Charlize Theron At BAFTA: A Life In Pictures

An evening in discussion with the Oscar-winning star.

On Saturday 12th November, BAFTA hosted A Life In Pictures with Charlize Theron.

Francine Stock introduces the South African star to the intimate London venue to discuss her varied career, which rewarded her with an Academy Award for Monster in 2004. Channelling Sharon Stone’s ice queen look from A Basic Instinct, the actress speaks for well over an hour about her life and work.

It begins with the loss of Theron’s dancing career leading to modelling, and subsequently acting - it’s all storytelling in her eyes. While she felt her naïveté in not having grown up in a film culture helped her in the industry, the couple of acting classes she did take helped her to pick apart a script.

There was talk of her first jobs - being licked into shape by James Spader in Two Days in the Valley, and starring alongside Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. She laughs as she recalls seeing herself in lingerie on a huge billboard on Hollywood Boulevard, but notes that it taught her to be aware of how she would be viewed as an actress. Theron concedes that she focused on having longevity in her career, and revealed how the Two Days’ helmer John Herzfeld taught her how important it was to have chemistry with your director.

The first of her film’s clips were shown - Woody Allen’s Celebrity. Theron has nothing but kind words for her co-star Kenneth Branagh: lovely, perfection, humble, fun. She reveals how she wouldn’t have played a model for anyone but Woody, but it gave her a chance to laugh at herself.

It was wonderful to hear Theron’s experiences on 1999’s The Yards, the first performance that made me sit up and take notice of this new actress. Director James Gray has had the biggest influence on her career, as he was the first filmmaker to fight for her, convincing studio heads she was a real actress and not just a pretty face. Theron adds it was a similar case with Cider House Rules director Lasse Halstrom.

It was time to discuss the pivotal moment in Theron’s career - her Oscar-winning role in Patty Jenkins’ 2003 biopic Monster. She recalls how her manager told her about this script, luring her in with the scene where troubled killer Aileen Wuornos was sat under a bridge with nothing but cigarettes and a gun to her name. She met with documentary maker Nick Broomfield, who was then working on Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. He showed her the first few minutes of Aileen on death row, which she said put her off all of Jenkins’ careful research, before realising Wuornos’ posturing was self-defence and panic.

Theron spoke of the physical challenges of the role, pointing out that she doesn’t like the forced physicality some actors adopt, and that her ballet training helps her slip into characters with ease. Theron notes how Wuornos herself was like a pufferfish; at 5’4’ she made herself larger than life just to survive on the streets. She doesn’t subscribe to method acting either, referring to it as self abuse.

Before moving on to North County (funny anecdotes about how she turned up to the mines with nails freshly manicured from the Oscars), Theron points out that she doesn’t look for roles that have ‘issues’, but that she’s actually obsessed with the human condition. Philanthropy and art are two separate entities for her.

Time to discuss Theron’s exciting future projects, with the actress back after a three-year break with three killer roles, the first of which being Young Adult. She praises director Jason Reitman, citing Up in the Air as her favourite film of that year, and expressing her fondness for Thank You For Smoking (there was no mention of Juno). She revealed it was the third act of Diablo Cody’s Young Adult script that sold her, with Theron signing up on the condition that Reitman wouldn’t change it for the studio.

Pointedly, Theron talks about how special it was to have intense scenes with actress Collette Wolfe, remarking that she never gets to act with just women. Theron plays a selfish, immature writer who returns to her hometown to win back her childhood sweetheart, now married. The star had spent the day doing press for Young Adult, and recalled how a journalist had bitchily asked her why she likes cold characters, suggesting it was her ‘Blue Period’, which amused Theron no end.

With the stunning trailer for Snow White and the Huntsman appearing this week, it was a thrill for Theron to reveal more about her role as the evil queen (‘well, they call her evil’), revealing Ravenna is a ‘delicious’ character. Amazingly, Theron’s inspiration for the queen was Jack Nicholson in The Shining, which grounded her understanding of the character.

After joking that she would have to kill Mirror, Mirror’s Julia Roberts, and sending up her own British accent, Theron tells a great story from the set. Director Rupert Sanders thought it would be interesting if Theron used her native South African accent, before Theron pointed out that Afrikaans is only a hundred years old, and the film is medieval. She then has a laugh with a fellow Afrikaans speaker in the audience, ribbing him for being English-South African.

One of the many highlights of the night is Theron musing on spirituality; while she’s not religious, spirituality is for her travelling, and experiencing new cultures, with her charity work in South Africa keeping her grounded. That is her number one piece of advice for young people: travel, and respect other cultures. There was also advice for promising actors: don’t get hung up on the transformation into a character - it’s the ballgowns and glamour that aren’t ‘real life’, and that it’s ‘ass-backwards’. It was a terrific end to an evening of champagne and wit with an elegant, intelligent and thoughtful Hollywood star.

Find out what else is on at BAFTA this month, including A Life in Pictures with Kenneth Branagh, by visiting bafta.org.