Charlize Theron on ‘Young Adult,’ ‘Prometheus’ and Endearing Herself to America


“Shut the fuck up!,” Charlize Theron screamed at her publicist. Yes, for a moment, it was hard to tell if she was kidding. Theron has an Academy Award for her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s ‘Monster,’ but even this Oscar winner couldn’t quite make it to the end of her next sentence, “Worst publicist in the fucking world. Jesus Christ,” without breaking character and showing hints of laughter. But, by that point in the interview, I shouldn’t have been too surprised, because I had already realized that Theron, in person, is not quite what you would expect. Definitely not on autopilot with her answers, Theron is loose, honest, and not afraid to throw an expletive around. Oh, also, she’s kind of a nerd.

In the Jason Reitman-directed and Diablo Cody-written ‘Young Adult,’ Theron plays Mavis Gary, an author of young adult novels who returns to her small hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, in an effort to woo her high school sweetheart back — a high school sweetheart who is happily married and also a brand new father. A madcap comedy, this is not.

In this wide-ranging discussion, Theron explains how her own high school experience as a nerd influenced Mavis, how come her role on ‘Arrested Development’ was so important to her career, and why working with Ridley Scott on ‘Prometheus’ was a dream come true. The South African native also reveals why ‘District 9’ is the most profound movie on apartheid that she’s ever seen.

(And please, please, never play ‘What’s Up’ by 4 Non Blondes in her presence.)

I always feel bad at the beginning of an interview, because I feel that you’ve just built some great rapport with someone else … and then I show up.
No, I was just shooting the shit with my publicist. So, you’re the first. You’re going to set the bar.

This movie is hard to watch. Do you feel that’s an accurate statement?

Why do you feel that way?
Because I think when we go to movies, it is somewhat having that experience of holding up a mirror and seeing yourself. And I think, in general, most movies show attributes that we aspire to. And this character is definitely not that. In saying that, you see yourself.

I mean, I’m in my 30s and all my friends back where I grew up in Missouri have kids. Maybe you’re right and I do see myself and that’s why it’s hard to watch.
[Sneezes] Oh my God, I’m allergic to your questions! No, I mean, when I watched it, too, I felt the same way. It is a tough movie. And the movie is dressed up as this very simple story and it actually deals with really heavy real dark emotional human behavior. And I think there’s a lot in that that we don’t want to admit about ourselves.

With a 4 Non Blondes song thrown in.
That song … yeah.

What’s that mean?
I just have a whole other personal experience. I love Linda Perry — I loved [What’s Up’] when it came out. But I had an experience … I flew out to Turkey a couple of years ago for an eclipse …

Not the ‘Twilight’ movie.
No! [Laughing] “Twilight movie”…

I just want to get that on the record.
I’m not that cool.

No, it was a nature thing and I dragged my ass up on to some hill where the Lonely Planet guy told me to go to experience the eclipse, you know, in the best way possible. And I was sitting there waiting for this eclipse to happen and this hippie girl pulled out a guitar and started playing that song — over and over and over and over again. Every time I hear that song, I remember sitting in this hill going, “I dragged my ass all the way up here and that fucking bitch won’t stop playing that song.” This has nothing to do with the movie…

This has everything to do with the movie.
But that song brings back that memory.

But now when that song plays in the movie, I now know why you look so miserable.
OK, this relates: When we were shooting it, Jason would just play music — surprise me with music. So he would never tell me what he was going to play. And he plays that and says, “I just want you to listen to what I play and then kind of taken in your town and see what’s around you.” So he plays that song, this look of disgust came on. He cut and he said, “Did the dog fart in the car or something? Because it looks like you’re smelling a fart.” And I was like, “I can’t … this song brings back horrible memories for me.”

There’s my headline, “Why Charlize Theron thinks That 4 Non Blondes Songs Smell Like Farts.”
Oh, no! She is going to hate me! Linda Perry is an amazing songwriter.

I’m really not sure where to go from here.
We’re done!

Yes, we’re done. I’ve got my “scoop.” Did you base this character on anyone that you knew in high school? Or maybe some of your own traits?
Yes. There’s definitely a little bit of a lot of people in her. I think from the time that I say “yes” to a film, I obsessively start thinking and making a file in my head of things that I’ve seen or that I’m observing that could be really great. For example: the Diet Coke thing came from a girlfriend of mine who was highly addicted and she drank out of the two-liter bottle. It was like, “You’re not even trying to make it look sexy anymore.” You can’t pop a can?

Does it ever look sexy?
I think a can would maybe be better than the two-liter that you’re guzzling like a bottle.

I think a can of Tab can look good. At least it did in the old commercials.
Yeah, but then you have to special order it from Europe. But, yeah, she’s not very happy about it. I was like, “Guess what?” And I discovered Mavis’ walk while I was making this film — and it’s Jason Reitman’s walk. And he’s not happy about that at all. But he has this shuffle; you can like hear him before you see him because he just never picks up his feet from the ground.

If I ever talk to him, I now know that if I hear the shuffle, he’s approaching.
Exactly! A little pigeon-toed shuffle.

I’m jotting this down to bring up with him at a later time, “pigeon-toed shuffle.” Underlined.
I mean, I’m just a big thief. That saying is right: You steal from the best.

You mispronounce Mos Eisley spaceport from ‘Star Wars’ in this movie. Did you actually have to learn what that is?
No, I’m a bit of a nerd myself.

Oh, so you knew the correct pronunciation coming into that scene.
Yeah, and that actually made it harder. How would you mispronounce it? And Jason and I, we couldn’t come up with one. So I feel like I failed a little bit making that sound like I couldn’t pronounce it.

So, instead, you were worried about losing your “nerd cred.”
I don’t think I can. If you see my high school photos, you’ll have a true understanding that my foundation as a nerd has been laid thick and well.

Explain that.
You should ask Patton [Oswalt] about it. I think anyone who has spent time with me has come to realize that I am really just a nerd stuck in six-inch heels, trying to be a girl.

And why would your high school photo convey that?
I had really bad eyesight and my mother decided to buy me the most unattractive glasses ever. And boys do not respond well to those, so you just fall into a whole different crowed when you wear big Sally Jesse Raphael glasses.

I was not expecting to hear Sally Jesse Raphael’s name today before I walked through that door.
Well, have you seen her glasses?

Yes, but not in a while.
Well, that’s exactly what I wore. They’re weren’t red, but they were the same size. That, as far as I’m concerned, is child abuse.

Mavis spends a lot of time in this movie making herself presentable before she goes anywhere. Are you expected to do that? Can you go outside without a photo of you showing up with a caption that reads, “Look at Charlize looking like a normal human being today. How dare she!”
No, I’m not too stuck up about that. I think that there is a great truth for, I believe, all women that Mavis kind of represents. Which is that we do innately understand how to dress for guys. Women just do. And we do it and we use it. We’re very much aware of what we wear. I just think women are just very in tune with that stuff and I think there’s a part of women who really enjoy that aspect of being feminine and being a girl. But we don’t sustain that. There’s no way that you can. And when we don’t, it’s not pretty. But it’s real. I live a very simple life and, yeah, I can really do my thing and not have to worry.

Being from South Africa, did you like ‘District 9’?
We were talking about this yesterday. The whole sense of this film being dressed up as a movie that is to appear like something that it’s not. The fact that it’s dealing with real heavy, human emotions. Really dark shit, but it kind of looks like this very simple story. And a great example of that is ‘District 9.’ It’s a movie that kind of dressed itself up like a big summer blockbuster and yet it was the most profound piece I’ve ever seen on segregation and historical facts about African politics. It just blew me away. Absolutely brilliant. I can’t wait to see what that guy does next.

Yeah, Neill Blomkamp. I also really enjoyed how there was a commercially successful alien movie that wasn’t set in New York or L.A. But, being from South Africa, that had to be interesting to you, just location wise.
Yeah, the whole thing to me was amazing. Utilizing the environment and not hitting you over the top with it. I mean, I was way more moved by that film than I have by a small, independent film talking about apartheid. That film, really, really moved me.

When you did “Arrested Development,’ I feel you endeared yourself to a lot of people.
Oh my God, it was amazing! I was a huge fan of the show and I really wanted to do it. I had been talking to Mitch for a while and, of course, got to know Jason Bateman. And then Patty Jenkins who wrote and directed ‘Monster’ went and directed a couple of shows. And Patty was like, “Everybody needs to see you in a comedy. You’re so funny.” I really have to give her credit, because I said to her, “I would love to do ‘Arrested Development'” And so she started the conversation.

I mean, sometimes it’s hard when you … not hard. That sounds horrible. People have preconceived ideas and this whole industry is a little ass-backwards. You know, the whole “red carpet gown” thing. People, I think, believe that more to be reality versus what we do as actors and what we love and who we are. And, also, I really don’t go on the defense on having to feel a need to go and explain who I really am. When I work with people, I think they get a sense of who I really am.

I’ll admit, you’re more laid back than I expected.
[Theron’s publicist chimes in from the adjoining room] She’s not cool at all.

[Sarcastically screaming] Shut the fuck up! Worst publicist in the fucking world. Jesus Christ. I’m trying to win fans here, OK?

My new headline, “Charlize Theron: Jesus Christ, I’m Trying To Win Fans Here.”
[Laughing] I’m trying to endear America to me, OK? No, I get it, actors are very pretentious.

Do you want to know the first movie that I ever thought I saw you in? ‘Trial and Error.’

I saw it at the theater.
You went! That’s…

OK, I was so happy when you won an Oscar. Because I had seen ‘The Lost World’ already, which came out the week before, and I convinced my friends that had not seen ‘The Lost Word’ that this Michael Richards movie would be better.
[Yells at her publicist] Give this guy eight dollars! That is amazing, you dragged them in there?

After, I was like, “OK, but the actor who played the waitress was pretty good.” A few years later, I was vindicated.
That is hilarious. I had a great time on that.

But I didn’t realize you were in ‘That Thing You Do,’ which I had seen first.
That’s so long ago! I’m so old!

I’m a few months older than you are, so that doesn’t make me feel good. I’m rethinking this “you seem cool” statement.
[Laughs] Let’s just drink. Drink our sorrows away.

It’s before noon.
[To her publicist] He’s older than me. Do you know how sad that is? You’re like five years older than the both of us.

Theron’s publicist: No, I’m actually the same age you are.

[Theron starts laughing]

I do have a final question.
Uh oh.

‘Prometheus.’ The last time you did anything let’s say, nerdy, with ‘Aeon Flux,’ people didn’t like it. Obviously Ridley Scott is involved this time. But any hesitation?
God, no. I mean, it’s Ridley Scott. I’ll be honest with you, I’m very director driven. I think 75 to 80 percent of my decision making is based on the director. Even before I read the script. And I tend to, more than not, find that the directors who inspire me — the ones I really want to work with — tend to have interesting material. In the case of Ridley, he’s an iconic guy that I think there’s three or four in his age and generation. And every actor has one of those guys they kind of dream to work with — and, for me, it was Ridley Scott.

I used to find myself on movies a lot of times just kind of, you know, working with these indecisive … you know, “I don’t know what I want to do.” Oh my God, you’re the fucking director. You should know what you want to do here. And I’d always kind of joke, “I just wish Ridley Scott was here right now.” In my mind I had always envisioned him as this guy who just walked onto the set and knew exactly what he wanted. And that’s exactly who he is. And, at the same time, he’s a twelve year old who just still loves what he does.

And, by the way, the characters are day and night different. I mean, I’m playing a suit. She’s like a real corporate nightmare. But he’s everything that I’d hoped he was. Not just to work with him, but on a genre he helped define, is amazing.

I lied, here’s one more: Why are there two Snow White movies?
I don’t know! But it’s not a big deal. Honestly, I feel like people are in such a panic about it. I want everyone to take a deep breath…

I’m not in a panic, I’m just confused…
[Laughs] Calm down, it’s going to be OK.

I feel better now. Thank you.
I think, also, now that the trailers are out, people understand they are two very, very different films. And there’s no way financers are going to throw that kind of money toward two films they didn’t feel like there was a market for both. So, everybody needs to chill out. It’s going to be amazing. We’re going to have two Snow Whites — incredible!

And you’re good in it?
Ah, well… [knocks on a wooden table] that was me knocking on wood! Transcribe that!

[Photo: Paramount]