The actress-director is bringing the inspiring survival story of Louis Zamperini, featured in the best seller Unbroken, to the big screen
Credit: Universal Pictures

She travels the world as a humanitarian and actress, but Angelina Jolie‘s latest project is inspired by someone very close to home.

Jolie, 38, pitched a film adaptation of the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, only to discover that its subject, 97-year-old Olympian and war hero Louis Zamperini, lived in her Los Angeles neighborhood.

“I can show you my roof from the window,” Jolie, who is directing the film, told Tom Brokaw from Zamperini’s home during a Today show interview that aired Tuesday. “I imagine that for the last 10-something years, he’s been sitting there having a coffee in the morning and wondering, ‘Who’s going to make this movie?’ And I’ve been sitting in my room laying there thinking, ‘What am I supposed to be doing with my life? I want to do something important Where is it?’ And it was right outside my window.”

Zamperini’s story is certainly cinematic. Born in California, he was known as a teenage troublemaker, according to a New York Times book review of Unbroken, which was written by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand. Luckily, Zamperini learned to channel his energy into a more noble pursuit: running. He competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, meeting Hitler in a brief but rare encounter.

“All he said was, ‘The boy with the fast finish,’ ” Zamperini recalled to Brokaw. “That was it.”

After a successful track career at the University of Southern California, Zamperini enlisted in the Army Air Corps to fight the very man who’d complimented his speed. In 1943, his B-24 bomber crashed over the Pacific Ocean. He survived, living on a raft for almost seven weeks and traveling 2,000 miles across the ocean only to be captured by Japanese forces. For two years, he languished in a POW camp, where he was tortured but not killed because of his celebrity status as an Olympian. He was saved when the war ended.

The movie version of Unbroken hits theaters in December. The film will mark Jolie’s follow-up to her feature-length directorial debut, 2012’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, and she told Brokaw this experience is a special one. Neighbors for years, Jolie and Zamperini have now become close friends, embracing while exchanging “I love you”s during the Today segment.

“[I have] such a huge responsibility to get it right because I love him so much and because he’s helped me so much in my life,” Jolie said.

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