolie will be seen in many of the big movies, including Gone In 60 Seconds, in which she and Nicolas Cage run around LA nicking cars. And there's already Oscar talk for her role in Girl, Interrupted (alongside Winona Ryder), a memoir of life in a mental institution in the 60s. "I play the sociopath," she grins, suitably sociopathically.
"Somebody who's completely unfeeling and uninhibited. It was actually what I needed." As usual, she had trouble separating herself from the character. "It was funny because she was so free and so out of her mind. They all yell at her for pushing everybody's buttons, and her whole thing is that nobody pushes hers. I feel that sometimes, that nobody's held me down and forced me to cry, or made me hug them or got to the inside of me. It's like, I say, 'Oh, I'm fine,' and I walk away." She stubs her cigarette out gently. "Nobody's ever said to me, 'No you're not...'"