Charlize means business
DRESSED down in flats, jeans and a peasant blouse, in the garden at the Raffles-L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills, Charlize Theron is debunking the myth of glossy red-carpet glamazon. Assuring me she is “not pretending to be a lady – I can fart as loud as the next guy and apparently I have a filthy mouth”, today she seems as far from the face of Dior J’Adore perfume as you can get. But perhaps that is the point.
“When somebody calls me a movie star, I worry a bit,” she says. “It used to be about the work, but now it means you show up at the Oscars and look good.”
This discomfort over the role of a modern goddess dates back to her roots, as Theron has one of the most extraordinary rags-to-riches stories that even Hollywood can muster.
Born outside Johannesburg and raised on a farm called Plot 56, Third Avenue, in the waning days of apartheid, Theron was named after her French father, Charles. It was her German mother, Gerda, who got together the change to pay for the six-year-old’s ballet lessons. Family snaps capture the long legs and blonde locks; a happy child, but one whose dreams exploded, twice.
First, there was the death of her father, which for years she told everyone was after a car crash. The truth is much darker. In the early 1990s, Plot 56 was struggling, and Charles Theron started drinking and turning nasty. Gerda was the easiest target. Away studying dance in Johannesburg, Charlize missed much of the drama. But on a winter’s night in 1991, when she was 15 and home for the weekend, a family confrontation changed her life.
Even today, 16 000km and a lifetime away, blinking in the Californian sun, Theron pushes her thick blonde hair back as she tries not to remember.
“It’s a tattoo I cannot erase. People always bring it up, but I’m not comfortable, because it concerns others.”
The facts, revealed in recently surfaced police records, are that following another row, a drunk Charles was hammering at the door behind which mother and daughter cowered, and threatened to kill both with a shotgun. Gerda found a weapon and stepped out to face him.
“The next moment I heard a lot of shots and my mother screaming,” Charlize recalled in her police statement. “I went out and saw my father’s brother in the corridor and my mother sitting in the corner of the bedroom. I ran to her and she said, ‘Charlize, I’ve shot them. I’ve shot them.’’ I saw the body of my father on the ground next to the bed. There was blood.”
His brother was unharmed. Relatives found the teen, shocked and weeping, huddled under a blanket.
Police ruled the killing as self- defence and Gerda was never charged. From then on, she invested in her daughter, encouraging her to start modelling in Milan. Theron then moved to New York to model and pursue her dancing, but that ended abruptly when, in 1994, her knee “blew out”, leaving her to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood.
“My mother said, ‘You can go back to South Africa and carry on sulking, or go to Hollywood. And you always liked movies.’”
She wasn’t sure at first. “The whole model-turned-actress thing doesn’t have a good track record. Today, younger girls are addicted to the fame, but that is not me. I keep all that stuff private.”
There is evidence she is far from the demure beauty you would imagine, like the time she ripped off her shirt during a South African Playboy interview to prove that, yes, she has boobs, and the National Enquirer published pictures that it claimed showed her smoking dope in an apple bong. Which irritated her: it was shot in a back garden in Malibu, where even celebrities can expect to relax.
“I don’t want every aspect of my life documented. But these days I can arrange my life to be calm. Living in LA, there are dozens of places my boyfriend and I can hop into the car, go and be left alone.”
She has lived with the Irish actordirector Stuart Townsend for eight years; they met while playing a married couple in Trapped. She says he rocks her world. “My universe shifted when we got together, and life has been better ever since.”
Like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, they say they’ll marry when gay couples can. And kids? “One day.” Her LA must be a very different place to the one she arrived in on a one-way ticket in 1994. She had no idea, she admits, asking an airport taxi driver to take her to Hollywood. She ended up at a motel, locked herself in the room with bread lifted from restaurants, and learned to speak American by watching soaps.
Her big break came in a flash of temper when a bank refused to cash a $500 cheque sent by her mother. Behind her was John Crosby, an agent for John Hurt and Rene Russo. He saw Showgirls, she saw “serious acting”. They compromised on Children of the Corn III.
From there, she played Keanu Reeves’s suicidal wife in The Devil’s Advocate, before taking parts in The Cider House Rules, The Italian Job and then Monster, in which she won a best actress Oscar.
Her notorious make-under – and the several she has done since – prompted critics to accuse her of hating beauty.
“That is not true,” she says. “I am very much a girl. I like that aspect of me. That is why I enjoy being the face of J’Adore. It’s both classy and feminine; it’s about feeling good about yourself. And I think John Galliano is a genius.”
Two years ago, a men’s magazine voted her the sexiest woman alive, which means, she jokes, that at 34 she has already peaked.
Maybe that’s why she is getting into the business side of Hollywood, establishing a TV company named after her rescued dogs, Denver and Delilah, and signing up with the fearsome agent Ari Emanuel. “I am not willing to play the odds that I am the one percent of women like Meryl Streep who are working when they are older,” she says.
Theron will be in South Africa for the World Cup draw. “I am going to drag out Nelson Mandela. All this impresses my friends much more than acting. I tell my boyfriend I have been nominated for an Oscar, and he goes, ‘That’s nice.’ But I say I can get tickets for the World Cup and he is all ‘holy shit!’ All of a sudden, I am a goddess.”
As if we didn’t know that. – London Sunday Times