After a sizzling debut in 2 Days In The Valley, the South African actress has avoided the supermodel trap by seeking out a diverse range of roles in films like real-life drama Monster, action sci-fi Aeon Flux and black comedy Young Adult.
Event recorded Saturday 12 November 2011.
Francine Stock: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here this evening to talk to Charlize Theron about her life in pictures. She’s a very brave and versatile actress, apart from being one of the great beauties of our day, so just to remind you before she comes on stage, of the diversity of what she’s done over the past 16 years or so, here’s a little reminder on screen.
(Montage of Charlize’s film work)
Ladies and Gentlemen, Charlize Theron.
Charlize Theron: Thank you.
FS:So we have to start just very briefly in South Africa where you were born, and early dance training then pretty soon in your teens into modelling, then into acting. Did it all seem like facets of the same thing?
CT: Yeah, it’s storytelling. It took me long, numerous years to figure that out but yeah it’s all storytelling. I think that was where my passion always laid, and I always had to discover and come up with an understanding that I had to lose the ability to perform as a dancer, so it really was this great loss, and kind of mourning the loss of that career, that I had to discover what I really loved about it was storytelling.
FS: And it was kind of serious classical ballet?
FS: With the Joffrey Ballet?
CT: Yeah, I started ballet when I was around four or five. I was very hyper as a child so my mom was just constantly trying to hone in this crazy energy because when I wasn’t doing things in a controlled environment I was scaling six-foot walls and falling and climbing trees and constantly injuring myself. So my mom was very conscious of that and put me in ballet and music and... god, ice skating and sports, stuff like that.
FS: So all of that would serve you in good stead later on for becoming an actress.
CT: Yeah, it was amazing, I don’t know how she did it or how she knew but she gave me a great foundation.
FS: So you went to modelling in Europe when you were just 16 or so and then to America quite shortly afterwards. Did you haveany particular entree into acting? How did you get into it?
CT: No, I was so unbelievably naive; also where I was raised was very rural and isolated, so I watched a lot of movies but I didn’t grow up in a culture that really talked about actors or film. I didn’t grow up with theatre and things like that. Now, in retrospect, it was the naivety that gave me the ability to do something as crazy as buy a one-way ticket to Hollywood, I mean who does that? And survives to tell the story?
FS: So, no formal training? Any acting schools, things like that?
CT: No, I went to a couple of acting classes when I got to Los Angeles, this woman, Ivana Chubbuck, taught these classes. It was good in the sense that I didn’t really know how to break down a script. I was also very lucky, I got my first job within eight months so a lot of my training happened on the job.
I had great teachers like Al Pacino so I was very lucky from the beginning. The first film I did was with Danny Aiello and James Spader, you couldn’t ask for anything better than to work with James Spader on your first film, you know he’ll like kick you straight into understanding what the job is all about and what character is and pushing the envelope.
FS: And you had a role on Tom Hanks' first film as director, That Thing You Do, so already there were signs that you were mixing up the kinds of roles as I imagine, looking the way you do, you would have got a lot of ‘glamorous girlfriend’ roles, early on.
CT: Yeah it’s interesting. I had no idea, it’s really bizarre. Having your first movie come out and driving down Sunset Boulevard and seeing a billboard, and it was me in lingerie, like seven feet tall, I just wasn’t prepared for that at all.
They really kind of marketed the film on me and I’d never done anything and nobody knew who I was, and the cast was really incredible. So there was definitely a little thing that went off in my head that said ‘beware’ I mean it was just so specific, you know that look, and how they were marketing that film with that character that everything after that was ‘We just want you to do what you did in 2 Days in the Valley’.
Early on in my career I had a real awareness that if I wanted to not only have longevity but to challenge myself I would have to hold out and really try and find those parts and really fight to the nail for them.
FS: Now the first clip we're going to show is actually from Woody Allen’s film Celebrity, which rather nicely subverts that whole idea because you’re playing this supermodel in this but she’s got quite a lot going on, not all of it good.
CT: Yeah, she’s not the kind of model I was, by the way.
FS: Is it not! I’m a bit disillusioned actually (laughs). In this scene we're going to see you with Kenneth Branagh who is playing a journalist, who...
CT: Ugh, I love that man. I love him so much.
FS: Well that’s the right audience to say that to.
CT: No, really, seriously, he is just perfection in every single way. He is the most amazing human being I have ever been around, and just so grateful and humble, and such a fantastic actor but so much fun to be around.
FS: So here he’s playing this writer who's interviewing you but also is very smitten by you as a supermodel. He’s also channelling Woody Allen in his performance; in quite a spooky way. Let’s see the clip.
(Clip from Celebrity)
So obviously you had this strategy that you were going to look at a few different things. Were you looking for lots of different directors at the time?
CT: Yeah, the first director I ever worked with, John Herzfeld, was so amazing because he made me understand how important the chemistry is between the director and an actor. There’s always a lot of focus put on actors having chemistry, I actually think chemistry with a director is way more important. You can always navigate your way around another actor, I don’t think I’ve had amazing chemistry with every actor I’ve ever worked with but there’s a way you can come around that, I don’t think there’s any way around not having it with the director.
FS: So at what stage can you tell if you will have that with the director?
CT: It’s like when you fall in love with someone, it really is, it’s exactly the same thing; there really is no one thing. It’s also moments of great leaps of faith because you have to just... want to believe. Because you don’t get to spend that much time with the director up front and so it really is something that you feel and you have to trust. Sometimes you can be proven wrong but I definitely, early on, understood the importance of wanting to work with directors that inspire me, that had the same taste in film.
I think a lot of this stuff is taste-based; it's having the same taste as the people you work with. So somebody like Woody, I mean I would have never, ever played a model or anything like this character for any other director. I swore it off too, I said I will never play [a model], so of course I get the call and they said ‘It’s Woody Allen, it’s a supermodel’, and it’s like Ugh. So there was something cathartic about it. When I say I wouldn’t have done it for anybody else but Woody, in the sense that his tone is so specific that there was a way for me to take this and laugh at myself and kind of do it in a cathartic way that I think would have had earnestness with someone else. And I knew with him it wouldn’t have that because that’s not the kind of filmmaker he is.
FS: So the roles that followed by then were coming pretty thick and fast weren’t they? Are there particular roles that stand out for you in that particular time? Late ‘90s...
CT: Yeah, I back-to-back worked with a few directors that were very influential for me. One was James Gray, I did a film called The Yards with him, and he was really an amazing director for me to work with, because he was also one of the first directors, other than Taylor Hackford, who really fought for me.
It was an amazing experience to have somebody stand in your corner and say ‘She’s not too pretty to play the part. That’s bullshit, she’s an actress, let’s get past this obsession about what she physically looks like.’ I remember he really went to bat for me with Miramax, and there was something that happened in that moment when I just felt like ‘I will jump off a building for this man!’ It made the connection when we did the film; really powerful and I’ve longed for that ever since and I’ve had that with few other directors.
It’s almost an 'us against the world' feeling but I loved working on that film, I loved working with James Caan and Ellen Burstyn and just these amazing actors, and Mark Wahlberg and Faye Dunaway. There was something about that film that really set my foundation. I’ve really carried that with me to other films.
Working with Lasse Hallstrom was amazing too I have to say, on Cider House Rules, and again there was such a great group of actors. It was a period when I was working a lot, I felt really blessed, I was working with great directors, the roles were good but they were also just what they were, there was nothing else I could do to them.
FS: And now we're coming to one hell of a role which is that of Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer who was executed by lethal injection in 2002. So you made the film three years after that, this is the film that will get you an Oscar and a BAFTA nomination as well. What was the first that you heard of the script or the part?
CT: Patty Jenkins had sent the script to my manager who read it. I was having lunch with her actually, the day she received it. I just remember my manager sitting down for lunch and she said ‘I just read five pages of a script and you have to do it’ and I was like ‘You’re crazy, what are you talking about’ and she described the moment of this woman sitting under a bridge under a freeway with five dollars in her hand and a gun. That image always stayed with me so I was intrigued definitely. I then read the script and thought the script was really good. I saw the Nick Broomfield’s documentary and panic set in...
FS: Because she was such a complicated character?
CT: Well I think it was my first experience dealing with something that was so real. She was real, she was a real human being, she was a conflicted human being, she had done these conflicting things and I felt the weight of the responsibility of all that and didn’t quite believe that I was capable of doing it.
And so I met with Patty and she was like a locomotive, she just steamrolled me. I walked out of the room and said ‘There’s no way I can’t do this.’ It was the same thing that James had done; she just had so much faith and belief in me. It made me want to go and do whatever it was that I needed to do to pull it off.
FS: And there are obviously physical things you had to pull off, you had to gain weight and get into that particular way of moving. You can see from the way that you move that you did all the dance training and stuff. Did it help, that kind of preparation?
CT: I think my dance background is in my bones. I don’t think I think about it. When you start thinking about those things they tend to become somewhat mechanical. I try not to think about it but it’s in my DNA. And so I do think that there is definitely a part, I mean every actor will tell you the physical part sometimes tells the story way more than the words do. I’m not a massive fan of words so I think there is a love that I still have for telling a story with my body.
I try not to think about that stuff because there’s nothing worse than an actor trying to be weird with their body. You do the work and then just pray that it’s under your skin and you don’t have to think about it, and you can just live it and be it in front of a camera.
FS: Well, the excerpt we're going to see is where Aileen returns to a character who’s slightly fictionalised, the girlfriend played by Christina Ricci, and she’s decided that she’s going to get out of prostitution and hopefully a bright future awaits.
That whole question about the responsibility of playing a real person, was that the first time you had to do that?
CT: Yeah I mean there was so much going on; Nick was busy doing the second documentary on her. Nick and I became friends. I met him ironically in London through a mutual friend right before I did the film and I asked him if I could see the rough cut of the second one he did with her.
So we were two days away from shooting and what I wanted to be very clear about was that we were telling the story truthfully, very hard to because those people are dead, she’s dead, there are seven victims here and their family members, so that lays heavy with you. So I wanted to, I guess I was so obsessed with the truth that Patty had to sometimes pull me aside and remind me that the truth really is the greater truth because we will never know.
Nick sent me his documentary, and if anybody has seen the second documentary, it starts with the first five minutes of her saying she did it, she killed all of them and she would kill again and none of it was in self-defence. I was a day away from shooting this film, and Patty was out on a scout and I just called her and said ‘I can’t do it, I can’t make this film’ and she said, 'Just calm down, I’m coming over' and so while I’m waiting for her to come over, I’m watching the rest of the film and then of course I realised that she was self-sabotaging her own appeal, she’s been on death row for 12 years and she just wants to go. But there was this moment of understanding.
I spent two days reading all her letters, I flew out, a friend of hers owned all of her letters that she wrote while she was in prison and she talks a lot about these murders and a lot about her circumstances and her life and everything. It was after that, that I really made peace with the fact I had done everything I could possibly do and that I also had an amazing partner, Patty Jenkins, who had such a love for Aileen Wuornos, such an understanding of her that I had to just trust her.
If this was a fictional character you could do this stuff and feel like you’re on the road of the honesty of the human being in general, but there were so many people involved in the story and I just never wanted to be disrespectful to those victims or their families and also to Aileen. Whether she did despicable things or not she’s still a human being and I didn’t want to walk away with some kind of high and mighty idea that I could do whatever I could.
FS: She had a terrible past and had been abused in many different ways...
CT: I don’t think I will ever come across somebody who had the unfortunate circumstances that you’re talking about, I don’t know how she survived it to be honest, and all of that physical stuff that you’re talking about really came from the fact that this woman was five foot four.
I could believe that when Nick told me she was five foot four because when I watched her in the documentary I felt like she was six feet. Then I realised when I was reading her letters, all those years she was homeless she had to become this kind of big puffer fish. That when you come around they blow up because there was no other way that someone five foot four, 13, living on the street could survive, unless they had that thing about them.
So her physical stuff really came from understanding her emotional roots, like what she’d experienced, what she had been through. So the crazy eyes and all of that stuff comes from someone who had these tools in order to survive.
FS: So those details, are they the things you discussed with Nick as well? In terms of the way she seemed, and you could tell from the documentary? You must have observed things too, I imagine, from all the time you spent with him...
CT: Yeah, Nick was really helpful in allowing me to have access to his footage, which was such a great gift. The film wasn’t released at the time, so I was really grateful to him because the more I could see of her I could begin to understand that behaviour, because a lot of the time, there’s nothing worse than an actor trying to mimic. I watch films sometimes and I’m not emotionally tapping into anything, I just feel like I’m watching someone mimicking and so the more I watched her the more I could connect the dots between the letters, the books between her voice and the way she looked and behaved.
FS: And when you took on the role, I mean obviously it’s psychologically fascinating but was there any sense that there was a social interest too, that there was an issue here about women and violence? And we're going towards talking about North Country later on, which obviously has its own issues, but is that a concern or an interest for you when you look at a script?
CT: I think it’s a plus; it’s not something I look for. If I had to be totally honest I’m obsessed with the human condition, I think that’s my true obsession. I’m obsessed with our behaviour, what we do, what we're capable of and how circumstances come to play in our behaviour. But I’m an observer, I’m always watching. I’m always interested in people and so I think at the core that’s what drives me – interesting people going through interesting things.
I’ve done several films that have great causes behind them and that’s always just the plus but I don’t feel like, when they overlap and it’s natural, when it organically happens then that’s great but I don’t want to try and force them together because I do think philanthropy and art are two very different things.
For myself I feel like I have to always remember that I’m an artist first. I do my philanthropy work and all of that stuff on the side so I don’t want them to infringe on each other too much unless it organically happens.
FS: Well maybe another dimension of that is, without going into any great detail, but there were some very dark periods in your own upbringing, early on. Do you think that gives you particular insight or makes you perhaps a bit braver about tackling some of these things?
CT: I don’t know, the analogy used is always, ‘Kids grow up in a poor home, they don’t know any different,’ right? I’m sure everything about us influences us to a certain extent in our work. I don’t know the alternate, I don’t know what I would have been like if I didn’t have those things.
I worry sometimes because I don’t want actors to think that… I mean, I’m not a method actor. I don’t want them to subscribe to self abuse, I don’t understand why actors will hurt themselves because I just don’t believe that is the way to get to good work.
I always have young actors ask me ‘My parents are still married and my life was so good! I don’t have anything!’ You know I don’t think you have to come from great tragedy to be a great actor. I think it is in the love and the passion and the understanding for the human condition. Some people have a talent or a natural ability to tap into those things, I feel like I have that, I don’t necessarily know if it’s the other stuff. I’m sure some of it is but I don’t want actors to feel like they need to come out of great tragedy or anything like that to be good because I don’t believe in that.
FS: The next film we’re going to talk about is North Country, which is about sexual politics in the sense that it was a very important sexual harassment case brought by this woman Lois Jenkins, she was working on a mine in North Minnesota, a place where there is much bullying of the female workforce and she kind of rallied everybody together, here’s the clip.
(Clip from North Country)
CT: Yeah I have to admit when I first read the script too, I just kept thinking ‘Why doesn’t she get another job?’ But there were no other jobs; there was nothing, absolutely nothing. The hairdressing job, which was actually the real thing from the real story, she worked for a hairdresser and she couldn’t support her children. There was no job where you could raise your children as a single mom, there was nothing.
And so, even though most of these women loved working in the mines, I had a great moment when we were doing research. It was around January or February, I went up there for the first time and it was right after the Oscars and I was sitting down with this woman who was a miner. She’s been working in the mines for 20 years; she knows the case and was around when all of it happened.
So I’m asking her all these questions and because of the Oscars I had a manicure, my nails were really pretty, and like mid-sentence she just looked at my nails and said ‘That’s not what your hands would look like.’ I was like, bah, she doesn’t believe I’m going to do this at all.
So she takes me into the mine and there’s this horrible chemical smell when you initially walk into these mines, it’s almost like a warning, that if there is a leak somewhere in the mine you will smell this and that's kind of how you know.
It’s a really horrible smell and so of course she just thought I was a complete princess and I was like this covering my face, and I go ‘Does that smell not bother you’ and she goes ‘What? That smell? That’s the smell of money!’ So there’s this real pride, they just love working there, and it was hard even for me to get my head around that.
I come from a family that owned a road construction company and my mother worked in road construction so you would think that I would have more of an awareness of that. It was really eye-opening for me to see how much they appreciated those jobs and what was done to them was really brutal because it was so consistent, it went on for so long. Way longer than it should have.
FS: And we saw from that extract that not only were they subjected to taunting about their sexuality but there were these terrible double standards about, as soon as they complained about anything. Now in contrast to films like North Country and Monster there’s also the action side. They're fun...
CT: (Laughs) Aeon Flux was tough; I injured myself pretty bad on that film. I’m still carrying that injury in my everyday life. So I don’t know about a laugh!
FS: But really hard work so the rest of us can laugh?
CT: Exactly! Yeah, I almost broke my neck on that; I was actually almost paralysed on that film.
FS: What happened?
CT: We were talking earlier about this whole physical part of [acting], there’s definitely a part of me that still craves that. That was the thing that attracted me to that role, the physical aspect of it. I set out to learn gymnastics for six months prior to filming; I really kind of tackled that whole thing. I thought ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m really going to do this!’ like I’m not going to let some stunt person do it, I wanted to see what it felt like.
Nobody did anything it was just one of those horrible accidents that nobody's to blame for. But I did a back handspring and my feet slipped up, I had never done it in the costumes and the soles of the shoes were brand new, and I shot off and my feet slipped underneath me and I couldn’t get enough air to land on my hands so I just landed on my whole body, landed straight on my neck. We had to shut down, that was a really hard movie; that was like a year, we had to shut down and come back. We were only ten days into shooting, so the producers were amazing in that film. But I do like the physical stuff; I do like those films too. I kind of love that I’m not set in a genre, I really love a lot of different films and it’s great when interesting filmmakers veer into that genre.
FS: We’re going to show a little bit of Hancock now, which is a mix of comedy, action and superhero.
(Clip from Hancock)
CT: I had a blast on that film. Oh my God we had such a good time making that film, it felt like it was wrong how much fun we had. You cannot be around Will Smith and not have a good time. He’s just so generous to all of us, and the chemistry thing I was talking about earlier, I think when people come and they have the right tone, the right energy that almost celebrates the film that you’re trying to make. It’s so important, and the first time I watched this film I said to Pete, ‘Petey, it felt like you captured exactly how it was making the film’ which I think was, in a way so important for that film to work.
FS: That’s director Peter Berg?
FS: Now, the element of control we saw in that clip, I wonder how important control over your career and over the kind of films you do has become, because you have produced haven’t you? On a number of films, you were producer with Monster and on Young Adult,your new film.
CT: I’m actually not a producer for that, but my company produced it, co-produced it.
FS: There’s a difference is there?
CT: Yeah, like on Monster I was actually physically a producer, you go and you spend six weeks of pre-production, and you’re location scouting and you’re accountable for someone who's signing millions of dollars over to you. So I made my producing partner do that for Young Adult. I just didn’t have the time to do it.
FS: So you were producer on The Burning Plain, which is a very interesting, multi-strand kind of film from Guillermo Arriaga who’d written Amores Perros and 21 Grams. What attracted you to that initially? What made you committed enough to produce as well?
CT: I just loved that project. I remember reading it and I couldn’t get it out of my head, it just wouldn’t leave me. And then I met Guillermo who was just the loveliest human being I have ever come into contact with. And I just knew I had to make that film.
It was a tough little film to get off the ground and then other parts of it were so easy. I mean actors, I think, really wanted to work with him because he’s such an exquisite writer and I thought he did a really good job as a first time director and I really love that film. It’s one that I’m very attached to, just because again I think the right people came, and everybody was there for the right reason and some days were hard but we buckled through.
There’s a part of this business that is very much like joining a circus, we’re kind of thrown into an environment with a bunch of strangers and everybody’s there doing the same thing but nobody really knows each other. I really love it.
FS: And each time's different presumably?
CT: Yeah every single time and one morning you wake up and everybody’s gone and it’s done. So you realise you’ll never have that again, every single one will be different but I have a real love affair with that. I really love that part of my job.
FS: And The Burning Plain has an interesting kind of time slip structure that is...
CT: Not linear.
FS: It’s non-linear but by the end you realise that it seems complex but it also kind of perfectly dovetails and...
CT: He does that so well. People always ask me ‘Was it edited? Did we discover that in the editing process?’ but he actually wrote it exactly that way. He writes non-linear. I don’t know anyone who could sit down and write that way, sit and write a story in that non-linear way that he does, but he knows exactly where he’s going and it feels like a lot of people do that stuff in editing – to save a movie. But he really aims for that in the writing process.
(Clip from The Burning Plain)
FS: She’s great, that young actress as well...
CT: She’s amazing, she’d never done anything. Guillermo auditioned her, I think he auditioned two girls and he said, ‘I’ve found her’ and I said, ‘You do know there’s about 50 other girls coming in’, and he’s like ‘No I’ve found her’, he just knew. And also she was fluent in both Spanish and English, yeah she was really amazing. And so was Jennifer Lawrence who plays a young me in this film, she had never done anything either, I think that was her first job too.
He had the same experience with her, he started auditioning and he just stopped the auditions, I love how sure he was, I love that.
FS: What made you want to work with Jason Reitman on Young Adult?
CT: Well, I heard that he pays his actors really well, so… (laughs) Look, I saw Up in the Air and it was my favourite movie that year. It just really emotionally moved me in a way that a film had not done in a long time. Prior to that I also really loved Thank You for Smoking; I’m a huge Christopher Buckley fan. I loved what he did with that. When work inspires me like that, I file it away, not in a crazy, obsessive way. I tried to figure out a way, a plausible way for us to work.
In this case it was very serendipitous, it was really bizarre because I saw that film and then a couple of months later we were at the Oscars together and I literally bumped into him. Then a month later he was in the same restaurant that I was in and then told me about the script, so it was just really, those are the moments when you’re like ‘Thanks.’ I don’t know how that happened – being at the right restaurant at the right time with a director you want to work with.
I’ve had a few moments like that. I can’t help be aware of it and be grateful for it. I don’t know how to explain it, luck I guess. I had the same thing with Paul Haggis, where I kept seeing him at these award shows. I was a smoker back then and me and him were always in an alley smoking cigarettes together. He was in the process of writing In the Valley of Elah and he called me and said do you want to come and do this? I’m very grateful to the casting gods out there. I told my mom, ‘You told me smoking will never get me anything good’ but in this case it did!
FS: Now the woman in Young Adult, she is quite a piece of work…
CT: That’s a nice way of putting it!
FS: …In that she’s going back to her home town to do a bit of ‘high school reunion’ perhaps not in the way most people would do it.
CT: Yeah, breaking up marriages. The first time I read it, I think I felt the way you feel when you watch the movie for the first time, unsettling, a bit nauseating and just these cringe worthy moments. The third act was really what sold me; I remember saying to Jason,‘If you can guarantee that the ending is not going to change then I’m in.’ He said that’s why I want to make the movie, because of the third act.
FS: What’s so cool about the third act is that it subverts exactly what you would expect in the resolution of these kinds of things; there was a great speech in it which basically...
CT: Yeah the scene with Collette Wolfe who plays Sandra is just, I couldn’t get enough of it, and it’s one of those rare moments because I also don’t get to work with women a lot, it’s always guys.
FS: Why is that, do you think?
CT: I don’t know! She was so brilliant in that scene and Jason was amazing too because I think all of us at the end kind of acknowledged that it was that scene that made us all really want to make this film, because that turn just comes, it’s like playing music, it’s just so perfectly orchestrated.
Jason loved it so much he just kept writing, he’d call Diablo and say ‘I want it longer, I want more!’ from like a half page scene to a seven-page scene. Collette and I shot it in four hours, I just remember walking away and going, ‘This is why I love what I do’ because of these moments.
FS: And Diablo Cody's script, we're going to see a bit from the film.
(Clip from Young Adult)
Those scenes have really great timing.
CT: How delicious is he? The thing that was such a great discovery in the process of making this film was we had a table read-through and it hit me that it really was a love story. It’s a very unusual love story but it is a bit of a love story. It’s a love story that starts to ignite not because two people discover they like the same things but two people discover they hate the same things.
It was just so twisted and wrong, they were such an odd couple and you just can’t see any of this working out but you just so want it to. I just love those odd relationships.
FS: What’s great about it, again, is that it’s never going to be resolved in quite the way you think it’s going to...
CT: Yeah, we talked a lot about that. I sometimes find myself watching movies and I don’t know those people. I wish I have learned these massive lessons, and have changed my life as much as I find characters do in movies, but I just don’t. Jason and I talked a lot about this. We didn’t want to try and prove a point. She hears the lesson; she just doesn’t proactively change anything about it. No matter how much I want to deny that part of me, I so relate to that. I think if we were all honest we could relate to that. We don’t have this third act be a massive change.
FS: No, you don’t get the closure just like that.
CT: I wish it was that way.
FS: Well, that’s why it’s a really sophisticated little film actually because, I mean how many times do you go into the cinema and you know who's going to end up with who by the end, so in a sense you just sit back and enjoy the ride and some people say that’s precisely the point of cinema, to have the safety. But it’s so good when you come across a film that doesn’t do that.
CT: Aw, thank you.
FS: You’ve been here for a while now because you’ve been filming two films here; one of them is Snow White and the Huntsman in which you play the evil queen.
CT: Well they call her the evil queen (laughs) but she’s Ravenna to me.
FS: The queen has always been the central character of the Snow White story all along.
CT: I just couldn’t pass up the chance, there’s just so much potential in that. I hope I have dived into some of that. She’s a delicious character. I had a moment with a journalist the other day. I haven’t worked for three years and then I went from Young Adult to Prometheus with Ridley Scott straight into Snow White and the Huntsman. This journalist was like ‘Why is it you have this interest in all these unlikeable bitchy characters now?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know’. He was like, 'Is this like your blue period?' And so I told him, ‘I’m stealing that!’ That’s brilliant; this is my bitchy period, getting it out of my system.
FS: In the trailer there’s an amazing bit where she sucks the life out of someone.
CT: It’s so interesting because she’s such an iconic character, we all know so much about her, so there’s this real need to do it in a way where you can still kind of surprise people a little bit. I was trying to figure out a way to ground her into a foundation and one day I was flicking through the television and The Shining came on with Jack Nicholson and it hit me; that's Ravenna! He’s in his castle going crazy, you know? So Jack’s performance in that film really grabbed me and grounded this evil queen for me, and understanding she’s not evil for the sake of being evil. It kind of comes from a set of circumstances that drive her.
But, she’s a serial killer.
Q (from the floor): You spoke a little bit about the casting gods. Have there been any spiritual things that have gotten you through your career, that have motivated you through difficult times? And how does the charity work motivate you?
CT: I think spirituality is really important to survive and get through life. I’m not a religious person but I’m incredibly... it sounds hokey. I’m incredibly spiritual but for me spirituality is really travelling and seeing how other people and cultures live.
I’m going to veer into the second part of your question. My work that I do with South Africa is, I think, what keeps all of it grounded for me. It’s a huge part in my soul being healthy.
I always encourage young people to travel as much as they possibly can because there’s something amazing, when you’re still trying to figure out who you are, to do that and to acknowledge and see how other people live and have a respect and love; it’s an incredible gift. All of this stuff keeps things in perspective.
When I do interviews, people get so hung up on the transformation that I do in movies, ever since Monster. I did North Country and they’re like ‘Another transformation!’ and I’m like ‘I’m a miner with dirt on my face’ how is that? The transformation really is this other stuff that we see with the gowns and red carpet and the glitz and the glamour. That’s not real. We almost have it ass-backwards; I think people forget that that’s reality. When I work with Africa, that’s the stuff that makes me realise that there is really nothing to bitch about because in perspective life is really good.
Q (from the floor): Charlize, have you had to do a lot of work to lose your South African accent? I’m from Pretoria...
CT: Hoe gaan dit?
Questioner: Lekker, lekker, baie lekker...
CT: Praat jy nog 'n bietjie Afrikaans?
CT: Oh you’re English South African, I don’t like you!
Questioner: I only speak Afrikaans when I don’t want my kids to know what I’m talking about.
CT: Exactly, exactly.
Questioner: Do you slip back into Afrikaans with your mother?
CT: When I go there, I speak a lot; I speak Afrikaans every single day because my mom lives two minutes away from me. I just feel weird speaking English to her, like I’m playing a character or something. But I definitely do when I go back. Yeah, I come back to Los Angeles and people are like ‘Oh, you were just in South Africa’. Definitely. Yes, I get a little bit of that South African thing going.
FS: Was that something that just happened or was it for career reasons?
CT: The irony is, South Africans will know this; certain parts of the country are predominantly Afrikaans or predominantly English. I grew up in a predominantly Afrikaans environment where nobody spoke English. So you would have English as a second language at school but if you had Spanish, you don’t go home; you don’t practice it, you’re not talking to people. So my English was actually incredibly poor and so in a way I almost learnt English like an American. I spoke very much like a South African and yeah, I couldn’t do both, I admire people who can go back. Also I was much younger too, I think if I was older I probably would've hung onto one versus the other. I didn’t really have a voice, as in English South African, it was bizarre, and I didn’t feel like I was losing one for the other because I always just spoke Afrikaans. So English was really a second language for me and I learnt it with an American accent, and then people got really upset, ‘You’re not a South African anymore’.
Q (from the floor): When you were talking about Young Adult it sounded as though you’d had some input into the finished script. I just wondered how many times you take a script or and then have some input and make changes to what you originally accept to do. Do you have much input?
CT: I actually didn’t, I’m sorry if I gave that impression, I want to correct that. Diablo Cody wrote the script exactly how it was in the film. What I was saying was more that I didn’t want to change it and so that was the guarantee that I wanted from Jason, just that they wouldn’t change because the script I read, that was the film I wanted to make and that Jason wanted to make.
It was also more in the editorial process towards having a distributor step in and say ‘We’ll buy the movie but we don’t want that end, that end doesn’t work,’ you know, having us go back and do a re-shoot.
Every film's different, I went through a massive re-writing process on Snow White and the Huntsman. Sometimes it’s amazing when you get a script, it very rarely happens were you get a script like Young Adult where it was ready to go. I think Jason did want a small re-write of it but pretty much we were ready to go, that was the story we wanted to tell. Then you have moments when you have to make it your own, this idea that the words are so sacred, and you’re expecting an actor to do something that doesn’t feel natural or doesn’t feel right. It kind of goes against what you’re trying to do, which is to make it as seamless as possible. It always depends; it’s always been kind of different.
FS: I’ve got one final question for you which is, that evil queen has an English accent.
CT: [in OTT mock British accent] I know, I’m doing my first British accent.
FS: What is it about evil and the British accent?
CT: Yeah, I’m doing my first British accent and it is perfect for her. At first it felt right, it felt right. My queen is a fair headed queen, she’s not dark because we’ve kind of taken her from this Lapland scenario where she was a gypsy and wanted to make her a bit different. So she’s a dirty blonde gypsy and so at first[director] Rupert Sanders was like ‘Maybe you should do a South African accent,’ he was really into it, but I said, ‘You know South Africa’s only been around for about 100 years, we’re doing like a medieval thing here! It’s going to sound a little weird. Then he was like ‘Oh maybe you can do a British accent with like a mixture, like mix it up a little. I said ‘First of all, they will kill me because everyone will think I can’t do a British accent. Then I’d be like, ‘Oh, no it was meant to be that way!’ I thought, let’s just keep it pure and clean so hopefully I pulled it off and did not let you guys down.
FS: Well I’m sure you didn’t, we're very much looking forward to seeing that and Young Adult. Charlize Theron, thank you very much.
CT: Thank you.