Tall, elegant, wearing a grey shrug that covers her blouse, the beautiful Charlize Theron is an Oscar winner, who has managed to shake off the external image with bona fide acting chops. Theron laughs when asked about her looks versus the characters she yearns to play, characters such as the seemingly tough and uncompromising Josey Aimes, a victim of sexual harassment, in her latest film, North Country. “I just realised pretty early on that we get dealt a certain hand of cards and I can’t change them,” the philosophical actress says, smilingly.
“I can’t change the way I look nor can I sit back and let that rule my life when I know in my heart that I’m a real girl. It’s just utter nonsense that this ideology that women who are pretty don’t feel, don’t have pain, or don’t understand human conflict, because everything’s just so dandy for them. I think for me it was just instead of sitting back and crying about it, I just have to believe that there’ll be somebody out there who will believe in my enough to do that.” Then Patty Jenkins showed up and cast Theron in the life-changing Monster, which both garnered her an Oscar and overdue critical recognition. “The one thing I always say to actors is that when it happens you gotta be ready. It’s the only thing you can do – and just keep believing.”
Women have been the strongest influence in Theron’s career, one responsible for an Oscar, and now New Zealand’s Niki Caro may be steering her towards a second nomination with North Country. The actress says she doesn’t feel the need to champion these female directors. “I think they’re doing pretty good by themselves without any help from me and I think especially in the last two years there’s been a great group of female directors. I mean coming off my little bit of success I thought, well, if anybody’s gonna give me any power there’s a handful of women that I really want to work with and Niki was one of them, as is Sofia Coppola. I think the reason why they’re so successful is because they’re not just telling women stories. They might be telling stories that affect women but their studies on men are done so well so that they’re universal directors. So I really believe this is a talent, and just understanding the human conflict is so good that they can tell any genre, any kind of story, and that’s why I think they’re doing so well.”
It was her interest in Niki Caro, fresh from her international triumph with Whale Rider that forged her interest in the director’s US debut, North Country. In the film, Theron stars as Josey Aimes, who returns to her hometown in Northern Minnesota after a failed marriage, and in need of a good job. A single mother with two children to support, she turns to the predominant source of employment in the region – the iron mines. The last thing the miners want is women competing for scarce jobs – women who, in their estimation, have no business driving trucks and hauling rock anyway. When Josey speaks out against the treatment she and her fellow workers face it takes her farther than she ever imagined, ultimately inspiring countless others, and leading to the nation’s first-ever class action lawsuit for sexual harassment. “I stalk directors and I really wanted to work with Niki after seeing Whale Rider. Warner Bros. had sent me the script maybe three months before they asked Niki to direct it. Of course, I’m a woman; I read this and I was shocked that these events really happened and that that was only settled in 1995, which is such recent history. So all of these things were really interesting to me, but these stories can become very black and white in the wrong hands and cat start pointing fingers, which is not life and that’s not what I’m interested in. So I wouldn’t say yes to it until I knew who they were going to have as a director. So when Niki came on board she really catapulted the whole thing for me because we got together and she finished my sentences and I finished hers, so all of these worries I had were just non-existent.”
Theron is adamant that the sexist culture so brutally explored in North Country, remains prevalent today. “Oh my God, for a while I thought maybe it was just smaller communities, and then I became really fascinated by it. I just found out today that there were these horrible cases found in Chicago and in Dallas and I was just shocked. They were big-city companies and city girls. This isn’t just happening in rural communities, and it’s happening today. This case definitely did something historic and it was obviously a landmark case, but it doesn’t mean that we change how people think overnight. That has to come, maybe, with the next generation, realistically, even if we try as hard as we can with this one, but I think that takes time and that’s why we have to stay on it.”
Theron says she thrives on a challenge, and more recently, has played, including to some extent this character, three characters based on real life, in the Peter Sellers biopic, Monster and North Country. She enjoys that challenge, she says, but at the same time, “I like ’em all. You have a little bit more of a responsibility just cause I like to sleep peacefully at night, and I don’t ever want to feel like I took advantage of somebody’s real life events just to make a more exciting Hollywood film. To me the truth is the most important thing and that’s the only way I really know how to live with myself, because I think that’s pretty. We can’t be playing God with other peoples’ lives and one thing these women kept saying to me -because they’d share some really intimate things with me – was thank you and they’d say, “Stop thanking us, go and tell the truth”. And that’s something I don’t take lightly at all. But, you know, at the end of the day fictional characters are human beings as well so I don’t tend to think that I have less responsibility with them. It’s my job to go and find their human truth just as much because they’re human beings as well – they might not have lived but they’ll be living through me.”
Such as her next, vastly different character, Aeon Flux, based on another comic bok and on the surface, an unusual choice for this Oscar winner. “I purely did that because of Karyn Kusama who comes from the world of character driven stories. I mean Girlfight was so, um, complex to me, so I don’t think I could have done that film – nor would I have been interested in that film – if it didn’t mean working with a director who was new to that genre who comes from my kind of genre and to see what she would do with that genre. That’s what I was interested in, because I knew with somebody like Karyn it wouldn’t just be like running around with big tits and kicking things,” she adds, laughingly. “Besides I’m not good at that because I have no tits. So I was interested in where she would find the human connection in something that looks very unreal. I mean I had to really educate myself on the ser-… I never knew about the series and I’m not really very familiar with that genre, so it was a huge thing for me but it felt like a great challenge and it felt like I could have a great partnership with Karyn on this. And this story really lends itself to a lot of issues that we’re facing today – a lot of things that I think are issues and so the human quality is not missed – actually, the question of the whole film is about our human existence and so it was creatively very satisfying.”
It seems that whatever Ms Theron embarks upon, it’s far from Hollywood superficiality