Charlize Theron has the whole movie star thing backward. The South African beauty looks amazing in real life, but in her last few roles she has been absolutely regular on screen.
Usually, a movie star employs an entire cadre of stylists and lighting specialists to create an aura of angelic beauty that only seems to exist on 100-foot screens. But 30-year-old Theron, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the scraggly serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster for director Patty Jenkins, uses her crew to cover up that powdery white skin, glowing blonde hair and perfect teeth and cheekbones.
For her latest Oscar-worthy performance, as a coal miner in North Country, she even considered using contact lenses to make her eyes go off-kilter and prosthetics to give her a few bumps on her face and redirect her gum line. She wasn't interested in how she looked; she only wanted to get her character right, and that meant looking like an '80s tough girl from Northern Minnesota who ends up among the first women working in the coal mines.
Critics are already hailing the movie as this year's Erin Brockovich, with its tale of Josey Aimes fighting pernicious sexual harassment all alone against a giant corporation '- and even her female colleagues '- in a small town where she's already a pariah because she had a child out of wedlock at 16. Theron decided to dress down her features with head scarves and the dirt that comes with working around coal, and she stuck to flannels and work boots for her wardrobe.
"I think people get confused with the real person and the job," she says while perched on a sofa in a hotel suite in Toronto during the city's annual fall film festival. This day, she looks every bit the runway model in a short skirt outfit and impossibly high heels that make her seem like she would be seven feet tall if she were actually able to walk in those things. But for her that's just dress-up for the red carpet and the pictures, so she looks good opposite her boyfriend, Stuart Townsend.
"What I'm interested in is actors and directors who can celebrate storytelling and not focus on the celebrity aspect or what we consider beautiful," she says. "We did a lot of research and I was shocked that the women mine workers wore makeup and polished their nails. They'd never leave the mine dirty. They weren't what people would imagine women working in the mine would look like."
That's the kind of attitude director Niki Caro was expecting when she cast Theron after seeing her in Monster. "I wasn't concerned that she was too beautiful, because I know what she's capable of in her work," Caro says, although that doesn't mean she approves of her star's choice of footwear on this particular day. "Those heels are ridiculous," she mocks from her room a few doors down the hall. "I put on my big shoes because I knew I was going to stand beside her, and she put on bigger shoes. She looks like a gazelle in high heels."
Although Theron shrugs off the notion that she needs to dress down on film in order to be respected in the industry as an actress and not just as eye candy or as a fluke with one good film, her latest director doesn't think that's a problem anymore: "There's no way she's not going to be taken seriously now. She has proved herself."
Theron's not even that concerned about stepping back from these tough-lady roles and playing another girlfriend, like she did innumerable times in her early career '- in The Devil's Advocate, The Astronaut's Wife and Sweet November to name just a few.
"I have no problem playing the girlfriend, if the girlfriend is a real human being," she says, acknowledging that there aren't that many out there that are. "Yeah, that's sad. But it shouldn't be that way. I don't want to have to always be the lead. That's not important to me. I want to do something full-circle, completely thought out, on a path of truth."
Just to keep her audiences and potential critics guessing, her next role is something completely different '- the comic book superhero Aeon Flux. She put her whole body into the role, causing a minor furor when she herniated a disk in her neck during the shoot.
"The body can take quite a bit. You just have to be disciplined and let it heal," she says. "Most of my life I was a ballerina, and I told stories for a long part of my life physically. That was the element I was really interested in. The character doesn't say very much. Physically her strength and beliefs come through."
She was also drawn in by the fact that the film was to be directed by a woman, Karyn Kusama, who made her debut with Girlfight, a small independent film about a young female boxer.
"I was really interested to see what kind of new perspective she would bring, not being from that genre world," Theron says. "She's a director who loves actors, loves performance and pays a lot of attention to that."
While Theron says it's just coincidence that her last three major projects were directed by women, she does think it matters. "What's the difference?" she asks. "That they're women."
She adds: "At the end of the day, the reason I like the women I've worked with so much is that they remind me of myself. It's not just about telling female stories. They tell female stories, but they tell them in a universal, human-condition way. They're just great filmmakers at the end of the day. It's not this agenda. Subconsciously they can't help but have that women's perspective."