BORN AUGUST 7, 1975, Charlize Theron grew up in South Africa during the last years of apartheid. Her first love was dancing, but after a knee injury she began to pursue a modeling career in Europe and the U.S. Her acting break came in the form of two small roles in two small films before starring in a cheesy film called The Devil’s Advocate, co-starring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. This was followed by other, largely forgettable roles in such films as Woody Allen’s Celebrity, Mighty Joe Young, Sweet November, Reindeer Games, The Cider House Rules, The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Italian Job.
Theron’s breakthrough role came with the 2003 release of Patty Jenkins’s Monster, in which Theron portrays Aileen Wuornos, “America’s first female serial killer.” Widely heralded as one of the great performances in cinematic history, Theron won nearly every major acting award for her depiction of the bisexual Wuornos, whose lesbianism contributed to her execution in Florida in October 2002. (Coincidentally, Theron won the Oscar on February 29, 2004—Wuornos’s 48th birthday had she been alive.)
Before receiving her Oscar for Monster, Theron was again playing a bisexual character in John Duigan’s Head in the Clouds, which was released in September. Set in England, France, and Spain in the 1930’s, Theron plays Gilda, a beautiful, powerful, careless woman who falls in love with a guy named Guy (played by Theron’s off-screen lover of three years, Stuart Townsend), but also with a woman named Mia, a refugee from Spain played by Penelope Cruz.
While most actors will probably go their entire career and never play a gay or lesbian role, Theron has now played two such parts in a row—and done so with uncanny intelligence and skill. In addition to her latest roles, Theron will act in and produce The Ice at the Bottom of the World, directed by Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce.
The G&LR recently caught up with Theron to talk to her about her roles, war, love, and gay rights.
Question: So is it easier to create emotional and physical intimacy onscreen when you’re involved with your co-star?
Charlize Theron: It’s tricky to explain, but the reason why I thought Stuart [Townsend] and I could actually bring something with our relationship to this material was because it’s not just a relationship about love; it’s really about the opposite—the deconstructing—of love. I think the advantage you have when you’re working with somebody that you know is that you know how to push their buttons. Acting is a very personal thing, and having somebody that you know really well in front of you, and having to hurt them, becomes a little easier. Which is a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. If I had to do that with an actor that I didn’t know on a personal level, it would become a little bit harder to be effective. I found myself constantly having to get him to a place where he was truly having his heart ripped out of his chest. Being his girlfriend, I have that power, and I kind of had to abuse it a little in this movie. If this was just a film about the greatness of love, I think it would have been a lot harder.
Q: Do you two have a third friend, the equivalent of Mia in the movie?
CT: No, we don’t. We have friends but we don’t live with them.
Q: That leads me into something I’m still working on about the fact there are a lot of movies these days that have bisexual characters. Your character actually uses the word “bisexual.” Do you see that as a reflection of what’s going on with young people today dealing with their sexuality?
CT: The thing that’s interesting about both of these characters, and I think is quite the norm—though people might not agree with me—is that in general it’s really just about the search for love. I think Gilda and Aileen have that in common, but for different reasons. Aileen was an outcast who was just willing to accept love from anybody, so her preference was not whether it was a man or a woman. It was just a human being that would accept her the way she was and not judge her for the things she did. With Gilda it was somewhat similar, only the difference is that Gilda knew she had a very short time to live and wanted to experience everything, all the different kinds of love that you can experience in one lifetime. So the physical aspect becomes kind of her quick fix, and the friendship she has with Mia is that of finding a woman in her life who can care for her and be a great friend, somebody that she can teach—which I thought was very important to her—and at the same time be open to the idea of actually having that go further to a more physical level. But with both relationships she can’t have any of that, whether it’s being bisexual or being heterosexual. She can’t have any of it because she’s exploring so many different things, wanting to experience so many different things, that she never really focuses on what her heart says and just letting that play out.
Q: Has winning the Oscar raised the pressure in choosing the right roles?
CT: A lot of other people seemed to be very pressured because the question seems to be coming up quite a bit. I made this film before any of that stuff happened. And I think that whether or not you win awards, at the end of the day you have to realize that you can’t please everyone, and not everybody is going to love this film or love the other films that I do. So the pressure for me is just to find material that I truly feel as an actor is something that keeps me on my toes and makes me grow as an actor.
Q: Many actors wouldn’t consider playing a gay character, yet you’ve done two characters in a row with gay aspects. Was there any pressure against doing that, or any ambivalence on your part about taking these two roles?
CT: I didn’t spend any time thinking about it. To me that’s just the kernel of what they’re going through. It’s so much more than that. For both Aileen and Gilda, I don’t think they ever even spent time thinking about that; it’s such a secondary part of their life. I don’t even think about them in those terms. I think about them as people who were just desperate for love. I don’t even think about the idea that I’ve played two characters that are bisexual.
Q: How much discussion was there about your character Gilda, and how did that change over the course of making the film?
CT: A lot. John had spent so much time on this project, writing it and doing his research. He really understands that period very well, and from a European perspective, which is very different from an American one.
Q: How did the script change? Gilda says, “There will always be war.” Did it change based on the events in the world?
CT: Amazing, isn’t it? John should answer that. When we went into our first week of production Afghanistan was happening, and toward the end of shooting Iraq was happening. So it was very strange to wake up in the morning and read the paper and then read [the script]and have Gilda say things like, “There will always be war.” To actually do a period film about a war and then to realize that some things really have not changed. And also to play three people with these very different points of view, and to realize that these different points of view have existed [in the U.S.]from the time Afghanistan happened to the time Iraq happened.
Q: Does that give it more importance?
CT: I think it does. But that’s just my opinion, and I’m not here to kind of rub that off. To me, war always felt like something that you say your great-grandfather did. He went to war. At what point will we evolve, become people who can actually come up with a better way to solve problems?
Q: This film seems to be about Gilda having to find her social conscience. So how important do you think it is for people to do that?
CT: I think it’s very important, and I think that’s what she discovers. I think that for her it’s different than for Guy and Mia. They are socially aware—Mia because of her personal experiences, and Guy because he is just a very socially aware character who knows that he needs to go out there and be a part of it.
Q: Why do you think war and romance often go together?
CT: I think war represents death, and I think death represents the lack of what we now have. I think one of the greatest journeys for a human being to go through is the journey to discover love.
Q: Do you have any favorite romance movies with a wartime backdrop?
CT: I do. Casablanca is a great one. I love a movie that Lasse Hallström did called Once Around. That one ripped my heart out. I think it’s the greatest lesson going through your life, realizing that the things that really matter are not the things you think. And at the end of the day, when you’re faced with the reality of maybe dying tomorrow, when your world is changing that way, I think you become so much more aware of what we all want—that need to be loved or have somebody to love. I think war emphasizes that.
Q: You have a different look right now. In a lot of your films you look very different. How important is that to you?
CT: It’s a tool. It’s something that really helps me. It’s important for me to do research if I feel that I need to physically go through some kind of transformation to play a character. It’s always great to cut your hair off and change it, and if it doesn’t look good, you can always say, “Well, it’s for a part.”
Q: Were there any specific movies or characters you looked at for the role of Gilda?
CT: I looked at a lot of movies like Little Foxes. Bette Davis was such a strong, vivacious, in-your-face, conflicted actor. Then there was that way about her speech, the way she walked into a room, that I really liked. So I watched a lot of her movies.
Q: Are you or Stuart more politically minded than the other and does that cause friction like the characters’?
CT: We’re both liberal, whatever that means anymore.
Q: It’s a bad word?
CT: It’s a very bad word these days, but we’re very good at debating the whole picture. It’s great that he’s got a European perspective [Townsend is from Ireland]. I’m not an American, but at the same time I’ve made America my home and feel very American. We’re very politically aware.
Q: Are you going to become a citizen?
CT: I’m trying to, yeah.
Q: In time for the election?
CT: No. Too bad!
Q: You spoke earlier about war and how the viewpoints of the three characters reflected different perspectives on war. How do you think the relationship among the three characters reflects these times with regard to gay rights?
CT: I think that there was a freedom in the 1930’s. Not that it was accepted, but some people were more accepted because of the artistic front that was happening. Even though people never talked about it, it was definitely lived. I think today that has definitely changed, because people are talking about it. And I think in a hundred years from now no matter where we are—if we’re still around—we’ll still be struggling with the same things.
Q: With gay rights?
CT: I do. I think that any love—the meaning of life, what we’re here for—I think it’s just in our nature to question these things. I don’t think we’re ever going to be a society that’s just going to be okay with everything. There’s no pleasing everybody.
John Esther is a Los Angeles-based writer who is specializing in culture studies.