Sometimes it seems hard work being Charlize Theron…

Sometimes it seems unbearably hard work being Charlize Theron. Flawlessly beautiful, she’s drawn to movie characters of incomprehensible ugliness. She has a life that’s the epitome of Hollywood perfection, but a past that’s stained with death and childhood sadness. She’s an Oscar-winning star, who is feted on the red carpet one day and helping victims of violence in South Africa the next. And, of course, it’s these seemingly contradictory extremes that make her so fascinating.

Story by Andy Round

The launch of her most recent film The Burning Plain was typical. The film debuted in the same month as she appeared on the cover of Vogue. The magazine revealed her resplendent in fashionably styled high gloss, while The Burning Plain presented her as a terrifyingly destructive, self-mutilating addict on a vicious downward spiral.

What is so appealing about Theron is that she doesn’t need to dabble in the dark side, she could quite happily carry on with modelling for style magazines, illuminating red carpet events and being the face of Dior perfume  – her television ads are revealingly beautiful – but she doesn’t. Her idea of relaxing is to explore the rotten recesses of human imagining and put herself in the heart of darkness.

The Burning Plain was not particularly successful, but that didn’t matter. “My character is destructive because she is tormented by her past,” Theron said at the time of the film’s launch. “It’s about death, and how death defines you. And that, clearly, is a part of me and my life.”

It’s impossible to imagine what impact the violent death of her father had on the teenage Theron. At the age of 15 she witnessed her mother Gerda shoot dead her abusive alcoholic father during a vicious attack. Gerda was cleared of all charges and judged to have acted in self-defence.

The event spurred Gerda to book a one-way ticket for her daughter away from tragic memories and out of their native South Africa after a talent agent spotted Theron in Johannesburg. Via the catwalks of Paris and Rome, the 17-year-old was soon thrust into the competitive world of Hollywood blonde magazine models. Inevitably she was cast as screen candy in films such as The Devil’s Advocate, Mighty Joe Young and 2 Days in the Valley. But the search for substance was constant motivation. “I was always the pretty girl that guys wanted on screen. It wasn’t enough,” she says.

The breakthrough came in 2003 when Theron was cast in the film role of Aileen Wuornos, an American serial killer who was executed for murdering six men. In Monster, the actress was unrecognisable. Late night binge eating piled on 15 extra kilos, disgusting prosthetic teeth and blotched make-up quickly diluted Theron’s beauty. Her performance was equally disturbing, conjuring up a psychotic woman on the edge, easily capable of murder. In 2004, she deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress for the role. In 2005 she was nominated for another Academy Award following her performance in North Country as an iron mine employee who successfully fights for equal rights after escaping an abusive relationship.

Struggle, misery, sadness and ugliness are motifs that reoccur time and again in Theron’s screen roles, but to what extent does this reflect her dark childhood? “Strangely, I feel the tragedy gave me a leg up from other people,” she says. “Believe me from the age of 16 I really knew the value of life. And, from that moment, I made the decision to swim not drown. Of course it marked me but there have been many other painful heartbreaks since my father’s death. My work is not just drawn from one well. ”

Whatever these inner demons have been, there has been another self-imposed constant battle to prove, simply, that Theron is more than just a pretty face. She is withering when anyone suggests she is rejecting glamorous roles to play ‘serious’. “Can I only be one type of woman on screen?” she snapped during one press conference. “Women are not like that. We are many things. Why can’t we be glamorous? Why can’t we be raw? Why can’t we be three-dimensional?”

What is undeniable about Theron is that she is deadly serious about everything she does. Interviewers regularly comment on her lack of humour. But she puts that down to not trusting journalists. Still, life for is a serious business. “I work,” Theron says. “I have an office a whole team of people. I don’t want to ever have my days pass me and be 80 and say, ‘where did it all go?’”

The actress was recently made an official Messenger of Peace by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and has been a campaigner for victims of rape in South Africa since 1998. Her Africa Outreach Project was initially set up to improve education about HIV but has grown to encompass children’s schemes such as computer training and the creation of junior football pitches in anticipation of the World Cup. The Afrikaans-speaking actress, who apparently also knows a “little Zulu”, has never neglected her roots. “I like to spend time with my people,” she says. And naturally Theron’s home country treats her like a super star. When she won the Oscar for Monster, Nelson Mandela said: “Charlize has put South Africa on the map.”

Not that she has too much time to spend soaking up the achingly panoramic South African landscape. Her boyfriend of the past seven years is the actor Stuart Townsend. The couple, she says, like to spend time between Townsend’s hometown of Dublin and the A-list heights of Hollywood. But time is precious. There are dozens of other Charlize Theron projects already in the 2010 pipeline.

She plays the gritty role of ‘Wife’ in the post-apocalyptic thriller The Road adopted from a best-selling novel by Cormac McCarthy in early 2010. She recently had fun doing voiceovers for the animated children’s thriller Astro Boy and is slated to play lead roles in movies as varied as the comedy films The Brazilian Job and Hancock 2 to darker material in The Tourist and Florence of Arabia. Plus she has a number of concepts in development with her own production company Denver and Delilah (named after her pet spaniels).

So what type of role or film attracts Theron? “For me, it’s about the story,” she says. “I think it always goes back to stories. As an actor, you’re just a canvas to tell it. If something stays with me, or it’s a world I’m interested in, or people I’m interested in, you just have to believe and jump off the cliff.”

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