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In Conversation with Charlize Theron

There’s no doubt that Charlize Theron has become more Hollywood star than South African bokkie.

The clue isn’t that the girl from Benoni has dropped her Suid Afrikaanse accent for an LA twang, or that she’s cruised into London with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves.

The clue is that she keeps you waiting for over an hour and then expects you to smile blithely and not mention the delay. The previous day she did the same to journalists in Paris. And only a nouveau movie star like 22-year-old Charlize would not even bother to say sorry. In fact, when I point out how late she is for our appointment, madame simply laughs.

But the laugh is rather beguiling, and it’s impossible not to give her the benefit of the doubt as a movie on the international interview scene. Although she was excellent in her movie debut as a seductive hit-woman in 2 Days In The Valley and then as the prissy small-town girl in Tom Hank’s That Thing You Do, the roles were small and nobody outside South Africa took much notice of her.

But Devil’s Advocate is sure to change all that. This is the film that announces Charlize Theron’s arrival in movie land. It’s her first major role and she not only holds her own against Oscar winner Al Pacino, but totally acts the pants off Keanue Reeves.

Literally. The dark thriller – about an out-of-town lawyer and his sexy young wife who are lured to New York by greed and an enigmatic Al Pacino – comes complete with a shot of Keanu’s hairy butt.

Charlize’s portrayal of a woman whose internal struggle with good and evil sees her transformed from a vivacious, sensual wife into a suicidal, a paranoid shadow of her former self is mind-blowing. And yet she almost wasn’t picked for this part. The direct, Taylor Hackford (An Officer And A Gentleman), auditioned her four times before offering her the role.

“The reason is simply that she is so beautiful,” he explains. “Her sex siren looks have been likened to those of Marilyn Monroe and I was afraid audiences wouldn’t be able to empathize with her. In the end though, Charlize’s talent and perceptiveness convinced me that she was the right woman for the role.”

I’ve spoken to some of her co-stars from previous films, and all unanimously vote Charlize the most fun person to have on set. Her current co-star, Keanu Reeves, is no exception. His face breaks into a goofy grin each time he recalls moments on the set with Charlize.

“I hadn’t seen any of her films before,” he admits, “but I found her so inspiring. She performs with such grace.”

Everyone who works with her falls hopelessly in love. She’s feisty, friendly and funny – all of which, it turned out, are useful qualities to possess when you’re shooting sex scenes.

“Oh yeah, those scenes always demand a great sense of humor!” she shrieks, slapping her thigh. “If you’re gonna be on set with somebody who’s uptight, and very conscious about their body and about being naked, then you drain the magic out of the scene. And I am so critical when it comes to watching films where there’s a husband and wife and there is no chemistry – it just ruins the film completely.

Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves in Devil's Advocate
Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves in Devil’s Advocate

“So Keanu and I focused on the chemistry a lot before we even started shooting, so that you believe this couple has been married for five years.”

“And we had such a laugh doing it because Keanu is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. He cracked me up constantly, so the crew and the atmosphere on the set became light-hearted and the focus was on that rather than on “Charlize is taking her robe off now.”

Underneath her robe she was naked, as was Keanu and the other actress who filmed the scene with them (playing a woman Keanu is fantasizing about).

“We started off with the little flesh-colored patches to cover everything but they’re such a pain in the ass because you ruin a take when they lift up and stick out. So at one point it became ridiculous and we took them off,” she laughs. “Audiences find these scenes sexy, but it’s more embarrassing because I was thinking ‘I don’t even know this guy and here I am naked with him!'”

Today she’s fully clothed in a vampish long-sleeved dress, stockings and high heels. Her entire outfit is a bold stamp of black, providing a sharp contrast to her ultra-short peroxide blonde hair. She’s visibly proud of this film, eyes dancing like fireflies in the night when she talks about it. She swears it’s the greatest time she’d had in her career to date, but confesses that some scenes were harrowing to film.

“I remember going home on certain dails feeling like I was carrying a ton of bricks with me.”

The scene that freaked her out the most is one in which she’s sitting alone and naked in a church after suffering a nervous breakdown.

“My mom is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met in my life, and I called her before I said yes to the film and told her about that scene because it involves full frontal nudity. It’s something any actress has to consider. You can’t just say ‘yes.’ I needed to justify it to myself and at that point I truly didn’t understand what the character was going to go through mentally and what state she was going to be in. I only learnt that later when I talked to doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists.

“My mom said to me: ‘You should never let anything stand in your way of telling a true story’ and that meant a lot to me.

“The day we shot the scene, the priest of the church came to greet me, and he told me how wonderful it was that this character – who’s in desperate need of help and love – goes to the church to find it. I thought that was just beautiful.”

Although Charlize is religious she stopped going to the NG Kerk when she was a teenager “because they changed our minister and I didn’t agree with a lot of things. I didn’t agree with the way that religion was often forced on people. But I will always believe that there is a God; that there is a higher power and there is evil.”

In Devil’s Advocate, her character is desperate to leave New York and escape the evil she believes is there. Charlize is painfully aware of that sentiment. After leaving South Africa at 16 to pursue a modelling career in Paris and Milan, she then lived briefly in New York before heading to Los Angeles.

Charlize Theron in Devil's Advocate
Charlize Theron in Devil’s Advocate

“I found New York unfriendly, cold and isolating,” she says. “Of course, I’ve learned a new respect for New York, because I can go there now and experience the things it has to offer that you really can’t experience when you’re alone and 18 and living on $5 a day.”

LA has been home to Charlize for the past four years and although she admits she’s surrounded by ego and money, she knows she won’t get swamped by it.

“To me it’s very simple because I know at the end of the day I’m going to be the one who has to live with any decisions I make – about a project or about life.”

It’s this level-headed maturity that’s probably helped Charlize succeed in Hollywood where other hopefuls have failed. She also has a confidence that belies her years and projects an air of such cool sophistication it’s impossible to imagine her ever having come from a plaas in Africa. She’s certainly reinvented herself, but it’s been through necessity – her flawless American accent being a case in point. This is, in fact, the one unnerving thing about meeting Charlize; you know she’s South African, but there is no trace of a South African accent in her yankee drawl.

“I think the fact that I’ve really nailed the American accent makes my range bigger so I can play all-American characters, instead of being limited by this heavy accent to play only the villain or massage parlor worker from a foreign country.”

When she arrived in LA she “had a horrible South African accent. Agents would say: ‘She’s great, but can she fake an American accent?’ I couldn’t, and I couldn’t afford a dialect coach, so I watched a lot of television. That’s how I learned to talk American.”

Determination is her second name. Of course it is. This is the same girl who studies ballet in South Africa for 12 years, practicing in the studio for eight hours a day.

“I’ve definitely put the discipline I had in my dancing into my acting.” agrees Charlize, “and I think that my willingness to work hard is what’s helped me so succeed.”

Charlize is a tough cookie. She doesn’t wait for things to happen: she makes them happen. Her mother taught her that nothing is impossible, and she still believes it.

She’s also driven by a realization following her dad’s death just weeks before she left South Africa, “that life’s very short and you’ve got to take every possible advantage that’s presented to you.

“I also think my naivete helped me when I got to LA. I didn’t understand the odds against me. It took me a while to realize that just everybody in LA wants to be an actor or a rock star.

“In the beginning I though: ‘I think it was that sort of naivete that helped me, plus hard work and a certain amount of luck – being in the right place at the right time.”

She’s not joking. Had she not been in a Hollywood bank throwing a tantrum (because they wouldn’t cash her check) at the same time as a guy called John Crosby strolled in, she might not have become Hollywood’s fastest rising star. As it turned out, Crosby was an agent, and within two weeks he’d signer her on.

She’s still a little shell-shocked by her success.

“My God, I’ve worked with Al-Pacino,” she whispers. “And Tom Hanks – I remember falling in love with him when I watched Splash, and I wanted to be the mermaid. And Keanu – I remember seeing Point Break as a teenager and falling in love with him just like every other female in the audience.”

She recently finished filming a starring role in the remake of Mighty Joe Young (which was, in turn, based on the original King Kong) with Bill Paxton and now steps into three projects back-to-back.

Charlize was last in South Africa in Jun, 1997, and doesn’t know when she’ll return. Although she misses her old friends terribly, she admits that right now she wouldn’t dream of moving back. But she hasn’t lost touch with all things South African. Just a week ago she was busy chewing on a stick of biltong.

“I’m addicted to it,” she confesses.

“My stepdad send it to me, or I go to a little German shop in Los Angeles that sells it.”

Biltong in LA? She laughs. “I’ve investigated the whole thing. There’s a huge population of South Africans in Los Angeles and there’s this little German store owned by a guy called Willy. He sells biltong and droe wors, Rooibos tea, Pro-Nutro, Mrs Balls chutney – the works!”

As she lists the South African products her tongue rolls the ‘rs,’ and it’s reassuring to hear her revert to her lekker old Afrikaans accent. She might be on the way to becoming a big Hollywood star but Charlize Theron is still South African at heart.

PERSONALITY January 16 1998

Charlize Theron front page of Personality
Charlize Theron front page of Personality
Charlize Theron interview page 1
Charlize Theron interview page 1
Charlize Theron interview page 2
Charlize Theron interview page 2
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Charlize Theron interview page 3

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