She overcame childhood trauma to carve out a Hollywood career. But how comfortable is Charlize Theron playing the hardest role of all: being herself?
Gliding through the hotel lobby, Charlize Theron looks like a swan in a pond full of ducks. Her clothes are stylish but no-nonsense: light-grey tailored jacket, dark-grey skinny jeans, black boots with a chunky heel. She’s a willowy 5ft 10in but you’d never think of her as delicate. Men, she says, can be a little intimidated by her.
In a celebrity culture that prizes soul-baring, Theron – who is 33 – has always been something of a closed book. In the ten years she’s been an A-list star, making films such as The Cider House Rules and Monster, there have been precious few juicy headlines. The one aspect of her life that continues to excite curiosity is the shocking event when she was growing up in South Africa.
Theron was 15 when her father came home drunk one night and threatened to kill his wife and child. Her mother shot him. He died, but she was never prosecuted – it was ruled to be an act of self-defence.
Theron won’t talk directly about that night – she never does – yet when discussing what she draws on when playing broken characters, her words are significant: ‘Sometimes when we go through trauma, the things we think will affect us for the rest of our lives often don’t, and the things we think we’ll get over really quickly are the things that scar us forever.’
In her new film, The Burning Plain, Theron plays Sylvia, a woman on the run from teenage trauma. Like Monster – the chilling portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, which won Theron the 2004 Best Actress Oscar – it’s a brave choice.
‘Film-makers tend to play it safe with women,’ she says. ‘The idea that a female character could be very unsympathetic scares them.’
Discovered in a bank when her future agent saw her arguing with a teller, by the time Theron was 21 she had a main part in a big-budget movie. Fast-forward eight years, there’s a gold statuette in her hand and she’s earning $10m a film.
‘It’s crazy, it really is,’ she laughs, shaking her head. ‘I’ve worked incredibly hard but I’ve often also just found myself in the right place at the right time. It’s a little trippy to think of that, the universe playing its role.’
This is an edited version. To read the full interview with Charlize, pick up the May issue of marie claire, on sale on 1 April.