Charlize Theron: “I Don’t Need to Be an Enigma”
Tucked into a booth in the back of a Beverly Hills piano bar sits Oscar winner Charlize Theron, barely recognizable with a tight tussle of jet-black hair. She’d chopped it the day earlier, to the horror of her daughters, now 7 and 10, but then Theron has never been wedded to one image — nor has she made a career of trying to fit in.
In fact, if you’re expecting another guarded, on-message actress, you have Theron mistaken. Over the course of three hours on a Friday evening in November, the face of Dior dropped a grand total of 154 F-bombs, and that’s just when the recorder was on. She assures me that her mother, with whom she co-raises her children in Los Angeles, would have released more. The sailor’s mouth is partially genetic, Theron says, and partially strategic: She’s desperate to break down the walls that typically surround stars of her stature, and uttering profanities, she’s concluded, is a surefire way to do so. Her light and playful manner certainly contrasts the darker, more serious roles that she’s chosen to inhabit, just as it does her traumatic past, marked by both the towering presence of her raging alcoholic father and the chaos of her homeland.
Theron left apartheid South Africa after winning a modeling contest at 16, though the catwalk held little appeal. Instead, the Joffrey-trained ballerina settled in L.A. in the mid-1990s where she famously landed a manager who’d overheard her arguing with the teller at a bank. In the nearly three decades since, the 47-year-old “broad” — her descriptor, not mine — has been in some 50 films, from Monster, which earned her an Academy Award, to Mad Max: Fury Road, which solidified her status as the action genre’s biggest female star. She’s also a bona fide producer, with her 19-year-old production company, Denver & Delilah, responsible for an onslaught of TV (including David Fincher’s Mindhunter) and film (The Old Guard), as well as a brand ambassador, a U.N. Messenger of Peace and a major philanthropist. Theron, who is being honored with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, founded the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project in 2007 to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in her home country. As a pianist plays on, Theron gets candid about ambition, motherhood, double standards and paying her dues.
If one asks around Hollywood about you, as I’ve done, three narratives seem to emerge. The first is that you’re a very hands-on producer — you’re in all of the pitches and the creative meetings — which seems to surprise people.
That’s like being surprised that a banker is counting your money. (Laughs.) But I come from that era of vanity deals, and maybe it’s because I come from that era that I was really turned off by that. Also, my parents were in road construction. My mom would wake up at 3 a.m. to go change a spark plug on a grader. Hard work has been so instilled in me. I think it’s why I always had somewhat of a problem with modeling. There was no hard work — and I don’t mean that in an offensive way to the great models out there, but there’s a part of me that likes a bit more backbreaking.
The second is that you’re tough, in terms of your willingness to do action and stunts, which may lead to actual back breaking …
I just had shoulder surgery two weeks ago, so there you go. (Laughs.) We just wrapped the sequel to Old Guard, where I was hanging off the side of a helicopter. I so wish that was the story. Instead, it was during training. I was learning to sword fight.
But also tough in your willingness to speak up. You’ve said you used to feel you needed to “be a loud bitch.” Do you still feel that way?
I feel like I needed to scare people in order to creatively do the things I really [wanted]. But I’m too old for that shit now. People say life is too short, but I believe life is too long.
And the other one, which comes up in profiles about you, too, is that you curse like a sailor and generally like to have fun. I believe it was Seth Rogen who said you’re “an extraordinary hang.”
Oh, he’s so stoned all the time, I wouldn’t trust him. (Laughs.) I guess I grew up around women who were kind of like guys — not that they were trying to be guys, but they liked a certain kind of humor that maybe wasn’t socially or societally acceptable for women. But a lot of these qualities that you’re talking about are how I’d describe my mom, which is why I love hanging out with her. People are like, “Oh, you have such an unhealthy relationship with your mom,” and I’m like,”If you can be as funny as her, then I’ll hang out with you.” This idea of enjoying life, I for sure learned from her. If I showed you the text from her this morning, it would be a sunrise on a hike, which she calls her Prozac, and that’s every morning. Before I wake up, she’s already like, “It’s a gorgeous fucking day and the sun is up and we are grateful.” She’s also a broad and she swears way more than I do.
It was your mother who bought you a one-way ticket to L.A. to try to make it in Hollywood. Did you have any sense for what that entailed when you arrived?
I didn’t know anything, and so many things could have gone wrong. But my mom’s always like, “Given our circumstances and the opportunities I thought that you could have there, I was willing to take the risk.” And not that I needed this to be a storyteller, but I do think that my family circumstances almost forced me to escape [into stories] to survive. A lot of people went to theater school; I came home from school and had to really imagine myself out of the home that I was living in. So, when I came here and they were like, “This is what you do as an actor,” I was like, “Oh, I’m very good at that.” (Laughs.)
You went from being an extra in Children of the Corn III to covering billboards in lingerie across L.A. for the 1996 crime thriller 2 Days in the Valley. What did that feel like?
It was a lot. I remember standing on Sunset Boulevard, like, “Oh my God.” And the way I was raised was very body positive, so it wasn’t so much, “Oh, I’m in lingerie.” I didn’t make the connection of how wrong that was until way later. It was more just overwhelming, like, “Holy shit, I’m working with Danny Aiello and Glenne Headly.” I was ready to do way more Children of the Corn IIIs. But then the other thing happened, which is that you have something that works, and then every audition is like, “We just want you to do that.”
And yet you had the gumption to say, “I’m not doing that again.” Where did it come from?
Instinct, really. We’re having such a conversation now around opportunities, and it’s a really tricky one to have, but I think that actors, instinctively, know that they want to challenge themselves and want to play things outside of who they are. I don’t think you build a career by playing yourself. Luke Evans just said something great about this. He said, basically, “I wouldn’t have a career if I only played gay.” And I know it’s his personal story, and other people will have their own stories, and I am not a minority, so I have no place in saying this, but, for me, back then, it was a feeling of, “I don’t want to be in white lingerie again. I want to do something completely different.”
I assume there were people around you who were saying, “Oh, just take what’s being offered”?
Oh yeah. I had a manager at the time who was like, “You have an offer to do Naked Gun and a Half II” or something, and I was like, “Yeah, no, I don’t want to do that.” He was all, “You’ll never work again. Who do you think you are?” And I was like, “You’re right. I am nobody. But something tells me I shouldn’t do that.” And I like those movies, but I didn’t want to have to go home in four years and run my mom’s construction company. I was constantly thinking about, “How do I make this last?” And if you can keep surprising audiences, you might get the job.
When did you feel like you could stop worrying?
Oh, I still do. I always say to my kids, “Don’t assume it’s going to be there tomorrow.” I love this job too much to assume that it’s going to be here tomorrow. And because I love watching other people’s work, I’m also like, “You better fucking stay here, otherwise the next person is ready to take the position.”
Speaking of your kids, how aware are they of what you do? They must see billboards.
In their heads, they’re like, “We know you work, but we’re not 100 percent sure what you do.” My younger one goes, “Oh my God, Mom, it feels like you can’t hold a job.” And my older one, she’s a pre-teen now, so there are moments, like, we’re walking through an airport and [she sees me on a Dior billboard] and she’s just like, “Oh my God, you’re on a fucking wall with no shirt, Mom. This is so embarrassing. Put a shirt on!” And I’m like, “That will pay for your college!” (Laughs.) But deep down, like every mother, I just want to fucking impress them.
In their lifetime, much of the acting work you’ve done is action, not that Old Guard or Mad Max: Fury Road are movies that they’re necessarily watching.
I remember this moment [in the mid-1990s], before I was a real working actor — and it’s so sad that it’s a male example, but of course it is — when Nicolas Cage had just won the Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas and then he went on to do all these Michael Bay movies and everyone was like, “What the fuck is he doing?” And I was like, “I see you and I’d do the same thing.” And he got way more scrutinized for it then, but I get the idea of wanting to tell an emotional story through physicality, and I am, for sure, not saying Michael Bay is fucking doing that. (Laughs.) But back then, it was probably him and John Frankenheimer [directing action films], right? It took me a long time to figure out that the physical narrative is something that I’ve always been intrigued by.
Why do you think that is?
This is going to sound fucked up, but the narrative responsibility that I feel physically when I do these movies almost weighs heavier on me than when I do a Bombshell [the 2019 film in which she starred as Megyn Kelly]. There’s an easier storytelling aspect to that than sometimes there is to, “Oh, it’s [based on] a graphic novel about immortals” [as Old Guard is]. There’s something so fucking challenging about that because it’s not on the nose and it’s not easy. But it’s also not being tough for the sake of being tough. And, again, I like the backbreaking part. I like being in the gym for eight hours. We went to Greece two summers ago, and I saw those mules carrying luggage, and I go, “That was me in a past life.” (Laughs.)
There’s been so much written about how grueling and conflict-ridden Mad Max: Fury Road was behind the scenes. How much of it is just lore at this point?
Listen, I know I said, “Oh, as an actor, you want to be challenged,” but you don’t want it to be that bad. (Laughs.) It was a long, long shoot. I have never done anything that needed that kind of endurance, and I don’t think I ever will [again]. I don’t know what production on the prequel was like, but I want to believe it was less. And I hate saying this because I don’t ever want to encourage young actors or storytellers to believe that they need trauma or sacrifice because I really, really don’t believe you do, but there’s a little bit about the circumstances around that movie that I think gave it the magic. It doesn’t mean it has to always be that, but I do think somehow the lightning in a bottle that you’re always trying to catch happened on that movie. But, man, it was fucking tough.
Yet you wanted to make more …
You know why? Because I never really truly appreciated or respected George Miller’s vision until I saw [the completed film and] went, “Oh my God, this is what was in his head the whole time and I couldn’t hear it.” And so it’s the one movie where I go, “If I had another opportunity, I’d get a little bit more of what he tried to do in the first one.”
You did have a three-picture deal, so I suppose you could have another opportunity.
Maybe. Listen, I’m not mad about [Miller doing a prequel instead of a sequel]. One of the greatest fucking actresses [Anya Taylor-Joy] is picking up something that I only imagined.
Did she reach out to you?
No, but I get that. It’s always tricky. Who wants to pick up the phone and say, like, “Hey, we’re going to go do this without you.” No one wants to do that. So, I totally get that. And I love George. I know I’ll talk to him again. I think it was just too hard.
In 2009, you decided to sign with an agency, which caused a frenzy in town. Many assumed you’d go with CAA, since most major stars had gone that route. But you signed with WME because, I’m told, Ari Emanuel said his agency could help you build a major producing business. Do I have that right?
That’s super accurate. It’s what I really wanted at that time. And people would always say what you want to hear, which is, like, “Oh yeah, we get this little side thing that you want to do.” But I never felt like producing was behind acting. They’re both equal interests and therefore I wanted them both to be equally as successful. And listen, it’s hard to get people to send me a book over a seasoned producer. I feel like in my acting career, I was ready to pay way more dues than I ended up having to pay, and now I’m making up for it as a producer. No matter what I produce or how highly studios speak of me as a producer, I still walk into the room and people treat me like it’s some vanity deal.
You recently said that you don’t have the same currency to get things made as you once did. Why?
The market is really different today, and the fame that worked 20 years ago, the fame that was cash in the bank, is different now. We are living in a time of reality television, and God knows I love me some reality TV. So, the marketplace of what Kim Kardashian represents — and not in a negative way because I watch everything that she does — has way more value than what Meryl Streep, one of the greatest actresses working, does. And that’s just the truth. They have very different skills, but if you were Kim Kardashian, you’d probably get way more off the ground.
You’ve said you became a producer on the 2003 movie Monster to protect yourself …
To protect Patty [Jenkins,] actually. She’s a fucking pit bull, and I could relate to that. But we were surrounded by older, white men, and we knew the movie we were making, but they didn’t. I remember one night, three weeks in, our financier calls. He had obviously tried Patty first, but I was stupid enough to pick up the phone at 3 a.m. He was like, “I just got the dailies and you’re so fat and so ugly and you never smile.” [To play serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Theron shaved her eyebrows and gained 30 pounds.] I was like, “Oh my God.” And I called Patty and she goes, “Don’t fucking listen to that.” That was the first time I heard a woman go, “Fuck them,” and it was a rebellion that I never knew before. I was always the one kind of charging it, but in a way safer way than she was because there was a part of me that was almost like, “Maybe he’s right.”
Much of the industry messaging suggested that he was right, no?
Yeah. I have moments to this day where I’m like, “What would Patty fucking do?” And other women, too. I go down the list. What would Sigourney Weaver do? What would Gale Anne Hurd do?
Do you find yourself consciously trying to create on-set environments that are different than the productions you came up on?
Yes. But there are also not five men who are going to come in and walk all over you anymore. Now, we look at everybody as true partners, and so I welcome the conversations. I will also say, “I think you’re wrong,” or, “That’s a bad idea.” And then a week later, I may go, “You were right.” And there’s such power in saying, “I was fucking wrong and you were right.”
I heard about some version of that tension on The Old Guard.
Every movie I’ve ever done, there’s been a version of that. I guarantee you that if you ask anybody that [has played a meaningful role] in my career, they’d say, “Oh, I’ve definitely been in a situation with Charlize where she’s called me two weeks later and said, “You’re right, and I’m totally wrong.’ ” I say it to my kids all the time, too. The other day, I said to my little girl, my baby, who’s wild, I said, “We have to go to Target in 30 minutes, so be ready.” And she came downstairs in a fucking crop top. And I was like, “No, no, no, no, no. Can you just put a full shirt on?”
Payback for the Dior billboards …
Exactly. She got in the car and she was upset. And I was like, “Stop. Don’t.” She was 6 at the time, and she was just like, “Why is how I express myself so upsetting to you?” And she was right, and sometimes you have to be able to look at a 6-year-old and go, “You’re right.” But if I showed you this outfit, you’d fucking die! It involved fringe. (Laughs.)
One of your more surprising choices, to me, was following your Oscar turn in Monster with an arc on Arrested Development. Did it feel that way at the time?
It was one of the scariest things, to walk onto a set of a show that’s so developed and so brilliant. But I think I needed that, to put myself out there in a different way, because people thought of me as someone who was fucking depressing, like my mother shot my father. [When Theron was 15, her dad came home drunk and threatened her and her mom with a gun, prompting her mother to shoot and kill him in what officials later determined was self-defense.] And I just fucking loved that show, and this is going to sound so “poor me,” but I do feel like sometimes, as women, we get one shot and I knew that [the 2005 action flick] Aeon Flux was going to be a fucking flop. I knew it from the beginning, that’s why I did Arrested Development.
What do you do in that situation, when you know it isn’t working?
You fight until the bitter end. With that one, I don’t know if I had the answers for how to [fix it], but I definitely knew we were in trouble. I wasn’t a producer on it, and I didn’t really have the experience to say what I believe Tom Cruise has maybe said for the past 20 years, which is, “Shut this shit down, get four more writers on it and let’s figure this out.” Instead, I’m going, “Oh God, I’ve just got to get through this day, I have bronchitis, but let’s keep shooting.” Now I imagine all these male actors going, “Shut it down for six months!” And it’s like, fuck, no one told me that was an option.
I remember Will Ferrell talking about how he was going to go for a run the Saturday morning after Land of the Lost bombed, but he was terrified that everyone would just point and stare, as though anyone but him was focused on the dismal numbers.
I never had that problem because I never really had a hit. (Laughs.) That’s a good problem to have, Will Ferrell. Fuck, I love him. But seriously, he’s been in way more hits than I have. I almost feel like when I’m in a hit, people are like, “Oh my God, you finally made a movie that more than five people saw.” Most have been movies that just crept up on people, and there used to be a market for those.
It seems like you’ve made a habit of chasing down projects and filmmakers, be it George Miller or Seth MacFarlane, with whom you made A Million Ways to Die in the West?
Oh yeah. I mean, MacFarlane didn’t want me for that. I had just come from [making Mad Max in] Namibia with a buzz cut and, as he always says, “You had bronchitis” — he’s like a real germophobe — “you had no hair and you’d never been funny.” And I’m like, “I get it. I asked you to take a leap.” And look, we’re still hanging out. But I feel like I’m very specific, unless you either know me or you’ve worked with me before. I know for sure Jason Reitman would have never worked with me unless he knew me.
Who else in this business would you say really knows you?
I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone I’ve had business with would say, “Oh, I don’t know her.” I make it so abundantly clear when I meet somebody, even if it’s a pitch at a streamer for a fucking TV show, that I don’t need to be an enigma. And I think that’s part of the broad-ness, the let me swear and be self-deprecating — it’s because I don’t want to waste all this time with you thinking I’m this movie star. Let’s break down all the walls so that we can just get down to business. I just want to get to a fucking place with people as fast as possible where they can be like, “I don’t think you’re right on this,” or, “You’re making a huge mistake.”
You’ve referenced having bronchitis a few times. It’s funny, I’ve been watching a lot of the old interviews you did around various movies and the number of times …
That I’m sick?
Yes. You’re always sick.
Oh my God, that’s so embarrassing. But, yeah, I never get sick on a movie. Never. It’s like my body goes, “Nope, you can’t.” And then [once we’ve wrapped] I get a cough or full-blown bronchitis or I’m in a cast. Anybody who knows me is like, “Oh, you must be done.” I went on Kimmel a few weeks ago, I’d just come out of shoulder surgery, and I was like, “Don’t say anything because every time you’re on this fucking show, you have some story about your fucking thumb or whatever. Just act normal and let him hug you.”
You’ve also released a film pretty much every year for decades …
Well, certain movies stay in post a lot longer than others. So, sometimes it feels like, “Holy shit, you should stop working and raise your children.” But I actually was, they just put ’em all out in these three months or whatever. And some [movies are small commitments]. Like, my time on Fast & Furious is really short.
Vin Diesel has said he has writers working on a Fast spinoff for you. Any movement there?
Listen, as a producer, I take my hat off. That fucking guy built something with Universal that very few people will ever build in their entire life. You don’t drag an audience with you for that long. Whatever you think of those movies, you have to be an idiot not to be like, “That’s a fucking accomplishment.” So, we’ll see …
And you’ve entered the MCU. Or at least you appeared as Clea in a post-credit scene in the latest Doctor Strange, which suggests we’ll be seeing more of you. How did that come together?
The simple answer to it is that it’s everything that I’ve said about Old Guard. If I can find the anchor, then I’m never going to be a snob about, like, “Oh, does this make me less of a powerful actor?” I was ignorant, I didn’t know those [Marvel] movies well enough until a family who I consider, like, my adopted family had me watch them. They’re crazy Marvel fans, and I always used to make fun of them. Like, “Oh my God, you guys are such fucking nerds.” Then one spring break we rented a house and our kids were in a camp and they were like, “You need to fucking sit down and watch.” So, we watched all the movies, and I was like, “Oh my God, they’re so fucking good.” And the kids got in on it, too, and it was such an enjoyable ride. And there’s a mythology around it and it’s been thought out over decades with Clea, and I’m challenged by that. Like, how do you reinvent that? So, I’m excited, but I honestly don’t know what the fuck it’s going to be.
So, what’s left on your bucket list?
Right now, everything I do revolves around when my kids are out of school for the summer, which usually means we’re shooting in a heat wave somewhere. In 10 years, I can definitely see myself being an empty nester and just packing up and traveling three continents [directing] a TV show. But that’s not my life now.
I was listening to a Howard Stern interview you did a few years ago where you were saying you lead a “very, very simple life.” How you’ve been in the same house …
For 30 years now, yeah.
Yes, and no staff. As you put it, you “like doing shit for [yourself].” Why do you think that’s been so important to you?
It’s my life, and I want to participate in it. One thing that early tragedy brought me is the realization that you don’t have forever. You just don’t. And it’s easy to be like, “Oh, it’s one movie,” but then it’s another movie and another. And I don’t want to sound like I’m carrying some message on my sleeve, but I do think for women, we worry [that] if we don’t work harder and we don’t keep pushing, we will never quite arrive. And it is exhausting. I never feel like, “Oh, I can just fucking enjoy this.” But you do get more perspective as you get older, and, at almost 50, it does get easier. And my kids help. I love being a mom more than I like being an actor or a producer. And I never thought I would say that. If somebody said to me tomorrow, “You can’t do both,” would I be sad to give up acting? Of course. But it would be a no-brainer for me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.