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Strong Enough to Play the Heavy

In her latest film,Young Adult,Charlize Theron plays another unlikable character who might even be less sympathetic than the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster

Written by New York Times | Published: November 13, 2011 2:13:26 am


There may be women in Hollywood more beautiful than Charlize Theron,though it’s hard offhand to think who might qualify. Theron,whose new film,Young Adult,is directed by Jason Reitman is a genuine star—with an almost Marilyn-like glamour—and yet she goes about her work as if she were a character actress. From one movie to the next she seldom looks the same,and not just in the ones where she has obviously transformed herself. To play the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003),she put on 40 pounds,shaved her eyebrows and wore prosthetic teeth.

For In the Valley of Elah,in which she portrays a no-nonsense police detective,her hair is brown (Theron’s natural colour is not the blinding platinum that has become her trademark) and pulled back,she wears little or no makeup,and it’s a minute or two before you realise,Oh,that’s her.

In Young Adult,Theron is Mavis Gary,one of the more unlikable protagonists to come along in years. The character is monstrous in her way and in some respects even less sympathetic than Wuornos in Monster. She’s a divorced,semi-successful writer of young-adult novels who on learning that her old high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) and his wife have just had a baby,decides to move back to her small Minnesota hometown,break up the marriage and win him back.

The script is by Diablo Cody (winner of an Oscar for Juno),who said recently that in the current climate she was a little surprised that the movie got made almost exactly as she wrote it. “I guess I want to believe that a lot of people have a Mavis-esque side. I do. I think about experiences I’ve had or things I’ve lost,and I still feel bitter.”

Theron,on the other hand,asked herself: “Am I crazy for making this movie? I’m not saying I didn’t think this was risky material,but I’m very grateful for the opportunity.”

What most drew her to the project,she added,was the chance to work with Reitman. “I’m very director driven,” she said. “I’m at a point now where I want to work with someone who can take me to a level I can’t get to by myself. Jason is one of the handful of amazing,talented people out there who can make you do things you can’t do yourself.”

The exact nature of the Reitman-Theron collaboration is a little mysterious. He hates rehearsals even more than she does,and most scenes in the movie were shot in just one or two takes. All he did by way of preparing Theron for the part,Reitman recalled,was send her the first seasons of The Hills,My Super Sweet 16 and Laguna Beach,all MTV reality series,on DVD.

“It’s a wonderful thing when an actor and a director are making exactly the same film,’’ he said.

A word that keeps coming up when people talk about Theron is “strong.” “She’s so steady,so strong,” Reitman said. “The first time I met her,I was scared,to be honest.”

Off screen Theron,who is 36,is straightforward but scarcely grand or formidable. “I don’t really understand celebrity,” she said. And she suggested that whatever strength she has comes from her mother,Gerta,who these days lives just minutes away from Theron in Los Angeles.

“I had a foundation,and I had values,” she said. “And my mother made it very clear that they had nothing to do with what I looked like.”

Theron grew up in Benoni,a South African town not far from Johannesburg,where her parents ran a road-construction business. When Theron was a teenager,her mother shot and killed her father,Charles,a violent,abusive alcoholic. (She was never prosecuted.) And though Theron was an only child,Gerta encouraged her to leave the country to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer – or ballerina,rather.

“I loved dance because it was acting. I got lead roles because when I died,I died,and when I was spinning into madness,I was spinning into madness.”

She had a young actress’s flirtation with the Method,she said,but gave it up because it made her physically ill: “I had no life,and I went into a massive depression. I thought if this is what it takes to be a good actress,then I don’t think I want to do it.”

It took her a while,she added,to realise that she could put to use her innate understanding of people and their inner lives. A lot of bad stuff has happened to her,she said,using a more colourful expression. “It’s easy for me to access it,” she said,“but I don’t have to live it.”

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