South African actress Charlize Theron speaks to Fabián W. Waintal on her action-packed roles traditionally played by male characters
Charlize Theron is proof that a woman who was not even born in United States can make it in the testosterone world of action movies. Just like the car chases in the The Italian Job(with Mark Wahlberg and Jason Statham) or the superhero rival in Hankcock(with Will Smith), before the hyper action of the Furiosa role in Mad Madand the best fights in Atomic Blonde, she became an Academy Award Winner superhero in Hollywood.
Since you grew up in South Africa, pretty far from Hollywood, when you were growing up, who were some of the kick-ass women you were looking up to?
Other than my kick-ass mom? Yeah, my mom is pretty kick-ass. You know, I remember being really young and seeing Sigourney Weaver and that changed womanhood and girlhood on a whole other level for me, not just in action genre, but just who she embodied in that (Alien) film and how capable she was. It just really did something for me. I remember going back and watching that movie when I did ‛Monster’. So, it’s not just an action thing, it’s something she transcends in that film. There’s so many great females who just hold their own in their genre, but Sigourney has always been very close to my heart for sure.And do you realise the change you’ve made in Hollywood, as a female action hero in a men’s world?
I love when a story doesn’t quite work. I find that female characters in a movie will always be the ones that are used to emotionally manipulate in a way that men don’t get used in that way. Meaning that we’re known to be nurturers and we might not be thought of just warriors, so we need a reason to become warriors and I have a problem with that, because we really are warriors, and it’s time for us to be shown that way. We don’t need to lose a child or to lose a husband to have some kind of a revenge story in order to become a warrior.
Do you have more complaints about the way Hollywood writes women roles and how they put women into certain categories?
Yeah, I mean, I get it. I love an emotional story, but I think there are different ways to tell emotional stories than to just go for that easy manipulative emotion. I’m a movie goer. I love going to the movies. I love sitting in a dark room and going to a world and having the people in that world take you on an emotional journey, but I think that sometimes there’s a laziness behind it. It’s just such easy choices. Of course, I’m going to care for this woman if you tell me that her husband died, but what if you don’t tell me her husband died, can you still have me feel something for her? I think we all have to step up to the plate and work a little harder to find interesting choices to have with women and not go to these very easy, mother, or nurturer that we just lived in for so long.Does your background as a dancer have anything to do with your physical acting and your love for action movies?
I just didn’t know anything about acting, so the idea, once it was thrown to me, was maybe I should try acting. I was like, “I know nothing about this world. I’ve never met another actor. I’ve never been in an acting class,” so all of that stuff was foreign to me. But it is very similar to the dance world. I think the physical presence is way more powerful than any verbal conversation with another person. There are things so powerful with the movement of a face, or the movement of a shoulder, or the movement of a hand, or a head dropping. Little things like that that say so much about the person that words could never accomplish. So, I’m so glad that I’ve had this nostalgia for dance all these years and I think I’ve just always held on to how can I bring that into my work as an actor and I think it’s really helped me. It’s helped me bring an element that is maybe not necessarily thought of. Now… It took me a long time to realise why I liked dance. It definitely wasn’t the amount of training or discipline that you have to put into dance. Once I lost it, once I couldn’t do it anymore, that’s when I realized what I loved about it was the storytelling aspect of it. I was never technically the strongest dancer in any company, but when I was in Swan Lake I was an ****ing swan dying on stage and when I was Giselle, I danced to the death. It took me a long time to realise that’s what I loved about it. It was the ability to emote, to be in an environment where you switch everything off and you go into that space and you tell a story.
And the movie ‛Monster’when you won the Oscar was also a physical role too?
Yeah, there are things about that film… I think from the moment I said yes to that film I was just always worried how I could make that character be a real person and not be a character, because everything about her is so darn intense and you worry when you play somebody like that. With crazy eyes all the time and the teeth and everything and so that’s the first time the physical aspect actually scared me and it took me a long time on the film to get to a place. I don’t think I ever became crazy comfortable with it. I think I always walked a line of… and I think Patty Jenkins was such an incredible… can you believe that? 17 years ago and here she is ruling the world. It’s amazing. Yeah, she deserves it.
Is it true that when you did ‘The Italian Job’ movie, you were the best one in the action scenes behind the wheel against Mark Wahlberg and Jason Statham?
Mark Wahlberg, Jason Statham, they all puked… literally. They’d go on the track, there’s a stunt driver next to you and you’ve got a helmet on and you just hear, “Faster, faster, faster” and I’m like, “Who doesn’t love this?” Then I look and I’m passing Mark and he’s barfing in the back of his car, Jason Statham is like drinking water. I was like, “These dudes, what’s wrong with them?” I love driving. By the time I was five, I could drive a tractor. That’s just growing up on a farm for you (laughs). I love driving. I just dig it, but thank you acknowledging that, because girls have such a bad rep. It’s time for us to change that.
What about Mad Max? Is there a chance that George Miller could write the backstory to your character Furiosa?
That would be nice. I read the by-story. It was a beautiful by-story of how she ended up in that world and how she lost her arm and how he was trying to utilize her, but couldn’t, and that she was baron and all of this stuff that we always think of with woman and this is really a character that played against all of that stuff, and I think through playing against it was a real woman. Whatever it is, I’ll do it. I loved playing that character. I loved that George Miller allowed me to play that character and that he never, not for a day, fought me on that character and did nothing but support and celebrate who I wanted that woman to be. He’s just amazing and it would be great, but if he’s not ready than he’s not ready. I’ll be waiting George, but I’ll be 42 in August, so let’s get to it.
Chris Hemsworth, said recently that he thinks you should be the next James Bond. What do you think about that?
I’m all for it. It also feels a little bit uncomfortable talking about something like that when there’s another movie going into production. I think of the Atomic Blonde character as something that could hopefully live and breathe in the same kind of format. We can actually make a couple more movies. I’m fine leaving that over to Daniel [Craig] or Idris [Elba]. I’ll do (Atomic Blonde) Lorraine.Was taking the role as producer of the movie ‘Atomic Blonde’ your way to rebel in Hollywood to find and develop your own project?
You know, I wanted something very specific and I think when you’re looking for something that specific… I mean, I was open to landing on my lap, but if that wasn’t happening I was about to turn 40, so I kind-of took matters into my own hands and said, “Why not actively go with my production company and search for something like this?” It was an unpublished graphic novel at this time. I saw great potential in this character to have the ability to live and breathe in a world where I could play by the same rules that men get to play all the time and that was something that I really loved.
What kind of physical training and shape did you need to get into before attempting to shoot the action scenes in ‘Atomic Blond’?
It was brutal. There was nothing easy about it (laughs). I think I knew that that would be such a big part in this film that mentally I was as prepared as I could be, but once you show up for that first four-hour workout and you get up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and you can’t sit down and you’re like, “I’m not going to be able to do this tomorrow” and you show up and you do it again, this time five hours. I think it was good for me. I think there’s something in all of us when we push ourselves to that place where we think we can’t go anymore and that’s definitely where I found myself in this movie. I still wanted it with everything that was in my body, but it took a lot of work to initially get to that place for two and a half months. And then once we were shooting, I just kept pushing it and going further with it. There’s an end sequence in this film, it’s a big gun shootout battle that we have in a hotel room that was never scripted and five days before we shot that David [Leitch] was like, “You know, we haven’t done an action sequence in a while. Let’s just turn that into an action scene,” and if anybody ever said that to me before, I would have had a nervous breakdown and be like, “I’m not prepared, what are you doing?” But I was like, “Yeah! Let’s turn it into a gun fowl!” So it was nice to be in that place physically and mentally. It was empowering.
Do you think that in reality, a woman could really go through the same steps your character goes through, in your movie?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve talked about this a lot. For me, as an actor, I think it’s important to work from a place that feels grounded to reality. I’m not good when I don’t have that weight behind me and I can find things in my own life or things that I’ve observed that I can be connected with that reality. So, for me, it was very important. Every move that we had in the fight sequences, I was annoyingly asking, “Well, could a girl do that?” And I think I drove them crazy out there for a while. I wanted to make this movie and let it be as badass as this and not have anybody come up to us and say, “A girl can’t do that.” That was important to me. So, we’re here to say, “A girl can do that!” I only punched with my fist once in this movie. And I actually show you how much that hurts, because punching with your fist really hurts. For a woman, you can break every bone in your hand by doing that. I only punched once, and it’s like a guy who’s already passed-out. I was kind-of being a bit of and a-hole with that last one, but I was like, “Ow that hurts,” because that’s the truth. You never see me doing that. Everything I’m using is either my elbows, my knees, my entire body, or my entire body weight to throw, because that’s the reality. I can’t fight the same way as a guy can fight, but that doesn’t mean I fight any less or any less better than a man. Are there any stunts you regretted trying, or anything you regretted not trying?
I really wanted to jump out of the building, but the producer in me was like, “No.” But I still kind-of wished I did that. I don’t know why. It was still early in the movie and if something went wrong we would have had to shut the whole movie down and I didn’t want to do that. That’s the one thing I watch the movie and go, “God, I wish…” But I’m really happy that my stunt girl did an excellent job kicking her legs and her garter belt coming down.
Is the door finally open in Hollywood for all women to become the action heros?
Yeah, I mean, I feel like there’s an element of that that’s very much a part of me. I was raised to not think that I can’t do something just because I’m a woman, to not feel held back. Even though you go into the world and you feel it and you’re aware of it and you want to still believe that that’s not true. I think women, we come face to face with that at some point in our lives and then we have to figure out how we’re going to work through that and I think all of those qualities have been with me when I’ve made choices for these characters. I feel like I have more opportunities where people are allowing me to kind-of explore all of those outside lines of what we usually think we can only colour in when it comes to a woman and a lot of that has to do because of Patty Jenkins in ‛Monster’, because of George Miller and ‛Furious Road’. I’m so grateful for filmmakers that have allowed me to have those opportunities to go explore all those things that my mom has always told me.