If you want to pitch a movie idea to Charlize Theron, here is a tip. Don’t try to capture her attention by telling her the character she will be playing is “a warrior and a hero!” She hates that. As she explained in a nearly hour-long interview with IGN’s Terri Schwartz, those reductionist terms “oversimplify the complexities and the beauty of being a woman.” So, may be not the best title for the event, then: Evolution of a Badass: An Action Hero Career Retrospective. A better one might be: Why Charlize Theron Likes to Play Complicated, Difficult Characters, Especially In Genre Movies.
She started watching action movies early. Her mother loved Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson films and her dad was a fan of “Mad Max.” “I was raised on those films. I always had an affinity for all of the genres.” But when she began working in movies, action movie roles like that were not offered to women. “There are all these boxes everyone wanted to squeeze you into….
The first time that opportunity presented itself was after I won my Academy Award.” That movie was Karyn Kusama’s “Aeon Flux,” a critical and box office failure at the time. “Because it didn’t perform, I was not going to be given another opportunity.”
Schwartz asked about “The Italian Job” as an action role. Theron was the only woman in the cast and director F. Gary Gray wanted the actors to do as many of the driving stunts as possible. She was the only one in the cast assigned six additional weeks of car training. “I was so insulted. I made it a point to outdrive all those guys.”
“‘Max Max: Fury Road’ really changed the trajectory for me. There are a lot of possibilities here. You just have to find the right people who are willing to explore these stories with women. I became actively involved and became a producer.” The production was intensely demanding. “I don’t think I’ll ever recover from the making of that film. The physicality was very real. There was a lot of physical lifting, not much wire work. The action on driving vehicles was incredibly tedious.” Basically, “the movie is a three-day car chase and that is exhausting.” But all of that came through in the intensity of the film. “None of that was being manufactured. It came from such a real place.”
Theron was 40 when she made “Atomic Blonde.” “I had a sense of time running out.” As a producer, she told director David Leitch, “Mediocrity is the enemy on this film.” She was especially proud of action scenes that let women fight like women. “You don’t have to fight like a man. You can be smart about what body parts we use, elbows, knees. That was when it became really exciting to me. We left it all on the dance floor. We really did.”
Theron says that lead characters in action movies are all trying to survive. She loves creating the action scenes but what she cares about most is characters who are complicated, relatable characters. Andy in “The Old Guard” may be immortal, but she is still trying to understand her purpose and find meaning. It is “very much an emotional story that resonated. Even though it is a sci-fi story, it feels incredibly grounded in humanity. If there’s not an emotional connection to hang my coat on it is very difficult to invest.” She used to be jealous of Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro because “because they got to play f’d up people.” In the past, women were asked to play either “really good hookers or really good mothers but nothing in between. It is a disservice to women in general. We are more complicated. Our strengths come from our faults and mistakes and our petty and our vulnerabilities and our madness. Those are the things that make us interesting.Women should be able to say, ‘I see a little of myself in that.'”
The success of recent action films featuring female leads means “We’ve changed the genre for women. We can’t hide behind ignorance anymore. Audiences love these films. There’s a facelift. It feels fresh.” She hopes her daughters will grow up expecting to see women in these roles. “I want this to be normalized. I want my two girls not to think this is strange.” She is encouraged by the way that there are so many women working in this genre and cheering each other on, and feels a responsibility to “pass the baton and hold the door open.”
Theron has spoken before about how much it meant to her to watch Sigourney Weaver in “Alien,” to see a strong, capable female action character in a lead role. She thinks about the audience when she produces and appears in films like “The Old Guard.” “If that character can do in some small part what Ripley did for me, that’s something I’m incredibly proud of.”