Saturday, October 08, 2005

Charlize Theron: North Country Woman (Q & A)

As I mentioned earlier, I'd rapped with Charlize Theron about her upcoming film North Country which also features co-stars Woody Harrelson and Francis McDormand. Directed by Niki Caro (who also helmed Whale Rider) this new Theron vehicle might get her another Oscar statue because without standing on ceremony, the South African actress goes against type in the role of Josey Aimes, a single mother trying to survive in the hinterlands of a small Northern Minnesotan mining town, she and a group of other women sign on to work in a traditionally male-dominated trade and needless to say the "bubbas" aren't happy — so drama's just around the corner, yo. Charlize is very kicked back as a person and is very easy to talk with. I'd never met her before but I got in on a roundtable with the actress a couple of weeks ago at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles and here's some of what went down...

Q: So, what touched you about this woman’s story?

CT: That it was real. That it actually happened. That it only happened very recent; this was only settled in ’95. It’s incredibly naïve as a woman to kind of sit in my fortunate circumstances never having to have dealt with anything like that and to think wow, you know, we’re all good, everything’s great. And to find out that this doesn’t just happen in little rural communities it happens everywhere.

Q: Have you ever run into sexual harassment in your work? The casting couch, per se. Salma Hayek said that when she first started out some producer guy offered her a job and then said “well come out to dinner first” and then she said she realized halfway through dinner that it wasn’t about the job. Did that ever happen to you?

CT: Nothing really — here’s the thing, I know Salma a little bit, she’s a firecracker — I’m sure she kicked him in the balls. The only thing…a very well known director, actually — and this was before I did anything, this was when I just got here and I didn’t have a manager or an agent or anything and I told my modeling agent that I was going to try the acting thing and asked if they heard of some small parts or something like that to please let me know and they called me and said that they were casting for some extras in this film, big action film. And um, they said you have to go to the director’s house on Saturday night at 9:00. Now I had never been on an audition in my entire life so I thought well maybe that’s what they do, what do I know, you know? And I showed up and he answered the door in his pajamas and then continued to make drinks. I was like, interesting (raising her eyebrows). Wow, it’s really not formal this whole casting procedure. And it lasted about 10 minutes...with me it’s not an option. I mean seriously, it would just get really ugly.

Q: The setting of this film reminded me a lot of the beginning of Coal Miner's Daughter which starred Sissy Spacek in country singer Loretta Lynn's biopic. How was it working with Sissy?

CT: Yeah, she’s just incredible. She really is so — I think this is such a beautiful, quiet performance from her. She’s so powerful through the eyes. Every single actor that got on board, I mean every week Niki would call me and it’d be like Frances [McDormand] just signed on, Sean Bean just signed on, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek and by the end I was like shit, I hope I still have a job! [Spacek] is very mothering and nurturing just naturally. She’s got two daughters, she just completely took me under her wing. As far as she was concerned I was her daughter. Yeah, she gave out to me, she told me not to smoke...she was just great.

Q: What about Richard Jenkins? [who portrays her father in North Country]

CT: Amazing. The events are based on truth and the characters are — my character is completely fictional. She’s a combination of a lot of characters. The real woman is incredibly private and we want to just respect that.

Q: The woman you play is someone who wants her father’s approval and finally gets his respect — which is a wonderful moment in the movie. Was that something that Niki wanted to put in or was it there from the beginning?

CT: It was always there and a lot of these women that I talked to all said, you know, you have to understand that it’s a small community and they — not only did they grow up with their fathers, their grandfathers, their brothers, their uncles going to work every morning or every night to this mysterious mine, um, it was also — when they started working there it really affected those people because they worked there as well. And so a lot of that relationship is based on a lot of true stories.

Q: Was there any part of Josie that you felt was a lot like you? Parts you could really relate to?

CT: Um, she’s…I think she starts off very much like me. I think she’s a girl that had a great personality and could take anything in high school and then took one knock after another after another after another and in this community, instead of dealing with things you kind of keep them in and because of that she just started kind of becoming more insecure, shier. She reminded me of a tortoise, she kept pulling her head deeper and deeper into her shell and so when the sexual harassment stuff happens it’s not just that, it’s years of stuff that she’s never been able to stand up for in her life.

Q: Has Hollywood has done that to you?

CT: No, no. What I was going to say is that’s very different from me. In many ways I’m much more like Glory [Frances McDormand], you know, and I think what I liked abou — even though it wasn’t very much like me and I’m not interested in me — what was great was that she was the quieter one. When she walked into the room, she was probably the least likely one to change or do something historical and that’s what I liked about her. So, I don’t know, I would hope to think that if I had children that my primal instinct would be as strong as hers. I think it will. I could relate to that, you know, standing up for your kids and doing anything —

Q: Are you thinking about kids?

CT: Sure. I want it to be very organic and…it’s something I’ve always known, that I want to have kids and it’s not something that is happening for me right now. You know you get a little older and you start thinking…But it’s not like I’m in a rush or anything — if it would happen tomorrow it would be a blessing, it would be great. If it didn’t I would be totally fine with it too.

Q: How long have you been married and how does it work with two actors?

CT: Almost five years now. You know, I think the most important thing is not what the person’s occupation is but just the personalities. It’s those two personalities that have to live together and he challenges me and keeps me on my toes. He’s a fire sign, I’m a fire sign and — I’m what I like to call a Sagi-terrorist — but, you know, I think, the only thing I could say is that we understand each other’s jobs, but that’s really it. We’re very supportive of each other. We know how much our careers mean to us and so we never stand in the way. We always say we’ll make it work. You know, whatever happens you make it work. That’s all.

Q: But being gone for months at a time would be hard on any relationship…

CT: Yeah, I mean we talk every day and…You know, he’s my best friend and I don’t see my best friend every single day either. We’re individuals and we spend more time together than most of the couples that we know. We like spending time with each other. We make time for that. But if I go to work on something and — it’s not like I go away for three months and I don’t see him.

Q: What about when you’re totally immersed in a role? Do you go into a hole?

CT: No. The only thing that’s hard — and it’s not because I’m in a hole or — and it’s not with Stewart, and not with my mom, but with most of my friends is that you just don’t have the time to call everybody every single day or — that’s the only thing I really miss during the three months is that you just don’t have that much time or headspace to really stay in touch with your friends and things like that. But I don’t like bringing my work home because it makes my work not as effective, I think. I need the energy, I need to be able to switch off and rest.

Q: So you can walk out the door and say goodbye to the characters you create onscreen?

CT: It’s discipline. I really believe every actor can do it. It’s discipline. It’s just easier to wallow in self-pity.

Q: Do you get that from your dance background, you think?

CT: Maybe, but also because I love my life. I really love my life. Just as much as I love my work and I don’t want the two to kind of override each other.

Q: What about the really heavy roles like in this movie and in Monster. Like in that scene on the stairway with your son, you went pretty far with that —

CT: Do you know how that scene ended? I’d been making fun of my driver the entire day because she had a Martha Stewart Living magazine in her car and she got very excited and she said ‘look what I’m going to make, hen cake!’ So the whole day I was making fun of her, saying, [singing] ‘she’s gonna make a hen cake’ and that scene actually ended — Niki, that day, I told her the story about it and we had a laugh about it and so we asked one of the drivers to go and find a cake that looked like a hen. And so the last take of that scene is literally me sitting on the porch and Thomas coming out with a hen cake. And that’s how we ended that night. I think — it almost sounds wrong because the subject is so serious, but we had an incredible time on this film. I think laughter is so healthy and so necessary, otherwise we would all slit our wrists.

Q: Was North Country your cinemaatic redemption after Monster?

CT: I’m really influenced by directors and the only thing I can say is I got really fortunate to stalk the director that I wanted to work with and then she gave me a job. That was really it, and, you know, I think it would be incredibly selfish to think about going through what I went with Monster ever again in my career. This is just the story I — you guys know, I love my drama! When I read this I was all over it.

Q: Do you feel like you’ve proven yourself? As being more than just a pretty girl?

CT: I’m incredibly proud of my career. I’m proud of my choices, you know there’s a lot of things [that don't get written about]. It wasn’t an easy journey but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I like things hard. I like to fight for things. I like things to be a challenge. I think it would have been a real let-down if I’d kind of showed up and everybody just gave me great parts, said 'here, you’re fabulous, go on.' You know, there’s something to be said that you went and accomplished something and of course I’m proud of.

Q: Was there ever a big down part, though? Where you thought, ‘I’m giving up?’

CT: Well…there’s nothing else I really want to do.

Q: You’ve always been selective in your roles but after winning the Oscar there’s always talk of a let down — the Oscar curse, if you will. Now it seems that you may have another chance to get an Oscar nod but was that something that bothered you or influenced the way you looked at roles?

CT: No. I took this role a week before I won the Oscar. So, you know, I would be stupid to say it wasn’t because of the noise. You know, I’m sure it had a lot to do with it. But I agreed before I actually won the Oscar. Niki and I had dinner about a week before the Oscars and, it was a hot day, she finished my sentences, I finished hers, we were on a complete page, I fell in love with her. I was so inspired by her as a woman and I said, 'look, if you’ll have me I’d love to do this.' And I also did that with Aeon Flux. When I won the award I never even entertained any other offers. I never read any other scripts. I haven’t read a script since, you know, Aeon Flux and this one, North Country, in the last two years.

Q: The trade announcement came after the Oscars.

CT: I had said yes, then they go and do all the paperwork — I had completely committed myself to these two projects because of Karyn Kusama and because of Niki [Caro]. Those are two filmmakers that I really wanted to work with, they felt like two projects that were day and night from each other, I liked the physical aspects of Aeon, I liked doing this with Niki, and then I just never read anything else or even entertained anything so it wasn’t like, 'now I’ve got an Oscar, what do I do now?' And I think maybe that was great, you know?

Q: I heard you could have been crippled at one point, during the filming of Aeon Flux, if you had moved an inch in the wrong direction or something.

CT: It was a herniated disk in my third and fourth vertebrae. It was bad enough but good enough to not be too bad.

Q: What happened?

CT: I did a back handspring and my feet slipped from underneath me and I landed on my neck like this, with my body straight (makes a perpendicular angle with her hands).

Q: But weren't you secured on a wire?

CT: I was on a wire, but the thing is, I was learning gymnastics and you only get speed from not really using the wire that much so the wire was guiding me, the wire was not lifting me…And I was getting to a place where I was really starting to be good at it, where the wire was just a safety for me. But the problem with that is the wire’s really slacked because you’re doing it all by yourself and so to really get somebody up you have to really be pulling hard.

Q: Are there any residual effects? Are you okay now?

CT: I have one more check-up to go for — the reason why we had to shut down [the shoot] was because if I had any other smaller accidents like a car accident or if I slipped and fell or anything like that it was really very close, if it had moved any more it would have pressed on my spinal cord.

Q: And would that mean you couldn’t walk?

CT: Yeah, I’d be left paralyzed. The nerve damage was what was really problematic. I lost all feeling in the right side of my body…[I went through] intense physiotherapy, cortisone treatments and things like that.

Q: Did you know you were in trouble in the moment it occurred?

CT: No! Because I had been in so much pain on that movie that I thought it was maybe just a spasm. So I got up and said 'no, I’m fine, maybe I just pulled it a little bit. I’ll lay down for a second' and I started to stretch for a little bit and within twenty minutes the pain got so intense that, uh, we went to the hospital and did a CAT scan.

Q: How long was the movie shut down, then?

CT: Seven weeks.

Q: And during that period did you say to yourself 'never again will I do a gymnastics role?'

CT: No. Accidents happen and you get over that fear…I wouldn’t have wanted to make that film if I couldn’t — the physical aspect was what I was so interested in. I come from a background of telling stories with my body and I really thought this was a great throwback to that. And I really wanted to do it that way, so…You know, this character doesn’t say a lot and I love that about her. So for me to go and not do the physical stuff…

Q: Besides the obvious, how different are you now than you were back during 2 Days in the Valley?

CT: I’ve got an Oscar now! I only talk to the selected few. (laughing)

Q: But you’re still so down to earth — what’s kept you that way?

CT: Because my mother beats me! (laughs)

Q: But in spite of all of this, are there things you still want to prove with your life?

CT: Always, yeah. You know I think what’s so great about this job is [that] the creative process is never done. You know, it’s a constant. It never felt like I could sit back on any performance and say, ‘well I really fuckin’ nailed that one!’ It’s just a constant —every time I watch something I learn — I mean I wasn’t classically trained, so I learned on the job and I learn by making movies and so I fail on a lot of movies. And I see that when I watch my work. I see where I’ve made mistakes and I see where it doesn’t work and so the next time around I’m even more excited to go and not make those same mistakes and to challenge myself even more.

Q: What does your mom think of all this? She’s been such a champion of yours and you’ve talked about her a lot—

CT: She’s hilarious. She’s become this person (puts her hand to her face like it’s a phone) ‘Oh, so you think you don’t have to call me back now ‘cuz you won an Oscar’ everything I do bad now’s like ‘Oh, we think we’re little miss hot shot ‘cuz we got an Oscar?’

Q: But you guys have gone through a lot of stuff together— did you channel her for scenes with the kids in Caro's film.

CT: Niki became a parent right before filming and I was very frightened about it. I wasn’t going to be running around with babies here, I was running around with a 13 year-old and a 5 year-old and they are as smart as they come, you know, and — I didn’t want to screw up kids. I think they’re at an age, when they work in this industry — I don’t want to be part of that, I don’t want to mess them up. But then I also wanted to have a connection with them where this relationship was real because I felt like if you didn’t believe that, then the stakes weren’t high enough with this woman. Because everything she does, she does for these two kids. And if you didn’t believe — not that she’s this great mother, because I think she’s very flawed—to pick her up at the beginning and see her put her kids constantly in these bad relationships because she has no independence and, you know, the only way she knows how to put food on the table is by being with a man and every time she does it she gets involved with a bad guy who beats her or is an alcoholic. But for her to own that at the beginning of the film and to load those kids up and say I’m not doing this anymore. She’s a very flawed mother, but then to get to a place of saying yeah, maybe I’m not the greatest mother but I will do anything for these kids.

Q: What’s next for you?

CT: Nothing, I’m going to live life. I’m going to go live life. I’m doing a five episode character on Arrested Development and — I really didn’t think I’d go back to acting for the rest of this year but then they called and I said 'oh, God, I love the show.' I would love doing some comedy but other than that — I’m producing a couple things which doesn’t take me away from home. Stewart’s working nights, so…

North Country opens nationally on October 21st.


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