A Whole New Look, Charlize Theron

In Hollywood it's ironic that beautiful actors who become homely or repulsive for a role get more notice for doing so than they do for the performance. "How did you gain/lose the weight?" or "How did you become so unattractive for this film?" are questions that Jude Law, Renée Zellweger, Robert De Niro, Hilary Swank, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Cameron Diaz have had to answer from a fascinated public who just can't fathom why attractive actors would sacrifice their looks for a role. Any actor will tell you that it's just another step in getting inside a character. It's a shame image often overshadows performance, which is something Charlize Theron can relate to in her career.

When the first photo stills from Monster were published, no one could believe that Theron—who, honestly, has been more famous for her beauty than for her acting in films such as The Devil's Advocate, The Cider House Rules, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and The Italian Job—would downplay her "greatest asset" to become a homeless lesbian prostitute and serial killer. But the physical transformation she endured for the role is not as significant as is her triumphant performance. Theron absolutely absorbs Aileen Wuornos' physicality, gestures, laid-back ease, confusion, rage, and tragic need for love and projects it back with the warm, infectious, energetic charm that she has exhibited in previous films. Clearly, after Monster, critics can no longer label Theron merely as some sexy South African model turned actress. Monster is a low-budget labor of love for all involved and marks Theron's true transformation—from studio film starlet to unexpected indie darling.

"You know, the last three years of my career I've been working on all these big-budget films," Theron told BSW. "I've really just missed people showing up and not talking about anything but that one thing, and that is what you're about to go and do. I'm so glad that I've kind of entered this independent world and have been re-excited and inspired—really, truly—by somebody else's passion, because I think that's the most incredible thing that you can surround yourself with. My machine starts when I'm around people like that."

Born To Be Bad

When first-time feature director/writer Patty Jenkins was looking for someone to portray America's most notorious female serial killer, a lot of A-list actors walked through her door, including Kate Winslet, Heather Graham, Brittany Murphy, and Kate Beckinsale, but Jenkins felt they lacked a certain bad-ass quality she was seeking. Theron wasn't aware of this until one day after a rehearsal.

"[Patty and I] were just kind of hanging out and having a beer and starting to get to know each other," the actor recalled, "and I said, 'By the way, why me? This stuff doesn't happen to me. These kinds of projects don't come to me. These are usually the things that I have to go out there and sweat blood and kill somebody for.' She said, 'Honestly, I just looked at you, and I looked at everybody else, and I said to myself, I could kick [the other actors'] asses. You, I'm not so sure.'" Jenkins also recognized Theron's total commitment to all of her previous roles—bad lines, good lines, bad characters, and good characters.

Although Jenkins did not know this when she asked Theron to play Wuornos, Theron has a tragic past that further fueled her performance. In 1991, when Theron was 16 years old, her mother shot and killed Theron's alcoholic father in self-defense. After Jenkins found out, the writer/director was convinced that the actor would turn down the part. To Jenkins' relief, Theron accepted the role and brought the strength of a survivor.

"I think that whatever [Theron] has, she has this kind of grace and strength, that upon knowing her better, I now realize didn't have to come from something so extreme," said Jenkins. "But it is something that's incredibly relevant and clear in certain people that understand the highest beauty and the darkest darkness in the world, I knew that it would be much more difficult to teach a girl, no matter how good of an actress she was, where the strength of someone like Aileen comes from than it would be to take someone who was a tremendous actor and had that strength already."

Theron credits Jenkins' female intuition for detecting something in her that male directors may never have noticed. "I knew that she had seen The Devil's Advocate and loved what I did in that, and I find it very interesting that she, a woman, saw me that way, because I've never worked with a female director. She saw all those elements that I think a lot of men are scared to acknowledge in a woman. She saw that strength and wasn't afraid of it, and she wanted to celebrate that," Theron said, smiling.

Producing a Passionfest

Although Theron loved the script and the character and totally trusted Jenkins' determination to make the biopic, there was just one hurdle left to jump before taking on the real-life character. "I didn't know if I could do it," the actor confessed. "You know, actors tend to think that they can do anything, and this was kind of the first time that I went, This is going to be a hard thing to do. But once I committed to that, then I was in all the way, and that's when I asked Patty if I could produce it, because I wanted to take the full journey with this. I wanted to learn."

It was the first film that Theron's 4-year-old production company, Denver & Delilah Films, has co-produced, although she had projects in development prior to Monster. "This was such a great movie to do that with, too, because right from the beginning it was like a passionfest. Everybody who came on board came on board just because they really, truly responded to the material." For example, she pointed out, both Toni G, the makeup magician who made her cherubic face leathery, and the sound designer, Peter J. Devlin, walked off major big-budget films to work for nothing on the sweltering 29-day shoot in central Florida.

"It was really inspiring," she said. "Usually when you wrap, it's like the crew is packed up already, and they're going home. But on this, so many people were so emotionally moved by the whole making of this film. I've never seen people like crew members cry at a wrap, you know? It was really an emotional journey for all of us. We were all there for the same reason, and it sure wasn't for the money."

Masking and Unmasking

Theron's transformation began with interviewing Wuornos' friends, reading hundreds of Wuornos' letters, and watching documentaries, 60 Minutes, A&E Biography, and the Court TV tapes. "I just watched them nonstop to kind of have her be second nature to me, and I think that, with the makeup, was just a really good combination," said Theron, who also gained 25 pounds and wore false teeth and brown contacts to become the infamous slayer.

"She definitely had looked a certain way because of her environment and her lifestyle," Theron explained. "Actually, if you see younger photographs of her, she was a beautiful woman. She was from a Finnish background, and she had those features definitely, but she is a true example of what happens to a body when you put it through what she put it through. I just had to kind of understand that—understand what her life really was, and when I understood that, the physical part of it really happened very organically for me. But really, it always went back to her life and her story and what she had gone through."

Both Theron and Jenkins tried to be responsible about portraying Wuornos in a sensitive but not overly sympathetic or demonizing way when making Monster, and they hope that the audience notices. "I hate movies where the scale is so off and you're being hit over the head with 'Like this person, like this person! She's the crazy serial killer. Feel sorry for her. She was abused.' That's just one aspect of this woman's life. The other aspect is that she did horrendous things. I really think that showing that greater truth is the best way for people to empathize with something," Theron explained.

It's crazy to consider that if not for a knee injury in her late teens, Theron would still be a ballet dancer. "Ballet was my life. I was so satisfied with that, but it just didn't work out that way. I didn't grow up going, I want to be an actor, or anything like that," said Theron, who attended New York's Joffrey Ballet School. Winning the International New Model Today contest at 16 got her out of South Africa and onto the runways of Europe, but, to her, modeling was always just a job that paid the rent. So when she first moved to Los Angeles at 19, she hooked up with a modeling agency and asked the agents to let her know about any acting auditions.

"I didn't know anybody out here," the actor said. "It was a little crazy. I just knew they made movies out here. I didn't really know how to go about it at all. Then, a couple of months later, a man helped me out in a bank, and he turned out to be a manager, so it was really just a fluke situation." The manager she met happened to be John Crosby, who has managed John Hurt and Rene Russo, but she assumed Crosby wasn't the real deal and didn't take the encounter seriously until months afterward, when she landed her first part in the ensemble feature 2 Days in the Valley. She played Helga Svelgen, James Spader's seductive partner in crime. Theron immediately followed the role with a small part in Tom Hanks' directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, and she was well on her way.

After only eight years in the industry, Theron has managed to bulldoze a path through Hollywood and work with some of the most talented actors and directors along the way. Currently she does not have a coach, although she has studied with Ivana Chubbuck, who took over for Roy London after he passed away. Theron believes that acting is mostly instinctual, and, like learning a foreign language, it's better just to immerse yourself and watch others than it is to have it tweezed out of your system with countless methods.

She recently finished working with John Duigan, another passionate writer/director, along with Penelope Cruz and Stuart Townsend, on an independent romantic period drama titled Head in the Clouds due out next year. Theron also did a cameo opposite Geoffrey Rush as Britt Ekland, Peter Sellers' second wife, in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which will air on HBO next year.

She urges other actors to be prepared and resilient, because it's a very tough business. "I really fought going to a place where I could nurture my machine, and I regret that I did that," Theron said. "Well, I don't regret it, but I do think that there's so much that you can learn. It's not somebody teaching you how to act, but it is somebody kind of taking all this energy that you already have and making it something—rolling the dough and making the bread—because when I walked into this whole thing, I was fucking flour and milk and sugar all over the place. For somebody to kind of guide you through what you have and what you struggle with, and to be in a community of other actors, is really an incredible thing to do. It means that when it happens, when that one audition comes, you're prepared and you're ready. If this is what you want to do, you have to stick it through no matter what."