Charlize Theron: A chameleon who can chill or charm

The actresses' latest role requires her to do both, says Stephen Applebaum
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The Independent Culture

"I'm going to do something filthy," says Charlize Theron. "Is that all right?" Go ahead, I say, intrigued. She places a cigarette between her lips and lights up. How disappointing.

Smokers are a dying breed in Los Angeles, but Theron partly has her "filthy" habit to thank for her role in Paul Haggis's haunting Iraq war film, In the Valley of Elah. "It's the one and only good thing that will ever come from smoking," she says, smiling, her green eyes obscured behind designer sunglasses. The story goes that it was her and Haggis's mutual craving for nicotine that first brought them together. "We were doing the awards circle and we were the only two losers out in the alley smoking," laughs the willowy 32-year-old. "We started talking about this project, and a year later he sent me the script. I read it, and the next day I said, 'Count me in'."

In his follow-up to the Oscar-winning race drama Crash, Haggis draws on the real-life murder of a GI back from Iraq to highlight the psychological and emotional damage being done to soldiers and to raise questions of moral responsibility. Theron plays Emily Sanders, a no-nonsense police detective and single mother, who helps the victim's father (Tommy Lee Jones) circumvent Army red tape and uncover the truth about his son's last hours.

Haggis needed someone who could disappear inside the character and blend in with the film's mundane surroundings, and Theron, he says, is a "chameleon". "I just think of her as an excellent actress who always serves the material, and who has almost no ego in that way. And this performance required very little ego. As strikingly beautiful as she is, she has that contradiction; she is able to play characters that are quite ordinary in many ways."

When Theron took on the role of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, her transformation was so complete that even the film's director, Patty Jenkins, admitted she found it "creepy". "There wasn't a remnant of Charlize left," she said.

To play Sanders, Theron retained her natural hair colour (brown), having grown it out during a year's break following North Country, and bought low-cost clothes off-the-peg at J C Penney and Target. Oliver Stone watched an early cut of the film and was amazed that it took him half-an-hour to recognise Charlize.

Theron regards research as rehearsal, and spent time with female detectives in Albuquerque in order to feel her way into Sanders' world. "I think the common idea of rehearsal is when you stand up and you actually do the scene. I'm not a fan of that. If you do all your homework you can just turn up and do it, you know?"

On set, she can step and in and out of a character as required. She used to be very "methody", she says, but gave up that approach because it was too draining. "You get mentally and physically exhausted, so when the camera would be rolling, I had absolutely nothing to give."

There was even lots of laughter between takes on In the Valley of Elah, she says, with a hint of embarrassment. "It sounds kind of weird and hard to grasp, but I have more fun the more traumatising the story is."

Ever since In the Valley of Elah premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September, the South African-born actor has inevitably found herself fielding questions about her position on the Iraq conflict. She is reluctant to answer. "It's just that I don't want people to think that because I feel one way or the other that's why I came into this."

She was raised to be politically aware and a political vein has run through much of her work, from Monster and the sexual harassment drama North Country, to a documentary about Cuba, and a new film directed by her partner, the Irish actor Stuart Townsend, about the 1999 WTO riots in Seattle. She also recently took up dual citizenship in America in order to be able to vote there. Theron, however, insists that her work choices are not agenda-driven. "I don't ever want to forget that I'm an entertainer," she says. "If I wasn't then I should be a politician, and I don't want to be a politician. I want to be an actor."

You can see why she would be attracted to Haggis's film, which manages to be thoughtful and entertaining, political but not partisan. Theron thought she was informed about the effects of the war but found herself on the same journey as Sanders making the film. "What is fascinating is that America is such a culture of therapy," she says. "Growing up in South Africa, we didn't have that. But I know friends who, at seven, had to deal with the fact their parents were getting divorced, and they'd been in therapy for 20 years to try to deal with that. So it just surprises me that we're sending men and women to fight a war, and having them witness and do all of these horrendous things, and then when they come back we're like, 'Good job. Now go live a life.'"

Though Theron has never had therapy herself, the details of her life contain horrors that, were she not an actor, might have driven her on to the psychiatrist's couch. Raised during Apartheid, hers was a childhood coloured with violence and trauma.

"We were driving around," Jenkins recalls, "and she told me a story about seeing a guy in a car burning to death, and someone pulled out a gun and shot him in the head, when she was five years old." Worse was to come 10 years later, when Theron watched in terror as her mother, Gerda, shot dead her abusive alcoholic father at their home in Benoni, near Johannesburg. Police reported the incident as self-defence.

Although Jenkins knew nothing about Theron's background when she approached her to play Wuornos, there was something about the actor that separated her from her peers. "That life is very educational, and no matter how much we move on, it still informs us," Jenkins says. "I could see from a distance that she's not someone who you would want to mess with. A lot of the women I met with, who were also incredibly talented actors, had a much sweeter, softer side. But I think Aileen became incredibly strong and disciplined and macho, so an inability to deal with confrontation would never have worked."

Dark material like Monster, which earned her an Oscar, and In the Valley of Elah, has given Theron a way to process her past. "It's incredibly cathartic to be able to go to work and deal with those demons," she says. "Telling Aileen's story, it really helped me cope with a lot of things in my life and that's such a great blessing. I always said that if I didn't have this job I probably would be in therapy."

Acting was not the job that Theron dreamed of doing, though. From childhood, she wanted to be a ballerina. But when a knee injury at 18 made that impossible, she moved to Los Angeles to try to become an actor. She got her first break when a talent manager spotted her loudly berating a bank clerk on Hollywood Boulevard for refusing to cash a cheque. Introductions to casting agents followed, leading to her first credited feature film appearance in the black comedy, 2 Days in the Valley.

Meatier parts ensued, but often not without a struggle. The actor personally lobbied writer/director James Gray for her role opposite Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg in The Yards, while it took six screen-tests to land the part of Keanu Reeve's wife in The Devil's Advocate. Jenkins, she said later, was the first person to come to her with the kind of role that she would usually be beating people's doors down trying to get.

"I think when you come from a country with turmoil you're somewhat resilient," she offers. "I think the people of a country like South Africa are very resilient because we have had a lot of turmoil, we've had a lot of things to face, and that's what I grew up with every single day of my life."

Life for Theron these days is far more settled. She and Townsend live happily together in Malibu, and although not legally married, recently said they considered themselves husband and wife.

Other projects on the horizon include a collaboration as producer and actor with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) on his directorial debut, The Burning Plain, in which she will play a mother who is forced to confront her demons. But it is not all pain and torment – in July she can be seen opposite Will Smith in the superhero action comedy, Hancock.

In the meantime, with awards season hotting up, I ask Theron what the most important thing is at this point in her career? "It's my life," she says, unhesitatingly. "It's always been that way. I think it's a gift to be given a life on this earth. I try to be a good, healthy, productive human being. Have a beer once in a while, have a laugh, enjoy my life and call it a day.

"I want to lie on my death bed, if that's the way I go out, and I want to feel like I really lived it. I was really present in my life. And then my job is secondary."

'In the Valley of Elah' opens on 25 January