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The Breakthrough Performances of Charlize Theron

From ‘2 Days in the Valley’ to ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ (with a little ‘Monster’ thrown in for good measure), a search for the moment when Charlize became Charlize

Dan Evans

On The Big Picture podcast’s latest edition of Career Arc, Sean Fennessey, Amanda Dobbins, and Rob Harvilla discuss Charlize Theron and all the roles that made her the megastar she is today. In the following excerpt, they discuss her breakthrough performances—how she went from a largely unknown supermodel to one of the biggest movie stars in the world.

Listen to the full podcast below.

Sean Fennessey: Rob, for you, when does Charlize really break through?

Rob Harvilla: My pick is 2 Days in the Valley, which is from 1996. It’s by John Herzfeld, and it’s an extremely ’90s movie. It’s like a Tarantino whimsical-misadventures-of-small-time-crooks-in-L.A. ensemble-type situation. Danny Aiello cooks and eats an entire meal of Italian food while holding a gun—it’s that kind of movie. It was my first exposure to her, and the first time she appears on screen, James Spader holds up a naked, bloody Polaroid of her, insinuating that she’s dead, which she is not. But that’s the way she is introduced in the movie. Her character’s name is Helga Svelgen. It’s a very inauspicious introduction. Her first big scene is the super lurid sex scene with James Spader, which was like a requirement in L.A. in the ’90s, like to get a driver’s license. Her big scene, her climatic scene, is this hotel room brawl with Teri Hatcher. There’s clips from this movie on Pornhub, I guess is the simplest way to explain it.

At one point, Spader says to her, “You’re not too tall. It’s the world that’s too short.” And I feel like that’s her career for the first five years or so. I actually think the first movie I saw her in was Celebrity, which was a couple years later, from 1998. It’s extremely minor Woody Allen, and her character’s name is literally Supermodel. Kenneth Branagh is the star, and he’s doing a Woody Allen impression, and she appears on screen and she’s beautiful and immaculate and super intimidating. And she goes, “I like your car.” And Kenneth Branagh just goes, “Bleh, bleh, bleh.”

Nobody on screen with her could even talk to her as though she were a normal person for the first half-decade of her career. You see this person, you can tell they’re a movie star, and you can tell that the movies are going to take a really long time to figure out how to interface with her as a human being.

SF: That’s incredibly on point. Charlize, of course, is from South Africa, got her start in the business as a model, and it just seemed like [her roles] were iterating on that model archetype for four or five years. She becomes this object of affection/adulation/objectification in every single movie. 2 Days in the Valley in particular is ... Isn’t her character sort of an assassin, but sort of a sexpot, but sort of a sidepiece?

Amanda Dobbins: It’s both. She contains multitudes. And yet nothing at all.

SF: Exactly. I never would have guessed that she would have gotten to where she is now based on that movie. Because, there are a lot of movies like that and there are a lot of supermodels who were cast in movies at that time who ultimately don’t go on and don’t have talent or don’t have the right vision for how to shape a career. I think one thing that we get a sense of is that she’s very smart—she’s very smart about knowing what kind of roles to pick and when to zag when everyone is zigging. In some ways it took her a couple of years, though. Amanda, your first pick is also sort of an objectification role.

AD: It is, though it’s a little more self-aware. I picked this for a couple of reasons. No. 1, because this is the first time that I saw Charlize Theron on screen: That Thing You Do! If you don’t remember her role in That Thing You Do!, she plays the hometown girlfriend of Guy, the drummer who eventually becomes a one-hit wonder with the band and then falls in love with Liv Tyler. Charlize is his very beautiful, cold, distant girlfriend who doesn’t really care that he’s in a band, isn’t really into him, and then falls in love with her beefcake dentist. They play that for laughs. She is more attractive than everyone else on screen and is dolled up in that ’50s-’60s way. She’s supposed to be unapproachable but that’s also supposed to be funny.

She is playing a little vapid and out of it. She’s in on the joke. We’ve already talked about how beautiful she is and we’re going to have to deal with it. But the way that she plays with her attractiveness throughout her career is definitely the through point. She’s either using it or turning it on its head, she’s very aware of it and aware of how people respond to it, and you can see that in That Thing You Do!.

SF: She’s a real shape-shifter in some ways, too. The movie I picked is certainly one of the most ludicrous movies ever made—perhaps even more ludicrous than 2 Days in the Valley or That Thing You Do!. It’s The Devil’s Advocate. Charlize is also a supporting character in this movie. She plays Mary Ann Lomax, the vivacious party girl/hardworking wife of an aspirant young lawyer in Gainesville, Florida, played by Keanu Reeves. He is hired by a whiteshoe law firm in New York and they move from Florida to New York and they take on a new and fancy lifestyle that it is at first very exciting, but ultimately overwhelming. We come to learn over the course of the movie that Mary Ann Lomax is either suffering from schizophrenia or has been raped and damaged by Satan—the man who runs the law firm that Kevin Lomax has been hired by—who is played by Al Pacino. All of that is real and all of that is true about this movie.

The only performance in the movie that’s trying to be real is Charlize’s performance. She goes through a transformation, and in some respects the performance doesn’t work. It’s really over the top, but you can sense that she locates something real in a movie that is completely unreal. She sticks out to me in a movie that’s full of a lot of things that really stick out.

In each of these movies that we’re talking about, she isn’t the star and she’s used as a person who is positioned against what a man is doing. You can see this throughout the first four or five years of her career. She goes on to make The Astronaut’s Wife—she’s the wife—and The Cider House Rules, in which she’s not the main character. She makes Reindeer Games and she’s stuck beside Ben Affleck.

For years, she has to be subservient to male characters. I’ve always found it fascinating that the switch just flipped at some point. I think we have to talk about Monster.

Monster is Patty Jenkins’s portrayal of Aileen Wuornos, perhaps the most famous female serial killer. It is a very ugly movie, very unpleasant to watch. I wouldn’t say it’s even particularly great. I don’t think it has much narrative shape. But it has become a classic example of “This woman made a choice to get closer to the character, uglify herself, and we should reward that.”

AD: It’s pretty much the standard example of “Go ugly to win an Oscar,” which is something Sean and I talked a lot about on our Oscar show. Charlize is always example no. 1. She comes one year after Nicole Kidman won for The Hours, and Kidman also wore prosthetics in that movie. It was a weird moment in time where this is what we decided to reward. Literally some of the most beautiful women in the world just wearing fake stuff: “Wow, bravery.”

But I do think that Monster is beyond just putting on some weird teeth for Charlize. It’s a different, dark, strange performance. It asks a lot from the audience. You really are supposed to empathize with this person. It’s challenging and she really goes for it. I think the Oscar for Monster is definitely for uglifying, but it’s just as much for going for it, which she does.

RH: I agree completely. It was the perfunctory “What you do to win an Oscar.” But the full-body and voice transformation was impressive to me then and still is now. That violent hair flip that she does, like she snaps her neck. She’s really honoring the specific nuances of this character who you wouldn’t blame her for not wanting to honor at all. It’s impressive. In retrospect, I think it was braver at the time.

When she was on The Bill Simmons Podcast, she talked about how they started shooting and they sent some footage and the producers called and screamed at her because she had uglified herself. Because it wasn’t like a kicky lesbian serial killer, titillating sort of movie. I kept thinking about this movie we’ve got coming up where Zac Efron plays Ted Bundy and, based on the trailer, it’s looking to be this satirical American Psycho kind of winking, lurid thing. I walked away from watching Monster the second time thinking that sometimes “too heavy” is better than a lot of alternatives.

This transcript has been edited and condensed.