July 17, 2017 at 01:42 PM EDT

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After her critically lauded performance in 2011’s Young Adult, Charlize Theron was hunting for a specific kind of project. “I was looking for something that had a female protagonist who was unapologetic and could play by the same rules as men,” she says. She found it within the pages of a yet-unpublished graphic novel, The Coldest City, by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart (which came out in 2012). Their hero was Lorraine Broughton, a Cold War spy sent into 1989 East Berlin after the murder of an MI6 agent just days before the Wall crumbled.

In the film, retitled Atomic Blonde (in theaters July 28), Lorraine must recover a list of double agents amid a sea of questionable allies, including James McAvoy’s embedded British agent David Percival, who has gone a bit feral in East Berlin — “He’s carrying a lot of secrets and sexually transmitted diseases,” McAvoy quips — and sexy Frenchwoman Delphine (Sofia Boutella), whom Lorraine seduces. Theron spent about four years developing the film, elevating Lorraine into an indomitable force of nature whose inner psyche remains opaque. “Lorraine just is, and I love that about her,” Theron says.

Playing her, however, demanded a physical commitment beyond anything Theron had ever attempted. Director David Leitch runs 87Eleven Action Design (with his John Wick codirector, Chad Stahelski), a company that trains actors for action-heavy roles. Even he was astounded by what his leading lady could do. “I have a roomful of stunt guys who can do the choreography, but they can’t create a compelling character,” Leitch says. “To have the gift to do both? That’s another level.” Once he realized what Theron, a former dancer, was capable of delivering, he went back to the drawing board. “After the first week I started to redesign [the fight sequences], like, ‘We need more action!'”

Jonathan Prime/Focus Features
Jonathan Prime/Focus Features
Jonathan Prime/Focus Features

And there’s plenty of it in Atomic Blonde, which has slick, stylized visuals and an ’80s-discotheque soundtrack. “Other people may have thought Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I was thinking punk rock,” Leitch says. It’s a sensibility that also applies to the gritty depiction of violence, where you can feel the impact (and see the lasting damage) of every punch and kick. “Right from the beginning, it was clear there had to be consequences for all these actions,” Theron says. “I think David loves that reality, and I thrive on that reality, so we really went for it.”

She certainly did during the intense months of physical training before shooting. She clenched her jaw so tightly, she cracked two teeth. McAvoy was awed by Theron’s determination. “She took a lot of injuries, and I’d watch her just come back the next day with a cracked tooth or a bruised rib and just keep going.”

Jonathan Prime/Focus Features
Jonathan Prime/Focus Features

Shot in Budapest during a particularly cold winter, the film had a lean production budget, which meant that everyone had to make any unexpected incidents work — say, like McAvoy turning up for work with a broken hand thanks to an injury he sustained on Split. “I told David, ‘Look, I understand if you want to [replace me with] someone else,'” McAvoy says. Instead, his character got a cast that got integrated into the plot. “This is what happens when you get a fight choreographer and say, ‘Go make your own movie.'”

Leitch, for his part, credits his leading lady. “I don’t need to do 25 edits to make Charlize look formidable,” he says. “I just need her in front of the camera, doing this fight, and people are going to go bananas.”

Take a look at the featurette above for more from behind-the-scenes of Atomic Blonde. 

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