Has the world discovered its next big action hero? It may come as a surprise to audiences and film industry observers alike that Charlize Theron is laying claim to the title of Hollywood’s biggest, baddest, kick-ass star. The statuesque (5’10”) South African actress was looking particularly energised and enthusiastic – not to mention sublimely beautiful – when she attended the recent SXSW Festival in Austin where she dazzled fans on and off the screen.
Her new film, ATOMIC BLONDE, is a high-octane mixture of martial arts and espionage that has Theron demonstrating that she is capable of any kick, punch, or lethal blow that Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis, or Jason Statham might have previously executed on screen. In one terrifying, mesmerising five-minute, single-take sequence, Theron dispatches two attackers during the course of a battle royal that will be one of the most talked-about moments in film this year.
Theron plays British MI6 agent Lorraine Brighton on assignment in Berlin just prior to the building of the Berlin Wall circa 1988. In the course of her covert mission, Charlize’s character explodes off the screen, capable of spiking a man in the neck with her heel with as much passion as she delivers in a highly erotic lesbian love scene with a French spy (Star Trek’s Sofia Boutella). Theron, who also developed and produced the film, didn’t hesitate in committing to a torrid sex scene she describes as a “beautiful” interlude in the film.
“I think it’s important to show that women can own their sexuality the same way that men get to in movies. I think it’s a very sexy moment and Sophie and I wanted it to be real and cool – we shouldn’t be afraid of exploring this…It was very easy to seduce her, she’s gorgeous. We’re both dancers and being naked is nothing.”
Directed by David Leitch (John Wick) and shot in Berlin with a cast that includes James McAvoy and John Goodman, the multiple. non-stop action scenes and no-holds-bared love scene in Atomic Blonde were choreographed with equal precision. Explained Leitch: “We came up with some choreography. And they were really professional and got right to it. There’s a chemistry and a camaraderie there. So that really helps.”
Leitch actually had to pitch Theron on his wanting to direct the movie also knowing that she was already on board as the star: “He didn’t have a choice. I came with it. It was like, ‘Guess what, motherfucker!'” (Laughs)
The 41-year-old Theron lives in Los Angeles with her two adopted children, son Jackson, 5, and daughter August, 2.
Q: Charlize, what attracted to an action-packed spy thriller like Atomic Blonde? This is the third film in a row after Mad Max and Fast & Furious that sees you playing a kick-ass woman?
THERON: People are always perplexed when I say that I enjoy all genres, including action movies. I was a ballerina for twelve years, so maybe that’s why I’m very attracted to physical roles. I enjoy telling a story with my body and not just verbally.
I wanted to take the concept of the spy thriller and turn it on its head. I liked the physicality of the story and I’ve always enjoyed telling stories that way that even though I haven’t done that many action films I really wanted to get into that for this film. I’ve been doing this over twenty years and this has been a special experience for me.
Q: What was the hardest part about your preparation for the film?
THERON: I did three months of four to five hours a day where I was learning Asian martial arts, including Muay Thai, kung fu, and doing very intricate repetitions for each of the specific fight sequences. David was very detail oriented an he wanted to make sure that we were all prepared for those scenes. It’s odd in a way but one of the hardest things was learning how to show yourself taking a hit and not look fake when you’re doing it.
Q: Audiences at SXSW were blown away by the epic, 5-minute long fight sequence that seems to go on forever and is particularly vicious at times. Did you do most of the stunt work?
THERON: I di virtually all of it. Probably 95% of that is me including most of the big falls. I trained with incredible team of marital arts experts and stunt coordinators to get all the choreography right and it went very smoothly. We would sometimes go five hours straight, five days a week, getting all the moves right and practicing the same techniques over and over again.
Q: Did you have any trepidation about doing the stunt work given that you suffered a very serious neck injury while doing Aeon Flux in 2005?
THERON: It makes you want to be as careful and prepared as possible. As long as everything is properly planned out in advance, the chances of getting badly hurt are very minor. But I was definitely thinking about that. My injury on Aeon Flux was very serious and my doctors say that I was a centimetre away from being paralysed for life. Even so, it was a freak accident and nobody was really at fault so you can’t say that you can prepare for that kind of thing.
Q: Did you have any surgery for that injury?
THERON: I had a neck fusion operation four years ago after suffering from pain for eight years and I couldn’t deal with it anymore. There was scar tissue and nerve damage and pressure on the nerve that needed to be corrected. Now I’m pain-free and I can do anything I want although I still have to be careful.
Q: You play an MI6 agent. Do you think women make good spies?
THERON: Yes. Women have so many more ways of being able to elicit information so I think it’s easier for a woman to be a spy in many respects. Personally, I probably wouldn’t be a good spy because I’m not a good liar and according to my friends I’m always over-explaining which gives me away. But I think I could kick butt, though. (Laughs)
Q: You’ve always been known for being a very independent-minded and assertive woman. How do you balance that with the sexy side to your image?
THERON: Being intelligent is just as much a part of being sexy as anything else about a woman. I’ve always admired and been drawn to women who are motivated and ambitious. Ambition in a man is seen as being very attractive and inspiring, but an ambitious woman is usually regard with suspicion or hostility. It’s considered un-feminine.
But I was lucky to have the best female role model a young girl could ever have. My mother is an intelligent woman who was already dressed and ready for work at seven in the morning when she would come into my room in the morning to get me to wake up and get ready for school. She was a career woman who ran her own business and has always been a very positive force in my life. She still gets up at 5 in the morning and goes hiking with her friends!
As a woman, I was fortunate to have such a strong female figure in my life who has constantly guided me. During my childhood she taught me to be self-confident and not be afraid of anything.
Q: Was it ever daunting for you to make a new life for yourself as an aspring ballet dancer and then model which meant leaving South Africa?
THERON: The hardest adjustment came after injuring my knew and knowing that I would never be able to dance professionally again I felt totally crushed – emotionally and spiritually.
That was when my mom told me to stop feeling sorry for myself and go do something with my life and I needed that emotional support to be able to put up with all the rejection I was getting auditioning for roles.
Q: When you look at your life, do you ever wonder how you got to this point after those difficult early years in L.A. struggling to find work as an actress?
THERON: I think about that a lot! I know how lucky I’ve been and I’ll never forget those dark days living in a cheap apartment with hardly anything to eat and wondering what was going to happen to me. My life now is like I’m still living in a dream to be able to work and not have to worry about money. That’s the best feeling of all.
Q: You must have developed a strong sense of willpower having suffered through the time when you wondered if your career would ever get going?
THERON: Yes, but every actor faces exactly the same situation and I don’t consider myself particularly heroic because I wouldn’t take no for an answer. But I can tell you one thing – that most of the women who succeed in this business are incredibly determined regardless of how talented or beautiful they may happen to be. It often comes down to pure drive and determination and the willingness to fight for a role and prove that you can do it.
Q: You’re a fairly lively woman in real life but you often play dark characters?
THERON: (Laughs) I’ve always believed that having a sense of humour and not taking everything so seriously is the only way of dealing with some pretty harsh realities about life. I don’t think that life is that happy in general. It’s always going to be a struggle and you have to hang on to those moments where the world seems wonderful rather than grim.
And even when things look bad, you shouldn’t let yourself get caught up in that because it won’t help you deal with things. You need to be able to pick yourself up off the floor and get on with things. That’s the attitude and life philosophy I’ve picked up from my mother.
Q: What’s been the best thing about the kind of life you’ve been able to lead thanks to acting?
THERON: I’ve always had a sense of wonder when it came to the outside world. As a little girl I remember looking at map of the world and seeing South Africa as this tiny land at the bottom of this huge continent. I’m very grateful to have found a job that has allowed me to travel and get to explore so many interesting parts of the world. Most of my childhood friends are married with children and have never left South Africa. I’m aware of my privileged situation.
Q: Apart from the training you do for films like Atomic Blonde and Fast and Furious, do have a regular exercise regime?
THERON: Yeah, running around taking care of my two kids! (Laughs) But I also like physical activities! Not so much going to the gym but things like hiking, biking and jet skiing.
Q: Has having children changed your perspective on work or the way you look at things in general in life?
THERON: They have absolute priority. Before, I had the freedom to be able to grab my bag and take off to anywhere in the world that I wanted to be. Now I really enjoy the fact that my children are dictating my life.
I feel like a soldier who is being commanded to go in a specific direction. (Laughs). So as far as my work is concerned, I certainly have to do a lot more planning and give a lot more thought to my schedule and how I manage my routine with my kids. But I still find the creative aspect as stimulating as ever. It’s like getting a shot of adrenaline each time I get to make a movie!