Charlize Theron – “I Have an Obsessive Nature”
Hollywood superstar Charlize Theron has been smashing records on the streaming giant Netflix, with her brand-new movie The Old Guard. The Oscar winner stars in the superhero movie as warrior and Romache ‘Andy’ of Scythia. The Old Guard centers on a group of mercenaries – all centuries-old immortals with the ability to heal themselves – who discover someone is onto their secret and they must fight to protect their freedom. (Image Credit: Izumi Hasegawa)
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, it also stars Kiki Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
In this interview, Charlize talks about her latest role, what attracted her to the project and the physical challenges she faced making the movie. She also takes a look back at some of her most famous action roles to date including, the iconic Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road plus producing and starring in Atomic Blonde.
Beverly Hills Magazine: So Charlize, you play Andy in the Old Guard– what was it about this role that spoke to you?
Charlize Theron: I think for me, the first thing that kind of grabbed me was seeing a lot of potential in raising the physical bar, that action bar. I felt like this world really lent itself, these characters, the circumstances and the set pieces really lent themselves to really challenging action. And I think that was one of the first things that I noticed.
But I don’t think that I would ever want to just make a film based on how great I could create action scenes, there was very much an emotional story here that resonated, even though this is a sci-fi story, that feels incredibly grounded in reality and I think the struggle with humanity in this is very ever present, even just looking at where we are and we find ourselves today in this kind of social and cultural place that we’re in.
This story lives and breathes very much in that, which is unusual I think sometimes in sci-fi. But I think my taste is just always going to… Like movies like Prometheus, if there’s not an emotional connection that I can kind of like hang my coat on, it’s very hard for me to invest. And I think when you find a piece of material that lends itself to both, you realize how special that is. And when I read this graphic novel, I saw great potential for us to celebrate both of those boxes and push the envelope.
Beverly Hills Magazine: You seem utterly fearless, especially when it comes to the challenge of making these type of movies – do you feel that’s true?
Charlize Theron: I think that the essence that I put forth that there might be no fear is completely motivated by fear [laughs]. I think I just cover it up. But the truth of it is is that actually everything scares me. I don’t know really how to create not from a place of fear, not that I’m saying that you can’t. I just have never, I don’t know if I ever could. I think the idea of going into a project and not being scared would actually freak me out [laughs]. It would feel really wrong.
I think that my creativity really thrives around my fear. I think I’m just very good at covering it up. I think that there’s a part of how I was raised that made…. Not that it necessarily is the right thing, but I was raised very much in the sense of like, you know, you get up, you do it and you don’t really wallow in anything, you don’t really show any of that stuff. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel it, I feel it on an every day, an every second basis.
But I think it is the thing that makes me not stop and it’s the thing that keeps me up every night when we’re shooting a film. I play the movie over and over and over and over in my head because I realize that you have 30, 60, 100 days to shoot it and then after that – that’s it. It’s in the can and if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. And so, I think I have an obsessive nature. And I think I set forth that energy but really, truly it is fully fed by panic! [laughs]
Beverly Hills Magazine: At what point in your career did you realize you wanted to focus more on action roles?
Charlize Theron: You know, I don’t remember a specific moment. I don’t think it was like I woke up one day and I said, “You know what I’d like to do action movies!” I think that I have just always wanted to explore, I never had the opportunity to do. I mean just for you to understand, I was raised with a mother who loved Chuck Norris movies and Charles Bronson movies. And my dad loved the Mad Max films. I was raised on action films. The majority of the movies that we watch were those kind of movies and then it was peppered with a little bit of like Sophie’s Choice and Kramer vs Kramer at like super-inappropriate ages like eight, nine and ten [laughs]. But I think it summed up where my career went. I’ve always had an affinity for all of the genres.
You know, unfortunately, 30 years ago there just wasn’t a lot of opportunity for women to do movies like this and the first time that that opportunity kind of showed itself was after I won my Academy Award in 2004. And it was really hard making that film, Aeon Flux. It was really hard in the sense that there were so many pre-conceived ideas and there were all these boxes that everybody wanted to kind of like squeeze you into.
There was a character that I think today would be celebrated cinematically way more than it was in 2004. It’s just hard. And I remember the film really didn’t play as well as everybody thought. And there was just this moment in my career where I realized very clearly that because that movie didn’t really perform that I wasn’t necessarily going to be given an opportunity – and it was really harsh. It was like, “No, women can’t make these movies successful.” It was harsh. And it wasn’t until Mad Max: Fury Road came my way that that experience and what happened with that film really changed the trajectory for me and it made me realize, “Wait a second, there’s a lot of possibilities here.”
You just have to find the right people that are willing to take the risk and want to explore these stories with women. And I made an active choice to look out for those filmmakers, to look out for that kind of material, to try and develop it myself as a producer. And that’s kind of where I find myself today. I really like playing in all the different genres. I don’t think of myself as having a particular for just one.
And the good news now is we’ve kind of changed the genre for women. There’s great evidence where we now know, we can’t hide behind ignorance anymore. Audiences love these films, they love how we’re now telling these narratives with women at the core. It’s made for I think the stunt world, it’s given it like a face lift, it feels fresh to kind of explore the world of action with women fighting. And all of that stuff really excites me.
Beverly Hills Magazine: Before Aeon Flux you made The Italian Job, which you could arguably say was your first action role? Can you talk about that movie?
Charlize Theron: I think you’re right, we can’t just look at action as just physical. For sure, The Italian Job was a great experience in the sense that I realized there was still so much misconception around women in the genre, even though in that film the action is really based on cars. We had to physically do a lot of that stuff. The only good thing that came out of that experience was that there was real pressure to pull off those stunts with the actors and that was the first time I experienced anything like that.
But there was a very unfair process that went with that. I was the only woman with a bunch of guys. And I remember vividly getting this schedule in our pre-production and they had scheduled me for six weeks more car training than any of the guys. And it was just so insulting. But it was also the thing that put a real fire under my as-s and I was like, “Alright, you guys want to play this game, let’s go.” and I made it a point to out-drive all of those guys.
I vividly remember Mark Wahlberg halfway through one of our training sessions, pulling over and throwing up because he was so nauseous from doing 360s. But I was very proud of the stunt work that we did in that. I mean I did a stunt in that movie where I do a reverse 360 or maybe 180 in a warehouse with props everywhere and people. And I did that stunt completely on my own. It was a huge moment of feeling like, “Yeah, we can do all of this stuff.” Women are so unfairly thought of or treated when it comes to the genre.
Beverly Hills Magazine: Action movies used to use quick cuts to ramp up the performance but then you have things like Thee Old Guard and Atomic Blonde and you have these impressive single take shots that show the artistry of stunt choreography – how has that evolution changed how you approach stunt work and your performance?
Charlize Theron: That’s a great observation. I really didn’t know anything about that either until I worked on Atomic Blonde and it was really all of the stunt coordinators on that film who set just from the get go, the tone was set, we want to do long action takes, we want to do continuous. It was the first time I think, listen I don’t know historically but I know there was a real attempt to do a first, which was a splice together take which really played as one, but it meant that logistically we had to shoot seven to ten minutes of action continuously. And I know that sounds like nothing but as a performer that means that you have to get everything right in seven to ten minutes. That is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially for actors and for myself.
I’m not a martial arts fighter, I’ve never trained in martial arts – but it’s plausible and that’s what’s so incredible. And I was really proud of the action that we accomplished in Atomic Blonde. It felt to me like we were pushing the envelope and we were saying that this concept that somehow women in the industry have been arguing to fight like men is just so ridiculous and that when we celebrate women fighting like women and that we’re smart about what body parts we will be using, that we know we can’t really punch because we will break every bone in our hand. But that we can fight just as hard with our elbows, with our heads, with our knees. That was when it became really exciting to me.
And I think that what’s great is that there is no one way but that we are definitely pushing it. You can look at a film like Fury Road and there’s definitely more edit in that film. George Miller style, in shooting his action, is fast-paced. But it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheat. I think editorially we’ve always cheated action and when you don’t cheat it, people really know, they can feel it. And that authenticity has really I think been celebrated in the last decade. It’s also made it really hard for crappy action movies to survive because the bar has been set so high.
Beverly Hills Magazine: Making someone like Mad Max: Fury Road must have been quite an extreme experience?
Charlize Theron: Yeah listen, I don’t think I will ever recover from the making of that film. It was a tremendous feat that we pulled off. It was hard, it was difficult. It was difficult in a different way than what I was just talking about with Atomic Blonde and those continuous scenes and long-play action, in the sense that the physicality was very real, it was very, very rare that George wanted the stunt team to rely on too much wire work. And so a lot of like physical lifting in that movie was real. Like pulling yourself out of a car and getting over to another vehicle or action that was happening on driving vehicles, consistently. It was incredibly tedious. But that was the challenge in that.
I think when a filmmaker can listen to, you know, just the narrative, the story of Mad Max is supposed to make you feel incredibly exhausted, you’re supposed to be in a three-day car chase and that is just exhausting. And it was an exhausting shoot. I mean he physically got us all to a place where none of that was being manufactured. It came from such a real place.
Beverly Hills Magazine: When you look back at characters like Furiosa in Mad Max and now Andy in The Old Guard, what draws you to these roles in addition to the action opportunities that you get in these films?
Charlize Theron: I think in general I’m intrigued by, I guess, the messiness of being a human, especially a woman. And I think that for me we talk about representation, not just racial representation and cultural representation but female representation. I remember vividly just feeling such a lack of watching conflicted women in cinema. I felt like there was always a part of me as an actor that felt so unbelievably jealous of people like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, who got to play all of these really f—ked up people.
And women very rarely got to explore that. There was this inert fear of putting a woman in circumstances where she might not shine. And I do believe society has instilled someone in this Madonna/who-re complex box, like we can either be really good hookers or we can be really good mothers but anything in between, people are sometimes not brave enough to want to go and explore.
And it’s so sad to me because the richness of those stories are actually not only great entertaining stories to tell, great movies to make, but it’s a disservice to women in general. We are more complicated than those two things. And we can be many things and that our strengths can come from our faults and from our mistakes and from our vulnerabilities and our madness. Like those are the things that make us interesting. So I have a knee-jerk reaction when anybody ever pitches me story or has this like first line, “She is a warrior and she is a hero…” It over-simplifies I think the complexities and the beauty of what it means to be a woman. And I’ve never ever strived to inherently underline those qualities in any of the characters I’ve played.
I think all of my characters have had this sense of they’re all survivors, they’re all just trying to survive. And that I can relate to, as a woman I can relate to that. I am not a hero, I don’t relate to heroes. I think people who inspire me are people who don’t think of themselves as heroes. They put their head down, they do the work and I have an affinity for that. I like that. And that is a quality that I really respond to. And so I don’t want my women, the characters that I play, I don’t want any of them to feel like women that we can’t sit in the cinema and say, “Yeah I see a little bit of myself in there.”
Beverly Hills Magazine: When you look back now at what you created with Furiosa and what she has meant to people, how does that make you feel?
Charlize Theron: I’m incredibly proud of what we pulled off, I really am. I’m really proud of that character. Furiosa is definitely one of I think the most important characters I’ve ever played. And I saw the potential, I knew how special it was, right from the beginning, and I chased it really hard because of that. I saw something that ’d never seen before as an opportunity for myself as an actor. And I think it was to show a female character in a way that felt, I don’t know, the closest thing that I can, the analogy, the closest moment in my own life that I can look back to was the first time that I saw Sigourney Weaver play Ripley.
It just changed everything for me. It was like a world opened up and the possibilities were just endless. The amount of intelligence that he bought to that role. She was completely in command of it, she owned that world. But it wasn’t forced and it wasn’t written and it wasn’t acted – it was just lived. She was just living in that world in such an authentic way. And Furiosa was the first time that I really felt like I couldn’t even look at her as a character. She felt so real to me. And maybe it was because the shoot as so hard, the fact that we were there for so long, that we really did live in that environment for so long that made me feel that way about her.
If that character can in a small part do what Ripley did for me as an actress, as a woman – that’s something that I’m incredibly proud of. That doesn’t happen in everybody’s career and I feel really lucky that I was given that opportunity and that I was prepared for that opportunity and I was willing to lay it all out there and to give it my all.
Beverly Hills Magazine: You have been producing movies since Monster but Atomic Blonde was something you really pursued and took control of in every aspect – why was that film so important to you?
Charlize Theron: It was the first time that I developed something from such a small tiny little kernel. I mean it was an unpublished graphic novel, we were sent eight pages, it wasn’t even finished. And I said, “Yes,” to those eight pages. I think the reason why I pushed as hard as I did on that film was because, and this is just a sad truth, there’s still a part of me as a female actor that always feels like this might be the last opportunity. It’s terrible – but that’s kind of in my psyche. It’s also the thing that drives me and puts a real fire under my as-s to get it right.
And I was relentless on that film. And because we were, I felt like I carried a responsibility since I was developing it, that I couldn’t kind of look back and say, “Well it was the script…” I was in charge of everything and I didn’t want to get it wrong. I wanted to get it right because there’s a part of me that I still sometimes feel like if you get it wrong that one time, it’s kind of like what we were talking about with Aeon Flux, that you just will not be given that opportunity again.
And listen, my kind of entry into action didn’t come until much later in my life. I made Atomic Blonde when I was 40 years old. There’s a sense of feeling like, “Ok time is running out, you’ve got to get it right, if this means this much to you and you want to kind of stay in this game, you’ve got to get it right,” and so there was a lot of pressure. I put a lot of pressure on everybody on that movie.
I hired David Leitch [director] for that reason, that he could handle it. I said to him, ‘I’m never going to stop and I’m going to expect you to never stop, any kind of mediocrity is going to be the enemy on this film.” And when I look back at the behind-the-scenes, both of us, that whole team, Sam Hargrave, who now has his own career as a director, who shot a lot of those action pieces, we left it all on the dancefloor, we really did. And again, you really are as good as the people that you get to work with and I was very lucky that I got to work with really good people on that film, great people on that film.
Beverly Hills Magazine: Are you inspired by other women working in the action genre?
Charlize Theron: I feel really lucky that there are other women doing this at the same time, you know, people who I consider friends, people like Patty Jenkins who, you know, she’s really kind of raised that bar as to what that type of movie looks like and feels like. I’m constantly inspired by what other women are doing out there and I’m also inspired by how we’re all backing each other up and how we so want each other to succeed – for the sake of everybody.
We realize we’re in this position where you get to have the opportunity, there is a responsibility to hand that baton over, to open the door, to keep it open, that it’s not just about you. And in that sense, it’s been really amazing to see, listen, it’s still disproportionate to our male counterparts out there, we have o kind of keep putting the pressure on our industry to change that. But I’m constantly inspired, I want my two young girls to grow up and not even think that this is weird or that this is unusual or that this is strange, I want this to be normalized.
Beverly Hills Magazine: Finally, what have you learned from making action movies and what challenges are you looking forward to in the future?
Charlize Theron: There’s a difference in style of fighting, so that’s always nice right? So you’re hitting the gym and realizing you’re going to learn from new skills. There was a sense of fighting in most of the movies that I’ve done, even though there’s a skill level and there’s a style of fighting, I still played women where they were allowed to get scrappy. So when you can get scrappy you can hide a lot of things.
In this case [ for The Old Guard] I couldn’t because this character s so skilled and the wealth of information in martial arts is just thousands and thousands of years old. Anybody who knows anything about martial arts knows that the discipline that goes behind learning any kind of martial arts is so gnarly. I have read books of martial arts artists who give everything up and go live in a hut in Thailand for 40 years and that’s to learn one style of fighting. So we knew that that was definitely an obstacle, the narrative of trying to get that story across had to be very specific.
We had four months and we had to really hone in on the things that I could really excel at. And so those first couple of weeks when you walk into the gym, you’re really trying to assess, you’re trying to see what you can excel in, what you shouldn’t e even wasting any time on. And that’s when you know you have a good team and Danny Hernandez, our fight coordinator on this was really good at watching me and realizing that we never wanted to force a circle into a square. We had what we had and we had to figure out what could shine out of that.
So a lot of it was for me focusing, for me in the beginning I think when I started my action career was so important to sell the authenticity of like, “Yes, I can fight and I can take this guy down and I can survive this.” There was such a level of wanting to prove that to audience who for years said like, “No, a woman could never fight a guy that size.” In this case, it wasn’t so much like, “Yeah I can take the guy down,” it was like, “I can take the guy down with real technique.” And so that I had never had to work on before.
Beverly Hills Magazine: That’s fantastic! Sounds like you’ve had to train quite vigorously for all your roles. What a journey! Charlize, it’s been such an honor to spend some time with you. We are so excited about your future projects and to see you on the silver screen again.
(Jenny Davis / The Interview People)