The thriller, based on Michael Koryta's 2014 novel, opens in theaters and on HBO Max on May 14

Angelina Jolie pushes herself to new limits in her upcoming film, Those Who Wish Me Dead.

In PEOPLE exclusive first look images from the movie, Jolie, 45, stars as Hannah, a smoke jumper still reeling from the loss of three lives she failed to save from a fire. The film, directed by Oscar nominee Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water), sees her come across a distressed 12-year-old boy (Finn Little) with nowhere else to turn.

"She carries a lot of guilt, and is quite broken," Jolie tells PEOPLE of her character. "She's a smoke jumper, and a bit of an adrenaline junkie, but she's also somebody that has experienced tragedy, and she feels responsible for it."

they wish me dead
Credit: Emerson Miler/Warner Bros.
they wish me dead
Credit: Emerson Miler/Warner Bros.

Based on Michael Koryta's 2014 novel of the same name, Those Who Wish Me Dead sees the Oscar winner as Hannah trekking through the wilderness to help a boy who "has been caught up in something he should never have been a part of," Little tells PEOPLE.

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"On its surface, the story feels like a thriller, with a lot of really interesting characters and a great adventure across unusual terrain, inside a great fire," Jolie adds. "But, underneath, it's an emotional film about people who are thrown together to survive."

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The actress and humanitarian didn't mind getting gritty for the role. "I was so happy to be pushed to just toughen up and get dirty and sweaty, and do things I've never done and feel very capable," she says.

Jolie also enjoyed working with newcomer Little, 14.

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"I had so much fun with Finn. He's great," the mom of six continues. "I think people will really respond to him in this film. He has a light, and a great energy. He can become very emotional and weep about something, and he can also jump over a building and dodge bullets and love it."

Little — who describes his character Connor as someone "who's alone, frightened and lost" — has equally kind words to say about Jolie.

"Angelina is great!" he says. "She's fun on set and very easy to work with. She is nurturer on and off set. She's lovely. I was so lucky!"

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Little relished in doing the movie's action scenes. "Especially the scenes we shot on the 'big burn' day — that was so exciting!" he continues. "So much work went into it and the end result looks awesome!"

The film's fast-paced scenes gave Jolie a chance to get back in action after a few years away from physically demanding roles. "It was nice to be physical, and doing action again," she says. "The stunts were a lot of fun. It's been a long time since I've done a real fight scene."

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After working on Those Who Wish Me Dead and living through the COVID-19 pandemic, though, Jolie says she won't be in a rush to make more action movies — or any kind of movies.

"With the pandemic, I think we have all found ourselves refocusing and prioritizing our efforts and our lives," the philanthropist explains. "I have found it's time to shift to spending the majority of my work in my efforts that are not film related."

Those Who Wish Me Dead hits theaters and HBO Max on May 14.