London Film Festival

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In The Valley of Elah - Charlize Theron interview

In The Valley of Elah

Compiled by Jack Foley

CHARLIZE Theron talks about her latest film In The Valley of Elah, researching her role as a detective, her relationship with her mother and how she got from South Africa to the top of Hollywood’s A-list female stars…

How did you become involved with In The Valley of Elah?
Charlize Theron: 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. 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.

It took some time to get to the screen?
Charlize Theron: The reason was it took a long time to actually write. I said to Paul in the end: “Are you ever going to write this damn thing?”

What appealed to you about it?
Charlize Theron: It’s such a grown-up story. I like political stories, too. I want to be in films which ask questions and deal with social issues. I never really go for glamour roles – I like roles which make you think about the character and their life, rather than what they look like.

Did you do research on playing a detective?
Charlize Theron: I hung out with a couple of female detectives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was great, because they advised me on scenes. I could get a feel for their job, their looks, their attitude. It all helps.

Your character suffers blatant sexism – have you suffered the same thing in Hollywood?
Charlize Theron: I have been lucky enough never to encounter that. But I know plenty of women who do, in all sorts of circumstances. The guys always think they are joking but, for us women, it’s offensive and intimidating.

Given the disturbing subject matter of some of your movies, are you ever effected by the realism?
Charlize Theron: I watched In The Valley of Elah just last night, from start to finish, and it really made me think. It’s very powerful and I think it will strike a chord with many people. But it did not effect me at the time, because I never take my characters home with me. I can cut off the moment filming is over.

This is your first film for two years – what were you doing in that time?
Charlize Theron: I was catching up on life. I wanted a break and to enjoy time with people who matter in my life, like Stuart or my mum, Gerda. We also travelled a lot – Greece, Turkey, Belize and Guatemala. We also went back home to South Africa – in my case – and Ireland in Stuart’s. It gives us a great feeling of joy to throw on a backpack and live the culture for a month, staying in places which are not five-star hotels.

Can you clear up rumours about yourself and Stuart. Are you actually married – or not?
Charlize Theron: We are married in our own eyes. We’re not married by church and state and did not go to a service, in the eyes of God. I did not wear a white dress. But, so far as I am concerned, we’re married and I have a ring. I think it’s an old Victorian ring.

Were you ever religious?
Charlize Theron: My mum always told me, even as a kid: “Come to your own conclusion.” So, I started going to church and then stopped, for some reason. Someone from the church came to see my mother and said: “We need to talk about Charlize’s non-attendance.” I remember my mother pointing at me and saying to her: “You can talk to her yourself. She’s here.” I think I am pagan, at heart.

Is it fair to say that your mother has been your biggest influence?
Charlize Theron: Fair and accurate. She has always been on my side, teaching me to be resilient. We have been on an amazing journey together, from our life in South Africa to our life now in Los Angeles. I never thought I would leave home. But events took a different turn.

The biggest event, as we all now know, was when your mother killed your father. In earlier interviews, you said that he died in a car crash…
Charlize Theron: It was a way, at the time, of explaining his death. I didn’t want to go in the reasons or the event itself. I have now come to terms with that and have been able to move on.

What was your own reaction at the time?
Charlize Theron: It made me realise that life deals you some really nasty cards and you just have to play them. I can remember thinking: “I want other cards than these.” I walked away from that experience, knowing that I had two clear choices. I either drowned – or started swimming, very fast. Things had been really bad between my father and me.

Was there anyone to advise you?
Charlize Theron: You can’t take advice and let others tell you what to do. When you witness something like that, they don’t know how you feel or how you are going to react. My mother could not give up, either. Neither of us allowed the other to give up and that is why we have such a close bond today.

So what made you so strong?
Charlize Theron: I refused to sulk and feel sorry for myself. I made the decision to move on and realised that certain things in life were not meant to be. I could not be stuck and allow myself to be defined as a person by that one event.

Can you describe your upbringing?
Charlize Theron: I believed that I was going to live in the same house until the day I died. I spoke only in Afrikaans and still speak Afrikaans with my mum. I learned a little English from a ballet teacher who had worked at the Royal Academy in London. She taught me ballet when I started going to her classes from the age of four. I had a very active imagination as a child and loved putting on make-up, costumes and playing characters, or telling a story. Life was very simple – then everything changed.

But you had a lucky break with an offer of modelling?
Charlize Theron: That’s what I mean by getting some new cards dealt. A model scout from an agency saw me in Johannesburg when I was 16 and it came at a perfect time for me. It was a chance to escape and, fortunately, I had a mother who realised what was happening in South Africa and how it was becoming less safe. She encouraged me to get out and do something with my life. I started to travel and see the world.

What happened to your dancing?
Charlize Theron: I was 18-years-old, living in New York, taking dance classes. I was completely content. I then suffered a knee injury and had to stop. All of a sudden, I could no longer do the things that had been open to me for most of my life. I had been a flamenco dancer, too, so had an appreciation for all kinds of dancing. There is still a sorrow inside me about what happened and dancing remains a great love. I used to go to the New York City ballet by myself and cry. I know there is no possible way I can dance again at that level.

So how did you start acting?
Charlize Theron: I had moved to Los Angeles, but couldn’t get an agent. My mother had sent me a cheque to help pay my rent and I was trying to cash it in a bank on Hollywood Boulevard. A clerk refused – and I just went nuts. After the shouting was over, a man handed me his business card and told me to get in touch. I thought he was just another guy with bullshit, but he turned out to be a genuine talent manager called John Crosby. He introduced me to some casting agents.

And you have succeeded in movies, despite the fact that your film debut was in the awful Two Days in the Valley?
Charlize Theron: I had to start somewhere and do not regret any of my films. I had always been interested in the arts, whether poetry, music or dance and this was just another element. I like telling stories. I never thought that I would be particularly successful as an actress, though. I just wanted to earn a living.

When did you think: “I can really make a go of this?”
Charlize Theron: The moment Tom Hanks chose me for a part in his film That Thing You Do 11 years ago. I used to watch Tom Hanks films over and over again when I was a kid, because I had such a big crush on him. I thought: “If he thinks I am worth hiring, then maybe I’m going to be okay.”

Do you like glamour?
Charlize Theron: I grew up on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies and when you look at these films the women had beautiful dresses and gorgeous make-up. The women were celebrated on screen a little bit more than we do now. They were allowed to look beautiful and still have depth to them. But, today, too many women seem scared of it. It’s a shame, because I love glamour.

Kenneth Branagh once described you as a “whirlwind of sexual energy”. How important is sex to you?
Charlize Theron: I put friendship and love before sex. But I would say sex is more important than money or fame.

Despite the trauma and sadness in your life, do you feel happy?
Charlize Theron: If I complained about anything right now, it would be obnoxious. I’m with a wonderful man, living a dream. My mum has remarried to Doug, who is in insurance, and is happy. I’m also in a terrific film, In The Valley of Elah. I cannot think of life being better.