By Ed Symkus
South African model-turned-actress Charlize Theron first knocked out American movies audiences in the mid-1990s with her portrayal of the cold-as-ice killer Helga in 2 Days in the Valley. Since then she’s appeared in films every year, ranging from comedy (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion) to action (The Italian Job) and even won Oscar gold as the gruesome Aileen in Monster.
But Theron hasn’t been seen onscreen for a couple of years. Now she’s back playing Mavis in the dark comedy Young Adult, the newest collaboration between writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (Juno).
Where have you been?
I was getting ready to do Fury Road with George Miller in Australia. I was in Australia for two weeks, then they pushed the film [to next year]. I also have a production company. I was developing TV shows and films, and working with people like David Fincher (the postponed series Mind Hunter) and Ridley Scott (She’s one of the leads in his upcoming science fiction epic Prometheus.). So creatively, I didn’t feel like I wasn’t doing anything. I just wasn’t in front of the camera. Then Jason said let’s do this film.
What drew you to play a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking character who decides to return to her home town and win back the guy she dated in high school, even though he’s a happily married father?
When I read Diablo’s script, I liked the idea of a woman who’s dealing with very common mid- to late-30s issues that women can really relate to. But because of how she went through life, she’s dealing with them the way a 16-year-old would deal with them. Here she is at 37, trying to get her life together, and she just doesn’t have the tools to do it.
It seems that most other characters in the film think she’s a loser, and probably crazy.
Jason and I didn’t spend any time discussing what her issues were. It’s obvious that she’s completely delusional. But I didn’t want to focus on whether she should do four hours of therapy versus two hours of therapy. Or what kind of medication she should be on. She’s just a beautiful car wreck. There’s no cure for that.
What did you think of her behavior?
I thought the things Mavis did were pretty despicable. But then again, not to the point where I was disgusted by her. I would never let her hang out with my boyfriend, but I would love to go and have a beer with her. I found her fascinating.
You somehow managed to maintain a balance between being funny and being serious in playing her.
I’ve noticed in the years I’ve been doing this that a lot of times great material can get ruined if it’s not in the right hands. You notice that tone is so important to a film, and that tone can really make something fail or succeed. There’s such a beautiful marriage between Diablo and Jason. There’s something incredible when you read her writing – she knew exactly the story she wanted to tell – and then you see what he does with it – he knows how to ground it and give it a foundation and a gravitas. Then that kind of guides us in knowing when to go more and when to go less.
Is there any of you in the character of Mavis?
People get freaked out when they see women like this. We come from a society where we’re very comfortable with the Madonna-whore complex. We’re either really good hookers or really good mothers. But we’re not bad hookers and we’re not bad mothers, and we’re nothing in-between. I grew up on cinema where guys got to do that. Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro got to play the kind of dark, lurking characters that I saw a little bit of myself in. And it’s rare to see women doing that. But I think women are now getting to play those kinds of honest characters. It’s been really nice to be able to play something so truthful.