South African-American actress and producer Charlize Theron has established herself as one of the biggest names of Hollywood. She is the recipient of numerous accolades, including an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. In 2016, Time magazine included her in their “100 most influential people in the world” list.
Born in Benoni, South Africa, Theron started her career through dancing and modelling. At the age of sixteen, she won a one-year contract in a local competition and moved with her mother to Milan. She trained as a ballet dancer at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York until a knee injury made it impossible for her to continue. In an interview, Theron recalled the personal tragedy, “I went to New York for three days to model, and then I spent a winter in New York in a friend’s windowless basement apartment. I was broke, I was taking class at the Joffrey Ballet, and my knees gave out.”
She added, “I realised I couldn’t dance anymore, and I went into a major depression. My mom came over from South Africa and said, ‘Either you figure out what to do next or you come home, because you can sulk in South Africa’.” She first gained international recognition for her brilliant leading roles in The Devil’s Advocate (1997), Mighty Joe Young (1998), and The Cider House Rules (1999). Since then, Charlize Theron’s career has been a highly successful one. In 2019, she was named among the highest-paid actresses in the world.
On her 45th birthday, we take a look at some of the most powerful performances by one of the leading talents of her generation.
Charlize Theron’s 10 Best Films:
10. Long Shot (Jonathan Levine – 2019)
Charlize Theron plays Charlotte Field, the shrewd, idealistic secretary of State who’s mounting a presidential campaign, in Long Shot, another one of Seth Rogen’s mediocre romantic comedies. She is the right both tactful and charming as an ambitious politician. In one scene, she even negotiates the release of an American hostage while being high on molly, breaking the stereotype of stuck-up politicians and making her more endearing.
She was initially nervous about taking the part, stating, “When you do something that’s outside your wheelhouse, you naturally function from a place of fear a little bit,”
Theron also praised her co-actor, “And Seth is a very confident writer, actor, and director. He steps into the space with so much confidence that it’s intimidating. But he is also so available, and I realized that I could fully trust him and that he had my back.”
9. In The Valley Of Elah (Paul Haggis – 2007)
This 2007 film was Paul Haggis‘ follow-up to Crash (2004). It features Tommy Lee Jones as a father investigating his missing son, a soldier who had just returned from active duty in Iraq. Theron plays the compelling role of Detective Emily Sanders and becomes personally attached to the case that appears to be increasingly insidious. Although she is not the focus of the film, she works with Tommy Lee Jones really well and the on-screen balance is very engaging.
She explained why she did the film, “My involvement started because I kept on meeting the writer and director, Paul Haggis, on the award circuit. He was there for his film, Crash, and I was there for North Country.”
Adding, “We were the only two sad cases who would be outside in the alley, smoking. He said: ‘I will write you a script.’ So, it’s the best thing that cigarettes have ever given me.”
8. Atomic Blonde (David Leitch – 2017)
A comic book adaptation from the co-director of John Wick (2014), Atomic Blonde presents Charlize Theron as a badass international spy. Although the plot of the film is too convoluted, Theron is brilliant, full of gritty determination, athletic abilities and a hidden vulnerability. She makes the fight-scenes look effortless even though she ended up with cracked teeth and a bruised rib while preparing for the role.
When asked about what it meant to play strong female characters, she said, “I guess it’s because deep down inside, I actually believe that that’s what we are. We are more capable than we are often portrayed in movies to be.”
She continued, “And we’re not necessarily given the right amount of credit for being that capable. So I try really hard to make my roles reflect women the way I believe we really are.”
7. Bombshell (Jay Roach – 2019)
Charlize Theron undergoes a notable physical transformation in Bombshell in order to look like Fox News Anchor, Megyn Kelly. Although it seems like an almost impossible task, it is made possible by the amazing work of semi-retired makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, winning the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling in 2020. Theron won an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, perfectly capturing Kelly’s inner conflicts without being swayed by them.
She spoke about the challenges of playing a prominent public figure, “I’ve played real-life people before but nobody this well known, in a contemporary sense at least. Whether you like her or not, she’s on the news, she’s in our lives and you know what she looks like and sounds like even if you don’t watch Fox News. As a person, she’s very specific—her voice, how she carries herself, who she is—so all of that felt a little overwhelming at first.”
6. The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Bythewood – 2020)
Theron’s latest action film, The Old Guard is an adaptation of the Greg Rucka comic book. She plays the role of Andy, a tormented and immortal entity who has spent centuries trying to save humanity but is also simultaneously filled with second thoughts about being the saviour. Bringing a welcome psychological depth to the superhero genre, Charlize Theron handles the fight-scenes with ease, marking her performance with a soulful pain.
She elaborated on her own thoughts about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new film, “A good storyteller is a good storyteller, and once we start trying to confine that to a certain sex it become incredibly sexist, problematic, and it’s not true.
“Gina had never done an action film. She obviously had a passion to want to explore this genre. And it just goes to show; if you have a real passion and an urge to want to work in this genre, women are just as capable.”
5. Tully (Jason Reitman – 2018)
Jason Reitman’s intimate 2018 film combines the two biggest strengths of Charlize Theron—physical transformation and the capacity for unabashed honesty. Tully is a welcome deviation from the roles that she usually plays, focusing on Theron, a scared, furious, bewildered and exhausted new mother as she figures things out without the help of anyone except Tully (played by Mackenzie Davis), a 26-year old nanny.
“I read this script when I was myself just coming out of that dark tunnel of [motherhood],” Theron said, “My second kid was around five or six months old. I’d just moved her out of my bedroom. She didn’t need me every two hours and I felt like a person again. And so, reading this, it felt very familiar. I was like, wow, I just went through this.”
4. North Country (Niki Caro – 2005)
Over the years, Charlize Theron has repeatedly lashed out against the gender-pay bias that is prevalent in Hollywood. She tackles feminist issues in the 2005 film North Country as well, putting up a moving performance as Josey Aimes, a survivor of domestic abuse who works at an iron mine in Minnesota. She and her female colleagues are subjected to multiple instances of sexual harassment but nobody seems to take her concerns seriously. She decides to take matters into her own hands and hires a lawyer to file a lawsuit against the company, unwilling to let this pass.
Speaking about the relevance of the film, Theron said, “Of course, I’m a woman; I read this and I was shocked that these events really happened and that that was only settled in 1995, which is such recent history. So all of these things were really interesting to me, but these stories can become very black and white in the wrong hands and cat start pointing fingers, which is not life and that’s not what I’m interested in.”
She added, “So I wouldn’t say yes to it until I knew who they were going to have as a director. So when Niki came on board she really catapulted the whole thing for me because we got together and she finished my sentences and I finished hers, so all of these worries I had were just non-existent.”
3. Young Adult (Jason Reitman – 2011)
Young Adult is written by Diablo Cody and features Theron as Mavis Gary, a divorced, alcoholic 37-year-old who fuels her self-destructive tendencies by working as a ghostwriter of a series of YA novels. Even the character of Mavis is problematic and unlikeable, Theron makes her feel real and relatable. She conducts a raw and authentic portrayal of the human condition, making sure we feel her pain.
In an interview, she had this to say about her character, “I’m not a fan of justifying bad behaviour or justifying why people are the way they are. I think that’s a cop out. I don’t have a lot of empathy for that.
“I thought the things she did were pretty despicable, but not to the point that I was disgusted by her. I never had a hard time liking her. I would love to go and have a beer with her. Never let her hang out with my boyfriend, but I would love to hang out with her.”
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller – 2015)
When Mad Max returned to the big screen after more than 30 years, there were always going to be pretty big expectations and it is safe to say that the 2015 sci-fi post-apocalyptic film lived up to them and then some. Although Tom Hardy is the primary focus, Charlize Theron is brilliant as Furiosa, a fearless warrior determined to protect the Five Wives from the antagonistic Immortan Joe. At times, it feels like she is the true protagonist of the film and rightly so. Theron does a wonderful job in yet another strong female role.
“Like anything that has some worth to it, it comes with complicated feelings,” Theron reflected. “I feel a mixture of extreme joy that we achieved what we did, and I also get a little bit of a hole in my stomach. There’s a level of ‘the body remembers’ trauma related to the shooting of this film that’s still there for me.”
1. Monster (Patty Jenkins – 2003)
The character of Aileen Wuornos, a serial killer and prostitute is undoubtedly the most powerful performance in Charlize Theron’s extensive career. Blindly in love with Selby (played by Christina Ricci), Wuornos robs and kills to support herself and her love. At the time of the film’s release, she was mainly known for her glamorous roles but Monster marked a pivotal moment in her career. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her compelling portrayal of a desperate murderer.
“I didn’t think I could do it at first,” Theron revealed. “The thing that convinced me ultimately was that I had never had—and I get emotional thinking about it—I never had somebody believe in me like that before. I was always the person who would go into audition after audition after audition and lay myself on broken glass and not get the part. And all of a sudden, this woman is sitting in front of me, and she’s like, ‘You have to. You’re the only person who can’.”