With a starring role in this month’s ‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War,’ the actress opens up about motherhood (for the second time), making peace with her past (relationship with Sean Penn and otherwise) and finding personal strength in fear and weakness
ByAlex Bhattacharji | Photography by Josh Olins for WSJ. Magazine, Styling by Clare Richardson
ON A COLD LATE-JANUARY morning in Budapest, a shaft of sunlight streams through a window in the stately dining room of the art nouveau Gresham Palace Hotel, illuminating Charlize Theron. Her face contorts into a grimace as she stretches her oatmeal-encrusted forearm across the table, offering a spoon to an indifferent infant, while simultaneously turning her head to anxiously scan the room. Then she dips to look under the table, where she finds her 4-year-old son, Jackson, playing with a handful of Cheerios. “Don’t scare me like that!” she says to the boy, his face hidden under a baseball cap with a faux braided red ponytail flowing behind (a Princess Anna hat; he’s a huge fan of Frozen). “You need to sit at the table and eat breakfast like a big boy.” She taps his seat. “Sit. On. Your. Chair.”
WSJ. Magazine April 2016
When she looks up, her daughter, August, less than a year old, is yanking on her own hair, leaving a string of oatmeal lumps in her thick, curly locks. Theron closes her eyes, rolls her head back and lets out a low guttural noise. The waiter takes a nervous step toward the table. But the sound that emerges is not a cry of exasperation. Instead Theron lets out a roaring, soaring laugh. “Don’t pull your hair out, baby,” she coos. “You’re far too young to pull out your hair.” She beams radiantly and playfully taps August’s nose. “Do you want a bath? Doyou?”
If this off-duty version of the Hollywood star—her hair pulled back under a cashmere cap, and wearing faded jeans, a down vest, black suede boots and no makeup—is unguarded, it may be because she’s too tired to check her emotions. In Budapest to film the glasnost-era spy thriller The Coldest City, the 40-year-old South African has been working nonstop for the past three months, a demanding schedule set by a most unforgiving producer (herself).
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There’s no Wi-Fi on set, and by the time Theron returns to the hotel to put the kids to bed—particularly after fight scenes involving her character, a British MI6 agent—she’s ready to crash. As a result, she’s been living in something of a news and cultural vacuum, starved for updates on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant(“Is Leo great? Oh, tell me, tell me!”) or what’s transpiring at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where DiCaprio is being honored for his work on climate change and where she addressed world leaders about AIDS prevention in 2013. She is, she admits, a woman in a bubble. “Actually, you could really f— with me right now. I’d be like, ‘Really? That happened?’ ”
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This month, we’ll see Theron reprise a familiar role, as the evil queen Ravenna in The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a follow-up to 2012’s Snow White & the Huntsman.It also marks unfamiliar territory for her—the first sequel of her two-decade-long career and one in which she plays a character obsessed with her own vanity. Theron has become known in the industry as an actress who avoids parts that trade on her looks. She won a best actress Oscar after adding 30 pounds and prosthetics to portray serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster; she was nominated for her role as a gritty iron miner in North Country; and she received a Golden Globe nomination for playing a dissolute former prom queen with trichotillomania (obsessive hair pulling) in Young Adult. For Mad Max, Theron decided her character, Imperator Furiosa, needed a buzz cut to go with her steam-punk prosthetic arm.
In the new film, Emily Blunt, who plays Ravenna’s sister, the Ice Queen, pointedly asks, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the mostpowerful of them all?” When I ask Blunt to answer, she laughs. “That’s not even a fair question. Did Charlize ask you to ask me that?” Nevertheless, it is fair to say that, among women in Hollywood, Theron would be on anyone’s shortlist. Before she signed on to The Huntsman sequel, she insisted on getting the same pay as her co-star from the first film, Chris Hemsworth. “Look, when I saw that Jennifer Lawrence made what she made in comparison to Bradley Cooper, I was definitely shocked,” Theron says, referring to the gender wage disparity of American Hustle, one of the more eye-opening revelations from the Sony email hack. “The way people have been writing about it, it sounds like the Sony hack was what motivated me. My feeling would have still been, If we’re going to do it again, shouldn’t we start on equal footing? Because, trust me, we weren’t on equal footing there.”
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Decorum dictates that stars never discuss salaries on set (and Universal Pictures, distributor of The Huntsman, declined to comment), but Theron’s assertiveness made an impression on her cast mates. “Charlize knows what she deserves. She wasn’t afraid to ask for it—or to work for it. Everything she gets, she’s earned,” says Blunt, who found that Theron’s direct approach carried over to her performance. “Charlize is the most self-possessed person. She doesn’t baby you—she treats you like a grown-up. And after the take, she tells you the dirtiest of dirty jokes.”
Theron and Blunt immediately took to their roles as wicked sisters and likewise bonded with Jessica Chastain, who plays a warrior fighting alongside Hemsworth. “Emily’s funny. Jessica’s funny. Chris is pretty. He pret-ty,” Theron jokes. “He’s actually really f—ing funny. I’ve had moments with him where I peed a little bit—that funny.”
The atmosphere on set went beyond collegial to familial, with Hemsworth’s three kids and Jackson running around the soundstage together. “I remember Jax watched Charlize do a take, a scene where she had to be a real bitch,” Blunt recalls, “and he said, ‘Mumma spicy.’ I love that. So perfect. That’s what I called her. Mumma Spicy.”
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THERON’S RELENTLESS schedule in Budapest comes after a period of great joy—and some personal upheaval—for the actress. Last year, she adopted August. At around the same time, she broke off her engagement to actor Sean Penn. The intense shoot, which requires her to be on set by 5 a.m. most days, has meant adjusting to the needs of her two young children, whom she is intent on tucking in every night. Today—ostensibly her one day off—she spent several hours cramming with her dialect coach, trying to perfect her Russian accent for a pivotal scene.
When we meet later, over dinner, Theron repeatedly jokes that she’d be out hitting the town if only she could film the scene in English, but in fact she’s never been one to take the path of least resistance. After landing her first speaking role, in 1996’s 2 Days in the Valley, Theron found herself on billboards towering over Sunset Boulevard in white lingerie. Wary of being pigeonholed, she passed on babe part after babe part. “I wasn’t just thinking about the longevity of my career, it was that I wanted to explore different things,” she says. “I became aware I could build a career that would be more satisfying to me by saying no.”
She said no a lot and heard it just as often. “I was auditioning for a lot of stuff where they thought I was too pretty,” she says, still irked. “Devil’s Advocate was probably the hardest—they put me through the wringer. And Taylor [Hackford, the director] just wasn’t convinced. He was like, ‘If you were his wife, why would he cheat on you?’ And I was like, ‘What does that even mean?’ ”
Theron says she “sucks” at auditioning, which is why she often feels compelled to chase down directors for the roles she wants. Jason Reitman, who directed Theron in Young Adult, remembers being cornered. “She stopped me at the Academy Awards in 2010 and picked me out of a lineup and said, ‘We’ve got to work together,’ ” the Oscar-nominated director recalls. “It took a moment for me to process: Wait, Charlize Theron is talking to me right now?” A year later, she threw her producing weight behind Young Adult to get it made and threw herself into one of her most unlikable characters.
Similarly, Theron agreed to do a dance number at the 2013 Oscars hosted by Seth MacFarlane as a ploy to get him to cast her in A Million Ways to Die in the West (“Such a dick move,” she says); she sought out the notoriously elusive David Fincher to pitch him an idea that turned into Mindhunter, a Netflix series the two are co-producing; and she called in favors, pulled strings—“did whatever I could”—to get the lunch meeting that landed her in Mad Max: Fury Road. The film’s director, George Miller, says he thought he was there to pitch her on the part. “I could only think of her for the role,” he says.
Playing Furiosa was a huge leap of faith for Theron. “I don’t think I had doubts, but I had fears,” she says. “I chased after it so hard, just based on storyboards”—there was no script. “I never doubted George’s idea, but I had a lot of fear that I was never going to be able to do what he wanted or needed, because I had so little to work with.” Filming involved nine months of near-continuous, highly choreographed action scenes, as well as clashes with her co-star, Tom Hardy, the talented and tormented British actor who played Max.
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“I’m not saying that they were seething right through, but the trajectory of the characters can’t help but seep into the work,” Miller says of his two stars. “When they first meet each other, they’re trying to kill each other. As the two characters come together out of necessity and rather reluctantly, they have to find a degree of trust. And to some extent that was the trajectory of their relationship as well.”
“From what I hear, he’s not like that on every movie—I hear he’s had good experiences,” Theron says of Hardy, with a laugh. “Maybe the movie is what it is because we struggled so much with each other, and those characters had to struggle so much with each other. If we were chum-chum, maybe the movie would have been 10 times worse.” (Hardy declined to comment for this article.)
The movie was nominated for a best picture Oscar, and Miller received a best director nod as well, but he felt “if the film were to get any nominations, Charlize should get one. She was uncompromising. She was constantly saying, ‘I have to do this as a warrior.’ Sand and dust got everywhere. Take after take, she’d have the wind machines and the dust, and a couple of times she’d tear up—just to get the dust out of her eyes—and say, ‘Oh, I don’t want people to think I’m crying.’ And I said, ‘No, don’t worry.’ But I looked at one take, and there were tears running down her face. And I erased the tear marks on her face, because she was just determined that this character was going to be relentless.”
After floods in Australia, Miller moved the production to Namibia, home to Theron’s mother’s family, and South Africa. Soon after, Theron found herself on another arduous shoot in Cape Town, starring opposite Javier Bardem in The Last Face, a drama about humanitarian relief workers directed by her then-fiancé, Sean Penn. “My son has spent more time in South Africa and Namibia than in America,” she says, a little unsettled by that fact.
The region’s history isn’t lost on Theron, who grew up in South Africa under apartheid. “I have a lot of things I should probably sort out in therapy about my relationship with my country. Because it’s affected me way more than I’ve ever acknowledged. And it was only when I got older that I started realizing that I had a lot of anger; there was a lot of unresolved stuff—apartheid, health care, AIDS, poverty—that still very much affects me.” Theron pauses. It’s clear that, beyond politics, her pain has personal dimensions. “It makes you realize that the circumstances of your formative years, it leaves a real scar—it marks you. It’s the one thing that gets me really angry, really emotional. It’s a lot of f—ing suffering, and unnecessary suffering.
“And just people getting the s— kicked out of them for a very, very long time,” Theron says, overcome by a rush of tears. She breathes deeply, trying to hold them back. “Yeah. Sorry.”
A waiter approaches with her meal, and she wipes the tears from her face with the back of her hand, grateful for the reprieve. “Oh, yay. Steak.”
SPLIT DECISION | ‘In my honesty about wanting to have more kids, there was an understanding that a relationship has to go somewhere before it was going to be—what you hope for, which ultimately did not happen,’ Theron says of her recent breakup with Sean Penn.
THERON SPENT HER childhood kicking around her parents’ dirt farm near the town of Benoni, a backwater around 25 miles from Johannesburg and as many light years from Hollywood. Amid the isolation of the apartheid era, she lost herself in movies, drinking them in with no conception of celebrity. She didn’t dream of being an actress. “I didn’t even know what that dream was,” Theron says. “We saw American movies but we didn’t know who anybody was. I didn’t know there was this whole celebrity fantasy world.”
Her father worked as a civil engineer, and her mother, Gerda, ran a construction company with him. “I am the product of the mother who raised me,” Theron says. “My mom would wake up every morning, get me ready for school, make my food, get me on the bus and then go run the third largest road construction business in South Africa—and do it in style, wearing suede boots, knee-high boots. I was so impressed by that.”
In 1991, Theron, 16, entered a modeling contest, took first place and jetted from South Africa to Milan. A year later, she came to New York to attend the Joffrey Ballet School, hoping to fulfill her dreams of being a dancer, only to have them stymied by a knee injury, which left her in a deep depression. So she struck out for Los Angeles—and struck out repeatedly, unable to even land auditions. “There was a four-year period where I was living out of a suitcase,” Theron recalls.
Theron was eventually discovered, in what she calls her “Lana Turner soda fountain moment,” when a talent agent handed her his card in line at a bank. He’d noticed her only because she was engaged in a heated argument with a teller who refused to cash the check the broke actress’s mom had sent her.
“There was something really great about not knowing where I was going to end up next,” she says of those early years. “I lived my life with that in mind. And within the first week of being in L.A., I stopped at a sign that said ‘Puppies,’ walked into a house, picked a puppy and drove to the loft I was sharing with a friend. She’s like, ‘What the f— are you doing? You don’t even know where you’re going to be next week.’ I don’t know why, my body just did it, I don’t know what happened.” Soon after, she picked up another cocker spaniel mutt. “Those two dogs, somehow between them and the universe, they knew I was going to stay in L.A., even if I didn’t.”
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“I ALWAYS KNEW I wanted more kids,” Theron says. When I ask her if she plans any further additions to her family, she hesitates. “I don’t know. But I always knew I wanted more than one. Always.”
Theron emphasizes this last point. “When you’re with somebody and it comes to kids, you can’t bulls—,” she says. “And so I was always very honest with Sean that I wanted to have more kids. And he was very supportive.”
Theron’s much-scrutinized 18-month relationship with Penn was a rare match: two accomplished actors, both committed to social activism, each the other’s intellectual and artistic equal. She entered into the relationship with the 55-year-old actor just as she exited it—open to possibility but upfront and unapologetic about her priorities. Theron, who’d been friends with Penn for years, started dating him around two years after she adopted Jackson. “We were very, very new in a relationship,” she says. “The stories saying that Sean was going to adopt Jackson and all of that were not true. It’s not something that happens in 18 months. You can’t do that to a child. So there was an understanding that I was a single mom with a very young boy who I had to put in a situation where he understood that Mommy dates but that he does not have a father, you know what I mean? You have to be very careful and very honest about that stuff. And Sean was great with all of that.
“And in my honesty about wanting to have more kids, there was an understanding that a relationship had to go somewhere before it was going to be—what you hope for, which ultimately did not happen. I couldn’t foresee that, but that stuff takes time, and I think it’s my responsibility as a mother to protect my child from that. And so we had a very clear understanding. He knew that I was thinking about filing for another adoption but that we weren’t filing together.” She laughs. “My publicist’s going to kill me; I’m already saying too much.” She laughs again, and after a moment, another wave of tears arrives.
Theron has never been comfortable seeing her private life made public, and that discomfort has only intensified as she’s read misinformation, like the reports of her abruptly cutting off all contact with Penn, or “ghosting” him, as the social-media sphere called it. “There is this need to sensationalize things,” she says. “When you leave a relationship there has to be some f—ing crazy story or some crazy drama. And the f—ing ghosting thing, like literally I still don’t even know what it is.” She shrugs and shakes her head. “It’s just its own beast. We were in a relationship and then it didn’t work anymore. And we both decided to separate. That’s it.” (Penn declined to comment.)
A moment later, a waitress passes by to see if we’re done with our food. Theron gestures first at her plate and then, plaintively, at mine. “I told her this morning,” Theron says, “ ‘When I look at you, come over and save me from this guy.’ ”
It’s hard to imagine Theron needing to be saved. But as quick as she is to dismiss the suggestion that she’s drawn to strong characters, she chafes at the notion that she is one herself. “I’m a lot more interested in the weakness, the fear,” she says. “I’m not so interested in the things that I’m strong at. I’m way more perplexed and invested in the things that scare me and the things that break you as a human. It’s in those moments that you find your strength.”
Within a few minutes, she gets a text. It’s the babysitter telling her it’s almost bath time for August and story time for Jackson. Theron perks up and can’t resist the opportunity to show me photos on her iPhone: shots of Jackson, of Jackson holding August, of August in the bathtub, of her feeding them both and getting them dressed. “Your whole life is about these things that you like to share, these things that you love more than anything in the world. I cannot wait to share a diaper.
“Did I just say ‘share a diaper’?” She shakes her head and corrects herself. “Change a diaper.
“No. I want to share a diaper with you,” she tells me. “That’s what you’re getting before you leave.”