Charlize Theron may be as beautiful and as talented as Elizabeth Taylor was in her prime, but until "Monster" few in Hollywood (or anywhere else) seemed to notice. After stealing scenes as a catfighting nymphomaniac in 1996's Tarantino-knock-off "2 days in the Valley" the actress was all too often handed two-dimensional girlfriend roles ("Cider House Rules," "The Legend of Bagger Vance"), in which she shined nonetheless, and only rarely got the chance to really sink her teeth into a part.
But this month, audiences and the entire film industry will sit up and take notice of Theron's complete submersion -- complete disappearance really -- into her role as Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute and serial killer put to death last year for murdering seven johns. In a performance that transcends her extra 30 pounds, her seamless splotchy-skin makeup and prosthetic bad teeth, the 28-year-old looker becomes unrecognizable as an angry, coarse, despairing woman with a bitterly curled lip and a beer-swilling swagger, thanks to first-time writer-director Patty Jenkins, who had an epiphany while watching Theron's meatiest performance to date in "The Devil's Advocate".
The filmmaker pursued Theron for the part -- much to the actress's surprise, she said on a Christmas publicity tour to San Francisco, where she was certainly back to her old self -- drop-dead gorgeous and curvy in a lace-striped tank top, snug jeans, fashionably comfy UGG boots and a short velvet jacket.But what was it that inspired to her trash her own body and beauty for a $2 million movie? That was one of the first questions I asked when I talked to her last week.
|Q: What did it take to get you on board? Did you read the script and were instantly interested? Or did you wonder why they were interested in you? What's the backstory for you?|
A: When I read the script, I didn't know who Aileen was. I didn't know it was based on a real person. So when I read the story, it was really just reading a script as a story for the sake of a story, and I just thought that the writing was extremely brave. I read so many scripts, and after a while you start to see the formula. It's so obvious -- Act One, Act Two, you know exactly how you feel about everybody. Then there's a nice bookend, and there you go. This was the first time, I think, in my entire career, when by the second-to-last page, I still didn't know how I felt about the character.
I also thought it was interesting because I don't think it's really a common thing for writers to write conflicted female characters. The guys always get to play those great gray characters, and somehow women always tend to be black and white. So I knew this was also something very unusual and might never come my way again. Those movies just don't get made. So all of that was what grabbed my attention at first, then when I called my manager and said, "I really like this script," she said, "Well, you should probably watch this documentary ("Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer," opening in a few cities on January 9) because it's based on a real person. Then I stepped back. That was a little different. I realized this was somebody's life and there was a lot of responsibility at hand.
It was only after meeting Patty Jenkins that I immediately knew I wanted to do it. Her belief in me was just...[pauses and smiles sideways to herself]. The most dangerous thing you can do for an actor is believe in them, because then there's nothing they won't do. And that's what happened to me in that meeting. I just knew that the way she believed in me -- and what she knew I was capable of as an actor -- was definitely, no matter what happened in the film, going to take me to a whole new level.
|Q: You found a really dangerous place in this character too. There was some makeup involved in making you over, but there's so much going on in your eyes. There were certain parts, especially when you're aggressive and angry, when your eyes just jumped out and were terrifying.|
A: Aileen had two very specific things about her features, about how she articulated herself through her face. One was her eyes, which took me some time to get used to. It's very different from me. I tend to go a little squinty when I get intense [laughs slightly]. Aileen is completely opposite. When she gets intense, this tends to happen [widens her eyes in a surprisingly aggressive stare]. The other was that she carries so much tension in her jaw. Those were the two things I tried to pay a lot of attention to -- those and the way she carries her head and her shoulders. The funny thing is, Patty and I never spent that much time on the physical stuff. All of the physical aspects just happened through the journey we took on the emotional level. At the end of the day I realized everything she did physically was really just a mirror for what she was going through emotionally. I mean, a lot of people that I see who live homeless lives carry themselves that way, and I know why now. You can't go and live a homeless life, which is a very dangerous life, and be timid. You'll get crushed. Aileen was 5-foot-3, but when she walked into the courtroom (during her trial) it was like she was 6-foot. It was a sense of "don't mess with me man, I can take care of myself."
|Q: I understand Aileen made her letters available to you and the director, but you never met her.|
A: I read letters that Aileen wrote to a friend she grew up with in Michigan for the 12-year period she was on death row. There was a brief conversation between Patty and me about meeting her. Then a week later she was executed, and we really didn't expect that. She had gone through so many appeals, and we just thought this was going to be another appeal. (Wuornos chose to abandon the appeal process in 2002.) I didn't know at that time how I felt about meeting her, and I guess everything happens for a reason because I don't think meeting her would have been the best thing for me. I just don't see how she would have opened up to a stranger, to someone like me (who was) about to play her. She was already so negative about people making stories from her life that I just can't see her sitting in front of me saying, "Let me share my deep, secret thoughts with you right now." That was not Aileen.
So the most incredible thing happened, which was that she'd written all these letters to her friend without ever thinking anyone else was going to read them. They were personal letters to her friend, and they were very much her reflecting on her life. They were very much written in diary form, and they were written to somebody she really trusted. I think that was the most vulnerable and true Aileen had ever been about her life. A lot of the greater truth of her life came for me through those letters.
|Q: Did you have any qualms about the sexuality in the film? The sexuality in this film was all about the emotion, but I'm curious if it was a challenge for you.|
A: No, because I think everything was based on her need to be loved. Her relationship with Selby was so very gray, and everyone tends to make it this very simple thing: She was a lesbian, or she was a serial killer, or she was a prostitute. Nothing in her life was that specific. I think her life was so complicated when it came to relationships or love. I think that's true in general for prostitutes. I think when your job is to be intimate, or pretend to be intimate, with people, I think it juxtaposes your relationships in real life and what you want out of people.
In the case of Aileen, I have no doubt in my mind that if somebody was going to show her love in a non-judgmental way, she would take it from anybody. It wasn't that she was, per se, a lesbian. She was just so desperate for any kind of love from anybody, she was the last person to be judgmental about where or who it was coming from. Knowing that was such a huge part of her life, I think that was her greatest journey. In many ways I think that's everyone's journey. We want to find love. Understanding that right from the beginning made shooting that relationship and playing that relationship just essential to the story.
|Q: I have to now ask the obvious question: Did you have mixed feelings about the drastic change in your appearance -- the weight gain, the bad skin, all the physical changes you went through?|
A: Well, Patty and I never talked about what I should do physically. We never talked about gaining weight. I just remembered reading a letter where she said she'd had a child when she was 13. She'd lived a homeless life, so nutrition was the lowest thing on her priority list -- whatever food she was going to get, that's what she was going to eat. She wrote in a letter that even though she was a prostitute and would do pretty much anything, the one thing she wouldn't do was take her shirt off. I don't think she liked her body. I think her body represented a lot of demons for her. So from reading that, I said, "Patty, I think I'm going to put on some weight." We never discussed it like this big thing, like some aim -- "We're gonna gain 30 pounds." It wasn't about getting fat. Aileen wasn't fat. Aileen carried scars on her body from her lifestyle, and if I'd gone to make this movie with my body -- physically I'm very athletic -- I don't know that I would have felt the things Aileen felt with her body. It was about getting to a place where I felt closer to how Aileen was living. I didn't want to look at my body and see my natural muscle. That kind of thing would have thrown me off completely in trying to be her.
|Q: And now you're slim and gorgeous again. Was that change hard to come back from?|
A: [Laughs] I had to go straight into another movie ("Head in the Clouds," due in 2004), so I think that was my saving grace.