Growing up I’ve always been enamored with action films, particularly those with female leads. I was always amazed to see women fight anyone who got in their way, be they man or beast, while still being allowed to show vulnerability. It’s been inspiring to watch the actresses who play these women be just as badass and open in real life, and for twenty plus years actress and producer Charlize Theron has been just that. For this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Theron spoke about her gradual growth into becoming a certified action star during in a special Q&A hosted by Terri Schwartz.
With the massive success of her latest film The Old Guard (directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood), Theron’s seamless transition to a modern day action star has taken some by surprise, creating much discussion about her career since her Oscar win for playing Aileen Wuornos in Monster (directed by Wonder Woman‘s Patty Jenkins). Theron was excited for the opportunity to finally enter into the genre, but despite all of the accolades, people still doubted the importance of unique female characters, as they did with her follow-up film Aeon Flux, a project that she believes — and so do I — deserves more recognition for what director Karyn Kusama achieved cinematically.
“It was really hard to make that film, Aeon Flux,” Theron said. “It was really hard in the sense that there were so many preconceived ideas, and there were all these boxes that everybody like kind of wanted to squeeze you into. It was a character [and film] that I think today would be celebrated cinematically, you know, way more than it was in 2004. It was just hard!”
When it comes to action films, Hollywood is known to show negative bias towards female directors and actresses. Their projects are judged more harshly, held to higher standards than those created by and starring men. There is no denying that men are allowed to fail upwards in the industry, while women are rarely given a second chance if they barely stumble. For Theron, things were no different.
“And I remember the film […] didn’t play as well as everybody thought. And there was just this moment in my career where I realized very clearly, that because that movie didn’t really perform, that I wasn’t necessarily going to be given another opportunity, and it was really harsh. It was like ‘No. Women can’t make these movies successful,’ and it was harsh.”
Discrimination against women takes many forms. Men belittling or doubting what women are capable of is one of the ways this happens, and for Theron, her ability to do her own stunts on films like The Italian Job meant she was made to train longer and harder than her male costars, as she explained.
“The Italian Job was a great experience in the sense that I realized there is still so much misconceptions around women in the genre. Even though that film, the action is really based on cars, we had to physically do a lot of that stuff. The only good thing that came out of that experience was there was real pressure put on to pull of those stunts with the actors, and that was the first time I experienced anything like that. But, there was…there was a very unfair process that went [with] that. You know I was the only woman with a bunch of guys…and I remember vividly getting the schedule in our pre-production, and they had scheduled me for six weeks more hard training than any of the guys…and I just…it was just so insulting. But it was also the thing that put a real fire under my ass.”
With the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde and other female-led films in the genre, Theron believes that they’ve created change for women. As someone who has watched many, many action films from around the world, the progress in North American actions movies is becoming more evident daily, especially in how stunts are choreographed. Theron pointed out, for her films (and others such as Birds of Prey and Terminator: Dark Fate), the fight styles are more utilitarian, and made up of many forms of Martial Arts, and the actresses are performing more of their own
“I was really proud of what we accomplished with Atomic Blonde. It felt to me like we were pushing the envelope, and we were saying that this concept, that somehow women in the industry have been arguing to fight like men, is just so ridiculous. When we celebrate women fighting like women, and we’re smart about what body parts we’re using, that we know we can’t really punch, that we will break every bone in our hand. But we can fight just as hard with our elbows, with our heads, with our knees…that was when it really became exciting to me. I think what’s great is that there is no one way, but that we’re definitely pushing it.”
For The Old Guard, Theron was able to explore new strengths to her physicality, and honing her technique with the guidance of Stunt Coordinator Danny Hernandez.
In her latest film Theron plays an immortal who has been battling to save humanity for millennia. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez, Theron’s character Andy, finds Nile (Kiki Layne) a new immortal, and takes her into the small family that she’s formed. The Old Guard has been receiving high praise for its representation of women, People of Color and those of the LGBTQ+ community. It was these themes that inspired Theron to become involved in the Netflix live action adaptation, beyond the impressive action that would be involved.
“There was very much an emotional story here that resonated. Even though this is a sci-fi story that feels incredibly grounded in reality, and I think the struggle with humanity is very ever present. Even just looking at where we are, and find ourselves today in this kind of social and cultural place that we’re in…this story lives and breathes very much in that. Which is unusual sometimes in sci-fi. But I think my taste is always going to movies like Prometheus. If there is not an emotional connection that I can kind of like hang my coat on, it’s very hard for me to invest, and I think when you find a piece of material that lends itself to both, you realize how special that is. And when I read this graphic novel I saw great potential for us to check both of those boxes, and push the envelope.”
When asked about the idea that she’s fearless and lets nothing intimidate her when it comes to her work, Theron revealed that she is always afraid, and it’s that fear that drives her.
“I think that the essence that I put forth that there might be no fear is completely motivated by fear. [laughs] I think I just cover it up, but the truth of it is that everything actually scares me. I don’t know really how to create not from a place of fear. Not that I’m saying you can’t, I just have never. 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 feel really wrong. I think my creativity really thrives around my fear. I think I’m just good at covering it up.”
Theron believes this mentality is due to the way she was raised to not wallow in things, and to not let the uncertainty show. But she does feel the fear. It’s that anxiousness that reminds her to focus on the tasks at hand, to complete her projects to the best of her abilities.
Whatever project she produces and stars in (and maybe even directs?) next, fans of Charlize Theron know there’ll always be emotionally complex, possibly morally conflicted (there’s no denying, as Ravenna in The Huntsman films, she was the villainess we all loved to hate), complicated women at the forefront. Just as it should be.
The Old Guard is currently streaming on Netflix.
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