V101: Charlize Takes The Throne

V101: Charlize Takes The Throne

AS THE EVIL QUEEN RAVENNA, CHARLIZE THERON PLAYS AN ANCIENT, NARCISSISTIC SERIAL KILLER—WHICH PUTS THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE. AT 40, THE OSCAR-WINNING ACTRESS, ACTIVIST, PRODUCER, AND SINGLE MOTHER FEELS FAR MORE POWERFUL THAN WHEN SHE WAS SEEN AS JUST A PRETTY FACE. HERE, SHE AND ANOTHER HOLLYWOOD STALWART DISCUSS WHY BEAUTY IS SOMETIMES A THING TO OVERCOME

AS THE EVIL QUEEN RAVENNA, CHARLIZE THERON PLAYS AN ANCIENT, NARCISSISTIC SERIAL KILLER—WHICH PUTS THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE. AT 40, THE OSCAR-WINNING ACTRESS, ACTIVIST, PRODUCER, AND SINGLE MOTHER FEELS FAR MORE POWERFUL THAN WHEN SHE WAS SEEN AS JUST A PRETTY FACE. HERE, SHE AND ANOTHER HOLLYWOOD STALWART DISCUSS WHY BEAUTY IS SOMETIMES A THING TO OVERCOME

Photography: Collier Schorr

Styling: Robbie Spencer

Text: James Franco

I first noticed Charlize Theron when I was a freshman at UCLA and caught 2 Days in the Valley at a theater in Westwood. What I didn’t know then was that the eye-popping, blond Amazonian sex queen in lingerie was Charlize in her screen debut. Later, once I had started acting, I was blown away by her performance in the Al Pacino/Keanu Reeves devil-as-a-lawyer romp, The Devil’s Advocate. In a film where Pacino revelled in chewing the scenery as King Satan, Theron’s perfect Southern bride loses her mind so convincingly that her on-screen suicide is the primary scene that stays with me to this day. She blew the world away with her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, a full transformation, both physically and mentally. It almost doesn’t seem fair that the most beautiful woman in film can also be one of the best character actors around. And it didn’t stop there—Theron is also funny as hell. She nailed the self-pitying midlife mess of a writer in Young Adult with a pitch-perfect performance that balanced comedic bathos and genuine human sympathy. Basically, I’m in love with Charlize Theron. And I haven’t even mentioned the action star Charlize, the sci-fi star Charlize, and the fantasy villain Charlize. I actually think she can do anything.

JAMES FRANCO How did you go from modeling and dancing to acting?

CHARLIZE THERON I studied, once I moved here [to L.A.]. I didn’t tell any of my friends. I was embarrassed because they all knew me as just this one thing, which was an occasional model. At that time, to be a model turned actor—you just couldn’t come up with a worse combination of a person.

JF It looks like you did a really small part in Children of the Corn III?

CT Yeah. My roommate knew the director. She said, “We should go and be extras in this movie.” I was like, “Are you serious? We could do that?” We showed up and ran through a field covered in blood. It was about the most exciting thing I’d ever done in my entire life.

JF And the next thing was 2 Days in the Valley?

CT Yeah. I auditioned for that several times. The director told me, “Actually, you were kind of perfect for the role, but you were really bad at auditioning.” I didn’t understand the process of auditioning. I got a little too crazy for them at one point. I just didn’t know what the limitations were in the room. I tried to make it like acting class, where you would try and make it as real as possible. You’d bring in props and things like that. I had to do this scene where I, in the movie, show up at this house where I know James Spader’s character is about to do this hit. I show up because I’ve just been shot. I need him to get me to the hospital. I’m bleeding from my stomach. It’s basically moments before I die. I came into the auditioning room, and when they said, “Okay, are you ready?” I went out the door and in my bag I had brought this bottle of ketchup. I poured the whole bottle of ketchup on my stomach, then told the receptionist outside, “Look, it’s going to get a little loud.” I warned her because I noticed she was on the phone, like that was my job or something. Then I barged through the door, getting ketchup on all the doors and the furniture. I just didn’t know how not to try and make it as real as possible. I think they were a little more concerned about my own sanity. Eventually they gave me the role. [Director John Herzfeld] said, “I knew you’d be up for anything.”

JF That’s a pretty big role for your second movie.

CT Oh yeah, totally, completely. By the way, by saying “second movie,” you’re really giving the role that I had in Children of the Corn VII, or whatever it was, a lot of credit.

JF Did things change after that?

CT Yeah. The marketing campaign was a little scary because they put me front and center in lingerie. I was smart enough to know that was a little, like, Uh oh, there you go, you’re going to be that girl. I did the movie because I felt like it was quirky enough to not make me that girl. The first couple of calls, though, were very much, “We just want her to do what she did in 2 Days in the Valley.” I got it really quickly. The model turned actress. I didn’t work for over a year. I was lucky that I could still go back and do the odd modeling job that no one would know about to pay the rent. Eventually, if I couldn’t do that through modeling, then I would have done it through acting, but as long as I possibly could, I wanted my [acting] career to be about something that I really liked to do. I didn’t want to go in and repeat myself. I knew early on that I wanted longevity in the game. That only happens if you deliver good work. That’s the only way. That’s just common sense. [That Thing You Do!] was the first movie that I really went out for. I kind of played the ditz again, but it was with Tom Hanks [writing, directing, and acting]. I was like, Okay, I can do this. This is my idol.

JF I remember I met with Sean Penn—years before we did Milk—because he wanted to do another movie. We were at the Four Seasons, in the restaurant, and you came over to the table. I was so shy, I probably said two words.

CT Jesus, that was, what, 17 years ago? I know exactly the movie we were talking about, too. It was a short story called “The Ice at the Bottom of the World.”

JF So, that was the first time I met you. And I’ll just say it, you’re gorgeous. You are very, very beautiful. And that’s something that some actors and actresses have to work out. Like you’re saying, you don’t want to be the sexy girl in lingerie in every movie. On the other hand, you’ve been really smart about how you use your beauty. You want to work with Tom Hanks, it’s okay to play the ditzy girl. You do Celebrity with Woody Allen and you’re playing a model, but it’s okay because the context makes it something else. And then The Devil’s Advocate was the one where you showed that you could do this whole other thing. So now, if you want to be the gorgeous evil queen, you can do that. If you want to be the badass truck driver in the post-apocalyptic future, you can do that, too.

CT George Miller, who I did [Mad Max: Fury Road] with, told me that really, you just want people to be who they are and stop acting. He said once that he was watching a play and, in the middle of it, a cat just walked across the stage. The audience was all looking at the cat, not at the actors. It was this analogy for when a thing’s just doing what it naturally should be doing, that’s when it’s at its most beautiful form. That’s when you can’t take your eyes off of it. So, how do you not get imprisoned by these things? How do you not try and compartmentalize yourself? How do you try not to kill the thing that you are? How do you find the balance within all of that? I think that’s every actor’s struggle. I think that when you can pay more attention to all that than to building a career and the idea of being a celebrity, that’s when you get the closest to being an artist. The artist that you really are. It’s tough, it’s hard.

CT Tobey and I had a bit of a rough time, yeah. I mean, we’re good now. It was a difficult movie.

JF But when you’re working with someone who you’re supposed to be in love with on-screen, and offscreen you just do not have that dynamic, how do you deal with that?

CT There really is real power in substitution. The thing is, as an actor, you can’t just rely on one method. Every day is completely different for a completely different reason. Whether it’s the weather, or the writing isn’t there, or you don’t get along with your castmate, you have to be able to go to something else that’s just as powerful. Does it make it as enjoyable? Probably not. I mean, there were just a couple of days that Tobey and I had a rough time. The rest of the movie, we actually had a really good time. I love Tobey. I’m kind of glad we had that experience on that movie. It teaches you different things. It taught me that I could fall in love with somebody in my head while looking at someone else.

JF Whose face were you projecting onto his face?

CT That I can’t share with you. I had to. We had some really intimate moments. Tobey and I didn’t feel that way about each other, so I had to figure something else out.

JF In 2000 to 2001, you were just everywhere. What was that period like in your life?

CT I don’t think I was really happy with my life, so I was working a lot. Now, when I look back on it, I was also scared. I felt like I had to run. I didn’t want to lose it. I thought it was all going to go away, or I was going to die, something. When I came out of it, I kind of understood why. I was in complete denial about things that were going on in my life.

JF So, Monster was a pretty small movie, by a first-time director, but with this powerful performance at the center of it.

CT We shot for 28 days. I got a call from my agent. She said, “I’m five pages into this script that was offered to you and I think it’s unbelievable. You should watch this Nick Broomfield documentary.” I watched it and I just remember thinking, Did my agent give me the right documentary? This can’t be it. It was funny how my whole career had been about, “I can do this, guys, trust me, I can do this.” Then all of a sudden, I was faced with this thing, and I was like, “I don’t think I’m your girl. I don’t think I can do this. I think you’re going to miss the boat on your movie here because you have to go so real with this. This woman is so specific in her mannerisms. There’s no need in telling the story unless you really get into who she was emotionally, and her emotional scars affected how she physically carried herself.” [Director Patty Jenkins] had been writing to Aileen Wuornos at that time and we had planned to go and see her on death row. On the day that it was announced I was making the movie, Aileen was executed. Nobody saw it coming. Aileen had this high school friend that she grew up with in Flint, Michigan, Dawn Watkins, who basically got all of her stuff when she died. Patty and I took a road trip to Flint. Dawn wouldn’t let us copy anything or take anything with us, but we read Aileen’s letters for about a week, and in them, I could see a very scared person. It was in her voice when she was writing that I found her humanity. I’ve played a real-life character when the person’s still alive: Britt Ekland in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. I had to go to Cannes and sit next to her while she was watching the movie. That was brutal. I could tell there was a part of her that was like, I never did that. I mean, she was really nice about it, but I could tell. I think the same thing about Aileen. I think it was the first time I realized that, as people, our human nature is to not want to believe that we can do things. But when we end up in a situation like death row, we really can look back on our lives. We can reflect in a different way. That’s what I meant by her humanity. I could see how she was going back and forth on herself: who she was, who she thought she was, who she thought other people thought she was, and what she had done.

JF What did she think about the movie being made?

CT You know, I think that she was skeptical. It was true Aileen fashion to be the wall. That was just her. That was innately Aileen, to just go, “No,” pull her chest up and roll her eyes back.

JF You’re really good at comedy, too. Young Adult was great.

CT I got really lucky within Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody. Personal taste in humor is way more complicated and precise than your taste in drama. More people can agree on drama than on comedy. Humor is just so personal.

JF And you’re producing a lot of your own movies now.

CT Yeah. There just needs to be something for me with a director that is like, I really want to go and do this with you. Whatever this journey’s going to be, I’m going to be your guy. I’m going to be there as an empty canvas, to tell the story that you really want to tell. Whether I was producing or not producing, I always valued that relationship with the director.

JF In The Huntsman: Winter’s War, you’re reprising your role as the Queen. There’s an interesting dynamic between her and a younger woman.

CT Fairy tales are really fucking dark. I read them every night to my kids. That character, the Evil Queen, to me started off very like, Yuck. It’s too iconic. It’s just so one-note. Everybody knows who this person is. Then, the more I read the story, the more I realized she was a fucking serial killer. She had this God complex. The more I humanized her, the more she became broken to me, the more I realized how painful it must be to be alive for that long and just know one way of living, to never learn another way of living. It became brutal. I was lucky in the first one, the producer and the director were really open to me creating more of a backstory for her and adding some scenes to really showcase her in a little bit of a different light, so that she’s not just the bitch on wheels. In a really weird way, I was allowed to create that character more than any other character that I’ve ever played. The idea of exploring her through a different relationship, a new relationship—Emily Blunt’s character, her younger sister—felt interesting. It’s brutal when you think of the truth of what we face in society, what it means for a woman versus what it means for a man. What we, especially women, consider to be our strengths and to be our weaknesses. That aging is a weakness, that we think of it that way. Yet, it’s when we’re at our wisest. We’ve experienced everything and we should be considering ourselves the richest. We live in a society where women are treated like wilted flowers. They used to be pretty, but now they’re just kind of wilting. The guy is like a fine bottle of wine. He just gets better and better with age. It became very real, the vanity of it all. That we are all animals of our circumstance. If you are raised to believe that your power is only good for as long as you’re beautiful, then that’s what you’re going to believe. If you’re a child growing up in a fucking racist community, then you’re going to grow up thinking black people are bad. Hopefully, you’ll find a different path somewhere along your life. If your circumstances are so enclosed in the environment that you were taught in, then that’s what you’re going to be. That’s what this character is.

JF It’s like the Snow White story is parallel to what it’s like to be a woman in the film industry.

CT But we compartmentalize women too much. We talk about women in Hollywood as if it’s different for women who are bankers in the Midwest. It really isn’t. I have friends who are not in this industry-—women, beautiful women. I see the pressures that they face. I see how they feel when they get older. It’s everywhere. If we want to believe that when we make movies, we’re holding up the image of society, then we have to agree that this is something that’s way bigger than just women in Hollywood.

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