Interviews: Charlize Theron
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci star in Monster.
he choice for Best Actress by the Screen Actors Guild. Winner of the Golden Satellite Award and the Golden Globe. Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival. Named Best Actress by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, the Las Vegas Film Critics Society, the National Society of Film Critics, the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle.
On February 29, 2004, the Academy is expected to follow suit, and award Charlize Theron the Best Actress Oscar. Best known for her stunning beauty, the statuesque twenty-eight year old South African native achieves a remarkable transformation in Monster. To portray notorious Florida prostitute/serial killer Aileen Wuornos, executed for seven murders in 2002, Theron gained weight and subjected herself to an unflattering makeover—both physical and emotional.Last fall, AboutFilm participated in a series of roundtable interviews in which Theron discussed her role and the film, which she also co-produced. Her co-stars Christina Ricci and Bruce Dern, and her director Patty Jenkins also stopped by to share their impressions of Theron's performance.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Monster]
Charlize Theron is nearly unrecognizable as notorious prostitute/serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.
Question: What's it like starring in a movie and producing it at the same time?
Theron: It's great. I love it. I love the job. I love them both. They kind of help each other out. It's not like something new that I'm just learning or trying to do— I mean, I am learning. But I've always been very interested in the whole film-making process, and I've always been lucky enough to work with filmmakers and producers that have been very encouraging to let me hang around and be a part of that. I like it. I get so emotionally invested in that whole process that the producing part of me is just a natural thing to happen.
Question: How'd you come across Monster in the first place?
Theron: Patty Jenkins, who wrote and directed it, she offered it to me. She was relentless. I was still working on The Italian Job. Nobody told me anything about it, so when I read it, I just read it as a story. I knew nothing about Aileen Wuornos. I didn't know that it was based on a real-life person. I loved the script. I thought it was really well written, very interesting, an unusual, beautiful love story. When you read so much material, you start to get used to this one formula that gets re-used and re-used. This was one of the first scripts in a very long time that I read that I really didn't know what was going to happen on the next page, up to the end. So I met with Patty a couple of days later, and was blown away by her. She's incredible.
Question: What did you see in Charlize that made you approach her with this film?
Jenkins: I knew when I cast her that it sounded like a joke. It sounded like, “Oh come on! Stunt casting!” I didn't have the luxury of thinking about it. I walked into making this film and immediately was having a relationship with a woman on death row, who was incredibly mistrustful, and as a last wish really wanted someone to be able to tell her story. On the flip side, there are victims' families, and real people were killed. The weight being put upon me was so incredibly heavy [that] I didn't have the luxury of saying, “How is this going to sound on the news tonight?” The entire film rides on how this is played. More importantly, I'm not interested in who's done this before or anything like that. What is interesting to me is that in order to do this in the way that we were going to do it, I needed someone incredibly brave, incredibly un-vain, and incredibly skillful, and who was a generous and loving person. I saw all of that in Charlize. I saw all of it in the work that she's done. She's incredibly dedicated to every part she's ever done. Whether it's a good part or a bad part, you see someone completely committed to everything that she's doing. Plus—there are extreme close-ups which are so unflattering of Charlize—that's not a vain woman, to let that happen. Not a vain woman. She also doesn't have to prove to everybody how beautiful she is. We all know. So I knew that if she committed to this, she would go all the way.
Question: Did you ever have a conversation with Charlize in which you said, this is your Burning Bed role?
Jenkins: No. The conversation we did have over and over again was, “You're the one. You're the one that can do it.” Any actor—I don't care who they are, unless they're too naïve to understand what they're taking on—is going to be afraid going in. There was plenty of, “Are you sure you want me? Are you sure?” Those sort of things. For me, too. She was putting all of her trust in a first time director. I did believe that she was the one.
AboutFilm Question: Can you talk about the differences in how you approached the two performances and the two leads [Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci]? They were such different characters. Did you direct them differently? Did you talk to them differently?
Jenkins: Yeah. I mean, just inherently that happens with all of then. All actors work in a very different way, and so you're very quickly finding the synchronicity between the two of you. Charlize and I had been traveling together. We were on this process of discovery, and it was Aileen Watch. The best directing was, “I'm not buying that.” Or her saying, “I'm not buying this line.” And constantly saying, “What was the truth? What was the truth? How would Aileen have done this? How would Aileen have reacted in this moment?” Christina is this unbelievable talent who doesn't like to take in a whole lot in advance. She obviously does research and reading, but she's somebody who instead of sitting and talking through things a whole lot—which is what's necessary when you're playing Aileen—she's somebody who you have to get into the right place. Then you talk completely differently, and then this nuclear bomb would come out of Christina. I became very close to both of them, but it is a different process.
Question: Was it part of your job to help Charlize not to get lost in this emotional world?
Jenkins: That was an inevitability. I don't think that people truly understand. It's always obvious that people don't understand that acting is really difficult, but acting like this is really difficult. We did this movie in 29 days. She's in every scene. In the rain, in the cold, in the freezing—the night we shot that murder, we shot three other scenes that day. She killed the last john, and then she had to go out on the highway and hook, and then she had to do the driving. It was the Olympics of acting first of all; second of all, you're taking on this person's life. Third of all, actors, directors—everybody feels comfortable when you know the effect that you're trying to have on your audience. That's where you want to be. “I'm a sympathetic character!” “I'm an unsympathetic character!” Here, she was playing a real person. We had no idea how people would react to her, particularly not at this moment. We were not a movie that people were paying much attention to, so she's out there without a net, every day, having no idea how people would receive her. You're lost as hell the whole time, because she has no idea if you're going to cry, [or] you're going to laugh. I think that's where the nuances of this performance came from, which is why I hope people understand what a serious thing that was to take on for her.
Question: Charlize has the showier role, but you had the subtler role. Would you say that your role was as difficult?
Ricci: God no. To tell you the truth, I'm not as analytical about things, so I generally don't think about things like that. But the thing that struck me before we started shooting was that I genuinely was concerned for Charlize, because I couldn't even read the rape scene. I couldn't even read it. To simulate that, there's no way that that can't affect you. No matter how much you know something's fake, there's an instinctual reaction to that, and I don't think that I would have been able to get over that, if I had to do it. So, all I could ever think was, “Oh my god, this poor woman, I can't believe she's doing this.” My heart really went out to her, to do this. And so, I think what she did is astounding. Astounding.
Question: Was there an element of wanting to protect Charlize from emotionally damaging herself?
Ricci: With someone like that, you can't try to protect them. I don't know if Patty did something special to protect her during those scenes. I don't know if you just rely on someone to be able to protect themselves. I know that when someone is going through something like this, and playing a character that is difficult, and that is such an extreme, and they're so involved and invested emotionally, you generally just give people their space. If they want to talk to you, they'll talk to you. You're just respectful, basically. You kind of go off of what other people are giving you. To that end, I was very impressed with how much she did engage other people, off camera. I was very impressed by that. I expected her to kind of hide and only come out when she was working, and not talk between takes, and be very removed. But she wasn't at all. And I just couldn't believe how she was managing to do all of it.
Question: What is your impression of Charlize Theron's performance?
Dern: It turns out that of all the studio people I've ever worked with, she gets it. She gets it as fast as [Ellen] Burstyn, and Burstyn got it as fast as anyone I ever worked with, except for Bette Davis and Geraldine Page. They are the other two that got it pretty damn fast. She ended up getting it just as fast as they did… When you think of the transformations of actors or actresses—of the transformations we've seen since Man of a Thousand Faces , which is 1950s—Bob Evans was in it, so we can't date it too long ago—let's say in fifty-three years of movie making, there have been three astonishing changes. Bette Davis—at the height of her career, incidentally—as Baby Jane Hudson, Bob De Niro in Raging Bull , and this woman in this movie.
Question: What was your reaction the first day you saw Charlize transformed into Aileen Wurnos?
Dern: I went on the set of a movie called Waking Up in Reno. Charlize was in it. I saw her. She just looked like a regular, nice-looking gal who was feeding a puppy on the set. Never saw her after that. When I went to Orlando [to shoot Monster], I never saw Charlize Theron. I only saw Aileen Wurnos. Not only was she not recognizable, but there was a passionate lack of passion that I'd never seen a human being do before or since in my life. All I did was my week when I was there, and then I moved on. I didn't see [the movie] until three weeks ago. I watched the men in the audience, because I knew what was coming. Anybody who reads the papers or sees documentaries knew what was coming. But, at the same time, you don't know what's coming. I thought at the end of the movie, “There's a lot of men in this theater who are…going to be a little bit ashamed of themselves because they had tears in their eyes.” That's why this movie is what it is. These two women, or three if you include Christina, they managed to get the vulnerability in this woman.
Question: Was there any fear of the physical transformation you would have to make?
Theron: No, I've tried most of my career to transform myself towards characters. I mean, nothing as drastic as this, obviously. But I've tried with movies like The Yards; you try as much as you possibly can. My job as an actor, and the part of my job that I love is the transforming-and-becoming aspect of it, and so it doesn't become about me anymore. Actors—we're selfish, but we can't think about the work in that kind of selfish manner. I think that you have to step away from yourself, if you're going to do it. Otherwise don't do it; otherwise why do it?
Question: Talk about the emotional transformation. When did you know that you could bring the goods?
Theron: I never really got to a place where I thought, “This is it. Now I know exactly what to do.” I think the whole process was a constant discovery for me, and a constant search. I don't think there was ever a time where I went, “Well, now my work is done, now I know what to do.” I think Patty and I kept running into people or stories; it was a constant road of discovering. Her life was just— You could talk about it for hours. The emotional journey that she took was one that no matter how bad you think your life is, it doesn't come close to what this woman experienced.
Question: Some people say Wuornos was not empathetic enough during the course of this movie. What did you think?
Theron: There's only so much you can work with, otherwise don't make the movie, I really truly believe. The reason Patty and I always talked about why it was important to tell this story was that I think we live in a world where people like Aileen— There's a certain amount of propaganda that we get fed by media when it comes to people like Aileen. The sensation is, “First time female serial killer.” And so, any kind of opportunity— You know, every shot of her when she's looking a little [weird]—that's that thing you see on the seven o'clock news. That's the thing on the front page newspaper. I think the flip side to the coin is that those are the facts, now let's actually look underneath the rug and take a moment and ask the questions, the same way I felt they asked the questions in a movie like Badlands. Those are based on real life characters, too. Martin Sheen, who's picking up garbage, he's living kind of a normal life—how does somebody like that end up going on this journey that he does in that movie?
I felt that the other side to [Aileen's] story held a lot of empathy. I think it's sometimes hard to look at those things because she had done such horrendous things in her life. And I don't think in this movie we tried to oversee that or forget about that. We stayed very true to the fact that she killed innocent people. I think that's what people have a problem with. When you show that truth, it becomes a little tough to watch, because those are the things that she did. But I really believe—otherwise I wouldn't have done this movie—that in the greater truth of her story, in watching that, you do get to a place of empathy. And that to me was the most important thing.
Question: What do you think now about capital punishment, after doing this movie?
Theron: I've never been for it, and so this movie didn't really change that for me. I've always been against it. I've never felt that it has actually proven to do anything positive, when you look at numbers. I think very few people actually know the statistics out there of how unsuccessful it is as a form of punishment. I'm not for it.
Question: We've talked about how you got into character, but how did you get out of character?
Theron: Good question! While I was shooting the film, I had to switch off. There was just no way that I could go through the entire film— I knew that I was going to just get burned out. And so I found a great way of letting go. I don't really watch a lot of television, and I would watch mindless, mindless television.
Theron: Like ElimiDate. [laughter] I know! It was a whole new discovery for me. And the whole Michael Jackson thing was happening at the time—those documentaries. I watched that. And I watched The Bachelor. Really just mindless television, where I could actually sit on the couch, and there was no thought process. I was just like [stares vacantly into space]. You know, with blood on my face. We're in the middle of a wood or something, and it's a little black and white television in my trailer, and I'm like [glazed look]. But I realized that was really important for me to do every once in awhile, to have the energy to recoup myself, for my own mental stability, too.
Question: Talk about the makeup.
Theron: Well, Tony G, who's phenomenal—and if she doesn't win every makeup award, there shouldn't be anything like a makeup award, because she had no budget. There were no prosthetics used. She had teeth made for me—they were sculpted, every tooth was literally sculpted. Contacts, of course. Liquid latex, which is like a liquid moisturizer that you put on the face, and you dry it with a hair dryer, and stretch it out, and it gets really leathery looking. Then she would paint layers and layers of tattoo colors with a spray gun, like an airbrush machine, and would just kind of get this dimension on the skin. And then the only thing she used was latex on the top of my eyelids to make them a little heavier. She plucked all my eyebrows and bleached them out because Aileen had barely any eyebrows. And she would highlight on my mouth and a lot on my nose.
Question: What about the freckles?
Theron: That was the airbrushing.
Question: You met Aileen, didn't you?
Theron: No, I never met her. She was executed a week after I said yes to this.
Question: Did you see the Nick Broomfield documentary or any of the news footage?
Theron: Oh, everything I could find. In this case you become like a scavenger—anything you can find on her. I fortunately enough had met Nick Broomfield, or ironically enough, maybe six months prior to this movie coming to me. He was telling me he was making a documentary, and then I found out it was about Aileen, and he was still in the editing room. And I called him and I said, “I know you're still cutting and you're not ready to show your movie, but I'd love to see any footage you have.” He sent an early cut of his film. So anything I could get my hands on.
Question: When you do something like Monster, in some ways is it about proving to yourself that you can do it? That you can step outside of the box?
Theron: Yeah, I think part of it is that. I don't think all of it is that. But I do think it's a little bit like climbing Mount Everest. You know, why do people do that? I think in life we want to challenge ourselves to see what we are capable of. I think actors tend to do the same thing, that sportsmanship of how far can I push myself?
Question: Do you also feel on some level satisfied that you have proven that you have the talent? Now you can say, “You can't just say I'm a pretty face anymore!”
Theron: I hope not, right? [laughs] Hopefully after this that won't be my feedback anymore. You know what [though]? When this came along—and I know it sounds like, “Yeah, right, I'm sure that's what you tell everybody”—but I didn't quite know where we were going to go with what she was going to look like physically. It wasn't like when I said yes, I knew that I was going to look like that, and therefore went, “Well that would be good because then people will see me in a different way.”
Question: Are you getting different feedback from the industry now?
Theron: I am. I'm getting really honest feedback, which I really like. I think we do live in a world where it gets a little—where it gets a little bit—you know, you get this a lot, “It's great. It's great. It's great.” It's like a song that kind of goes through your head. And then finally to have people come up and go, “I'm going to tell you straight, I didn't think you had this in you”—it was really nice to know. You really feel that people are honestly actually giving you a feedback. It's not, “It's great. It's great.”
Question: How did you gain that kind of weight?
Theron: I said yes to this beginning of November, and we shot February. So, I had that amount of time. It wasn't about getting fat. It wasn't that she was fat. She was just [strong]. I was shocked to find out she was only five foot three. When I watch all that footage—she walks into the court and [she has a] presence. Everybody that we talked to at the Last Resort [the bar where Wuornos would go] used to say the same thing. When she came in, you knew she was in the bar. Loud, and she also carried herself in that way, to make sure everybody knew she was there. I think it was a survival mechanism for her. I can't imagine sleeping under passes, or getting into a car with a stranger and driving out of state. The lifestyle she was leading was so unbelievably dangerous.
Question: What would you have asked her if you had met her?
Theron: I don't know. I never thought about it. Patty and I talked about it once very briefly before she was executed. We didn't think she was going to get executed. She'd had so many appeals over the twelve years that everybody just thought it was another appeal. Nobody really took it seriously. Until we saw the documentary, nobody really understood how much she was sabotaging the appeal. The day before she was executed we talked about it very briefly, because Patty wrote to her a couple of times, and they corresponded to each other, and so Patty said, “We should figure out a way for you guys to meet.” And then when she was executed, it was the kind of thing where…that was done. I couldn't stay in that past and dream of what I could ask her. It was really, “How do I now get the information in another way?”
Question: Are you sorry there was no opportunity to sit with her?
Theron: Sure. But then I'm also a true believer that everything happens the way it should. I don't know if I'd met her how it would have turned out.
Question: You must have found yourself disliking certain things about Aileen Wuornos.
Theron: Very much.
Question: Did you have to distance yourself, or not think about those things?
Theron: No, I had to get to a place of understanding. When I was playing her, I always used to say to Patty, “God, if only she didn't do this one thing. How would her life have turned out?” It's a very emotional place to be. I read the story and immediately related and responded to that. That wasn't tough for me. It wasn't like I was reading this very distant thing that I couldn't understand at all. She was a normal human being that had gone through a lot of heartache. I related to that on a different level. I think you have to get to a place where the best you can do is understand—maybe—why, and then really drag yourself through it, because it's tough to do those things. The last killing, it was impossible. It was one of the worst nights of my life.
Question: In the beginning Aileen tells Shelby that she's not “like that”—that she's not gay. But then suddenly it turns into a very intense relationship, and she starts killing men. So was she a lesbian?
Theron: I think she was just desperate for love. Whatever form it was going to come to her, she was like, “I'm not gonna be picky.”
Question: Was she a monster?
Theron: No, I don't think she was.
Question: Then who was? Who was the monster?
Theron: I don't think that necessarily anybody in the story has to be the monster. “Monster” to me is the exact same label as saying she was crazy. This is just a copout for me. For me, that's so easy. We can all sit her and go, “She was a psychopath.”
Question: Bruce Dern has said that she simply didn't have any good circumstances.
Patty Jenkins (left) directs Charlize Theron in Monster.
Theron: She didn't. We all might go through rough spots in our lives. [But for her] there was never a break, and half of it is not even in the movie because you just don't have enough time. The fact is there are so many times that she really did try to change her life. That was the one thing that I really loved about her—that she wasn't the kind of person who sat back and went, “Well, I'm a prostitute and this is my life.” She tried to join the army! And they wouldn't take her because she was deaf in one ear, because she had been beaten so badly.
Question: Did you hear back from her family at all?
Question: What do you think about Oscar talk for this?
Theron: I mean, you know… [sighs]
Question: Are you ignoring it?
Theron: I don't think ignoring it. It's really nice. The immediate response is, “Wow.” It's the kind of thing that, look, nothing has happened. We can talk about it all we want. But there's so much going on in my life, and I'm really proud of this movie. I want to get it out there, and I want people to see it. That's really the first and foremost important thing for me. All the other stuff is really nice, because you never know when you start a movie, how it's going to end up. That to me is just another extension of people actually responding to the movie.
Question: After that you played Britt Eckland for [HBO's] The Life and Death of Peter Sellers [with Geoffrey Rush]. Can you talk about that, because that was more the way you normally look, wasn't it, playing Britt?
Theron: Well, with makeup. [laughs] Nobody wakes up like that. I actually suggested that project a long time ago, before Monster came along, so I always knew I was going to do that. And then I did this, and I actually did Head in the Clouds right after this. Right before I was wrapping on that movie, I went and did ten days on the Peter Sellers story.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Monster]
Feature and Interview © February 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Newmarket Films, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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