North Country: An Interview with Charlize Theron
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North Country: An Interview with Charlize Theron
By Wilson MoralesAfter seeing Hilary Swank win her Best Actress Oscar recently, could there be a trend coming up as far as repeat winners. Charlize Theron who won the Oscar prior to Swank for her performance as the murderous Aileen Warnos in “Monster”, followed up her win with the independent film “Head in the Clouds” opposite Penelope Cruz and boyfriend Stuart Townsend and then HBO’s “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” opposite Geoffrey Rush. Her role garnered Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. This year, Charlize will be appearing as an assassin in Paramount’s “Aeon Flux”. Prior to that film’s release Theron will stir up Oscar talk with her performance as sexual harassed employee Josey Aimes in “North Country”, directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider). In speaking with blackfilm.com, Theron talks extensively about her character and why she chose to take on another intense film following her Oscar win.
In talking to Niki Caro, she mentioned that when the cameras stopped rolling, it was you who was harassing the crew. What was that about?
Charlize Theron: She’s one to talk. The first night I got together with the real women and they started us some of their stories of what had happened to them. It’s almost disturbing they would tell these horrible stories in this very humorous way and I had to really think about it and then I realized I think it was a way for them to protect themselves. If they could laugh about it, it didn’t affect them as much and I thought that was incredibly powerful; and without even thinking about it, when we started working on this material, that’s what happened to us; to every single women on this; and sometimes we are going to have to look at each other and go, “This is so wrong” because you think you are dealing with a serious topic and you should be serious about it all the time but the only healthy way to get through was to laugh about some of these horrible things and there were days when we would be in that mine and some of that dialogue… you are constantly hearing these horrible things. There was a part of me that became like those women where I had to laugh about it in order for it not to affect me as much and so, yeah, our asses were grabbed during the day when the camera rolled and when it didn’t, I grabbed asses back. It made me feel a lot better and the boys were accommodating. (Laughs)
Niki said that in New Zealand there’s a very advanced society and that sexual harassment doesn’t really exists, so did you think it exists in South Africa?
CT: I left South Africa when I was 15 so I was still considered a kid. Niki and I talked about this extensively and we both feel that we are very fortunate in our lives to not deal with these circumstances in many ways. Part of the issue is that we have come a long way because I feel very fortunate; but it’s dangerous because I sit back and, before this film came to me, think that things are so great for women. I’ve got a great life. I’ve never felt that I have been treated unequal because of my sex and then you read this kind of story and you become fascinated by it and really wanted to know what was going on out there and you start hearing about these cases today in big cities like Chicago or Dallas and you realize that you cant just sit back and think that things are great just because your life is fortunate. These things are still happening out there and the biggest thing that really hit me that it was a landmark case that changed the law and we should and try to change the law but that doesn’t mean we change how people think overnight and that takes a long and that’s why we can’t stop this fight right now. We still have a long way to go.
CT: This is why we make movies. We tell human stories and even though I feel fortunate that I have never experienced any of that stuff. I’m a woman and I understand that these things are real and so for me, I have compassion because I am a woman and I know that these things do happen. The only thing I know is to personalize it for myself and even though I have never experienced it, I have experienced other things in my life that has affected me in a very painful way and so it’s called substitution and I use that in my work. But to be with these women and I have spent so much time with them; they were with us throughout the film, we brought their stories with us and to have them around me and to look at them and be able to say, “Is this real? Is this what happened?” and to see their catharsis, which is just so powerful for me. I don’t think that it was hard for me to understand it because I hadn’t experienced it. Nine years ago I started an anti-rape campaign in South Africa and people say that I must have raped in my life to be able to do that. No, I’m a women and I understand that that’s the realities of a lot of women and I have a great compassion for the pain that those women go through, so it’s something that I have always been aware of and it’s something that has always been an issue for me. I feel very lucky that I was raised a certain way where I feel that I have been given a certain amount of strength and I hadn’t been taken advantage of them in my life but because I was so aware of that I think I’m aware of the counter effect of that. It’s not hard for me to look at those women and realize whatever happened to them. I see them with their kids and I see how it affected their children and how it affected their families and this wasn’t something that happened in the workplace and they left it behind and they went home and they were peaceful. This bled into their everyday society. They went to the grocery store and had to face these people and that’s the thing that sort of kills you, knowing that it doesn’t affect a certain part of your life; it affects every single aspect of your life and so, I read the story and felt it was something I had to do because I have been so fortunate and not because I related and said that I have had this story and it happened to me but I’ve been so fortunate, I have to tell this story.
Making movies can be terrifying.
CT: Yes, some people go to therapy and I go to work. I feel incredible blessed that I can go and deal with my demons when I go to work and that’s why it’s so important for me to trust the director that I work with because it’s a scary place to go and I got to know that I can trust somebody to bring me out of that so I can go into those dark places and turn on some lights where I haven’t visited, emotions and feelings for a long time and I can deal with them. You feel so much better after that. It’s like therapy. It really is ad I use that. I’m grateful that I can use it that way.
How about transforming yourself, in this case in a way not nearly as traumatic as Monster, but still significant?
CT: There’s always a transformation, I mean, I’m never going to play me and so it’s never going to look like this. I play people who have traveled different journeys than what I have traveled and that journey leaves a mark on you and it’s a different mark than the mark that was left on me and the physical aspect really comes from understanding the emotional journey. I really believe that. I never sit down and say well I went out this here and I want to do this, you know, it’s never that mechanical for me. I’m very lucky to work with and make a part of - again this is Tony G who did Monster with me who understands the emotional aspect of it so well and who really does the same amount of research I do to really understand emotionally where this person has traveled and then go well what marks did that leave on this person because that’s what makes them look the way they do and Josey was a girl who got a lot of attention in high school. She wasn’t ugly. She was a beautiful young girl who just took a lot of hits in her life. She grew up in a harsh landscape and that’s the realities of what she looks like, and it’s always going to be that case no matter what bonks the story comes in because it’s never going to be me.
I’m glad you leave them there because I think it’s incredible that you can lose your beauty and sacrifice that one role and I think there are a lot of beautiful people out there who maybe feel like monsters in disguise and who don’t know how to deal with it.
CT: Yeah, I mean, you know, I think at the end of the day it has nothing to do with anything actors - some actors know that, those are the actors that I admire. I think Johnny Depp said, “If I keep serving roast beef you thought gonna get bored”. You have to pay attention to the fact that you’re a vehicle. Actors are vehicles to service the greater story and I think if you start thinking about everything in terms of you and make everything about you, then it’s very selfish and so I don’t ever question anything for Charlize but I question everything before the character and so that truth like you say sometimes is very ugly but it’s the truth and therefore I feel like it’s my responsibility. Now, there was a lot of ugliness in Aileen and I didn’t just look at that but I had to pay attention to that just as much. Yeah, I think people are very complicated and that’s why I love this job because I am fascinated by human nature. I’m fascinated about what the outside appearance might be and what’s really going on inside. I’m fascinated by, in this case, what happens to people when they are put in horrible circumstances and they have to survive and what they will do to survive and I say that for the men because it was really a survival for them as well just as much as it was for us. And we had to understand where they came from as well. We couldn’t just say men bad, women good. We had to understand that that was their bread and butter as well. It was their livelihoods as well and if they didn’t work there well then their families were going to suffer from it just as much doesn’t justify good behavior but I can understand where the behavior comes from and also even the ones that didn’t do anything horrible but couldn’t say anything, the men who weren’t bad, but stood by because they knew if they said something they’d get fired.
With the films that you have done, what has been the most grueling role you have taken? Is it doing something like “North Country” or doing something physical like “Aeon Flux”?
CT: They are all different and they are all hard, good hard in different ways. They are all a unique experience. This was and that’s what I like about it and that’s why I decided to do “Aeon Flux” and then this because they were so night and day from each other but they were equally hard for me. In many ways Aeon Flux never speaks. I read the script and I was like I barely speak in this movie and I realize what a great opportunity to tell the story with your body. To not use words. I was very fascinated by that. The issues that that film deals with were issues that I thought were very strong issues. Issues that I care about, about our everyday life so it didn’t make it frivolous for me. And also again the director Karyn Kusama comes from a world of character filmmaking and never did this genre and I think her films are very complex when it comes to human nature so I knew it wasn’t just going to be frivolous and running around with my tooth hanging out and kicking things because I’m not good at that. I knew that she would find a core and then when the script came in the whole film questions our humanity which is again what I’m fascinated by. Then I go into this and it’s a complete different question but the core is still the same and the process is a little different. The director is different and I like being that kind of putty for somebody’s vision. I love that, and I like showing up and having somebody kind of mold something together that I might not have seen.
Was the ass kicking fun to do?
CT: Well, the physical aspect was great. I come from a ballet background. I did ballet for 12 years and I consider that my theater. I told stories with my body for 12 years and then came into this industry and I couldn’t let go of that. It’s still an aspect that’s very important to me and there are things about this character and you don’t notice these things, they are little things and that’s great that you don’t but there is heaviness about this character physically. I really felt like she kind of - she became like a - you know, Aileen was here and Josey to me was here, kind of like a tort toy so it’s like one knock after another started retrieving her head deeper and deeper into her shell and I think these - all of these people in this kind of environment with this weight on their shoulder because they don’t deal with issues, its just not the environment where you kind of sit and wallow in self pity and talk about your problems, you sweep them under the rug and you go on because you have to survive and so it just gets heavier and heavier and heavier. But yet I was very disappointed about it. I also didn’t want to just change my body. I really wanted to learn the skills of what somebody like Aeon had and wanted to learn gymnastics and wanted - didn’t want to just be on wires, fake everything - I really wanted to learn some skills that I never thought I would learn in a million years.
I see that you will be on an episode on the comedy show, “Arrested Development”. How did that come about?
CT: Well, I wasn’t going to do anything for the rest of the year. I was going to take the year off producing a couple of things for my company. The great thing about that is it’s a great creative outlook and it doesn’t take me away from home. My boyfriend’s working on the show (The Night Stalker) right now so it’s nice to just kind of be home and take some time off and then they called and I’m a huge fan of the show. I’m very picky with my comedy and that’s why I haven’t done that much comedy. I’m very selective. I think the writing on the show is brilliant. It’s my kind of humor. It really pushes the envelope. You know, I like that in comedy and so I don’t have a lot of opportunities to do comedy and when this came I really wanted to grab it because, again it’s so different. I wanted to go and stretch my wings in that environment a little bit and do something courageous and work on it a little bit so I’m having a great time on it.
Are you planning to appear in “The Night Stalker”?
What’s been the most surprising lesson you’ve learned about human nature in a role?
CT: That we are all capable of anything. You really believe that. You really, really do. It’s impossible for me to work on a film like Monster or this and not know that given the certain circumstances we are capable of anything. It’s very easy for us to sit here in our comfy environments and say I would never do that, I would never do that. But you never know until you’re standing in those shoes. You know, our circumstances are so different from this character’s. It’s so easy for us to say I would be like Josey, I would fight, I would - for 14 years really, would you? Would you fight 14 years when everybody is ostracizing you and saying that you’re a slut and a nut and crazy and you asked for all of this and your children are being beaten up at school because their mother is working - would you really do - I mean that’s incredibly brave to sit here and easy to say yeah, I would do that but I think that’s the biggest thing, a lot of people said that about Aileen, too, I would never do that.
How was it working with Frances (McDormand) and seeing her character deal with Lou Gehrig disease?
CT: Francis to me is as good as they come. I’ve embarrassed her many times in the past by gushing but she’s the ultimate actress for me to follow. She’s got balls and she is if you want to say brave, she’s brave, I mean she really just - there’s no limit when it comes to her and then such an incredible human being on top of it. It was - you know working with somebody like that, you just go to work and you realize that the bar has just raised and you have to stay, you’re playing with the big boys when you’re working with this cast. And everyday I realize that. The Lou Gehrig thing I, you know, there are moments in this film, there’s a few of them where what I do as an actor is I don’t - my character doesn’t know what Lou Gehrig is so I didn’t really go and read up, I know what it is but I didn’t want to focus on that because there is something so heartbreaking about Josey not knowing anything about this disease and watching her really good friend deteriorate that way. The only thing I can compare it to you know, 20 years ago when people started dying of AIDS and we had no idea what that disease was yet we saw people in front of our eyes just day by day deteriorating, people that we love and I couldn’t imagine how painful that must have been for her to not really know what this disease was about and Frances did a ton of research on it. It was very important for her to do that truthfully and to not you know, just be an indulgent actor playing somebody sick and I think she does it so beautiful and so truthfully and brave without being over dramatic and you know she’s so strong about it. I’m a huge fan.
Did winning the Oscar change your life?
CT: It changes your career. The interesting thing is I said yes to this project and “Aeon Flux” a week before I won the Oscar so I - when I knew I was going to commit myself to those two projects I never even entertained any other offers, I haven’t read a script since then, in the last two years I didn’t want to know, I didn’t want to hear about anything else because I knew I was going to dedicate myself to these two projects and so I won the Oscar, detoxed the next day and the day after that went into five hour training sessions for “Aeon Flux” so I wasn’t really around to kind of feel fabulous about myself. I still take the garbage out, I still have to feed my dogs. That little man, that gold statute doesn’t clean your house but you know, I think I’ve been given a great opportunity, not just by winning an Oscar but just the noise that was created from Monster and I’m very much aware of that. I think at the end of the day then you just kind of go, and a lot of doors will open, and a lot of doors have opened, a lot of opportunities come your way and it’s still free will but you still have to make your own decisions and I never wanted to make a decision that I could, you know, if it didn’t work out I could say well my manager ___ and next I won an Oscar and now it’s a failure and it wasn’t my choice, I take responsibility for every single choice that I make, that’s just how it should be.
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