There's a tarantula in here. Is that going to bother you?''
This is Angelina Jolie speaking -- a woman famous for sleeping with knives and keeping rats for house pets -- and clearly she isn't fazed in the least. She's standing inside a large canvas tent pitched in a steaming, vine-choked patch of the Cambodian jungle, where, it turns out, tarantulas are always getting into everything. ''He was over there,'' Jolie nonchalantly informs her guest, nodding at a pile of camera equipment. ''He must have moved. I don't know where he is now. But I'm sure he'll turn up eventually.''
What brings Jolie to this remote, arachnid-infested region of Southeast Asia (during its November ''cool season,'' when temperatures dip all the way down to the high 90s) is, of course, Tomb Raider, Paramount Pictures' attempt to turn one of the most successful videogame series of all time into one of the biggest film franchises. For the past 10 days, the notoriously offbeat Oscar winner has been squeezing herself into a skintight black bodysuit, strapping on a pair of party-size pistols, and tumbling around Cambodia's most sacred Buddhist shrine pretending to be Lara Croft, a globe-trotting British adventurer on the trail of a mysterious archaeological artifact. Think James Bond crossed with Indiana Jones...in a Wonderbra.
''She's totally crazy,'' Jolie describes her character as she settles into some pillows in the tent, blithely ignoring the possibility that at any moment she (or her visitor) might discover a poisonous spider inching toward an appendage. ''She's a young woman who's led a very privileged life and who does amazing things but is completely out of her mind in a really wicked way. She's a lot like me, actually,'' she goes on, taking a moment to examine a cuticle. ''She's probably the closest personality to myself I've ever played.''
Lucky break for her, because if Tomb Raider generates the sort of business Paramount expects (the film is being hyped with one of the most ambitious marketing campaigns in the studio's history, including product tie-ins with Ericsson, Pepsi, Sony, Land Rover, and Taco Bell), Jolie could be living with Lara for a long, long time. Indeed, the 26-year-old actress -- who has already signed for a sequel -- could become the biggest female action star since Sigourney Weaver bitch-slapped aliens. In fact, with Tomb Raider, Jolie could go even further, becoming the first woman ever to muscle her way to the very top of the action A list, where once only names like Arnold, Bruce, and Sly were allowed.
But first, she'll have to get out of this tent alive. ''Don't worry,'' she tries to calm her now-hyperventilating visitor. ''Tarantulas aren't really that dangerous. You should have seen the snake that was here this morning. Some guys had to come and kill it.''
The temple of Angkor wat is a massive ring of elaborately sculpted sandstone structures that have been slowly crumbling in the sweltering Cambodian heat for more than 800 years. Rain and wind have blurred the faces -- heroes and legends of the once great Khmer civilization -- carved into the shrine's huge bas-reliefs; giant tree trunks have clawed into its cracked stone floors; and real-life tomb raiders long ago snatched away entire sections of the temple. Only its five towering pinecone-shaped spires seem untouched by time, looming over the tangled jungle skyline like an ancient, unsolved mystery -- the beehive hairdos of the gods.