The beast in this beauty

The beast in this beauty

natural Charlize Theron takes on her next challenge, ‘Young Adult’.

Theron, whose new film, Young Adult, directed by Jason Reitman, opens on Dec 9, 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), for example, she put on 40 pounds, shaved her eyebrows and wore prosthetic teeth.

In Young Adult, Theron is Mavis Gary, one of the more unlikable protagonists to come along in years. The movie isn’t Monster, exactly, but the character is monstrous in her way and in some respects even less sympathetic than Wuornos. 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 character is beautiful and knows it, but in the course of the movie, her looks become just another emblem of her shallowness and self-regard.

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, without a redemptive Hollywood touch-up for Mavis. “I just don’t feel people change much,” she said. “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.”

Over tea at a TriBeCa hotel recently, Theron 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’ve been in the business for 17 years, and in that time you get to know what you bring to the table. I’m at a point now where I don’t want to bring just that. I want to work with someone who can take me to a level I can’t get to by myself, and I don’t think you get that with just any director. 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 was a joy,” he said of making the film. “I know every director says that, but it’s really true. It’s a wonderful thing when an actor and a director are making exactly the same film. She and I were so united in our vision of Mavis Gary that it really was joyful.”

A word that keeps coming up when people talk about Theron is “strong.” Patti Jenkins, who directed Monster, said: “I could see right through that beauty, and I knew she was strong. I sensed a very powerful woman.”

Off screen, Theron, who is 36, is straightforward, often earthy in her choice of vocabulary, but scarcely grand or formidable. “I don’t really understand celebrity,” she said. “If I have to speak in public, I have a small stroke.” And she suggested that whatever strength she has comes from her mother, Gerta. “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 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.

Theron was good enough to be hired by the Joffrey Ballet in New York, but she was probably too tall to be a ballerina to begin with, and by the time she was 19, she was broken down with injuries. “I had the knees of an 89-year-old Polish woman,” she said.

It was Gerta who suggested she try her luck in Hollywood, though Theron says now that neither of them had the slightest idea how the movie business worked. “It was just pure naïveté,” she recalled. “It was around Christmas, we were sitting in my windowless apartment, it was minus 57 outside, and I was eating four gallons of ice cream a day because I was so depressed, and my mother says, ‘Well, how about acting thing?’ Her philosophy has always been to get on with things. She’s, like, don’t sweep everything under the rug, just sweep half of it.”

In her early films, Theron was mostly screen candy, blonde and leggy. In Woody Allen’s 1998 movie Celebrity, her character is aptly called Supermodel. She could act if the part called for it, as in The Cider House Rules (1999) — and miraculously she got rid of her Afrikaans accent — but nothing suggested the kind of performance she gave in Monster, which won her the best actress Oscar in 2004 and proved to be a watershed in her career. How she did what she did in that film or in subsequent ones is something Theron prefers not to think about too much. “I don’t want to sound pretentious,” she said, “ but when a painter paints, does he know how he does it? There’s a lot about acting I don’t understand.”

She had a young actress’s flirtation with the method, she said, but gave it up because it made her physically ill. It took her a while to realise that she could 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.”