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Interview: Charlize Theron & Patty Jenkins
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
December 23, 2003—Born in South Africa from parents of French and German descent, dancer/model Charlize Theron made a fairly inauspicious movie debut in her early 20s, without even a screen credit, as a screaming victim in Children of the Corn III.
But in her second role, she ripped up the screen, playing the bejeezus out of a catfight scene in the otherwise unremarkable 2 Days in the Valley (1996). Apparently, outside of a few film critics, no one noticed.
Her next role in Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do! required her to look pretty and demure. And, this time, everyone noticed.
For the next six years, she played almost nothing but pretty and demure in a seemingly endless series of tired, forgettable films: The Devil's Advocate, Mighty Joe Young, The Astronaut's Wife, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Men of Honor, The Yards, Reindeer Games, 15 Minutes, Sweet November, etc.
She still showed promise. No less a director than Woody Allen cast her as a model in Celebrity and again as a pretty girl in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. And she once came near the vicinity of Oscar gold in Miramax's dull prestige package The Cider House Rules. 2003's The Italian Job was one of that bland summer's better films, but that seemed to be about it for her.
Fortunately, writer/director Patty Jenkins saw something within those reserved performances. Jenkins had been struggling with her screenplay Monster, a fictional film about the life of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos and her brief, passionate relationship with another woman, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci).
"I was terrified thinking of who could do it. There are lots of actors, and I could imagine them trying to come off as strong, or overly volatile, and you're trying to sell them as lovable and it's not working," Jenkins says.
Theron came to her almost as an epiphany. "It was the middle of night, and I woke up and The Devil's Advocate was on. I thought, 'Charlize could do it,' and I fell back asleep."
And how! Theron, 28, has turned in a performance that Roger Ebert has called one of the greatest in the history of cinema. She immediately won the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award, followed by a Golden Globe, the SAG award, and now the Oscar.
She walks into her hotel suite, having emerged from a fresh makeup application, and looking absolutely nothing like her character in the film. She's back to being thin and pretty, with nicely styled short blond hair, and trim jeans capped off with a pair of fashionable "Ugg" boots. She's intricately pristine, but tall and striking.
Yet in the film, she bugs out her eyes, wears bad teeth and freckles, packs on a few extra pounds and moves like a porcupine, quills jutting out, daring anyone to challenge her, but altogether vulnerable underneath.
"I realized that everything that she did physically was a mirror for what she was going through emotionally," Theron says.
"She has two very specific things about how she articulated herself through her face. One was her eyes. It took me a little while to get used to because it's very different for me. I tend to go a little squinty when I'm talking and when I get intense. Aileen is completely the opposite when she gets intense. And she carries so much tension in her mouth and in her jaw. Those are the types of things I tried to pay attention to."
Jenkins and Theron never really discussed Aileen's look. Before filming, Jenkins corresponded with the real Wuornos from death row and Wuornos shared some of her personal letters with the filmmaker, illuminating much of the killer's inner life. Neither Jenkins nor Theron got to meet Wuornos in person before she was executed in October, 2002, but the letters became invaluable.
"A lot of the greater truth, for me, came from those letters," Theron says. "You kind of listen to the facts of her life." Theron learned that Wuornos had given birth at age 13 and that, though she was a prostitute, she would never take off her shirt. Theron guessed that someone who lives like a drifter would not be concerned with nutrition and would probably never visit a gym. And so she decided to gain weight -- about 30 pounds -- for the role.
"It wasn't about getting fat; Alieen wasn't fat," Theron says. "I'm naturally very athletic and if I went and made this movie with my body, I don't know that I would have felt the things that Alieen felt with her body. It was just about getting to a place where I felt closer to Aileen. I was eating junk food and surviving off of that stuff and getting to that place of being her."
People still express shock at Jenkins' casting choice. She admits that she has grown tired of people asking how she "uglied up Charlize." "The thing is," Jenkins says, "that I think she's beautiful! I got used to the way she looked, and to me she was beautiful."
Jenkins continues. "I'm having such a hard time making up bullshit complicated excuses for why I thought [casting her] was a great idea. The truth is, I thought she was overly good for everything that she did. Always made it real. Yeah, she's beautiful, but who cares if she looks like Aileen Wuornos or not? She's got this heart, and she's really brave and she's really strong."
It was not always such a clear choice. The film was already greenlit with a budget of $2 million before Theron signed on. Jenkins saw several actresses before meeting Theron, and Theron didn't know who Wuornos was when she read the script.
"I read so many scripts," Theron says, "and after a while you start to follow the format, it's so obvious: act one, act two and by act three you know exactly how you feel about everybody. This was the first time in my entire career that I read something, that by the last page, I still didn't know how I felt about Aileen."
Jenkins says, "She was the least enthusiastic of the actresses I saw. She was like, 'why do you want me?' thinking it was going to be some hot, lesbian thing."
Once on board though, Theron also went to work as a co-producer and helped raise a little more money for the film. Theron says of her director, "one of the most dangerous things you can do is believe in an actor, because then there's nothing they won't do."
Both director and actress couldn't have asked for a better result than Monster. Most importantly, Jenkins feels she has honored the memory of Wuornos, making her human again in the eyes of the world.
And Theron has successfully reinvented her career, suddenly finding herself ranked with the vanguard of American actresses. Even the effort of losing her extra pounds failed to slow her down.
"I had to go straight into another movie," she says, "so that was my saving grace!"