Friday, June 24, 2005

Vogue October 04 - Charlize Theron

Bronzed Bombshell: It is a Saturday night in late July, and I am sitting at the bar at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, reading the paper and drinking a glass of wine. Charlize Theron suddenly appears next to me, and I almost don't recognize her: Her hair is dyed jet-black and is cut into a short bob, but with two tendrils, sort of like grown-out spit curls, hanging down almost to her shoulders. She is wearing all black—velvet YSL pants, long-sleeved T-shirt, tight little cardigan—and because her arms and legs are so long and slender, she looks like a spider. Theron, who will be in Berlin for the next four months shooting her latest film, Aeon Flux, has not yet found a suitable apartment, partly because she takes her four dogs with her everywhere. "I hate living in hotels," she says. She seems delighted that I'm at the bar and not, as planned, in the restaurant, so she pulls up a stool and orders a gin and tonic.

Because she has done nothing but work and sleep since she arrived a few days ago, Theron is thrilled for a little social time, even if it is, as she says, "with a complete stranger." When I ask her what she wants to do, she says, "I'm all yours. Do with me what you will." And so, for now, we sit at the bar and enjoy our drinks. I mention that I gave up trying to read past profiles of her because, frankly, they were all so repetitive, and she says, "Do you feel a little jealous? Is that what it is? I always wonder what that's like for you writers."

Sort of, I say. But it's retroactive jealousy. It's a bit like dating someone and then finding out so many others came before you.

She laughs. "So this is your chance to write something fresh! I've never been on a blind date, but I always think interviews are like blind dates. You have to sit down with someone you don't know and be pretty open. And it's like, We can have a laugh, just sitting here at the bar, which is totally great, but then it's like—she claps her hands—'OK! Let's not forget we've got work to do!'"

Needless to say, Charlize Theron is excellent company. She has been described many times as a throwback, an old-fashioned, good-time Hollywood gal, like Carole Lombard. She has a big, explosive laugh and seems completely un-self-conscious about it. She is also very funny, in that quick-with-a-pointy-little-wisecrack kind of way. (One wonders why she hasn't done much—any?—comedy.) She is also routinely characterized as a woman with a lust for life, someone who unabashedly enjoys all the things we're not supposed to do. And so I'm not at all surprised that when we head outside to our table, she orders steak and lobster and drinks two tall glasses of German beer.

"The tiniest things get so underlined," she says. "You can't have a drink, because then you love to booze it up! And you can't say 'fuck,' because then you swear like a sailor! I'm the Harley-driving, steak-eating, chain-smoking, loves-to-booze-it-up girl. God, I so don't go through my life like that. There's a certain amount of balance that I definitely have that just never comes across. I don't think I sit down at a table and embarrass anyone. I read that stuff and go, 'God, am I really that outrageous?'"

What is refreshing about Theron is that, although this characterization bothers her, it has not stopped her from just being herself. And clearly there is no publicist or handler trying to rein her in. When I tell her that most people in her position never drink during interviews and routinely ask that their smoking be "off the record," she looks at me with her big blue eyes and responds with one of her favorite expressions: "That's odd."

Theron seems utterly comfortable in her own skin. Robert Redford once said that she is "fiercely tough on herself without letting the insecurity dominate," and when I mention the quote she says, "I do have insecurities, but I don't want them to run my life. If you're pretty clear about the reasons you're doing the things you want to do—if your agenda is clear—then there's no need to have fear. Everything in life has consequences, and if you've made peace with that, why the hell not? Go for it. What is there to lose? Not that much." And then, to my delight, she quotes a Frank Sinatra classic: "It's like that song: 'Regrets, I have a few, but then again, too few to mention.' That's kind of how I feel about my life. Sure there are some, but let's move on!"

Her well-adjustedness is all the more surprising because of her childhood, which was, at the very least, difficult, and at worst, traumatizing. It has become well known that Theron grew up as an only child on a farm in Benoni, a remote rural town in South Africa, and that her father was an abusive alcoholic who, in 1991, flew into a drunken rage and attacked Charlize and her mother, Gerda, who shot and killed him. The courts ruled it an act of self-defense, and she was never charged. At sixteen, Theron won a modeling competition in Milan and, with her mother's blessing, moved to New York to pursue a career. She lived for a year in a loft in TriBeCa with a couple of roommates. By eighteen, she had moved to L.A., where she was discovered by an agent in a bank.

When I mention that she has a so-called good reputation in Hollywood, she says, "I like good eggs. I don't set out to be little Miss Goody Two-shoes—which I'm so not—but I don't do drama. It's just too hard. I think some people get energy from that. I get completely drained from it. There's nothing I despise more than actors showing up being horrible human beings just because they can, when some grip is there trying to feed his family. I hate elitism. Watching someone try to figure out who's on whose level, and who's not, really bothers me."

And despite the fact that Theron has all the prerequisites to participate in the celebrity circus—the killer body, the blonde luminosity, the red-carpet poise—she seems to keep herself at a slight remove. "It's strange that people put so much emphasis on us. We make movies, but you know what? At the end of the day, we're just normal people. After the Oscars, I had people waiting outside my house and following me around. I realized I couldn't live my life this way, so I filed a lot of police reports, and now it's fine. I'm just never going to be comfortable being easy prey. I just can't. I'm never going to be that starlet girl, the paparazzi angel who always says the right thing, because it's not who I want to be. I'm very lucky: I have a great job, I have my friends and my family and my dogs, and anything other than that right now I'm not focused on. It's the only way I know how to live."

As the evening progresses and the examples of Charlize's tough-girl resolve and common sense begin to pile up, I can't help feeling that I'm missing something, like there's another part of her personality just out of view. Earlier, I had mentioned to her that one of her most recent directors said to me, "Charlize is made of steel," and she stared at me and said nothing. Now she brings it up. "You know that comment? That I'm made of steel? It's true, I'm very durable. But I think people think of me as this kind of indestructible, completely fine-all-the-time, strong person. But I'm not that way all the time. I can be quite a softy."

I see that softer side of Theron the next morning when I meet her in the lobby for coffee around 11:00 a.m. She arrives in jeans and a clingy, sheer yellow T-shirt over a white tank, an elegant white leather jacket, and funny little shoes that look like a cross between a pump and a boating sneaker. She has a dainty floral tattoo on her right ankle. Because of her black hair, no one seems to recognize her, despite the fact that Monster was a big hit in Germany (although last night I overheard a hotel employee say to a guest, "You know vee have a big movie stah in za hotel? Monstah!")

The hair belongs to the character in Aeon Flux, a futuristic sci-fi thriller based on the animated shorts that debuted on MTV in 1991. Because the film involves a lot of exterior shots with cranes and actors flying on wires, the filmmakers chose Berlin, with its unique concentration of hypermodern architecture set against vast, verdant parks and gardens. Directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), the story takes place in the twenty-fifth century, by which time nature has taken over and there are only a couple thousand people left on Earth. For her role as a female assassin, Theron is getting paid $10 million. It is her Lara Croft moment, which seems to have become a requisite for unbelievable-looking young women who have just won an Oscar.

In order to become a high-flying, acrobatic, gun-toting, anti-superheroine, Theron has been training for months in Los Angeles, and it shows. She is nearly five feet ten and has said in the past that she prefers to have a little meat on her bones. A few years ago, she was asked to lose weight for the film Sweet November. "I really didn't feel like I belonged in my skin," she says. "I didn't like the way clothes looked on me. I felt bony. I felt like my boobs disappeared and I had these big shoulders, but everything else was so tiny, and I wasn't comfortable at all." Last year, in order to gain weight to play Aileen Wuornos in Monster, she did not work out for a year and a half. Now, it seems, that's all she does. "It's tough to gain 30 pounds and then try get your body back. I'm not skinnier than I was before—I'm my regular size—but because of all this training, I'm just really toned. I'm supple again. I can do splits and back bends. I'm strong. There isn't a part of my body that is not toned." Made of steel indeed.

With the same zeal with which she transformed her body for Monster, she has been getting up before dawn to work out with not one but three trainers for four hours a day. "One guy performed with Cirque du Soleil for 20 years, and he's basically teaching me to become somewhat of a contortionist and gymnast," she says. "And then I have a guy that's teaching me capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. I have a young girl helping me with my stretching. And then there is Charlie, the stunt coordinator. He comes in sporadically to see where I am, and then he starts designing the flight sequences around what I can do."

As she throws herself into this role, Theron officially comes to the end of her post-Oscar Glow phase, a period during which she has been regularly congratulated by strangers in restaurants and constantly asked, "How has it changed your life?" When I ask, she sighs. "I never have a great answer for this question. I wish I had a story to tell you, but I don't. My contractor is still taking forever to finish my house, and not so much has changed."

The one thing that has, she concedes, is the work. Theron's career was not exactly on fire before Monster—even though it had percolated with a lot of promise from nearly the beginning. In 1996, she landed the small but flashy part of the Teutonic man-killer Helga in 2 Days in the Valley. "I remember driving down Sunset Boulevard, and all of a sudden I was on the billboard bigger than anyone else who was in the movie. I was nineteen, and I remember thinking, Wow." Her good fortune quickly turned to disappointment. "Everything else that was sent to me after that was 'Just do the same thing,' so very early on I knew I had to be smart about it—and veer away from that ex-model, sex-kitten thing."

Many people first noticed Theron in The Devil's Advocate, a film directed by Taylor Hackford that was, she says, a turning point. For one thing, she learned how to fight for parts. (She screen-tested for the role five times.) In 2000, she starred in four films (including The Cider House Rules and The Yards) and was, for a brief moment, the new It girl, landing on the cover of Vanity Fair before anyone knew her name, an honor that has come to be seen as a curse for young actors being put up on the pedestal too soon (paging Gretchen Mol). "It was weird," she says, "because I was like, What am I doing on the cover of this magazine? Shouldn't Julia Roberts be on it? I was very much aware that it means that you're supposed to be able to carry a film, and I was by no means ready to."

But it was, nevertheless, a heady experience. "I was enjoying it," she says. "I was young, I was traveling, I was working with people that I really wanted to work with. Those were the best years of my life." But then she hit a slump. "I kept finding myself in a place where directors would back me but studios didn't." That's when she began "a love affair with directors, the ones I really, truly admired"—an approach that has its downside. "I found myself making really bad movies, too. Reindeer Games was not a good movie, but I did it because I loved John Frankenheimer."

She orders another latte and lights a cigarette. "And then I feel like this last part of my career was when I started realizing that if I didn't do something different I was going to make movies like The Italian Job for the rest of my life. I kind of felt, God, I hope there will be somebody who will want to take a chance on me. And then… the gods were watching over me. Because Monster happened."

Ever since she walked up the aisle to accept the Best Actress award looking as golden and statuesque as an Oscar herself, she has not had to fight for parts. She was offered Aeon Flux and her next film, Class Action, both of which, like Monster, are directed by women and both of which she stars in with her idol Frances McDormand. "She's just a phenomenal actress. So instinctual and somebody who really just goes from her gut. But at the same time she's remained an individual and she… just doesn't care. There's this freedom about her, and I think that's what makes her a great actress. She's amazing. A complete inspiration." It's a telling choice. Not only is McDormand known for her interesting choices but Theron could just as easily be describing herself.

Now comes the real test, as Theron will inevitably have to deal with something altogether new: the pressure to live up to heightened expectations. "I think it definitely exists; anybody who says it doesn't would be lying. But Oscar or not, you're never going to make movies back-to-back that are going to make everybody happy. People say, 'Well, Tom Hanks did,' but Tom Hanks is in a class of his own. Some magazine wrote an article about 'What will she do next? Where can she go from here?' It's like, God, I'm 28. Relax!"

It is a position in which many gifted actors often find themselves: The Academy Awarded role fades from public consciousness, and unfair expectations begin to be placed on whatever film follows—even if it was made before the Oscar was bestowed. Earlier this year, Theron got into a little hot water for an offhand joke she made about Halle Berry, who has become the poster child for post-Oscar bad choices. Theron lived to regret it and ended up sending Berry flowers and apologizing.

Theron may just catch some grief of her own this month for choices she made before her acceptance speech. This September had her starring in Head in the Clouds, with Penélope Cruz and Irish actor Stuart Townsend, Theron's boyfriend of nearly four years. Directed by John Duigan (best known for directing Nicole Kidman in Flirting), it is a between-the-wars romantic drama that tries and fails to be a sweeping epic about human strife and impossible love, like The English Patient. The film has its diversions, namely a bisexual love triangle between the three main characters and the fascination of watching the chemistry between Theron and her very talented and excruciatingly handsome companion. "I felt a frisson between them," says Duigan about his decision to cast the couple.

In December comes The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, an HBO biopic in which Theron portrays Britt Ekland, the Swedish B-movie actress who was famous mostly for her five-year marriage to Sellers in the early sixties. Even though Theron's supersize cameo lasts only 20 minutes, it is a crucial 20 minutes at the center of a very watchable but perhaps overly ambitious film. From the second Theron appears on-screen, you cannot take your eyes off her, as she becomes part of a devastating mini-portrait of a marriage charged with sex and violence. Strangely enough, as in Monster, she is doing a very physical, dead-on imitation of an actual person.

Sellers, who is played by Geoffrey Rush, died nearly 25 years ago, though he still occupies a singular place in the popular imagination as Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies. He was a freakishly gifted comic actor—like Jim Carrey with better range and more subtlety. Yet Sellers was also a tormented soul, and the film, despite its sixties-pop Technicolor playfulness, is actually quite tragic—and a rather ugly comment on show business. Rush thinks that the film is about the beginnings of celebrity as we know it today. There was a time, he says, when "we only had Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and the Beatles, and it was sort of this Olympian, rarefied world and not often pried into. Now there's so much saturation of that kind of lurid insight in the media. I think the story is sort of about that. What happens if you take a rather ordinary, maladjusted Mr. Nobody and give him sex, glamour, rock 'n' roll, and drugs, and suddenly he's in an extraordinary world?"

Sellers leaves his wife and kids for Britt Ekland, that's what. Theron was cast partly because she looks like Ekland but also, says the director, Stephen Hopkins, because "she's had quite a life, she's been through a lot, and she understands people very well. So I think it's the combination of that with her extraordinary beauty. It's a blast in the film. She comes in, and it's just pow!" Or, as Rush puts it, "She's damn lucky, because not only is she a drop-dead-gorgeous leggy catwalk glamour-puss, she's a fucking brilliant actress. I want to see her now stake her claim to great actorhood, and it will really be a shame if she doesn't get that chance."

Just before the film debuted at Cannes back in May, Ekland talked to a reporter about the casting of Theron, complaining that she was too tall and too old to play her (Ekland was 21 when she met Sellers). The British tabloids whipped it up into the tiniest of controversies, so Theron got in touch with Ekland and invited her to be her date to the premiere. "Little did I know what that would feel like!" she says. It was "nerve-racking" watching the film while sitting next to the woman she was playing on-screen, especially since Ekland was visibly moved and disturbed through much of the film. "She's really a wise, smart, beautiful, strong woman," says Theron. "She reminds me a lot of my mom, actually."

Theron is famously—and not surprisingly—very close to her mother. They have turned up together on the red carpet over the years, and, at Charlize's urging, her mother moved to L.A. in 2001. After eight years of living apart, they inevitably went through a period of adjustment, one that had mostly to do with Gerda's coming to grips with the fact that her little girl was all grown up. Charlize says that she also had to contend with feeling responsible for her mother, who had to start over in a new place and build a life for herself. "I worry about my mom," she says. "Not that I have to, but I do. I feel that all of this has been so incredible, and I'm so aware that it could disappear tomorrow. If it did, I don't worry about where it would it leave me, but where it would leave other people who have sacrificed a lot to take this journey with me. Like my mom."

When I ask Theron if there is anyone other than her mother who has had a big influence on her, she says, "No, not really. She's so adventurous and knows about everything. She's like a little BBC News walking around. She has such a vast amount of knowledge about art and books and countries and people and politics, and it's nice to have a mother like that. You feel like you're constantly learning something."

Intriguingly, the actress describes Stuart Townsend in almost exactly the same words. She tilts her head. "Is it just a natural thing in me to be attracted to those qualities in people? Or is it because of her? Because they're so similar." Townsend, who is 31, grew up in Dublin. At 23, he moved to London, where he made several smallish films. He and Theron met three and half years ago when they were both cast in Trapped, a thriller costarring Courtney Love and Kevin Bacon that virtually no one went to see.

"I walked into a nasty conference room in some hotel where we were doing a table read of the script," says Theron, "and he was sitting down, and I spotted him from a mile away and thought that he was so hot. For me it was pretty instant. He, on the other hand, saw me come in with my dogs and my UGGs."

Townsend confirms that his first and only thought was, Who's the mad lady with the dogs? But later that night a group of people involved in the film got together for dinner, and he and Theron both arrived early. "She walked in in this black dress and looked like a million dollars. She glammed it up, you know? And when she glams it up, she really looks incredible. It was like I hadn't even seen her. And we just had so much fun. By the end of that dinner I was completely smitten. That was it."

Six months later they bought a house together in Malibu. "I don't think I've ever laughed with a woman so much in my life," says Townsend. "Even when you work with her, she always tries to keep it light. Never wants it to get too heavy. Even when she did Monster. It's pretty impressive. Most people would just be in that film for the entire shoot. She's a pretty cool cat, you know?" When he first read the script for Monster, he had no idea who Wuornos was or what she looked like. "I was kind of dreading it in a way, because I thought, Uh-oh, here we go: She's playing a hooker, serial-killer lesbian, and it's going to be all about getting her body in Angelina Jolie shape, getting tattoos everywhere, thongs—my imagination was very clichéd. And suddenly she was like, 'No, I'm going to put on all this weight and get these fucked-up teeth,' and I was like, 'Oooh, this is interesting now.' What's great about Charlize is that she was very masculine in that film, but she's not in real life. She has a very boisterous quality, which is very sexy because at the same time she is utterly feminine. I think she's just really beautiful."

She's not the Amazonian giantess I was expecting, I say.

"It's kind of bizarre. Sometimes she looks small, and then other times I look at her and go, 'My God, you're tall!' You must have caught her on a small day."

Because Charlize Theron is a very Helmut Newton kind of girl and because we are in Berlin, we decide to go to the newly opened foundation dedicated to the photographer's work. We jump in a cab in front of the hotel, and since I don't have an address but I know that it's near a famous train station, I ask the driver to drop us off in the general vicinity. Big mistake. The two of us wind up going in circles, not quite lost but almost. Theron eventually removes the map from my hands and calmly and quietly takes control of the situation. "Reminds me of my modeling days," she says as we head off in a new direction, "when I had a map and a bag of five-inch-high heels trying to find a go-see." Before long, we find ourselves standing in the lobby in front of several of Newton's "Big Nudes." "He would have loved you," I say. "He liked tall girls with broad shoulders."

"Oooh," she says, "I love that."

Inside the gallery, Theron fixates on an iconic shot of Catherine Deneuve with a cigarette hanging from her lips. "That's the shot that Mario Testino had at my Vogue shoot," she says. "We did a black-and-white version of it—minus the cigarette." As it happens, like Deneuve for Chanel No 5, Theron has just been signed to be the face of a fragrance: Dior's famed J'Adore. (She is receiving between $3 million and $5 million for a three-year contract, which, at least in the world of perfume, puts her in the same league as Nicole Kidman, the new Chanel spokeswoman.) For Theron, it was all about timing. She wouldn't have felt comfortable doing it before proving herself to be more than just another pretty face. She was also drawn to the idea of working again with John Galliano, who designed her dress for the last Golden Globes. About the campaign, she says, "I felt like it was my personality. It's very much what I think is sexy and beautiful."

As we leave the exhibit and wander aimlessly into the city, Theron's cell phone rings, and it is her makeup artist, Shane, and her assistant, Beth, calling to tell her that they're at a café on the river. Geoffrey Rush had told me that Theron "has a marvelous team around her, and they're not her lackeys, they're her friends. That was lovely to see." When we arrive at the café, Theron orders a pizza, and then the three of them proceed to carry on like a bunch of teenagers, telling politically incorrect jokes and laughing uproariously, oblivious to the people nearby. As I sit watching them, I can't help but think that, despite how well-adjusted Theron seems now, she must have missed out on those crucial, carefree teenage years because she had to steel herself against the horror of what happened in her family.

The night before, we sat outside in the cool twilight in front of the Brandenburg Gate and talked while someone somewhere played a saxophone. Something about the almost clichéd atmosphere reminded me of a famous line that generally gets attributed to Ernest Hemingway. "I never heard that," she says. "I'm a huge Hemingway fan." I ask her what other writers she likes. "Huge Bukowski fan. I have a weird nurturing sense toward those older… "Macho drinking men?" I say, and she laughs. "I have this thing about wanting to marry Ozzy Osbourne just purely because I want to take care of him. Stuart always laughs at me because they have a house not too far away from us in Malibu, and he's like, 'Your boyfriend's walking by.' I like those older guys." She lists other writers: Norman Mailer. Kerouac. "You're right. I do have a thing for…" There is a long pause. And then she says, almost to herself, "My God, this is a lovely night." Then, half-serious: "Let's get drunk." We didn't. And as far as I could tell, she embarrassed no one.