[IMG:L]Charlize Theron has tackled many important issues in her last few film roles. Monster explored how sexual abuse created a serial killer, North Country exposed the damages wrought by sexual harassment, and Aeon Flux made Hollywood aware of the risks of spandex costumes when Theron injured herself in a stunt gone awry.
Her new film, writer-director Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, deals with the human aftereffects of the current war in Iraq. As Det. Emily Sanders, the only female officer in a police station bordering a military base, Theron encounters a concerned and determined father (Tommy Lee Jones) looking for his AWOL son--and joins his intense crusade to learn what has become of the missing young Marine.
The Oscar winner tells Hollywood.com why she de-glamorizes herself for the right roles and how her best performances can be shot from behind. Trust us, it makes sense for more than the obvious reason.
Hollywood.com: Some of your recent films featured social themes. Is it hard to get interested in a project that doesn't have that element?
Charlize Theron: I like intelligent stuff. I like things that actually say something. It's not an agenda of mine. At the end of the day, I'd much rather do a piece about people in a story that I find riveting and intriguing and moving, versus really carrying some kind of heavy political agenda on my sleeve. That's not who I am. That's not why I do this. I do this because I'm an observer of people. That's why I want to be an actor. I'm fascinated by human beings and the circumstances they find themselves in.
HW: This isn't like Monster but you're still in little makeup and plain clothes. Is it important to downplay your beauty?
CT: No, I just want to tell good stories. I want to tell good stories, stories that matter to me, stories that I think are beautiful. Paul and I talked a little bit when we started to talk about Sanders. I said to Paul, "People make such a big deal about it. The irony of it is when it comes to finding a character for me, it's just about the facts. You look at this woman, so it's not about how can we make me look different?" I think the great thing about being an actor is it's not about that. It's about how we get access to the truth. To me, that's always the biggest question, whether it's where is the scene going or how do I physically look or how are we going to facilitate Paul in telling this story correctly.
[IMG:R]HW: So if it's not the message and it's not the beauty issue, how do you choose your roles then?
CT: Money. Paycheck. [Laughs] It's usually a combination of two things and sometimes it's not as equal as it was in this case for me. It's the material and the director. It was very, very equal for me on this. He wants to get the best work out of every individual actor. There was an instant, actually, when I said to him flat out, "I don't like rehearsal. That's just me. I'm a cow and if you milk me a lot, I'm going to get dry." I was working with a certain actor who really loved rehearsal, really loved working out every single kink. It was about three in the morning and it just got to that place where Paul had realized I wasn't delivering anymore because we had just overdone it. So we picked it up the next day. Very few directors will be that in tune.
HW: Did you meet any female officers for research?
CT: Yeah, I did. I met a woman in Albuquerque and she came and hung out with me in the trailer. My biggest concern was always the interrogation scenes. That's why I really wanted to meet somebody because you see those scenes on TV so much. It kind of becomes--and I'm not saying this is bad--but "You can't handle the truuuuuth!" I needed some help on that so I met with a woman who interrogates all the time, a detective.
HW: So what is Jack Bauer doing wrong?
CT: She said it's actually very opposite from what is on television because you really don't want to antagonize them that much. Sometimes when it is something that kind of touches you, you do get to a place where you have to push a little bit, but she said most of the time the best thing to do is to just play it very, very neutral. Towards the end, we went to that place of "Now I'm going to really just put you in that position." These are young boys. You try to get them to kind of get so angry and so passionate that they would say something that they wouldn't say if they were calm and collect.
HW: Aside from the interrogations, there's a lot of silence in the movie. Do you appreciate that as an actor?
CT: I've always had a great value for it and I think it's from being a ballerina for 20 years and never having words. I'm not a fan of words. Directors hate me sometimes because I really have a very clear understanding of how powerful the physical can be. I played a swan and I never had any feathers or said anything, but I was a swan. So the physical to me is incredible. I always say I'm a really good actor when I'm not speaking and you're shooting me from behind. Always.
[IMG:L]HW: How did you get the notoriously reticent Tommy Lee Jones to open up to you?
CT: Frances McDormand was great because she said, "What I used to do when I worked with him was I would just walk on the set and I would give him a big hug. Somehow his guard would just drop." So I took that advice. I came to Albuquerque to do a hair and makeup test and wardrobe fitting. They were already shooting. It's tough when the movie's already started and you kind of show up, you're the new kid on the block. I walked onto the set and Tommy was about to do the scene. I just kind of walked up to him. I was shaking but I just gave him this big hug and he just had nothing to say. He was like, "Gotta go to work now." I had a great time working with him.