Theron discusses her career and the transition into action heroine roles.
Theron: I don’t remember a specific moment, I don’t think it was like I woke up on e day and thought I want to do action movies. I think I’ve always wanted to explore it but never had the opportunity too. I was raised with by a mother that liked Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson movies. My Dad loved the Mad Max films, I was raised on action films. It was peppered with SOPHIES CHOICE and KRAMER VS. KRAMER, super inappropriate ages like 8, 9, 10 but it summed up where my career went. I have always had an affinity for all the genres but 30 years ago there weren’t a lot of opportunity for women to do movies like this. After I won my Academy Award in 2004 and it was really hard to make AEON FLUX because there were preconceived ideas. It is a character that I think today would be celebrated more than in 2004. There was this moment in my career where I realized very clearly that because the movies didn’t really perform that I wouldn’t be given another opportunity. It was really harsh. It wasn’t until MAD MAX FURY ROAD and what happened with that film really changed the trajectory for me and made me realize ‘wait a second there are a lot of possibilities here’ and I made an active choice to look out for that material and development it myself as a producer and that’s where I find myself today.
I don’t think of myself as having a particular affinity for one genre but the genre has changed for women. There is great evidence that we now know we can’t hide behind ignorance anymore. Fans love them and love the narrative and made for the stunt world, it feels fresh and exploring the world of action with women fighting and it excites me.
We can’t just look at action as physical. THE ITALIAN JOB was a great experience and I realized there was so much misconception around women even though the action is done by cars. The good thing that came out of the experience is the push to do stunts with the actors. But there was a very unfair process that went with it, I was the only woman with a bunch of guys. I remember vividly that I had six weeks more car training than the guys and it was so insulting. It also lit a fire under my ass and I made it a point to outdrive all the guys. I was proud of the stunt work that we did. I did a reverse 180 in a warehouse with props and people and I did that stunt on my own. That was a huge moment thinking that women are so unfairly thought of and treated when it comes to the genre.
I really didn’t know anything about continuous action until I worked on ATOMIC BLONDE who set the tone that we wanted to do long action takes and it was the first time that there was a real attempt to do a first. We had to shoot 7 to 10 minutes of action continuously. So as an actor you have to do everything right and that’s incredibly difficult to do. I’m not a martial arts fight and never trained in the martial arts but it is plausible. That’s what is so incredible and I am so proud of what we accomplished on ATOMIC BLONDE and we pushed the envelope. We pushed the concept that women in the industry and we celebrate women fighting like woman and what body parts we can use and fight just as hard with our elbows and our knees that was exciting to me. There is no one way and we are pushing it. You look at a film like FURY ROAD and there is more edit in that film and shooting his action is fast paced but it is done in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheat. When you don’t cheat it people know and the authenticity has really been celebrated in the last decade or so. It’s also made it hard for crappy action movies to survive because the bar has been set so high.
Listen, I don’t think I will ever recover from the making of that film. It was a tremendous feat what we pulled off all of us. It was hard and difficult in a different way than ATOMIC BLONDE in the sense that the physicality was very real and very rare that George wanted the stunt team to use wire work. Holding your body up on a car and getting over to another vehicle consistently, it was incredibly tedious but that was the challenge in that. I think when a filmmaker can listen to the narrative and the story of MAD MAX is suppose to make you feel exhausted and it was an exhausting shoot. He physically got to us that it wasn’t manufactures and that it came from a real place.
I think in general I’m intrigued by the messiness of being a human, especially a woman. I think for me, when we talk about representation I remember vividly watching conflicted women in cinema. Women very rarely got to explore that. There was a fear of putting women in circumstances where they don’t shine. I do believe that society has instilled us in this Madonna/whore complex, people are sometimes not brave enough to explore. The richness of those stories are a disservice to women in general. We are more complicated than that and our strengths can come from our faults and mistakes and pettiness and madness, that’s what makes us interesting. I have a knee jerk reaction when someone pitches a story that says ‘she is a warrior and she is a hero’, I think all of my characters have had a sense that they are all survivors, they are all just trying to survive. As a woman I can relate to that. I am not a hero, I don’t relate to heroes, I think people who inspire me are people who don’t think they are heroes. They put their heads down and do the work and I have an affinity for that. It is a quality I really respond to.
With Furiosa in MAD MAX Fury Road, she is one of the most important characters that I’ve ever played. I knew how special it was and that’s why I chased it. I think it was to show a female character in a way that felt , the closest analogy and closest moment in my own life that I can look back is Sigourney Weaver playing Ripley. It changed and my world opened up. The amount of intelligence that she brought to that role, she was completely in demand of it and it wasn’t forced and it wasn’t written and it wasn’t acted, it was lived. She lived in such an authentic way. Furiosa, I couldn’t look at her as a character, she felt so real to me. Maybe because she was so hard and we lived in that environment for so long maybe that’s why I felt that way about her. That’s something I am incredibly proud of and I feel really lucky that I was given that opportunity and that I was willing to lay it all out there and give it my all.
It was the first time that I developed something from such a small tiny kernel with ATOMIC BLONDE. We were sent eight pages and I said yes to those eight pages. I think that the reason I pushed as hard as I did for that film and the sad truth is that a part of me as a female actor that this might be my last opportunity. It’s terribly that its in my psyche, I was relentless in the film and I felt I carried a responsibility because I was in charge of everything. I didn’t want to get it wrong, I wanted to get it right. A part of me still sometimes feel that if you get it wrong the one time that you just will not be given that opportunity again. My entry into action came much later in my life, I made ATOMIC BLONDE when I was 40 years old. So there was a lot of pressure and I put a lot of pressure on everybody and on David Leech. I said to him “I’m never going to stop and I’m going to expect you not to stop”. When I look back at the behind-the-scenes, we left it all on the dance floor. We really did. You are as good as the people you work with.
I feel really lucky that there are other women doing this at the same time, people I consider friends like Patty Jenkins. She has raised the bar and I’m constantly inspired by what other women are doing out there. We realize in this position where you get to have the opportunity, there is a responsibility to hand that baton over and keep the door open. In that sense it has been really amazing, look, its still disproportioned to our male counterparts but we have to keep putting pressure on the industry to do that. I want my two young girls to grow up and think this is weird, or unusual or strange. I want this to be normalizes.
In THE OLD GUARD [Netflix], I think for me, the first thing that kind of grabbed me was the potential of raising the physical action bar. The set pieces really lent themselves to challenging action. I think that was one of the first things that I noticed. I don’t think I’d ever want to make a film based on how great I could make the actions scenes. I think the struggle with humanity in this is ever present. My taste is always just going to movies like PROMETHEUS, its hard for me to invest and when you find a piece of material that lends itself to both you realize how special that is. When I read this graphic novel I found that I could check both those boxes and push the envelope.
There is a different style of fighting with these films and get to learn some new skills. Most of the movies I have done and even though there is a skill level and style of fighting, I still played women where they were allowed to get scrappy. When you can get scrappy you can hide a lot of things. In this case I couldn’t because the wealth of information about martial arts is thousands of years old. Learning any kind of martial arts is so gnarly. The first couple of weeks when you walk into the gym you are really trying to access and see what you can excel at and what you shouldn’t waste time on. Realizing that we never wanted to force a circle into a square. We had to figure out what we had to shine from that. For me in the beginning when I started my action career it was so important to see that I can fight and I can take this guy down and I can survive this. There was a level to prove I could survive that.
I think that the essence that I put forth that there is no fear is completely motivated by fear. In truth, everything actually scares me. I don’t know how to create not from a place of fear. I don’t know if I ever could. I think the idea of going into a project and not being scared would actually freak me out. It would be really wrong. I think I’m very good at covering it up. I think a part of it is how I was raised and I was raised you get up, you do it and you don’t wallow but it doesn’t mean I don’t feel it. I feel it every day and ever second. It’s the thing that keeps me up at night when we are shooting a film. I play the movie over and over and over in my head. You have 30, 60, 100 days to shoot it and that’s it. If you don’t have it you don’t have it.