Patty Jenkins Interview

07 January 2009

Writer-director Patty Jenkins talks about her bold casting of Charlize Theron as serial-killer prostitute Aileen Wuornos in brilliant, gloomy biopic

Writer-director Patty Jenkins talks about her bold casting of Charlize Theron as serial-killer prostitute Aileen Wuornos in brilliant, gloomy biopic

Knockout former model Charlize Theron might not seem like the logical first choice to play the lead in a gloomy biographical drama about a leathery, roughed-up, homeless hooker who snapped after years of hard luck and abuse, and took to killing her johns. But writer-director Patty Jenkins would disagree adamantly.

While scripting her film about Aileen Wuornos and the events leading up to her 1989-90 murder spree, Jenkins had an epiphany when watching Theron play a woman being driven mad in "The Devil's Advocate" -- one of the actress's few roles that has provided the opportunity to show she's more than just a pretty face. She recognized in the actress something deep and dangerous that few others in the film industry had bothered to look for.

Now three days before Christmas, Jenkins -- a 30-ish Midwesterner with a pleasantly raspy voice and gracious, philosophical smile -- sits absent-mindedly cross-legged in an antiquey mahogany chair in a San Francisco hotel room, still prepared to defend with enthusiasm her casting of "Monster." But by now the potently gritty film has already won Theron several critics' awards and serious front-runner Oscar buzz for her startling physical and psychological transformation into a stout and jowly, hostile and despairing drifter on the slippery slope of her own homicidal tendencies -- which are only slightly tempered by an unexpected romance with a confused young lesbian (Christina Ricci) fresh out of the closet and looking for a savior.

But at least for the next half hour, Jenkins is in good company because I'm proud to say I'm a film critic that has been singing the praises of Theron for her talent, not her looks, from her very first film.

Q: When I first heard about Charlize Theron's role in this movie, I probably had a different reaction from almost anyone else because I've known she's had the chops all along...

A: Oh, I love that!

Q: ...ever since "2 days in the Valley." In that movie she took this 10-cent character, this sexpot who has a catfight scene, and made her the most memorable thing in the movie. After I got over the fact that she looked exactly like Ashley Judd at the time, I thought, this girl is going to have a hard time being taken seriously because she's so damn pretty.

A: Yeah, she always does! I love hearing that because I'm having such a hard time making up bulls**t complicated excuses for why I thought it was a great idea. Because the truth is, I just thought she was great. I thought she was always better than everything she did, and always made her characters completely real. Yeah, she's beautiful. Who cares if she looks like Aileen Wuornos or not? The point was, she has heart, and she's really brave, and she's really strong. I knew if I could get those things focused on this role, she would give it the humanity and the dedication necessary to pull it off.

Q: Was there ever a point at which you wondered if she could pull this off?

A: No. Never. I was terrified leading up to the film about finding someone who could do it. Before I ever wrote the script, I was consumed with the thought that if the wrong person plays this, it's going to go down the drain. So I looked at a lot of actresses, incredibly talented actresses, and could imagine them trying to come off as strong with a gun in their hand, and it just terrified me. Or being overly volatile with a gun in their hand, and then trying to sell them as someone who can be lovable and it just not working.

So I had been wracking my brain and I was sleeping after trying to write (one night), and I woke up in the middle of the night and "The Devil's Advocate" was on. There was this close-up of her face, and I just sat up and thought, "Oh, yeah! Charlize could do it!" I fell back asleep and wrote it down the next day. But I never thought I'd get her, because this is an unfunded movie, and I'm an unproduced screenwriter-director, and I must be high on crack.

Then the script went out there and talk built up very quickly, and with the kind of people who wanted to do it, I thought, well, if they all want to do it, now I want to know if Charlize would want it. And when she came around, she was unlike all the other girls. She was the least enthusiastic. She was like, "Why do you want me?" I think she was mistrustful that it was going to be some sexy, hot, exploitive lesbian thing. But when we came together it clicked, and I think her becoming a producer really helped us defend what we wanted to do.

Q: A lot of the buzz this movie has generated is based on how Charlize looks -- 30 pounds heavier, splotchy skin, etc. -- but speaking in terms of the character, she looks great.

A: Yeah! Don't you think? This is go great, the things you're saying! Seriously, I felt the same way. When people ask me, "How did you ugly her up?" -- that's so stunning to me because I got so used to the way that she looked as Aileen that she seemed pretty to me sometimes. And Aileen was that way too. If you look at the tapes of Aileen in court, when she was on the stand, she was an attractive woman. She had bad teeth. She was beaten down by life. But that was it.

Q: The people who say she's ugly, they're just making the comparison to Charlize, which is a damn high hurdle.

A: I agree. In the movie, she was just Aileen to me. She's a whole other person on another scale.

Q: I love the way she carries herself like a trucker. I loved a scene in the hotel room where she stretches her arms out with a beer in one hand and she looks like a football player. Her boobs looked like huge pecks.

A: Yeah! She was very macho. All of her romance became very macho. The whole Marlboro Man visual thing was so important to me, (Aileen) seeming like this cowboy out on the street. To Aileen it was like she and her girlfriend were kind of badass and she would be cool somehow with this macho thing.

Q: Was there any difficulty with the film's sexuality? Either with the actresses being comfortable or with selling that part of the story?

A: There was a lot of difficulty intellectually (thinking about it in advance). There was no difficulty once we actually got there. As a filmmaker without a lot of experience, I actually felt sort of guilty -- I felt very confident that I was going to do it the way I wanted to do it, but I felt sort of guilty that I didn't feel more interested in shooting the sex scenes. Everybody was talking about how we were going to do this, and I was like, God, (the way we're) shooting that scene, it's not about the sexuality at all. Maybe I'm making this big mistake, but I just don't think (focusing on) that is appropriate. I don't think the physicality of their sex has anything to do with the movie. There's not nudity. It's not hot. But at the end of the day, I ended up understanding this was the right thing to do. It's about the love. It's not about the sexuality.

As for approaching it, (Theron and Ricci) are pros. They blew me away. They're unbelievable. And they both walked away from it saying it was great, saying that it was the best sex scene they ever filmed because of the fact that we approached it about the love, which grounded it all in character. Both of them expressed to me separately that working on other films before, (directors) had been like, "And then lick her, and lick the guy, and do this..." and it became this physical thing that they were aware of. But here we were grounded in character.

Q: Speaking of Ricci, her aura, her hair, her clothes -- everything about her really feels like someone just stepping into that sexuality she's not quite sure she was ready for.

A: Yes. I love the struggling (you see) in her. She's trying to stay in the closet (a little because) she has to in trying to stay at home. But she's trying to find herself, and she's not sure what that means yet. Am I butch? No, I'm not butch. Am I conservative? No, I'm not.

Q: The film is so intensely focused, almost claustrophobically focused, on Aileen that I almost forgot she was in the movie as well -- and she's great.

A: And it's really too bad because she's amazing, but (Charlize's) performance wouldn't have worked without someone to take on that other role so bravely. It's not the glory role. It's just not. You walk away from the movie going "Holy Jesus Christ, Charlize's performance!" and it's a character film about her character, so that's the best thing that could ever happen. But it's great that I've had interviews and so often people are like "...and Christina!" It's the second thing people want to say, and that's great.

Q: Selby wasn't a part of making this movie, but you did communicate with Aileen while she was on death row. So was it easier or harder to make this film after she was executed?

A: It was both. It was both. And it was the most complex emotional feelings I've probably ever felt. She was alive and we were writing to each other for seven or eight months, and the whole point was that we were going to meet each other and she was going to be involved. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere they scheduled her execution. It was devastating. And it became inappropriate, to me, right away to pursue working on a film with her unless there was something she wanted to tell me. Otherwise it was, "What do you need? How can I help? Do you want an appeal?" She didn't. She wanted to be executed.

The night before she was executed, she had a conversation with her best friend and she opened up the archive of every letter they wrote to each other in 12 years -- offered them to Charlize and me. So (how I feel) is so complicated. I never could have gotten to know her. She never would have trusted anybody enough to tell them what she was able to tell us in those letters. But I also wish she was alive to see any humanity that comes from the film. Although I'm torn about that too, because she would write really detailed notes about every book that had been written about her, and every documentary and everything, and they were so detailed, like "I would not have carried a red bag. This is ridiculous." So there's a part of me that's happy I didn't have to put her through this because I don't think she ever could have completely understood.

Q: On the topic of people who might not understand, let me ask one last question: I'm curious if you've had any kind of reaction from the families of Wuornos's victims.

A: No, not yet. But the film hasn't played publicly at all yet. I actually, frankly, hope that they don't see the film, even though there's no way without them seeing it for anybody to understand that I'm not sympathizing with her actions. I'm not saying that these were horrible men and they deserved what they got. If people assume that's what the movie is, there's nothing I can do about that. But at the same time, I've had loss and tragedy in my life, and I don't want to watch a movie about it. I don't want to watch other people's versions of those things, you know? So in a way, I hope those people don't see it, because it's not their story. I tried to keep the victims as generic as possible. I've been asked why I didn't show more of the victims or their families. Well, that's not the story I'm telling at all.


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