IN A MARCH RELEASED AS WELL AS AN UPCOMING APRIL FILM, THIS OSCAR WINNER LEANS ON HER COMEDIC CHOPS. WE PLUMB THE MISCHIEVOUS STREAK OF ONE THE MOST FASCINATING STARS IN TINSELTOWN
BY JOEL KELLER
When an actress wins an Oscar before she turns 30, one of two things typically happens: she either fades away because Hollywood doesn’t consider her the “next big thing” anymore, or she continues a run of serious flicks that get award attention every year.
Charlize Theron has found a third way to go.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 14 years since Theron won that Oscar, for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, written and directed by Patty Jenkins. Since then, she’s been an action star (Fate of the Furious, Atomic Blonde, Æon Flux, and Mad Max: Fury Road), an icy, possible cyborg (Prometheus), and Snow White’s evil nemesis (Snow White and the Huntsman and The Huntsman: Winter’s War).
Born in Benoni, a South African town not far from Johannesburg, the 42-year-old grew up on her mom and dad’s farm. After a stretch in her early teens in which “I was pretty much a mess,” as she recalled in a 2011 People magazine interview, time at boarding school helped her “get that out of my system.” At 16, Theron received a modeling contract, which led to a year of shoots throughout Europe, and later, along with her mother, moved to Miami and New York City. Finally, she packed her bags for Los Angeles to pursue acting. Discovered by talent agent John Crosby, she got her break playing a hit woman in 1996’s 2 Days in the Valley, which led to a flurry of late-1990s starring turns in The Devil’s Advocate, Mighty Joe Young, and The Cider House Rules. She’s safely occupied a lofty casting stratum ever since. Still living in LA, she is mom to two adopted children, Jackson and August.
One thing that even her ardent fans tend to forget, however, is that Theron is pretty damn good at comedy. Not long after her Oscar win, for instance, she played a sweet but mentally challenged love interest for Michael Bluth (played by Jason Bateman) in a memorable arc on the series Arrested Development, and her two latest films bring out yet more irreverent sides of a woman Seth MacFarlane describes as a “fantastic hang.”
“I’ve always had a hard time compartmentalizing genre,” she said in a studio interview while promoting Gringo, which was released on March 9. “There’s a lot of movies that I’ve done that people think are dramatic that I actually think are quite funny.” The hearty laugh she let out after giving that answer shows a mischievous streak that, by several accounts, comes out even during the heaviest of film shoots.
In the STX/Amazon Studios production, Theron plays Elaine Markinson, the ruthless cofounder of a pharmaceutical company who, along with her partner/lover Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), have developed a “weed pill” for the legalized marijuana market. They send a hapless and broke businessman named Harold (David Oyelowo) to Mexico to manage the factory where it will be produced. There, he runs afoul of the cartel and tries desperately to save himself. When Harold calls Rusk to say he’s got a gun to his head, Elaine memorably screams, “What a crybaby!”
“I feel like the movies I respond to as a moviegoer are the ones that cross boundaries. You don’t know whether they’re comedies or drama; they’re just good stories,” said Theron, who is also a producer for the film. “As a producer and an actor, I kind of deal with it that way. I build a character based on truth; whatever those circumstances are. Within the action of that is where you find the comedy.”
McFarlane, who worked with Theron on A Million Ways To Die In The West, became close friends with her during that film’s production.
“If you are with someone so good, so experienced, and so in command, you just feed off that, and it enables you to kind of relax,” the creator of Fox’s Family Guy said in an interview with Howard Stern. The two are so close that she had a guest role on MacFarlane’s scifi dramedy series The Orville, playing a cutthroat fortune hunter.
Theron isn’t a stranger to the product her Gringo character produces, either; she described herself as a “wake and baker” in a 2017 interview with Stern. She doesn’t smoke anymore, though, because “I just become so uninteresting, I just switch off…have nothing to say.” This year, she told Jimmy Kimmel that she now uses pot edibles to help her sleep (bought for her by her mother, funnily enough). “It totally works,” she told him. “It’s amazing.”
The March action comedy also marks the first movie appearance of a member of entertainment’s royal family: Paris Jackson, daughter of the late Michael Jackson. Playing Nelly, a 20-year-old who in one scene attempts to cajole Miles (Harry Treadaway), a guitar shop employee, to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the U.S., Jackson’s professionalism was striking to her costar.
“She comes from a great legacy,” Theron told ET in a March interview, “but I also don’t think that you want to be defined by the weight of all of that stuff. I admired that she came in and really auditioned for this and was prepared and ready, and handled this as an individual well. As an actor, I was impressed by that.”
While Gringo brings out the over the top side of Theron’s comedic toolkit, her next project, Tully, is more down to earth. The film, which goes into national release on April 20, was enthusiastically received at its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January. Theron plays marlo, an overextended of three including a newborn. Sensing that she’s about to crack, her brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), hires a night nurse to help the family cope, and though reluctant at first to accept the openhearted assistance of Tully (Mackenzie Davis), Marlo winds up bonding with her in often unexpected ways.
A Focus Features film, Tully reunites Theron with writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (the three worked together on the 2011 film Young Adult). In that production, Theron found laughs in the truth of her character, Mavis, who tries to recapture a high school romance after her life falls into despair.
“Ever since we made Young Adult together, I wanted to work with Charlize, so when I heard she was interested [in Tully], I was completely thrilled,” Cody told the audience at a Cinema Cafe panel after the film’s Sundance trailer screening, alongside the director.
“Charlize is brave enough to play these characters [like Mavis] without winking at the camera,” Reitman added. Unlike other actors who play an unlikable role with a nod to the audience that it’s just a role, he explained, “she is 100 percent brave. She does not care. When she commits, she’s like, ‘I do not care if you see a line at all.”
The truth of Theron’s character in Tully is completely opposite; she’s an exhausted 30something who can barely keep up with her kids, much less rid herself of her post baby belly or embrace anything else resembling self care. According to the director, that level of exhaustion was her idea.
“She called me and said, ‘I think I can put on thirty pounds in the next six weeks,’” Reitman recalled. “She was sending me photos of her eating Double Doubles from In N Out Burger, and milkshakes and pizza no matter where she was in the world. This was while she was finishing Atomic Blonde, where she was in ridiculous shape.”
“She has no vanity as an actress,” said Cody. “It’s amazing.”
Of course, gaining weight wasn’t as easy as it was when she did it for Monster all those years ago. But she was dedicated to the realism of her role as a mother going through postpartum depression.
“It was brutal in every sense,” Theron told Variety about the weight gain. “This time around, I really felt it in my health. The sugar put me in a massive depression. I was sick. I couldn’t lose the weight. I called my doctor and I said, ‘I think I’m dying!’ And he’s like, ‘No. You’re 41…calm down.”
Theron’s comedic skills are scheduled to be put to the test yet again in her next film, Flarsky, preliminarily scheduled for release next February and costarring Andy Serkis.