In 2004, the same year that she won an Oscar for Monster, Charlize Theron achieved perhaps her greatest fame with the Dior television ad for J’Adore. A decade later, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road was instantly canonized as one of the best action films ever made and Theron’s anti-glamorous Imperator Furiosa became a feminist icon, but the J’Adore woman had already blazed the trail. Stalking down a Parisian corridor in a gorgeous evening gown, she took off her jewelry and her dress with determination, staring defiantly into the camera. The message: Diamonds are no best friend to a girl who wants to “feel what’s real.“ And it’s no surprise that throughout her career, Theron has worked to reach and reveal the authentic and independent woman beneath her top-model appearance.
Born in South Africa in 1975, Theron first aspired to become a dancer. After modeling in Europe, she moved to New York to learn ballet, until an injury made her reconsider. Aged 19, she went to Los Angeles to try acting, and in 1996, got her first speaking part in John Herzfeld’s Pulp Fiction rip-off 2 Days in the Valley. With her already-blond hair bleached out and her lean, tall body fitted into a spandex costume, she played a dangerously sexy woman in the neo-noir tradition. Showing off her naturally husky voice (and a very good American accent), Theron struts through Los Angeles like a true femme fatale. Her climactic catfight with Teri Hatcher is what people remember (and representative of the film’s tackiness), but this early role showed that Theron could play strong women—and was up for action.
That same year, Theron appeared alongside Tom Hanks in his directorial feature film debut That Thing You Do! as a Marilyn Monroe-esque girl of the 1960s, eye candy in a film about a sweet pop band. Theron’s looks were being transparently capitalized upon, yet being cast by an actor of Hanks’ caliber meant that her talent was being recognized too. “I thought: ‘If he thinks I am worth hiring, then maybe I’m going to be okay,’” she told IndieLondon in 2007.
As the increasingly tortured wife of a Florida lawyer recruited to New York in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate, Theron got to work with another icon in Al Pacino and demonstrate even more range despite a rather exploitative part. Theron’s Mary Ann is a committed and happy partner to Kevin (Keanu Reeves) but she isn’t superficial; his growing obsession with his job and his new boss, Pacino’s John Milton, leaves her feeling lonely and disillusioned. Theron plays Mary Ann realistically in a hellishly stylized thriller, and opposite two notoriously intense male actors who take up a lot of space with shouting and posturing, her sensitivity is welcome. It’s also a smartly physical performance, with Theron playing slyly on her looks. As the film goes on, Mary Ann transitions from her initial, ill-fitting stereotype of the curly blonde woman as a symbol of vice and danger (no doubt inspired by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction) to a brunette bob that distances the character—and the actress—from a banal bombshell image.
Theron’s appearance as a nameless “supermodel” in Celebrity in 1998 was therefore a detour in her search for great female roles, but this career choice, like that of so many talented actors until only a few months ago, can be explained by the fact that Celebrity was a Woody Allen film. Today, younger actors are distancing themselves from Allen, but for Theron, it was a step towards industry-wide respect. She inhabited her archetypal part with an authenticity derived from her background in modeling and made a typically exploitative Woody female part seem somewhat lived in.
As the decade came to a close, Theron bounced between thankless genre roles, opposite an animatronic gorilla in Mighty Joe Young (1998) and a body-snatched Johnny Depp in the Rosemary’s Baby-in-space thriller The Astronaut’s Wife (1998), before excelling in the ensemble of Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules (1999), where she revealed her character’s interior dilemma more convincingly than co-stars Tobey Maguire or Michael Caine. Reindeer Games (2000) was John Frankenheimer’s last feature, and Theron has admitted to taking the part solely for the chance to work with the legendary director (rather than Ben Affleck), and parlayed her interest in auteurs into a collaboration the same year with an up-and-coming filmmaker.
The actress has said of James Gray that he was “one of the first directors, other than Taylor Hackford, who really fought for me […] it was an amazing experience to have somebody stand in your corner and say ‘she’s not too pretty to play the part. That’s bullshit, she’s an actress, let’s get past this obsession about what she physically looks like.” Theron’s emotional performance in Gray’s The Yards deepens what could have been a rather superficial and uninteresting character in this Godfather Part II-like story of widespread corruption, family ties, and impossible redemption. Her more down-to-earth style matches with her character, who, like in The Devil’s Advocate, cares little for the dreams of excessive wealth that the men around her pursue.
Theron was surrounded by male movie stars in the early 2000s in The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Italian Job (neither of which showed what she could do), but, showing tenacity and independence, she moved front and center with Monster, which she produced through her company Denver and Delilah Productions. (The business was named for her two dogs.) Director Patty Jenkins (more recently of Wonder Woman fame) convinced Theron to take the lead role of Aileen Wuornos, spurring a complete physical and behavioral transformation to portray the real-life prostitute-turned-serial-killer, who was executed for her crimes in 2002. With her hairline pulled back, her eyebrows bleached out and her statuesque body altered by a 30-pound weight gain, the former model is unrecognizable. She doesn’t try to make Wuornos likable, replicating the character’s oddly tortured behavior, full of ticks and aggressive movements.
Crucially, Theron doesn’t deny Wuornos her humanity either, and Jenkins’ script and direction allow for moments of vulnerability and tenderness between the “Monster” of the title and her friend-slash-partner Selbi (Christina Ricci), herself a fictionalized version of Wournos’ real-life girlfriend Tyria Moore. Theron recently talked to Bill Simmons on his Ringer podcast about the economic difficulties that the production faced, with the financier panicking two weeks into shooting when he saw Theron’s transformation. “You’re always walking that fine line of, ‘Is it a caricature? Am I going too far with it? Will people relate to this? Will people be able to watch this? Am I making a joke out of it?’,” she told Simmons. Theron won an Oscar, but by producing and starring in a serious, female-directed drama, she also confirmed her commitment to challenging, woman-centered cinema.
After Monster, Theron took the reins on another female-forward project: Niki Caro’s North Country (2005). Based on the true story of Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co.—the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States—the film sends Theron (who got her second Oscar nomination) to the mines of Minnesota as Josey Aimes, who has taken a job to escape her abusive husband and provide for their two young children. In this male-dominated environment, casual slights and violent abuses of female workers are constant; Aimes struggles to get her union to support her legal action, but she also has to face the difficulties of child-rearing. In one harrowing sequence, Josey succumbs to the pressure and screams at her children (a scene that reverberates even more in light of her later work in Tully).
Before stepping fully into the mother roles that Hollywood throws at women over 30, Theron tried to establish herself in the one big genre that she hadn’t yet truly explored: the action science-fiction film. Aeon Flux was a highly ambitious project: based on a popular 1990s animated TV series set in a post-apocalyptic future, the film was to be director Karyn Kusama’s attempt to finally reap the fruits of the acclaim that her debut Girlfight had received at Sundance in 2000. What started as an exciting challenge soon turned into a catastrophe, however, when a regime change at Paramount led to the project getting butchered by a new team of editors. "I got a call from one of my executives that was essentially like, ‘I really hated your version of the movie, but, believe it or not, I hate the new version even more,” Kusama told BuzzFeed. Theron herself is convincing as a skilled assassin trying to overthrow a totalitarian government, with her low voice and statuesque figure making her a great action heroine, but the film is distractingly bad around her. The fight sequences lack coherence and fail to capitalize on Theron’s athleticism.
The witty Fox sitcom Arrested Development was an opportunity for Theron to step away from the risky world of Hollywood blockbusters while still challenging herself as an actress. As the ‘Mentally Retarded Woman’ Rita, Theron got to lean on her comedic talent with a role that played on her looks and deconstructed her movie star prestige. During those five episodes, Michael (Jason Bateman) suspected Rita to be a British spy, thus poking fun at both Theron’s failed action venture in Aeon Flux and her foreign origins in the show’s typically absurdist way. Her role in the Will Smith vehicle Hancock in 2008 also saw her in semi-ironic mode, appearing as an “immortal” disguised as a regular human being whose past catches up with her. Theron’s hyped high-flying fight with Smith, however, was mostly CGI tricks that didn’t ask much in the way of physical prowess from either star, and the film didn’t live up to its grown-up comic-book promise.
Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (2011) was Theron’s best part in almost a decade. In this realistic, darkly humorous drama, she plays another kind of Monster, as well as a woman struggling with a sort of Arrested Development. Her Mavis is a 37-year-old divorced ghostwriter of YA novels struggling to finish the last volume in her already terminated series. When her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) makes contact, Mavis gets it in her head that the solution to all her problems is to reunite with Buddy, and heads back to their small Minnesota hometown to break apart his young family. Mavis is a lonely alcoholic, and Theron, once again, goes through a physical transformation: With great subtlety, she looks like a disheveled drunk who’s trying to appear healthy and level-headed. Mavis seems out of place and uncomfortable in classy clothes, and at ease in her teen-like leather jacket when drinking too much at the bar as in her high school days. Again, Theron excels at playing nasty: Mavis’s depression and refusal to move on from a difficult past make her figuratively ugly, yet Diablo Cody’s script keeps her relatable. (Behind-the-scenes footage on the film’s DVD release reveals how Theron remains in the dark headspace of her character between takes and contributes ideas, which matches with Reitman’s easygoing approach to filmmaking.) Theron’s spontaneity, even when playing an inebriated and angry woman, is impressive and makes Mavis touching even through her repulsiveness.
Since Young Adult, Theron has been on a blockbuster mission, aiming in particular at action films where her innate confidence and taste for villains or complicated heroes could find an outlet. With Aeon Flux far behind her, she has been able to dive into the franchise model incrementally. Prometheus (2012) was a disappointing installment in the Alien series, yet it allowed her to demonstrate a villainous persona, which flowered in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). The fairy tale epic was like a continuation of Mavis’ paranoid legacy, as Theron’s Evil Queen tries to eat Snow White’s heart to live and rule forever young.
But the film that immediately made Theron an icon of action cinema was George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. In a familiarly Miller-esque world where water has become rare and turned the earth into a dangerous wasteland, her Imperator Furiosa is a strong, determined truck driver, missing one arm but athletic nonetheless, and precise with a rifle. Furiosa is also a political rebel, going rogue against tyrannical leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), stealing his five wives and taking them to her homeland the Green Place—along with a helpful but bemused drifter, Max (Tom Hardy, the film’s namesake but not its main character). Theron again commits to the part physically, her head shaved and her body lean and powerful, and her naturalistic acting style gets to shine through as Furiosa is a woman of few words. It is through her gestures, and especially in her eyes, sparkling blue below her black painted forehead, that the actress translates Furiosa’s tenacity, hopefulness, and fear. That Theron should be a warrior leading a group of women to their salvation only makes sense, devoted as she has been throughout her career to dismantling gendered expectations.
Theron showed up in the The Fate of the Furious (sadly not the Fate of the Fu-riosa) in 2017, adding another franchise and another villainess to her list. She then got her own franchise with Atomic Blonde, in which she got the chance, twelve years after Arrested Development, to be a real MI6 agent. Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is sent to Berlin just before the Wall is torn down in 1989 to investigate the assassination of a fellow agent by a Russian spy, and carnage ensues. Co-produced by Theron herself, the film aims to do right everything that Aeon Flux did wrong, with precisely choreographed action by director David Leitch, coming off his uncredited work on the transcendent John Wick (2014). Lorraine suffers vicious blows and is badly bruised, following in the footsteps of Theron’s damaged characters, but unlike these other heroines, she’s getting hurt for a supposedly good cause rather than due to some past trauma. Atomic Blonde could have relied on Theron’s sense of humor a little more, but as a piece of badass action filmmaking, it does a remarkable job of presenting a strong but not invincible female heroine, with fighting aptitude and style to rival James Bond or Ethan Hunt. Naturally, a sequel is in the works.
This year, Tully reunited Theron with Reitman and Cody, and demonstrated how smaller features and more dramatic roles remain important for the actress. The troubled woman this time is Marlo, a wife and mother exhausted by her daily tasks. After an unplanned third child is born, Marlo struggles more than she can bear and finally follows her brother’s suggestion to hire a night nanny (the titular Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis). As in Young Adult, Theron is unglamourous and relatable as a mother stretched too thin to really enjoy her kids or her husband, who walk on eggshells around her. Her ticking-bomb behavior makes for deeply uncomfortable scenes, but the payoff of eventually seeing her smile thanks to Tully’s compassion is rewarding. Davis, herself a very spontaneous performer, has great chemistry with Theron, which almost makes the rather offensive ending forgivable.
Whatever your opinion on Tully itself, Theron, now 42-years-old, is undeniably spectacular as Marlo. No other actress today devotes herself to such difficult and ugly roles on a regular basis, building a filmography of rich—if not likable—characters despite Hollywood’s continued focusing on female stars as ideals of beauty. Simultaneously, Theron is also making headway into the male dominated genre of action films, leading her own franchise and appearing in blockbusters to play villains instead of the damsels in distress she portrayed in her early days. Her determination to play complex and often nasty characters hopefully will keep her career going for many more years, but perhaps her influence on Hollywood will also mean that great roles for women above thirty will multiply and new opportunities will open up for more talented actresses to honor Theron’s ability to be both the diamond and the rough. Personally, c’est ça que j’adore.