Imagine you are one of the biggest movie stars of your era, with an Oscar under your belt, millions of dollars in the bank and a legion of adoring fans,
and it’s your 40th birthday. You might like to throw an elaborate soiree to celebrate four decades of excellence, or perhaps take long, well-earned holiday.
Or, if you’re Charlize Theron, embark on the most physically gruelling, relentless and ambitious film of your entire career, Atomic Blonde.
“I’d just turned 40 when I started training and I think a part of me was appreciative of the timing,” says Theron, now 44, who engaged in some serious and relentless martial arts in the noir-esque spy flick. “It was soaring challenge that coincided with a new chapter I found in front of me. Not only was nice to prove to myself that I had it in me, but I saw the project as an appropriate way to welcome in an important new chapter. I felt proud of what I achieved and excited about what I meant I would go on to achieve.”
While those achievements have been stunted by the movie industry’s self-imposed fallow year in the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic, it has not stopped Theron lining up new projects, of which an Atomic Blonde sequel is one. Add in the delayed mercenary thriller The Old Guard and high-octane car thriller F9, from the Fast & Furious stable, coupled with Bombshell and Long Shot from last year, and it all adds up to a stupendous level of commitment, determination and stubbornness.
In truth, those qualities represent a basic requirement for Theron, whether striving for excellence in her personal life, or in the portrayal of characters a world away from her comfort zone. Take her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in Monster, for example, where the actress happily embraced the downtrodden and drug-ravaged looks of the notorious serial killer, expressing her with such accuracy and candour as to stir unexpected compassion and even sympathy from cinemagoers—not to mention nabbing the star a well-earned Academy Award.
For the former model and ballet dancer, image alone is not enough, although confidence, charisma, looks and an evolution of style, dress sense and hair color has certainly helped. More than that though, as she eloquently points out, attractiveness ought to never be based on visual appearance alone. “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 regarded with suspicion or hostility. It’s considered unfeminine,” she explains, “and I think gradually we are succeeding in changing that.”
Born and raised on her parents’ farm in Benoni, near Johannesburg, Theron’s early days were full of adventure, freedom and hardy understanding. But life among the fields and livestock was far from idyllic:
father Charles was an alcoholic, and when Theron was 15 her mother Gerda shot him dead in act of self-defense. While no criminal charges were forthcoming, that tragic event would, nonetheless, change the lives of mother and teenage daughter forever.
Given the South African’s tumultuous upbringing, it is understandable she has developed a thicker skin than most, but what is more arresting is how Theron has also maintained such grace, courage and empathy – traits she credits to her equally intrepid mother. “I was lucky to have the best female role-model a young girl could ever imagine. My mother is an intelligent woman who was already dressed and ready for work at 7 a.m. when she would come into my room to get me up and 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 before it gets light to go hiking with her friends. She taught me to be self-confident and unafraid of anything.”
The actress manages her private life with this same single-mindedness and indefatigable vigor. A fervent activist, in 2007 she launched The Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project with the aim of helping keep African youths safe from HIV and AIDS, through education and community-based support groups. She has also campaigned fiercely for same sex marriage in the United States, for women’s rights, and figure-headed campaigns looking to eradicate childhood poverty.
In 2012 Theron adopted her son, Jackson, and in 2015 a daughter, August; she raised both in Los Angeles as a single parent, and refusing to let work commitments keep her apart from her children for any considerable amount of time. Her decision to adopt was influenced by the many orphanages she witnessed when growing up in South Africa.
“It all fits into the same equation for me. It’s about what I have seen and experienced in my life; it’s about creating my own version of that now. And yes, my life has changed completely. Before children, my work always came first. I also had the freedom to be able to take off and travel for three or four months at a time by myself… to explore the world. But even though I can’t do that anymore, I’m so incredibly happy to spend my time with my children,” she reveals, adding tenderly, “every day I wake up I’m thinking
about what I’m going to do with them and how I’m going to make them happy.”
Quite how the Mad Max star manages to combine motherhood with the maintenance of a killer body, superstar career and philanthropic endeavors is a mystery. She is able to flit flawlessly from genre to genre, and long ago earned the right to cherry pick her roles. But despite her starry status, Theron’s attraction to projects isn’t based on money or acclaim, but more a desire to be challenged and excited by thrilling and complex roles. And what else would we expect from arguably the most talked about woman in Hollywood?
“You want these women to be vulnerable and multi-layered,” she says, in describing the characters she plays. “When it comes to being able to overcome difficult situations, in finding the determination and willpower you need to survive, women gain strength from their vulnerability and weaknesses,” she explains. “You know that you can find that inner resolve when you need because you’ve been able to get through those hard times, and that gives you a lot of strength and confidence. I love being able to play those kinds of women.”
As for the woman she plays in real life, her persona is one so many want to replicate. “I think strength can only come from within,” she says. “You can never I impress that strength on anyone else.
“Sure, you can give them the encouragement to be bold and courageous and confident, but it will only ever come from inside yourself. My own strength is accumulated by being healthy, being kind to myself, to ensuring I look good even when I’m slouching about the house. For me it’s always about investing in myself, mentally and physically, to ensure I am the best version of myself in any situation.”
And few would disagree that Charlize Theron succeeds.