The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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EW's Sean Smith: 'I joined the Peace Corps because of Angelina Jolie'

January 19, 2011 | 12:20 pm

Angelina_jolie I've known Sean Smith for years, not as a close friend, but in the way you get to know someone by hanging out with them at movie screenings and awards season buffets, making sardonic quips about our shared experiences interviewing pampered movie stars and egomaniacal filmmakers. But Smith always seemed to have more on his mind than box-office returns and casting coups, so I can't say I was surprised to hear late last week that he was leaving his gig as L.A. bureau chief for Entertainment Weekly to join the Peace Corps. He'd applied for the job 18 months ago, and it was clear that Smith, who is far more thoughtful and idealistic than your average showbiz reporter, was ready for a change. 

What I didn't know is something that Smith reveals in a refreshingly honest article that he's just posted at the Daily Beast: Angelina Jolie gets the credit -- or the blame, as he wryly puts it -- for him ditching his 13-year career as an entertainment journalist. He says he has given away almost everything that he owns and is leaving for rural South Africa, where he will begin a 27-month commitment as an HIV/AIDS outreach volunteer. It was on a trip to interview Jolie in Mumbai in 2006 that Smith realized that something was amiss. As he writes:

I was good at my job and paid well, and yet I couldn't shake the sense that I was spending most of my energy on something that ultimately wasn't real. Writing about Hollywood is like being a reporter at Disneyland. At first, you can't believe that you get to spend every day in The Happiest Place on Earth. Everyone wants to ask you about your work. You're surrounded by princesses, and the sky sparkles with pixie dust. But as the years go on, you learn about the oily machinery that manufactures all that enchantment. You see what Cinderella's really like when that glass slipper comes off. And then one day you notice that the magic is gone, and all you're left with is a small, small world.

Many of us view Jolie as a caricature of the do-gooder Hollywood star who dabbles in humanitarian efforts as a way to cleanse herself of some of that very pixie dust. But Smith saw something different in Mumbai, a city where nearly half of its 18 million people live in horrific poverty. Jolie, who was there in her capacity as a U.N. goodwill ambassador, told him that "we all go through stages in our life where we feel lost, and I think it all comes down to having a sense of purpose. ... When I became a mom and started working with the U.N., I was happy. I could die and feel that I'd done the right things with my life." 

The message resonated with Smith, who realized that if he were willing to make a few sacrifices, "I could find my sense of purpose and engage myself in work that would feel meaningful to me and be helpful to others." So he's off to work in the Peace Corps. Jolie apparently gave him one other important tip. He says he's "currently trying to calculate how much Kiehl's moisturizer could fit in my 80-pound luggage allotment."  

I hope Smith will occasionally take time to share with us some of his experiences in South Africa, trying to make a difference in the world. And Sean, if you ever change your mind and want to come back, I can pretty much guarantee that all that silly enchantment will still be here -- the stars will still be showing up late for their interviews, the studios will still be telling whoppers about their movie budgets and the Golden Globes will still be providing all of us with great comedy material. The names may change, but those wonderful bedrock Hollywood values of ego and entitlement will remain the same. Aloha, shalom and happy trails to you.

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Angelina Jolie arriving at the 68th annual Golden Globes awards in Beverly Hills. Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images