Interview: Charlize Theron, actress
Don’t call Charlize Theron brave for appearing in a movie without make-up – the star of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is far too down to Earth to join the cult of celebrity, finds Claire Black
I’m glad that Charlize Theron didn’t stand up until the end of our interview. It’s not just that to have stood up at the start, as I plodded my way across a carpet with pile deep enough to hide in, would have seemed weirdly formal, but also because I don’t think I would’ve been able to stop myself from gawping at the sight of her at full extension.
Theron is astonishingly beautiful. Architecturally fine bone structure, piercing eyes, perfect teeth, languid limbs – she’s got them all. Even folded up on a low sofa like the most delicate of origami creatures, her physical presence is striking, but when she stands up – she’s 5ft 9in in her stocking soles and there’s easily an extra four or five inches on the fashion forward patent leather heels she’s wearing – it’s enough to make a 5ft 3in Scottish person gawp. Or gasp. Or both.
Actually, now I feel fairly sure that if that’s what had happened, Theron would’ve laughed like a drain, because although the South African actor looks ethereally beautiful she’s also viscerally real. Down to earth is the hackneyed phrase that’s used most often, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in accuracy. Beauty is an ideal, something to aspire to, or covet, but in the flesh it can be intimidating, off-putting almost. Theron somehow manages to cut through hers, to make you forget, for a little while at least, that she looks the way she does, a way that regularly puts her on the cover of glossy magazines and that has made her the face of Dior perfume J’Adore. It’s no mean feat and it makes her hugely likeable.
But however Theron distracts from it, the beauty is there, staring right at you, marking her out despite the easy banter and laughs. It’s what makes her perfect for the role of the icy Meredith Vickers in Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi blockbuster, Prometheus. Complete edits of the 3D epic are yet to be made available so hysteria has been building around a short selection of scenes presented at a buzzing press screening in London last month. In one, Vickers and the rest of the passengers on the titular space ship she commands awaken after a two-year hyper sleep. As the others (Noomi Rapace as Dr Elizabeth Shaw included) shake and sweat and vomit and look generally discombobulated, Vickers throws herself to the deck and rattles through some press ups, before casually enquiring of her android underling, David (Michael Fassbender) whether the others have survived. She looks almost disinterested in the answer. It’s an attitude perhaps best described as arctic and it works because Theron looks as she does. Perfect, perhaps not quite human like the rest of us.
Of course, before being ushered into the hotel room to meet her, I wonder whether I might feel a little of that chill. Theron has a reputation for putting journalists who ask stupid questions in their place. I’m not intending to be stupid, but one never knows.
From just inside the door, I fear the worst. All in black, arms folded across her body, legs folded around themselves, she looks a little forbidding. But then she beams a smile, asks me how I am and sticks out her hand. Charlize Theron might look otherworldly but close-up, she’s warm and funny. It’s there in the slightly gravelly texture of her voice and the way she bats away compliments like flies from a fruit platter. It’s there in the steadiness of her eye contact, the way she segues from film chat to life chat to reality TV chat (“the best thing to witness from a guilty couch”.) There’s no affectation.
Vickers looks like a handful, I say, as my less than elegant opener.
“That’s very well put,” she says, smiling. “I’ve had a great year being handed these women who made me work. I had to find them. They’re not easy, they’re complicated and conflicted and somewhat cold and distant. And yet all of that is circumstantial; it comes from a very real and grounded place. It’s been really fun to explore that.”
The women she’s talking about are Mavis Gary in Young Adult, whom she described as a “beautiful car wreck”, and the evil Queen Ravenna in the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman alongside Kristen Stewart. It’s not exactly breaking news to suggest that it’s a little depressing how few multi-dimensional, complex women characters there are in Hollywood films but you have to commend Theron – she’s played more than her fair share of them in recent years. From the standout roles such as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, for which she won an Academy Award in 2004, to the pioneering miner Josey Aimes battling against discrimination in North Country, for which she was also Oscar nominated. Theron is utterly believable as an ordinary woman (and not because of prosthetics – she looks just like a version of herself in both North Country and Young Adult) who doesn’t look like her next job is going to be advertising perfume. It works because of Theron, because of who and how she is.
When I talk about the politics of these characters, Theron doesn’t blanch, she doesn’t put it down to luck, or dismiss that there’s any such thing as politics in Hollywood. But she does laugh.
“I’m owning that market for myself now,” she grins. “What a legacy to leave behind: ‘she played all the bitches’.
“It’s weird, I’ve sat down with studios and filmmakers and producers and writers and so often you still hear, ‘well, you can’t do that because it’s just not likeable. People won’t like her’.” She rolls her eyes. “Do we like all women? There is a fantasy version of women in film and they are not complex – they are great mothers or fantastic whores. This idea that we can find humanity in the not-so-pretty attributes of human behaviour in female storytelling, people are scared of it. Yet, when you do it, people really emotionally tap into it.”
Theron’s appetite for these kinds of characters in these kinds of stories is one of the things that has led to her being described as a “brave” actor. I wonder what she makes of that? By the way she rolls her eyes again, it would seem not much.
“I know people are saying it in a complimentary way so it’s very difficult to be like ‘please don’t say that’, but being brave is going to a war, that’s bravery. I don’t want to be rude, but what they’re referring to as brave is what I’d describe as honesty. I really want to be as honest as possible.
“I think people are shocked because we live in a day and age when celebrity has overtaken what the job of an actor really is, so when you just do the work people are like ‘wow, that’s so brave that you woke up in that scene with no lipstick on’. And it’s like ‘yeah, I really need a Purple Heart for that’.”
Theron says growing up in South Africa, in a small rural town outside Johannesburg, the actors she admired were Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. They were the characters they played, no more or less.
“All of these actors who were just really good and you didn’t know anything about their private lives. The drive was, be as good as you can. Now it’s about the need to be famous. We’ve lost sight of what it really means, what your job is as an actor, which is to show up as a clean canvas. There are a handful of actors who do that really well and when I watch them I don’t see the celebrity of that actor seeping in and I don’t see them tongue and cheeking it, I see them fully committed to what is being asked of them. Those are the ones who push the bar and they make me want to go and push it a little higher.”
Patty Jenkins who directed Monster said that she wanted Theron for the role of Wuornos because she saw in her a kind of ‘ferocity’. I try saying this to Theron to ask her how she would describe what Jenkins saw, but I don’t get far before she interjects with what else it might’ve been. “Madness?” she laughs. “Or maybe I was drunk. They are all kind of the same thing.” She laughs some more.
“I love storytelling and I love a good story. That’s why I want to be around directors who will push me. At the end of the day I want to feel that I really did go and explore something. If you’re going to live in something for the amount of time it takes to make a movie, you better have passion for it.
“I do tackle it with some tenacity and there is some ferociousness about it, but it’s purely from a place of passion and wanting to service the story in the best way I possibly can. Whatever that entails, that’s what I have to be willing to do – otherwise don’t take the job.”
Theron’s original intention wasn’t to be an actor but a dancer. A knee injury at the age of 19 put an end to her training at the Joffrey Ballet Company in New York. And before that there had been modelling – she won a competition in South Africa and was signed to an agency in Italy for a year when she was 16. But it was after both the runway and the barre that Theron thought she’d try Hollywood. And the way it happened is just like a movie. Theron, who was broke and living in a motel watching daytime TV to pass the time and learn how to do an American accent, was spotted in a bank queue in Los Angeles. She was angry with the teller, who was refusing to cash the $500 cheque sent to her by her mother, Gerda. The man in the queue behind her happened to be a Hollywood agent who reckoned that if she could lose her temper in public like that, she could probably cope with acting. He was right. That Theron managed to escape being cast in supermodel or love interest roles relatively quickly is testament only to her and her own sense of what she wanted to do.
To say there is a sense of hysteria surrounding Prometheus is a little like saying a few teenage girls like Justin Bieber. The film is the first science fiction the British director has turned his hand to since his iconic Blade Runner in 1982. Set 37 years before Scott’s original Alien, it is a prequel to the era-defining first outing. I wonder if being attached to such a blockbuster worries Theron, who despite having been making movies for nearly ten years has managed to keep much of her private life private, a task plenty of others would have you believe is impossible. Somehow, Theron has managed to navigate the pitfalls of her industry.
“I have, yes, but it’s a little harder now,” she says. “There’s definitely an element with where I am right now in my life that is a little heartbreaking because you’d almost want to believe that once a child comes into the picture you kind of back off a little bit, but it’s been the opposite.”
The child she’s talking about is her son Jackson. Theron split from her partner, actor Stuart Townsend, in 2010 after nine years together. She’s remained single since then but announced in March that she had adopted a baby boy. Her delight at having a child is obvious and what’s also clear is that having a baby to focus on has further clarified the position of work in her life.
“Even before I became a mother I always valued the quality of my life. I felt incredibly lucky about having the luxury of not having to go to work. When you’re an actor and you need money to pay rent, all bets are off. To not be in that position, so that creatively you can take advantage of it, is an incredible luxury and I’m so not jaded about it.”
That said though, the people who have been hinting that now that she’s a mother she’s probably not interested in work have confounded Theron. The notion doesn’t at all fit with how she’s feeling. Work that she’s not totally committed to, no. Projects that interest her are different.
“I’ve never felt more creative. It’s crazy what’s happened. I don’t know what this little fella has done to me but all of a sudden I want to go and explore everything. And I want to get the answer to everything. There’s an energy level and excitement about life - it’s great. To leave that for something I didn’t feel that passionate about? That would kill me.”
I wonder if some of her response to being a mother comes at least in part from her relationship with her own mother, Gerda, with whom she says she’s always felt she had “a partnership”?
“It really is give and take; it really is. I hope to instill that in my relationship with my son. I think being fair is a huge part of being a parent. I think it was in her fairness that it felt like a partnership, nothing ever felt like power play. There was always a sense of, I am respectful to you and you should be respectful to me, that’s how the world works and so you can start practising with me. She wasn’t a parent who tried to force her beliefs or the way that she saw the world on to me. She didn’t try to create a mini version of her.”
I wonder too, how much of their relationship was forged in adversity. Theron’s mother shot and killed her father in self-defence when she was 15, and soon after, Theron left South Africa. Her mother now lives close to her daughter in LA. She says that she remains a huge influence on her, something that’s been reignited with the adoption of her son.
“The relationship has changed because I really see her as a grandmother. I’m like, why are you being such a pushover? She was never like that when she was raising me. She’s very different.”
It’s obvious that for Theron family life is a way of keeping a sense of normality. It’s important to her and that’s why she guards it carefully. When she talks about it, there’s an intensity to her words, and her eyes never shift from mine.
“I’ve lived my life in a way that matters to me. I’ve tried very hard – sometimes it’s harder than other times – because I know what’s expected of me and what is comfortable. But if everything was up for grabs and I really had nothing for myself, that would be a horrible place to go home to. I try to hang on to that as much as I possibly can. Obviously, now with this little baby I am so protective of him, but it’s hard. There are moments when you really just have to breathe and realise that in retrospect when you put it in the context of everything that goes on, it’s not the end of the world.”
I’m not sure that sanguine acceptance is really Theron. I can imagine that she will bring her ferocity to bear on protecting the life that she’s built. Fame is a by-product of her business, nothing more. I tell her something that I remember Diablo Cody, who wrote Young Adult, said after her brush with celebrity. It was along the lines that she’d been there and done it and her conclusion was that fame is for crazy people.
“It really is,” says Theron. “When you think about it, it’s so ridiculous. It’s frightening what people take from it – this belief that it’s a real thing. It fascinates me when I watch reality TV and see these people who really believe that celebrity is a real thing. The misguided power that they see in it is scary.”
And with that she stands up and glides across the carpet and I gawp. But happily, she doesn’t see me.
• Prometheus is on general release from 1 June