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She's more than that

Beautiful, bold, and sometimes brash, 'Sleepwalking' star Charlize Theron knows where she wants to go

Email|Print| Text size + By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / March 9, 2008

Charlize Theron is putting drops in her eyes. It's late morning the day after she accepted the Hasty Pudding's Woman of the Year award last month, and there had been drinking. She favored boilermakers, that time-tested, blue-collar, sit-up-and-bark elixir of beer and whiskey.

"You're brave enough to do this thing and then you wake up the next morning and say, 'What did I do?' " she says, head back, talking to the ceiling. "That's why I have to put eyedrops in my eyes this morning.

"But I had a great parade," she adds. "What I like about it, you know, is that you can't take this industry too seriously. We want to believe we're curing cancer, but we really aren't."

She's like that. Direct. Theron said some weeks ago she'd be watching the Oscars in her jammies at home this year. If you're not nominated, she reasoned, why go?

Theron, pronounced "Troon" with a rolled "r" in her native Afrikaans, is in Cambridge for another day after the Pudding rodeo to publicize her new movie, "Sleepwalking," a grim indie about a wreck of a family that opens here Friday.

The woman is a serious actor and a strong feminist, but you can't reach any of that until you've confronted her implacable beauty, which she wears like a loose garment. It's a conventional beauty that stops you in mid-stride. (She modeled before acting and was the Playboy cover for May 1999.)

Theron looms like a tall creature from some distant savannah. Ursula Andress had a similar effect when she emerged from the Caribbean in "Dr. No" 45 years ago.

She's an honest 5 feet 11 inches and zigs when other tall women zag. Rather than wearing low pumps to minimize her height, she's sporting bodacious 2-inch gray stiletto heels that match skin-tight - I mean skin-tight - gray pants and an elegant gray shawl.

Today, she's a platinum blonde with a low-cut ivory blouse ruffled along the plunge. Glittering black two-tiered earrings and a simple strand of white beads around her neck. Big ocean eyes of blue-green. A small flower tattoo on one ankle and another, a small fish, on the instep.

Her legs are endless, and she glides into a room like a gorgeous giraffe, towering over her posse of hair guy, makeup guy, and PR minions.

Theron's looks are never far from any discussion of her work. To some, she has willfully chosen parts that nullify her beauty. "So much has been made of the physical transformation in 'Monster,' " she says about the 2003 movie that earned her a best actress Oscar. "And I got that, but people can't let go of it."

Then came her role as Josey in "North Country," another unglamorous part, this time a miner. She took a year off to grow her hair back to its natural brown for "In the Valley of Elah," another unglamorous role as a detective who's a single mother.

"I got really defensive of Josey," she adds. "I love this character. But I've always said I'd play a pretty girl in every single movie if it was a good story. It's not about the physical. I couldn't give a [expletive] about what I look like."

(Josh Brolin, who acted with her in "In the Valley of Elah," says, approvingly, that she has the foulest mouth of any woman he's met. Nick Stahl, a costar in "Sleepwalking," concurs with similar admiration: "She's a filthy sailor.")

Theron moves seamlessly from tales of boilermakers to discourse on women in film. She chafes at the bipolar Hollywood attitude about women. "If we're going to tell stories about women, we should do it truthfully," she says. "We can't keep living this madonna-whore complex. I think women are way more conflicted than men and yet somehow we only portray men that way.

"I look at a role like Aileen Wuornos in 'Monster' that De Niro would have gotten," she continues. "There's this idea that it's high risk to put a woman in a role like that because people aren't going to watch a woman.

"People say Joleen [her character in "Sleepwalking"] is not a really good mother and I say, yeah, that's the point. You want to tell me every mother out there is a good mother?"

"Sleepwalking" is classic Theron when it comes to messed-up women. Joleen is a disaster of a mother who abandons her child and takes off with a trucker. Her younger brother, a sweet failure of a man, cares for the child as best he can, which is not well.

Her brother eventually returns to their abusive father, played by a terrifying Dennis Hopper, and the farm on which he and his sister grew up, where things get worse. You want to talk darkness, this is your picture.

Theron is also one of the rare Hollywood actors who likes producing. Many direct, an exercise Robert Redford once called "agony and math," but have no interest in running the whole show.

What she really likes about producing, she says, is the pressure involved. As she speaks, you realize that beneath the boilermakers lives a real grown-up. "It's about responsibility," she says. "I like having the responsibility of taking someone's money and say I'm going to do good on that.

"It's another way for me to feel just as satisfied as when I'm in front of a camera, particularly given what's happening to independent films today, and finding new talent, pulling the circus together and doing it."

We forget, if we ever knew, that she was a producer of "Monster," and, make no mistake, control matters at the end of the day.

"The most frustrating thing is when you devote all that time and energy to something you read on the page and then people start sidestepping, and the original plan all of a sudden goes out the window," she says. "It was nice to know in 'Monster' you could put your foot down and say, no, guess what, this is the story we set out to make."

She's also a producer of "Sleepwalking," and an executive producer of the upcoming "The Burning Plain" with Mexican director Guillermo Arriaga. She'll also produce and star in a remake of "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance," the final installment of a mondo-violent trilogy by Korean director Park Chan-wook.

In the meantime, she'll start shooting next month for "The Road," taken from the Cormac McCarthy masterpiece by the same name, in which she'll work with Viggo Mortensen.

What strikes everyone about Theron is her quicksilver capacity to dart from loose fun to laser focus and back again. "I was amazed by her ability to turn it on and off," says Stahl. "She can literally be joking around and then she's right into it in front of the camera and then right back to herself again. She doesn't take anything home with her."

She can discuss the accent she adopted in Minnesota for "North Country" - "I went there and realized they spoke that way because it's [expletive] cold" - and in the next breath talk about the human condition.

Does the Robert Redford model of leveraging star power to trade a big Hollywood flick for a low-budget one of her own choosing appeal to her? "It does, but in the same breath, I can't imagine doing the big one I really don't want to do," she says. " 'The Italian Job' was a big film, but I really wanted to do that." (A sequel, "The Brazilian Job," is off for the moment.) And she's finished "Hancock," a big movie with Will Smith, which had a script she loved.

She despises the LA paparazzi and, surprise, says so. "It's become a freak show," she says. "I don't remember reading crap about Meryl Streep or Dustin Hoffman. It drives me insane.

"There are certain places you just don't go," she continues. "Everyone in LA knows if you go to The Ivy you're going to get photographed. I'm OK with that. It's the things you can't avoid, like going home. That's not even sacred anymore."

Yet she dismisses the idea of escaping up the coast to Montecito or Santa Barbara, as other stars have done.

"So I'm in Montecito and, what, my friends are going to drive up two hours to visit me?" she says, her voice rising. "Is my mom going to stop by for a beer? That's not going to happen. There's something really wrong about rolling over and saying, 'OK, you guys, you win.' They say, if this is the job you choose, this is part of it. No it's not. Don't treat me like I'm 4."

Her mother, Gerda, remains an anchor in her life. The elder Theron lives a few blocks from her daughter in LA, and Charlize brought her to the Academy Awards the year she won her Oscar. They've been through a lot together since her mother, claiming fear for the lives of herself and her daughter, shot and killed Charlize's father in 1991. South African authorities did not prosecute.

Theron has been with Irish actor Stuart Townsend for seven years. They fly under the media radar and travel quietly together all over the world whenever she gets a break. And that's really what she's most proud of. Her life.

"I'm really proud that I've been able to hang on to my life, and do the work I really want to do," she says. "I think you can have a great career and do great work, but at the end of the day if you don't have a life to really celebrate that in, it's a pretty lonely place.

"Life comes first. I've got a great group of friends. That's my family. All of that is what makes me a better actor. I'm very proud and blessed to have that. I don't take it for granted."

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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