Woman on top

Woman on top

Hollywood diaries

Woman on top

It’s hard to believe the smiling, elegant Charlize Theron who walks smiling into our interview is the same woman who plays Furiosa, the rough, tough, rage-filled warrior with a shaved head and a dirt-encrusted face who hurtles across the screen driving the monster 18-wheeler War Rig in Mad Max: Fury Road.

In the past, Theron has been somewhat reticent about her private life, but not any more. This could be because of the two men in her life: Jackson, the three-year-old son she adopted when he was four months old, and Sean Penn, the 54-year-old actor she has been dating for a year and who has put his Malibu home on the market and moved in with her.

Theron, 39, and Penn first got to know each other well at the 2004 Oscars ceremony when she won for Monster and he won for Mystic River. But at the time he was married to actress Robin Wright and she was in a long-term relationship with Stuart Townsend. Having that history has only deepened their feelings for one another, she says.

Up close & personal

When they got together years later she had broken up with Townsend, had adopted Jackson and was enjoying being on her own, with no thoughts of another man in her life. “I was a happy person when I met Sean and I think that’s why we fell in love,” she tells me. “He fell in love with me because I was a fulfilled, happy person who had a healthy dose of love for myself.”

Theron denies reports that Sean has adopted Jackson and that they are engaged to be married. Never having been married, she says she views marriage as “a strange institution” but adds: “I love the possibility of anything, but I’m really enjoying myself and the everyday moment. I think that for both of us there was never a moment where we thought that what we have today would ever even be a possibility. I think we’re both finding ourselves kind of shocked.”

She has been spending both nights and days with Penn lately as he has been directing her and Javier Bardem in The Last Face, about a romance between a Spanish doctor and a relief worker in war-torn Africa.

“It’s so nice that it’s a love story and I’m making it with the love of my life,” she says. “Sean and I were looking for something for many years to do together and we just couldn’t find anything and it just happened that when we were in a relationship we found something. It’s a painful and beautiful movie about love, and Sean just took it to another level.”

The movie came as a huge relief to Theron after the gruelling demands of Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in the Mad Max series and the first to star Tom Hardy in the title role made famous by Mel Gibson.

Filmed in Namibia and Australia, the all-action movie is set in a future where fuel and water is scarce and civilisation is just a faint memory. Hardy’s Max is drawn into the struggle of Theron’s Furiosa, a badass commander who has fled an evil warlord’s citadel with a harem of women looking for a new home.

Before filming began, Theron worked on building up her arms and body to make her look sufficiently tough and brawny. “I’m not a fan of scrawny little girls pretending to kick butt in movies; I just don’t buy it,” she says with a laugh. “And I hate those moments in movies where the tiniest little arms are hitting a guy who is four times her size and we are supposed to believe it. Because I have such broad shoulders and a broad back, other than toning, I don’t usually want to enhance my upper body, but obviously on this movie I did. Towards the end of the movie I could bench press a lot, but I probably could not walk up a flight of stairs, because I had so neglected the bottom part of my body. I was a little bit like Popeye — just weird strong muscles here and nothing down there.”

Gruelling schedules

During Fury Road’s four-and-a-half month shoot, Theron had to contend with a two-hour commute, a young son who wasn’t sleeping properly, and at least an hour of training every day. No wonder she describes the experience as “exhausting”, and “relentless”.

“It was definitely the hardest thing that I ever had to do in 20 years,” she says, “because it was so long and there were days where you just wanted a break but you couldn’t because you were in it all the time. So when I watch the movie, I can see my own pain in it.”

Theron has worked hard to get where she is now; her early career was a series of a few highs and a lot of lows. But since winning the Oscar and Golden Globe in 2003 for her chilling portrayal of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, she has been on an almost permanent high. She earned another Oscar nomination for playing an abused single mother in North Country and is now firmly on Hollywood’s A-list of sought-after actresses.

Born in South Africa, Theron’s personal history would make a film in itself. Her father, Charles Theron, an abusive alcoholic, was shot and killed by his wife Gerda after he attacked her in a drunken rage in their farmhouse while the then-15-year-old Theron watched. Authorities ruled it a justifiable homicide and the case never went to trial.

She began studying ballet at six, danced professionally in Johannesburg and when she was 16 won an Italian modeling agency contract. She moved to Los Angles, worked as a film extra and was spotted by a talent manager as she was throwing a tantrum at a bank clerk who refused to cash her cheque.

Now, more than 40 movies and a host of awards later, she has her own production company, with projects ranging from films to reality TV. She is a supporter of a number of charitable causes and spends a lot of time on her foundation, Africa Outreach Project, which is aimed at reducing HIV/AIDS and sexual violence among African youth. She is also involved in women’s rights organisations and has marched in pro-choice and marriage equality rallies.

Her outside interests make it clear there is far more in her life than just making movies. “My job always comes second or third in my life,” she says. “That really comes from a place of understanding at an early age that I was responsible for my own happiness. My job makes me happy but it isn’t the only thing. I don’t like being miserable so I try to do whatever I possibly can to not live a miserable life.”