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Back in 2012, Charlize Theron and her producing partner Beth Kono were sent a couple of pages from an upcoming graphic novel, The Coldest City, by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. They sparked to it immediately, specifically the film’s unapologetic protagonist, British secret agent Lorraine Broughton, who’s dropped into 1989 Berlin just as the wall is poised to crumble. It’s no longer clear who is friend or foe. “You threw me into a hornets’ nest,” Broughton says to her superiors. As Theron and Kono developed the script over the years, that line stuck in Theron’s head. “How would a woman respond in such a situation?” Theron wondered. “And how do you make it real?”
The Oscar winner found her answers with stunt choreographer-turned-director David Leitch (John Wick), who worked as a stunt double for both Brad Pitt and Jean-Claude Van Damme before turning to second unit direction on films such as Captain America and Jurassic World, among many others. He put Theron through her paces during an intensive three-month boot camp where she trained four-to-five hours a day to tackle stunts she initially thought were impossible. “We worked our balls off on this movie,” says Theron, who simultaneously worked with screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) to turn The Coldest City into what Leitch calls “punk-rock noir.” This is a spy with serious edge. “I didn’t want to just play some straightforward agent,” Theron says, “because how boring to watch is that?”
Nothing about Atomic Blonde is boring. The creative team took the graphic novel’s original conceit — a rather rule-bound spy is sent behind the Iron Curtain to retrieve a dossier of agents’ identities before the Soviets get it — and amped it up to 11 with a synthesizer-driven ’80s soundtrack, a collection of dangerous characters, and a cool period wardrobe. “If you want to blend in in Berlin 1989, you probably don’t want to dress like a stuffy Cold War spy,” Leitch says. “You’re going to have a bit more of a rock & roll lifestyle.”
Theron’s look — think Debbie Harry meets Brigitte Nielsen — is as fashionable as it is functional, allowing the 5’ 9″ former ballet dancer to toss goons down flights of stairs and use her fishnet-clad thighs as a vice. Her wardrobe contrasts with that of her Berlin contact David Percival (James McAvoy), who has clearly been in the fraught city for too long. He has a fondness for his ratty fur coat and a penchant for mesh tank tops. “I was keen to be slightly underdressed at all times,” McAvoy says. “I wanted there to be that strange thing of it being really cold all the time and yet there is flesh on show. To me that speaks to a lack of self-care.”
Theron and Leitch’s interest in testing the limits extended to the fight scenes, notably a 12-minute pièce de résistance that plays as one long brutal sequence where Theron battles multiple foes in a stairwell. Leitch doesn’t want to give away his tricks on how he made it click, but according to Theron, the crew worked on the scene for four days with an editor on site, cutting it as they shot it. “We were shooting it continuously, and every day the cut kept working,” she says. “The whole set was so alive.”
McAvoy attributes Leitch’s talent to the vast experience he’s had on film sets (Leitch often works directing and coordinating stunts on two movies a year.) “David’s grown up on movie sets, and he likes standing among a group of 100 people making an impossible image real,” McAvoy says. “And for that, he was a joy to work with.”
Atomic Blonde debuted in March at the SXSW Film Festival to a raucous response. During the post-screening Q&A, Theron choked up, moved by the audience’s reaction. “I’m 41 and I’m in an action movie that people really responded to,” she says, reflecting back on that evening. “That’s a lot, especially for someone who was told throughout her career that she wouldn’t work after 40.”
We dare them to say it to her face now.