How Charlize Theron made it from ‘hysterical customer’ to Oscar-winning actress entirely on her own terms
“You are only as great as the opportunities that are given to you.” — Charlize Theron
Charlize Theron, the Academy Award-winning actress whose rise to the top has been fast and furious, has one of those ‘too unbelievable to be true’ stories that has propelled her to Hollywood stardom.
Having always held lofty ambitions of becoming a professional dancer, Theron took the bold decision to leave her native South Africa at the age of 16 after winning a surprise one-year modelling contract in a small Italian province of Salerno. From there, with the door barely ajar, Theron made Milan her permanent home before spending 12 months travelling Europe while working as a young model.
While the early entry to modelling provided a brief taste of the limelight, Theron was still harbouring dreams of making dancing a full-time career and, with this in mind, moved to the US and decided to split time between Miami and New York while attending the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School. Despite early promise, however, her dancing ambitions were cut short by a devastating knee injury.
“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,” she once explained. “I was broke, I was taking class at the Joffrey Ballet, and my knees gave out. 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’.”
Not content to give up on her dreams of success, Theron, like so many budding actors, booked a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and put her dancing aspirations to the back of her mind and set her sights firmly on Hollywood. Despite some early leads, Theron quickly found herself on hard times and was struggling to pay her rent as stress levels rose to new heights. Desperate, she reached out to her mother for financial help and was sent a cheque to pay her rent—a significant period which would lead to her breakthrough moment.
As she headed to a bank on Hollywood Boulevard to cash her cheque, an assistant in the branch encountered an issue and refused to cash it. Struggling, worried and reaching boiling point, Theron entered into a somewhat volatile shouting match with the member of staff which caused quite a stir in the bank. As onlookers pricked their ears, talent agent John Crosby was silently waiting in the line behind her in awe of the ‘performance’. As she left the bank, Crosby handed over his business card and a silver-lining to her nightmare was revealed.
Theron’s chance introduction to Crosby made the step to Hollywood slightly more realistic and, after making him her manager, had the door to success propped open — she wedged her foot in there and refused to back down. A year later, Theron made her film debut in the 1995 horror film Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest and, although it was a non-speaking part, she had entered the cinematic party and the ball was well and truly rolling. A few months following this appearance her first speaking role was confirmed and, despite it being a minor position, Theron was chosen to be the face of the film’s promotion as an image of the actress dressed in lingerie was selected for all major posters and, at that moment, her first pivotal test of wills materialised. “A lot of people were saying, ‘You should just hit while the iron’s hot’,” she once explained as people in the industry attempted to push her down the route of overly-sexualised roles in cinema. “But playing the same part over and over doesn’t leave you with any longevity. And I knew it was going to be harder for me, because of what I look like, to branch out to different kinds of roles.”
Sticking to her moral standing, Theron passionately made it her mission to succeed in cinema on her acting ability alone, refusing to fall into the category of Hollywood ‘it girl’ despite pressure from her manager who continually proposed films of an exotic nature. In what was a distinctly obvious clash of visions, Theron parted company with her manager Crosby and instead focused on building her CV with numerous smaller roles in and around the indie scene before her big break arrived in 1997 with a role in The Devil’s Advocate—a film which boasted the likes of Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino on the cast.
Theron’s rise to fame was one built out of hard work and an unnerving desire. While the chance freakout moment in a bank on Hollywood Boulevard was a fortuitous one, for Theron the success was always going to arrive… just as long as she worked hard enough: “I don’t believe in charmed lives,” she once explained. “I think that tragedy is part of the lesson you learn to lift yourself up, to pick yourself up and to move on.”
While her big break came in the late 1990s, Theron struggled somewhat to capitalise in the immediate years that would follow. While roles in films such as Reindeer Games, The Yards and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion kept her career alive, she wasn’t reaching the distinctly high levels she had already set herself. “I kept finding myself in a place where directors would back me but studios didn’t,” she explained. “[I began] a love affair with directors, the ones I really, truly admired. I found myself making really bad movies, too. Reindeer Games was not a good movie, but I did it because I loved [director] John Frankenheimer.”
The release of 2003 biographical crime drama Monster, however, would change the game forever. Directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Theron in the lead as Aileen “Lee” Wuornos, the former sex worker who murdered her seven male clients, Theron made the step up to worldwide critical acclaim she was destined to. Her performance resulted in a victory at the Academy Awards for Best Actress and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture, an accolade which meant she became the first South African to win an Oscar in an acting category.
“When I’m figuring out a character, for me it’s easy, since once I say yes to something, I become super-obsessed about it—and I have an obsessive nature in general,” she once explained. “How I want to play it starts at that moment. It’s a very lonely, internal experience. I think about [the character] all the time—I observe things, I see things and file things [in my head], everything geared to what I’m going to do.”
Adding: “I’m obsessed with the human condition. You read the script and become obsessed with [a character’s] nature, her habits. When the camera rolls, it’s time to do my job, to do the honest truth. You can’t do that part of the [character-creation] work when you’re [in the middle of] making the film. At least I can’t.”
It is the obsessive mentality to succeed which has resulted in Theron climbing her way to the top of Hollywood in no uncertain circumstances. While she may have suffered setbacks on her journey to this point, roles in films such as North Country, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Tully have further cemented her at the top of the pedestal.
Despite overcoming adversity, despite the fact that she is one of the world’s highest-paid actresses and the fact that she was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Charlize Theron has very much kept her feet grounded: “Something I learned very early on in my career is that there are a lot of things that you do not have any power over,” she once said.
“If they ever do my life story, whoever plays me needs lots of hair colour and high heels.”