Talking with Charlize Theron
Charlize Theron looks a little distracted as she walks into the lobby of L.A.’s Chateau Marmont hotel. She just rushed here from the vet, she explains, because her dog’s been having this problem where his bottom jaw occasionally comes unhinged. She herself has a doctor’s appointment later this afternoon to deal with neck spasms she’s experienced since injuring herself a year ago on the set of the sci-fi action film Aeon Flux. She’s been rolling from one project to another for months, most recently doing a five-episode stint as a wacky British woman on the sitcom Arrested Development. Now she’s looking forward to a long break to get everything — neck, dog jaw, life in general — back in alignment. ”I’m not working for the rest of the year,” she says, settling into a couch with a cup of tea. ”I want to just spend some time with me.”
It’s been a year and a half since Theron won the Best Actress Oscar for her ferocious performance in the 2003 film Monster, in which she transformed herself from stupefyingly beautiful screen siren into horrifying serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Figuring out how to maintain career velocity after an Oscar victory can be one of the trickier (if more enviable) dilemmas in Hollywood, as evidenced by some of Theron’s predecessors on the podium, like Hilary Swank and Halle Berry. Since that Oscar night, Theron has marked time in smallish projects: the little-seen World War II drama Head in the Clouds, in which she costarred with boyfriend Stuart Townsend; the HBO biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers; and TV’s Arrested Development. Now she’s pulling out the big guns. In the drama North Country, she plays a Minnesota single mother who brings a sexual harassment class-action lawsuit against the iron mine where she works. In December, she dons a skintight suit to play a badass futuristic assassin in Flux, adapted from a cult anime series. One is a socially conscious piece of Academy catnip, the other a shiny hunk of would-be blockbuster entertainment; together they present a formidable combination-punch answer to that perennial post-Oscar question: Where do you go now?
Theron, 30, has come quite a ways already. Growing up on a farm in rural South Africa, she left to pursue modeling and ballet after a family tragedy: When she was 15, her mother shot and killed her father in self-defense during an episode of drunken abuse. At 18, Theron moved to Hollywood, where, in 1997, she landed a breakthrough role opposite Keanu Reeves in The Devil’s Advocate. But while the movies continued to roll in — hits like The Cider House Rules and The Italian Job along with duds like The Astronaut’s Wife and Reindeer Games — they didn’t always showcase her acting chops. ”Charlize got a lot of roles where she was just the attractive squeeze,” says Devil’s Advocate director Taylor Hackford. ”She had to do Monster to say, ‘Forget the looks and look at this.”’
It was Monster that made Niki Caro, the New Zealand-born director of the indie sleeper Whale Rider, take notice when she was casting North Country. The film, which is based on a landmark sexual harassment case, attracted some of the leading actresses in Hollywood — including Sissy Spacek and Frances McDormand, who won supporting roles. But from the start, Caro zeroed in on Theron for the lead. ”Charlize is a very unusual creature,” says Caro. ”She’s every inch a movie star, but she’s simultaneously one of the best character actors out there.”