Charlize Theron and the art of fighting back

Charlize Theron plays a femme fatale in Atomic Blonde. Photo: TGV Pictures

Charlize Theron had to overcome two big obstacles, a guttural Afrikaaner accent and her South African Apartheid identity to make it in Hollywood.

And she did it all on her own.

Something I can vouch for because I was there at her creation.

Twenty years ago when she was a total unknown – having done only one film, 2 Days In The Valley – because we were both from South Africa, I was asked by her publicist to interview her for the purpose of creating her bio.

Soon thereafter she became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after young actresses, handpicked by Woody Allen to appear in Celebrity, and sharing the screen with the likes of Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves in The Devil’s Advocate.

Her first starring role in Mighty Joe Young prompted a Los Angeles Times critic to call her, “the most gorgeous woman working in film”.

After that she played opposite Johnny Depp in The Astronaut’s Wife, provided the love interest for Ben Affleck in Reindeer Games, Matt Damon in Robert Redford’s The Legend Of Bagger Vance and Mark Wahlberg in The Yards.

And Theron was the female lead in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Cider House Rules, which ended up being nominated for eight Oscars.

But then her career went into a slump.

A Billy Bob Thornton movie went straight to video; she was passed over for roles she helped develop which were then offered to Reese Witherspoon (Sweet Home Alabama) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago).

She began accepting mediocre roles in mediocre films (Sweet November, Trapped) finally hitting pay dirt with The Italian Job – again opposite Wahlberg – which became a surprise hit.

Before its release, she was all prepared to play supporting roles in numerous projects, when out of the blue she was offered the role of Aileen Wuornos, a notorious serial killer who was executed in Florida after a number of highly publicised appeals.

The movie was a low budget independent film with no studio attached. The director, Patty Jenkins, had never made a film before. Financing was hard to come by, so Theron stepped in as co-producer.

The film Monster opened quietly and overnight transformed the actress from a Hollywood has-been into an Academy Award winner!

The 41-year-old beauty has followed that role with award calibre work in North Country, Young Adult and another Oscar nominee, Mad Max: Fury Road.

Theron’s ferocious work in that paved the way for her to be cast in Atomic Blonde in which she plays a kick-a** femme fatale.

But the chapter on Theron’s Hollywood story began when she arrived in Los Angeles with only US$400 in her pocket.

A chance argument she had at a nearby bank, which had refused to cash her cheque, was witnessed by a Hollywood agent, John Crosby, who was so impressed with her spunk, he gave her his card!

Did you know who he was?

Not at all, and I knew that in Hollywood, if you walk on Hollywood Boulevard, everybody wants to make you a star.

But it turned out that he managed people like Rene Russo and John Hurt, so he was legitimate, and for him to just be a little bit interested in me was just mind boggling.

I sat down with him. I basically had nothing to show him, so I said: “Look, I’ve always had a feeling that this was the one thing in my life that I could be good at and happy at the same time.” And he said: “Well, let’s give it a shot.”

He introduced me to an agency, and I went to my first reading, which was for a Paul Verhoeven movie. Later Paul put in a good word for me, which was very nice. When I look back at all these things, meeting these people, being at the right place at the right time, luck had a lot to do with it.

You left South Africa when Nelson Mandela was still in prison. How old were you at the time?

I was 15. I lived all over Europe for two years and I stayed about a year in New York, then lived in Miami, before coming to LA just before my 20th birthday.

What was your reason for leaving?

I was studying ballet at what was then the only Afrikaans art school in South Africa.

I had been doing it for about 12 years, very much in love with what I was doing, but always aware that this was not what I wanted to do.

Ever since I was five years old, whenever I watched movies I thought, “I can do that so much better. God, that’s me. That’s my life story right there.”

I also knew that if I was going to do it, I would have to do it the right way, and Hollywood was the only way.

Wasn’t your mother worried that something bad could happen to you?

My mother happens to be my best friend. I mean, she is my mentor and my hero.

She taught me to be determined and to stick with what I wanted to do.

It’s a tough decision, but you must remember my father died three months before I left South Africa.

I had become a little rebellious. My mum had no choice but to let me go. She just said, “Here’s some money to get you off your feet. Go and chase your dreams, but just know that I will not support you.”

Wasn’t that rather callous?

No it wasn’t. She always knew that I had bigger dreams than normal children, and if she didn’t let me go, I would bring the house down, so it was never really an issue. She has always been behind me and proud of me.

You lost a tooth while filming Atomic Blonde. How physical are you willing to go for a role?

I had some dental issues when we started training, but the real challenge was when a director’s desire to shoot continuously for eight to nine seconds at a time, which in the action world is unheard of. You’re usually shooting less than two-and-a-half seconds because you’re cutting it, and a lot of action happens in the editing room.

Even Mad Max was like that. So knowing that you can’t use a double, I would say 98% of it was me doing it. There were things that I would have been open to because I felt incredibly safe with the crew, but insurance wise they didn’t make sense. Jumping out of a building with a fire hose is one of them.

But I was very, very lucky that I had a great stunt double who was also one of my trainers, and because of her I understood what the female body is capable of doing.

Could you take down a guy in real life?

I don’t know. Look, there is a real skill behind it. A lot of it is mathematical so a lot of it is just understanding body weight.

You have to look at size and the entirety of your whole body in order to do something like that, and that takes a lot of thinking.

You have your opponent in front of you, and they’re doing things that you’d never expect; so in that moment you have to realise, “OK, he is 6’ 2”, he is way bigger than me, so I’m never going to be able to punch him.”

But if you are agile, you can catapult your own body weight.

Common sense tells you not to do it, but you learn as a fighter that that’s how you get it done.

And you actually did that?

Yeah, I’ve thrown bodies over me, and it’s really just understanding that if you drop your entire weight, that person doesn’t know what’s coming.

They’re going to be off balance and then you can just throw them.

It’s a real skill, it’s a real art. Fighting is something that I have great respect for. I don’t think it gets enough appreciation.

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