The 'Gringo' star on why she turned to producing and what draws her to dark, tormented characters

By Piya Sinha-Roy
March 09, 2018 at 03:13 PM EST
Amazon Studios

Gringo

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  • Movie

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Charlize Theron pauses for a moment to take a deep inhale of her vape pen as the Oscar-winning actress is asked what she’s able to bring to her projects as a producer.

“Developing some f—ed up women,” she quips.

Theron knows a thing or two about playing nasty women on screen but what’s less known is her role behind the scenes to bring these projects to light.

“I just now refuse to be a part of anything that doesn’t feel like it reflects the truth, not just in women but in storytelling,” she says. “When I started out in this business, there was nothing, not that it held me back but it didn’t really move anything forward.”

Theron, 42, first produced 2003’s Monster, in which she transformed drastically — with stringy hair and facial prosthetics — to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a role that earned her an Oscar for Best Actress.

Since then, the actress has produced an array of projects, some of which she has starred in and each checking the box of dark, tormented and often unlikeable female protagonists — take the selfish Mavis from 2011’s Young Adult, the traumatized Libby in 2015’s Dark Places, or the deadly agent Lorraine in last year’s action-packed Atomic Blonde.

In Amazon Studios’ black comedy Gringo (in theaters now), directed by Australian filmmaker Nash Edgerton, Theron plays Elaine, a red-lipped, sharp-tongued pharmaceutical company co-founder whose eviscerates the men around her with cutting jibes and femme fatale confidence.

It has been a decade since Theron first reached out to Edgerton — the brother of actor Joel Edgerton — after she watched his 2007 short film Spider, a startling tale of a goofball boyfriend whose immature attempt at placating his girlfriend backfires in a violent manner.

That out-of-the-blue phone call to Edgerton prompted David Oyelowo, Theron’s Gringo costar, to praise her “bravery” as a producer.

“To have a woman in a industry where women are generally marginalized, to feel [like,] ‘I’m going to call that director up,’ that’s not usual, that’s not the norm,” he says. “I know that she is an inspiration … it’s an amazing thing as a man, and as a black man, to be a beneficiary of that bravery.”

Theron talked to EW ahead of the release of Gringo about what she enjoys most about producing and how she hopes the film industry is changing to accommodate more women on and behind the screen.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There’s a long-standing idea in Hollywood that audiences might not want to watch flawed, despicable women on screen. What do you think people enjoy about watching a character like Elaine?
CHARLIZE THERON:
I’ve been saying this for a long time; I feel like society has put women in two boxes, the Madonna-whore complex, and we have lived by that standard for so long. For many years, if you were a female in this industry, you either played the hooker or you played the really great mother, that was just the level of our complexity. [Robert] De Niro got to play Travis in Taxi Driver and it was rare for women to show that same complexity and that gray zone, because for a moment, there was a lot of talk about audiences feeling uncomfortable with women being portrayed that sense and it’s just so not truthful. We are way more complex than that — some of us are not good mothers and some of us are terrible hookers, and we needed to see more of that! [Laughs]

But in all seriousness, that kind of exploration, audiences enjoy it because it feels reflective of what they know, not just for women but for men too, it’s just what the world’s about, we are way more complex than what we’ve been allowed to be in storytelling sometimes.

I just binged Mindhunter on Netflix [which Theron executive produced], it’s so good.
I know, everybody’s always so concerned, [saying,] “You really love serial killers.” I’m like, “Yes, I do, I want to know why they do what they do.” I just think we are scraping, we’re on the surface when it comes to human behavior and truly understanding it, and not just labeling it off of that, we’re a society that calls people monsters but are not willing to understand why.

Do you see yourself directing and writing?
No, I really have such a love affair with writers. A huge part in wanting to produce was really loving the development process with writers, sitting in a room and you’re starting that development process, so I don’t call myself a writer, I work from feeling. I look at a lot of writers and go, “so it’s the idea,” I can never do the lines but I can feel in my gut, in every part of my body that something isn’t feeling right, and I don’t necessarily know how to fix it on the page but I’ve been very fortunate to work with writers who can translate what I’m feeling, so I’m very grateful for that. I have no desire to direct right now but I also, ten years ago, had no desire to produce.

How do you think the Times Up campaign to close the gender gap in pay and representation is changing Hollywood right now?
I think this is the loudest that this conversation has ever been, I think an avalanche of situations and women have stepped forward and I don’t think this avalanche is going to be stopped. I feel like in the last 25 years in my career, there have been moments like this and then they disappear in three months, and this has been snowballing for so long. I feel like women are finally finding their voice and bravery in numbers and we’ve never had that before, and I think that was a really scary place to be for women, a very, very scary place to be when you think you’re alone and you might get in trouble if you speak up and a lot of women did, a lot of victims were outcast in our industry. And by the way, this happens everywhere, this is not just something that happens in our industry, but I think somehow, just how this has all happened in such a large scale is going to change it, I don’t think we can turn back right now.

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