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From “Edwin” to “Evelyn”: Angelina Jolie Switches Gender Roles in Salt

July 21, 2010

Angelina Jolie as a Bond girl is a concept that millions would undoubtedly shell out $12 to see. One person that might not, though, is Jolie herself. When approached to appear in a James Bond film, Jolie deferred, saying, “I want to be Bond—I don’t want to be anyone else in the movie.” While a female Bond seems light-years away given that even the introduction of a blond Bond was enough to cause controversy, Jolie is confident that she found a Bond caliber role in her new film Salt, coming out in theaters this Friday. The role of Evelyn Salt, however, has an intriguing origin: Evelyn was originally “Edwin,” and the star meant to play him, once upon a time, was Tom Cruise. Salt director Phillip Noyce, producer Lorenzo di Bonavertura and screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Brian Helgeland (all male, it’s worth noting) joined Jolie and Sony executive Amy Pascal in order to figure out how to believably change the gender of the film’s main character. The consensus seems to be both in Jolie’s interviews and profiles of Salt that the switch was not simply a function of reversing pronouns and replacing names, but a comprehensive rehaul of the film both for the littlest details and the big picture. Every scene was analyzed for what an Evelyn would do when thrown into a situation originally meant for an Edwin.  The New York Post notes that chase scenes have Evelyn taking off her heels before running, and that fight scenes no longer include the excessive use of “brawn,” but “brain” tactics that would allow a “beautiful, small female” to fight “two grown men.” Jolie herself pushed for the most significant plot difference from the original script. Tom Cruise as Salt would have had a child and an epic, gushing reunion at the film’s close; Jolie’s Salt, however, never had a child.  The following excerpt from Jolie’s interview with reveals some of the thought processes behind this particular edit:
SheKnows: Did you have input into the gender changes since the role was originally intended for Tom Cruise when he was Edwin Salt? Angelina Jolie: A lot. The obvious would be that it would be made kind of lighter for a woman in some way, or more loving. We went in a completely opposite direction. The original male script, in the end, he is able to save his wife and kids and able to say, "I love you. I’ll protect you and my heart is with you." For a woman, that’s not going to be a big revelation. What would be a revelation for a woman? What would be a surprise for a woman? We started there. Also, she would never have a child. I just felt she couldn’t. Also, I think as a woman, you would wonder why I’m not taking care of the child. It would become a film about me and the child. That wasn’t something that suited the film. That was the first call: We don’t say I love you, and there is no child [laughs].
Jolie and the Salt team’s desire to twist and subvert the expectation an audience might have when seeing a female-focused action film meant removing anything that might distract from Evelyn’s high stakes spy antics. Apparently, this consisted of hardening Salt’s intrinsic personality and removing a potential maternal storyline so that Evelyn could be viewed in the same way as Edwin—a lean, mean killing machine. On the one hand, I appreciate that Jolie and those behind Salt have created a female action role that does not have her in skimpy clothing as in Tomb Raider (one of her “fantasy” action roles, as she puts it), uses realism as the basis of its action sequences and makes no apology for giving a female character the tasks and drive of a male character. On the other, I don’t know what to think about the fact that they decided an audience would not be receptive to a mother in an action film where it would be to a father, and that Evelyn’s validity and intrigue as an action character would be in her “meaner, darker” portrayal. Truth be told, I could probably write a ten page paper on the motivations behind the gender changes in Salt’s screenplay, but if there’s one thing that’s for certain it’s that Salt’s intrigue comes from Jolie’s realistic, female action character representing a total anomaly for the film industry. Flawed portrayal or not, this single character has changed the conversation surrounding portrayals of women in action films, and indeed the conversation about the prevalence of female-fronted films, period. That alone is something that has turned my seeing Salt from an “if” to a “when”— film execs, take note! (See Jolie discuss the gender reversal of Salt here)