The humble monster
Since winning the Oscar for best actress, Charlize Theron has had some great times and some not so great times. She has, for example, been presented to Nelson Mandela (“He’s like a grandfather to me”) who with embarrassing good grace told her she had “put South Africa on the map.” She has toured and drawn crowds like Eva Peron. She has weathered a range of responses to Monster, a biopic of the prostitute serial killer Aileen Wuornos, culminating in the love of the Academy and dismay of her Afrikaans aunt, for whom no aspect of the film was untroublesome.
And then there have been the interviews; for example this, from a South African newspaper last month: “Interviewer: Aileen Wuornos killed lots of people and your mum killed your dad, so that must have helped you get into role. Theron: No. They’re completely different.”
In South Africa during Theron’s victory tour, people were choked by her success, not only out of parochial pride, but because in a country where violence against women is endemic, Theron and her mother are held to be examples of ones who got away. Five years ago, the actress fronted a controversial anti-rape TV campaign which so enraged elements of the macho culture (or “28 stupid men” as Theron puts it) that it was taken off air, before the courts reinstated it. All of which makes it so jarring that the Hollywood PR machine has tried, and almost succeeded, in recasting Theron as an American star in the traditional mould; that is as a woman with no politics, no ethnicity and no history predating her last big hit.
Theron recalls how, when she was announced as the lead in ‘Monster’, a whisper went round LA along the lines of “How sad that this poor woman’s life is going to be Hollywoodised and played by (shallow American starlet) Charlize”. If it weren’t for her insistence on telling the truth — “Always be honest, that’s the way I was raised,” — Theron might have relaxed into this identity like the hick actresses of the 1930s, who checked their real names and backgrounds at the studio door.
While her American accent is flawless, her cadences are a little too bright, her colloquialisms too studied to be anything but the consequence of taught-by-TV English. “I was raised in Afrikaans,” she says. “Benoni is an Afrikaans town and nobody there spoke it, so I had barely any knowledge of English and a heavy South African accent. When I went to auditions, the feedback was always, ‘Great, but can you come back and do an American accent?’ So I thought I’d better learn how to speak like an American. And I did it from watching television.” She rolls her eyes. “It’s great to be bilingual, but it’s shit to have a language that you can’t use anywhere else. All those ‘ccchhhs’.”
When she first moved to America as a model, her nationality was the cause of deep embarrassment. It was the one thing that threatened to capsize her. When a friend in New York advised her to hide where she came from, she took it to heart. “He should never have said it because it was such a bad thing for me. I started feeling insecure. I started feeling that every time I was around a black person I had to kind of over-explain that I wasn’t a racist. You know? That went on for about two years and then I thought, know what? This is so ridiculous. I know I’m not racist, so why am I doing this?” Theron was 16 when she left South Africa for a modelling job in Italy. She was tough by then, although it wasn’t an attitude she was grateful for. She didn’t cry, or ring home for help, or panic when the money ran out. “I really didn’t have a choice in the matter,” she says. “And this was the one thing as a child that really upset me — the way my mum dealt with things. Now, obviously, I see that it’s made me into who I am and enabled me to take care of myself. But at the time . . .”
Theron remembers a particularly difficult period at boarding school in Johannesburg. “My friends and I would get into trouble, and on Monday morning all of their parents would be there in the principal’s office, explaining why their daughters had done this terrible thing. And I would be sitting there thinking, ‘OK: no mother, father — don’t know where he is — I’m going to have to defend myself. And I’d get on the phone to her and be like, ‘You are the worst mother in the world! And all the teachers think so too because you never show up.’ And she was like, ‘What do you want me to do? You got yourself into trouble, get yourself out’.”
For a long time Theron interpreted it as her mother not caring. Now she sees it differently. “It taught me lots of things. If I am in trouble, I’m going to have to sort it out myself. There is no running-to-mum to fix it. At one point, somebody stole my ruler and she was, ‘Well then steal it back!’ She always said, you have to take care of things yourself.” Theron’s father wasn’t solely responsible for this attitude, but it is implied. Was he mostly absent while she was growing up. “Not all the time. But he was a bit of a vagabond. He had a constant need to disappear. Sometimes it would be for a couple of days. His side of the family lived close to Namibia, so if he disappeared for longer than that, then we knew that it was because of the long drive there and back. It was part of his personality. Some people just have to get away sometimes to deal with things.”
Was he always drinking? “Um.” She picks at the arm of the chair. “Yeah. Uh. Yeah. No. I mean, he didn’t always. My mum told me the other day that when she married him, he had completely stopped drinking because he knew he had a problem. But it’s what everybody did in South Africa. It wasn’t like he was the odd one out.” Theron says that she was never herself assaulted. Is she glad that he is dead? “God, no. No, no. I so wish he was around. I wouldn’t wish something like that on anybody. Nobody deserves that. It was very, very sad what happened. I wish he’d been happy. I wish... I wish they’d divorced years and years before, because I think he would have been a happy man. I think my mum would’ve been a happy woman. But it wasn’t the done thing and so they were miserable.”
On her trip back to South Africa last month, Theron met up with her former school friends in Johannesburg. Most of them are married, some on their second marriages and, although Theron is seeing Irish actor Stuart Townsend, by their standards she’s a long way behind the curve. It was nice, she says, sitting with them, chatting in Afrikaans while her American friends stared. Only occasionally was the myth of uniformity broken. “So what is Keanu Reeves like?” exploded one of her friends, appealing to Charlize the star, the Hollywood creation. “Please,” she begged, “don’t do that. It’s odd.”