Outspoken and fearless. Those are the principal character traits that define Charlize Theron, the South African amazon whose brazen attitude towards life is every bit a match for her striking beauty. The Oscar-winning (for Monster) actress is an independent woman who could take on any man, and tends to swear like one, too.
Directors and co-stars have described the 39-year-old Theron as a “ballsy” woman but one with enormous talent and sensitivity as anyone who would have seen her performances in films like The Burning Plane or Young Adult would attest.
Theron is about to achieve another career milestone with Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller’s retake of his own original 1979 Mad Max film and cult classic that helped propel Mel Gibson to Hollywood stardom. This time out, British actor Tom Hardy takes on the iconic role while Theron plays the female desert warrior who joins Hardy’s Max Rockatansky in an epic road war in their joint effort to cross the wasteland. For Theron, the film gave her the chance to throw herself into the kind of supercharged powerful role that suits her fiercer, feminist side.
“The original Mad Max created such a vivid world…George [Miller] really created a female character that I’ve never read anything like [before],” Theron declared with respect to her taking on the role of Imperator Furiosa.
“It’s a really challenging piece of material. Originally…I was like, ‘Uh, I’m not going to play the f*****g girl for ‘Mad Max’.’ Then I read it and I was like, ‘Oh, Mad Max, I feel sorry for you.’ [Laughs] That rarely happens…It’s two great characters. It’s not the original ‘Mad Max’. It’s the revamped ‘Mad Max’. It’s Tom Hardy, who’s incredible. So, the whole thing is just exciting, very, very exciting.”
Theron’s naturally self-confident and assertive personality explains why her boyfriend Sean Penn may well be the ideal man for her. He’s a notorious bad boy whose previous relationships with Robin Wright and Madonna were known for being as torrid as they were tumultuous.
Theron and Penn’s romance first heated up when they vacationed together in Hawaii over a year ago over New Year’s – since then they’ve been virtually inseparable, attending various awards functions and other events as a couple.
In her most serious comment regarding their relationship, Theron gushed: “It just kind of naturally happened, and before I knew it, I was in something that was making my life better – the people who really love me can see the effect it has had on me.”
On Mad Max: Fury Road
One of the key early moments in Mad Max: Fury Road comes when Max (Hardy) and Furiosa (Theron) battle it out in the dirt before she is willing to join forces with him.
“This is not just two people standing there punching each other,” explained writer-director George Miller.
“This is a question of which one of them is going to survive….I remember thinking [when Theron was driving the war rig back to base camp during the production and he was sitting behind her]: ‘She IS the Imperator, and if this was a real wasteland and we were at war, I’d be really happy she’s on our side.”
Added Miller: “I can’t really think of another character in cinema quite like her. I’m sure that other people might find connections, but just the way the character was conceived, and how Charlize took it on and transformed herself and played it, she did it with such authority. There have been great female action characters, but there’s just been nothing quite like this.”
On female empowerment
Theron has long been known for her determined advocacy for women’s rights and specifically for greater opportunities for women in Hollywood. Never married, she has openly dismissed the idea of “the white dress” and is a committed spokesperson on gender and age equality. She also disdains the prevailing climate of discrimination against older women.
Declared Theron: “Women find their strength and power in their sexuality, in their sensuality within, [through] getting older and being secure within that. It’s ironic that we’ve built the beauty world around 20-year-olds, when they have no f*****g concept about wisdom, what life is about, having a few relationships below [their] belt and feeling hardships, to grow into [their] skin and feel confident within [themselves] and to feel the value of who [they] are, not because of a man or because of something like that. And I think that’s such a beautiful thing.
“That’s why I think people say women come into their prime in their 40s. And then for some reason our society just wants to go…it’s like a dead flower. It’s like we wilt for some reason. And men are like fine wines — the older they get, the better they get. It’s such a misconception, and it’s such a lost opportunity because that’s when I think women are really in the true moment of their sensuality.”
As proof of practicing what she preaches in terms of standing up to Hollywood’s patriarchal studio system, Theron recently negotiated a $10 million paycheck for her work in the upcoming film The Huntsman after last November’s Sony hack revealed that top Hollywood actresses were receiving less pay than their male co-stars.
Even veteran industry observers were shocked to learn that Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than her male costars in the Oscar-nominated American Hustle despite being arguably the hottest and highest-profile cast member.
Theron will now earn the same salary as co-star Chris Hemsworth in The Huntsman, a prequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman.
Theron’s personal life underwent an upheaval five years ago when she split with actor Stuart Townshend after a nine year relationship. She didn’t work for nearly three years around the time of her breakup before resuming her career with films like The Burning Plain and Young Adult. It was during that time that she adopted a four-month-old baby boy in 2012 from Kenya whom she subsequently named Jackson. Sean Penn recently filed papers to become the three-year-old boy’s adoptive father.
Stated Theron: “I’m so happy to be a mother…It’s so amazing to finally reach this point in my life and be able to enjoy this incredible experience. I’m overjoyed!”
She added: “But the thing that caught me totally unprepared was the impact and intensity of this change in my life. Being a mother has struck me at a very deep level. I mean, to hold a young child that grows slowly and then starts talking and looking at the world around him is something absolutely incredible.”
“I want to be that example for my son. I want him to grow up with a mom that he could see and look at her life with all the mistakes and with all the failures and all the flaws and say, ‘My mom lived an authentic life. That was the life she wanted to live’.”
Theron is also adamant that being a mother does not affect her screen choices:
“I don’t look at material and go, ‘This is too dark, I have a kid now’, because my interests still are my interests. That doesn’t make me a bad mother. I think that makes me a really good mother, because when I go and creatively satisfy myself and those interests, I come home satisfied. And I can be a really good mother to him because I’m happy.”
On her powerful bond with her mother Gerda
Theron, an only child, grew up on a farm in South Africa with a father she has characterized as an abusive alcoholic. In 1991, Gerda, her mother, fatally shot him after he came home in a drunken rage and threatened to kill her and the then-15-year-old Theron. Authorities ruled the slaying was self-defense, and Gerda was never prosecuted. Theron has remained close to her mother during her time in Hollywood and has never lost sight of her mother’s courage and profound influence on her:
“She has taught me to stand up for myself and be courageous. I’m not someone who indulges in self-pity and I hate it if I ever start feeling sorry for myself. I was raised in a way that I should never allow myself to be the victim, but to take responsibility for my decisions and my actions and live as boldly as possible.”
“My mother has given me a lot of guidance on that level. She’s someone who believes in not dwelling on the past and getting on with your life. I’m trying to live on those terms. I want to live the way I want to and not think back 50 years from now why I didn’t live my life when I had the chance. You have to be willing to go through the highs and lows and keep moving forward.”
When Theron was struggling to find good acting parts in her 20s she often dealt with the perception that she was a former model (though never a particularly successful one) and too pretty and striking for most roles.
But when 2 Days in the Valley (1996) earned her immediate recognition, leading to subsequent roles in Devils’ Advocate (opposite Keanu Reeves) in 1997 and Woody Allen’s Celebrity the year after, Theron was on her way. She credits her mother with giving her both moral and financial support to help her hang in there before her career took off.
“I may have been insecure in finding myself as a teenager, or early-20s person, but I always had a very strong sense of what I felt was inside me,” she says. “My mom always used to tell me, ‘You have a foundation, and the foundation is there because of who you are, not because of what people think you are’. And it’s the kernel of that truth, of your truth — of knowing who you are, deep down — that lets you not pay that much attention to what people perceive in you.”
On her sense of independence
“Sean [Penn] is very close to his children. But I was not looking for a baby-sitter, I was looking for a partner. I can pay for a babysitter! [Laughs]
“I have lots of friends who wanted to get married, for whom marriage was a major milestone. It never meant anything to me, I’ve tried a different way.”
“I don’t like [sympathy] for myself. Sometimes sympathy can feel like you’re trying to kind of victimize someone. I don’t know, maybe it’s just my own [stuff] that I have to deal with, but I think that, more than anything, people just want to be understood, you know?
“I grew up in a house with an alcoholic (father). And I experienced a lot of people being overly sympathetic, and for me, sympathy and pity — there’s a very, very fine line between the two. Maybe I was being ultra-sensitive, but the way I was treated then, the way people looked at me, it made me feel weak. And I was not a fan of that feeling at all. I’m still not.
“[There’s this misconception that] I’m a dark and bitchy kind of woman. [Laughs] I’ve played dark people in the past…and I’m nothing like that although I can be a bitch if I need to be. [Laughs]
“Most directors are constantly surprised when they meet me and get a chance to hang out with me for a while. I have a reputation for having a very raw sense of humor and I kind of use that to my advantage. I’ve always used humor as a refuge and as a way of overcoming or getting past a lot of the darker, sadder things that life can throw at you.”
On fame and happiness
“For me, fame has no value. I never read anything into it than what it is. I don’t even know what it really means…In my position, you can’t manage it all, much less being able to control the media and that sort of thing. Life is never as rational as you would like it.
“I’m well aware of those less privileged than me [Theron works for numerous African charities] and how ambitions and expectations are dashed every day in life. In my case the pressure of media attention is a small downside that I simply need to ignore. It cannot and should not in any way affect my choices. The only priority that I have is my happiness and my son.
“I don’t think that life is that happy in general. It’s always going to be a struggle and you have to hang on to those moments where the world seems wonderful rather than grim. And even when things look bad, you shouldn’t let yourself get caught up in that because it won’t help you deal with things. You need to be able to pick yourself up off the floor and get on with things. That’s the attitude and life philosophy I’ve picked up from my mother.
“I’m not sure that happiness is [the] goal. It’s not the kind of state of being that you can necessarily control. You try to do the things in life which please you and the best you can hope for is that you’re going to be happy on some general level. Life takes you in many different directions and not all of them are going to be good. You’re going to have to deal with very tough times and sad moments because that’s just inevitable and life is like that. You have to find the strength and determination to move past the difficult times and stay positive so that you can enjoy all the good moments. I’m feeling good about things now and I’m open and looking forward to the future.”