I’ve always been interested in the stories of how movie stars are “found”; it always seems a perfect blend of hard work, sacrifice, and a little dumb luck. Charlize Theron’s moment came from inside of a bank in Los Angeles, where a teller had just refused to cash her check. Broke, far from home, and desperate to pay the rent, Theron found herself yelling at the bank teller, begging him to find a way. Prompted by her pleas, a man in line behind her offered his assistance, and eventually the check was cashed.  That man was John Crosby, a talent agent who helped her get connected in the industry and land a part in her very first movie, Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995).
Only a few months earlier, she’d been an 18-year-old looking down at her one-way ticket, worried that she was going to the wrong place because it said “Los Angeles” and not “Hollywood.” She hadn’t planned on being an actress; she came to New York from her native South Africa to study at the Joffrey Ballet and chase her dream of being a dancer, only to be told that said dream was no longer possible due to her persistent knee injuries.  But here she was, in a bona fide Hollywood picture! Her appearance was little more than a gross death scene where she’s mutilated by a Stephen King monster, but it was so important to her that she spent precious money on a brand-new pair of shoes for filming. Not only were her shoes ruined by the fake blood and muddy terrain of the corn field, but when she went to see the movie in theaters, she realized that her voice had been dubbed and she wasn’t listed in the credits.  It was clear that the interest was in her visage, but she didn’t want to be pigeon-holed because of her looks or her thick South African accent. She knew she could be more.
“Range” became the name of the game for Theron. Beginning in 1996, she appeared in at least two movies a year, everything from critically acclaimed dramas like The Cider House Rules (1999) to panned comedies like Waking up in Reno (2002). Even if the movies bombed, her stardom was on the rise. Then, she had a breakout year. First, she joined the popular caper The Italian Job (2003), which showcased her ability to hold her own in a star-studded cast. Then, she took the lead role in Monster (2003), a Patty Jenkins biopic about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a mentally ill prostitute targeting former clients. She gained significant weight and shaved her eyebrows, disappearing in both features and physicality to morph into a different person altogether. Film critic Roger Ebert hailed her work as “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.”  It made her the first South African to win an Oscar for acting and proved her versatility once and for all. No one would ever mistake her for just another pretty face again.
Theron continued to challenge herself with a myriad of characters: a victim of workplace sexual assault in North Country (2005), a police detective in In the Valley of Elah (2007), and an exhausted mother of three in Tully (2018). Her marketability has helped to fuel box office smashes like The Fate of the Furious (2017), Hancock (2008), and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and her comedic chops continue to surprise in A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) and Long Shot (2019). The voice that wasn’t good enough for Children of the Corn was cast in Astro Boy (2009), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), and The Addams Family (2019); she was able to showcase her transformative abilities yet again in Bombshell (2019), where she was unrecognizable as Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. But perhaps her most well-known films are her action flicks. Despite Aeon Flux (2005) being a notorious flop that almost paralyzed her,  Theron returned to the genre with a vengeance in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) as the now cultural icon Imperator Furiosa. She’s also had to learn fight choreography for Atomic Blonde (2017) and most recently The Old Guard (2020) (which is now available to stream on Netflix). And that’s less than half of her filmography from the past 25 years.
Despite her status in the upper echelon of acting and activism, I find the most compelling characteristic of Theron’s persona to be her relationship with her mother, Gerda. She is mentioned in almost every interview, appears as Theron’s date to award shows, and is constantly acknowledged as a co-parent in the raising of her two adopted grandchildren. She’s been there from the beginning: a cheerleader in Theron’s ballet classes, modeling gigs, and movie roles. But her daughter grew up with an unpredictable, alcoholic father—and Gerda was there when an incident of domestic violence resulted in Theron’s father’s death.  Theron was only 15 at the time, and firmly asserts that her mother’s actions saved her life. While some may point to such trauma as the fuel for what she has become, I think Theron’s success should not be attributed to tragedy. Hers is the kind of depth earned not only with experience, but also an inexhaustible work ethic and enthusiasm.
When I see Charlize Theron, I am reminded of the artist P!nk: the toughness and edge of someone who’s bigger than their problems, accompanied by the vulnerability necessary to talk about therapy, darkness, and heartache. She’s a renowned action star, so it might not be surprising to learn that she’s a UFC fan and can eat hot wings with levels of spice that nobody has any business trying to eat.  That commanding presence is evident on screen, and yet, there is a level of raw complexity in her performances that humanizes even the superhuman. Not everyone likes her tough exterior, her sarcastic sense of humor, or her candor, but in those traits I can’t help but see resilience and resolution to play a better hand than the one she was dealt. Rather than being intimidated, I choose to be inspired by the idea that we can live indefinable—despite trauma, struggle, and how others perceive us.
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