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Interview: Charlize Theron on "Young Adult" and "Snow White"

Reason #103 to Love Charlize Theron: The Hello Kitty t-shirt in "Young Adult" was her idea!If I were brainstorming about the imaginary pop culture diet of fictional Mavis Gary, the self-absorbed alcoholic YA novelist at the cool heart of Young Adult I'd put this forth: She's never watched the Oscars but flips absently through fashion roundups in the magazines the day after every year. (Her beauty is only skin deep and her thought processes even shallower.) Her creators director Jason Reitman, screenwriter Diablo Cody and actress Charlize Theron, on the other hand all have a lot going on upstairs and are also intimately familiar with Hollywood's big event. If Academy voters widen their range a little to notice the brilliance of this smart acerbic comedy, who knows? They could be invited back again.

Not that any of this seems to concern Charlize Theron, who calls me herself on the night of our interview, to discuss her new role. As a producer on the film, she seems less concerned with statues and acclaim and more about finding the right audience for such a tricky unique film. "It's not a quintessential Jason Reitman film and it's not a quintessential Charlize Theron film," she says, matter of factly. Anyone expecting another Juno or Monster will be thrown. They planned carefully with pop up screenings and key theater appearances and a quick but not instantaneous wide release. Smart. Young Adult feels like just the kind of film that will grow its audience slowly (we're definitely already on board) and it's easy to imagine a Mavis cult gathering over time. 

"You have to celebrate the spirit of the movie you're making and release it into the world in that way." she says speaking like a producer. Though of course we know her first and foremost as an actress, a great oneAnd she's an enjoyable conversationalist in that regard, too, though she knows when to keep a secret about her films and her process.


Nathaniel R: When did you first feel you understood Mavis while reading the script. Did you have a moment of "I know this character?"

CHARLIZE THERON: It wasn't something specifically but I guess just an overall feeling. Otherwise i don't think i could have said yes to the film. She felt human to me. She felt real. This overwhelming need and want to be loved and this kind of loneliness and the horrible tool set that she has to go about getting those things.  I guess those things all kind of resonated with me? 

Nathaniel: If we were to look at your script: Is it pristine? do you write a lot of notes? How do you prepare?

CHARLIZE: How do I prepare? You know, it's a little bit like asking a magician 'How did you pull a rabbit from the hat?' I don't know if people really want to know that stuff. I think what we're trying to do ultimately is have people forget about that stuff. On top of that I don't have anything that's concrete. Every time is different. I know that I have a very obsessive compulsive mind. So when I know I'm doing something I think everything in my daily life i'm observing and filing and knowing that I might be able to use it.

From the moment I say yes it's breathing and living under my skin. I'm constantly thinking about it. And conversations with my director are sometimes important. But I don't talk about things too much. For me it's a very intimate experience and an "alone" experience. I have to go through it myself.

That's interesting since Mavis is so solitary. And writing is, too.

Diablo and Jason who are both writers know that world really well. I'm not a writer so I didn't realize how great they were at capturing that until writers came up to me and said "oh my god that's exactly my life." Everything kind of stops and disappears. There is no outside world. So, I have to give them credit for really nailing that.

Beauty is such an important issue to Young Adult but in your most famous role, Monster, your own beauty doesn't factor in. Do you think about your own beauty when playing roles like this? 

[Character Beauty, Three Consecutive Villains and that damn 'Hello Kitty' after the jump

Nathaniel R: I know some actors can't watch themselves.

CHARLIZE THERON: No, I'm a producer. I have to be able to look at footage. I'm in the editing room with editors and the director. I have never had -- it's not me. I don't look at it and think "god, look at this." It really has absolutely nothing to do with me. The day I feel I'm looking at myself is the day I probably quit.

I don't look at it and feel like "That's Charlize". It's the character. Everything you decide, whether it's in the wardrobe or what the character looks like and the emotional choices you make to stay on the greater truth of what the story is. You can't bring your own ego to it. There's just no room for it. 

Nathaniel: Young Adult sometimes feels like a solo act. But on the other hand the rest of the cast is so good and some of the best moments are the way you react or the way you don't process them. 

Charlize: She's so rude! Just completely. Patton Oswalt is so funny "When you were off camera you'd give me nothing and you have no idea how much I appreciated it!" [Laughs] She's so dismissive. Those moments were hard. It's the rudest thing you can do.

Nathaniel R: So was there a lot of hugging after takes?

CHARLIZE THERON: Patton and I right off the bat had such great chemistry. From the moment that we met. We have the same sense of humor. He didn't let me get away with my shit. I didn't let him get away with his shit. In a way we became the characters. It sounds so bizarre but we just started having that relationship where he pushed my buttons and I pushed back. Between him and Jason I've never laughed so much in my entire life. He's so fast and witty. 

With him i didn't feel bad. The day players I hugged them more. It was more like the lady who played the salesperson or the manicurist. It's bizarre to walk in and be a day player and then someone is incredibly rude to you on top of that. I felt more guilty with those people. I did a lot of apologizing!

"It's Mavis! It's Mavis!"

I know! I was like 'I'm so sorry you came in for a day and all I did was abuse you. I am so sorry!'

Young Adult's tone is so controlled. Very specific comic tone. In scenes like your final sequence with Collette Wolfe who is playing Sandra. Did you know immediately what you wanted or were their variations? 

As far as how we played it? Jason is really good at articulating in very few words exactly what he wants. I love that. I love knowing exactly what a filmmaker is setting out to do and facilitating that. All of this stuff was pretty clear. We all knew exactly what we needed to do. Besides small moments that would get enhanced or cut or things you'd loosely play with, we knew what we wanted to do.

That scene, I think, is why all of us wanted to make the movie. Diablo wrote a turn that I've never seen happen to that extreme level. The way that scene starts and where it ends is like nothing I've ever seen. For me the opportunity to play that was really incredible. We all loved it so much that Jason decided to make it longer and longer. Every day it got longer. While were shooting it it just got longer. That's what I love about Jason. He has a real love for actors and a love for the characters that he wants the story to be told by. He's like a kid on the set. We were all big kids just loving the material and diving into it. It doesn't happen that often that you get to kind of play in a sandbox like this.

That's interesting because the movie comes across as so concise like it was always exactly that. But you played around with it.  

Oh yeah. I've never done a movie where you're exactly doing the script and I don't think writers would want that either. I think what's so amazing is the collaborative thing that happens. Diablo does what I could never do and, you know, Jason comes in and does what he does. Everyone is on the same road. I would hate to go on to a set and just do what I do and not have a director that awakens me to things I wouldn't have thought of. I think we all make each other better and that's how you're supposed to tell the story.

Nathaniel: So was this one of the closest films you've ever done in terms of what you thought it would be versus the end result?  

Charlize: Um, no. I've been lucky. We definitely had that on Monster and Burning Plain. Those were the movies that that's exactly how we wanted to tell that story. I feel lucky to have been in a lot of situations where that's happened. By the time that you're on the set shooting you can't buckle away from it. Maybe that's what I fight for the most. When you're signing on to do something you have to it see it through no matter how hard it is. 

Nathaniel R: The costume design on Young Adult is not going to get discussed -- contemporary costuming rarely is -- but I thought it was really smart. How many of those Hello Kitty t-shirts did you go through?  

CHARLIZE THERON: We had two of those. That and the chicken cutlets were the only things that I asked for. I wanted her to wear something that I was always fascinated with. Hello Kitty is an iconic symbol. It's very adolescent. For some reason when 30 year olds walk around with anything Hello Kitty nobody seems to be weirded out by it. I've always been amazed by that. No, you do that at 16! You're in your thirties, why do you have a Hello Kitty sticker on your computer?! It's just one of those thing. It's socially accepted but it feels like Mavises to me -- girls that are still hanging on.

That was the only thing I asked the costume designer for. I agree with you.  These movies [contemporary pictures] are incredibly hard because they're not showy. They almost have to disappear. You almost have to forget about what people are wearing and I think he [David C Robinson] did a great job with that. Jason should get a lot of credit for coming up with sloppy Mavis. We knew how she dressed and maniuplated her clothing for men but the rest we had a tricky time figuring out. One day I was in a pair of sweats and Jason was "It's that! Get those in a bigger size."

Interesting. Well you picked the Hello Kitty tee. I want to give you a costume design nomination.

Noooo. Not at all. Not at all. That was the easy part! 

Let's talk about new and future movies. I know you're a moviegoer.

I love going to the movies.

And I know you studied ballet for years and years. When Black Swan came out did you think. 'Oh, I should've made a ballet film!'

Oh god no. [Natalie Portman] was amazing in that. I love that film, one of my favorite films that year. I lived that for 12 years I don't know if I need to make a film. Who knows maybe I'll play Shirley Maclaine's character in The Turning Point, something like that. I've never felt a need to do a ballet movie. 

I bring that up because some actors don't act as much with their whole bodies.


But you have a real physicality in your work. There's a lot of shots in Young Adult, thank god, that are medium shots so you can really see her. It's not just about the face and dialogue.

Yeah, I agree. I'm always the first one to cut lines. "Do I really have to say that?"

With movies like Snow White and The Hunstman and Prometheus, how thick is the contract that says 'You must never speak of this!'

It's not that bad. Maybe I perpetuate it myself. There is a part of me that wants to go "Just hang on guys. All in good time" In both films there's a nice element of surprise. Obviously. They're both in genres that you want to do something unusual with. I haven't seen the films. Everyone is editing and figuring it out. I don't mean to be too secretive about it but I know Ridley has been really cool and saying 'We love the genre and there's not a lot you can say without spoiling the film.' Everyone is kind of doing that.  I dunno. 

The Snow White trailer is so great. As trailers go.

Thank you. I thought it was a pretty bad-ass trailer.

And it's totally you... 'The Charlize Show!'

Oh god, no! It's SO not. I started shooting the film so there was more footage of me. But then Kristen took over. That's the only reason it was like that. She's amazing in the film.

Would you want to play a villain again? Was that fun?

I don't know. Like I said to you before I have never walked around with a specific charater I wanted to play. In a way I've kind of played three villains back to back. But they're such different people. I've explored different things with all three.

I just want to tell good stories. That's truly all I want to do. I don't need to be the lead in them. I just want to be a part of something that I would want to go see in theaters. I don't know what that's going to be next. 

What do you think you still have left to show us as an actor?

Oh, I don't know. I feel as if I'm just beginning. I'm a pup. I'm still learning. I don't feel like I've reached anything. I'm not close to sittting down on the big old chair and saying "that's it." I feel like because of this great place I am in my life where I don't have to work for the sake of working, I can really decide to work with the filmmakers that inspire me, who make me feel like they'll raise my bar. That's how you become a better actor and that's how you push yourself and have other people push you. There's a shitload of directors that do that for me that I'd love to work with.

Who is on your dream list?

A shitload. Let's leave it at that. 

Charlize is up for richly deserved Best Actress awards at the Critics Choice Awards (January 12th) and the Golden Globes (January 15th) for Young Adult... will Oscar attention follow? Young Adult is also one of the best movies of the year so grab your tickets if you haven't yet seen it.


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Reader Comments (25)

I love Charlize. Good thing I saw this movie before the coverage, or I'd have been reminded how nice she really is as I watched it.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

Great interview - she sounds like an awesome human being.

Although now I'm super selfconscious about typing this from a computer with a Hello Kitty sticker on it. *headdesk*

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commentera hello kitty fan

She always has the wittiest, smartest responses to things. "Young Adult feels like just the kind of film that will grow its audience slowly (we're definitely already on board) and it's easy to imagine a Mavis cult gathering over time."-- I totally agree with this. I think once the film is released on DVD it will become a cult favorite. I hope she gets nominated along with Diablo. Truly great work by great women!

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDee

Nathaniel, this was SUCH a joy to read! So informative and the insights you illicit from her in regard to both the character of Mavis and Theron’s process in creating her were so richly illuminating.

Sounds like someone’s getting her first Film Bitch nomination…

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRyanSt

Charlize is just one of those actresses I notice in a film. She completely loses herself, doesn't try to draw focus, but is so real that I can't help but focus on her. And knowing that she is a fellow "I'm not the character so I don't care who sees me" actor makes me like her even more. I try to teach my theater students to take on that attitude and get over themselves.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I love Charlize.

I'm also very excited for her performances next year, mainly in 'Snow White and the Hunstman.'
I have such high hopes for the movie, the trailer was great (like you pointed out.) I actually just finished having a nice conversation with Greig Fraser, the films cinematographer!

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

The film has received generally positive reviews, scoring 81% positive reviews out of 116 from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Its consensus states: "Despite its somewhat dour approach, Young Adult is a funny and ultimately powerful no-holds-barred examination of prolonged adolescence, thanks largely to a convincing performance by Charlize Theron.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFilm Schools In America

Great interview!

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

One of my favorite actresses. I just love her.

I reallyyyy hope she snags a nomination! She deserves it way more than Glenn in my opinion.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

When she said “three villain characters” back to back, does that include her role in Prometheus? *processing information*

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMikhael

I have on random query about Young Adult---remember when Buddy kisses Mavis back (yes, he was drunk, but still) and then acts like he's so shocked by her behavior when she arrives at the baby naming ceremony? I don't get why it wasn't addressed and I was doubly shocked that someone as catty as Mavis would not throw that in his wife's face. Are we supposed to surmise that Buddy confessed to his wife off-camera and she is just really enlightened?

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbia

Mikhael -- that is my understanding, yes.

Bia -- i think he did not confess it. i absolutely think he did not. But Mavis is too in her own headspace i think to process any event like that clearly.

January 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The only thing I wanted from Young Adult was the random scalp/hair problem to be addressed. Was it from the wig/hair clips? Idk, when I first saw her pulling the hairs out, I thought that was gonna be one of her main downfalls, but it was ignored.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

@Phillip- It's not from the wig/hair clips... it's alluding to Mavis possibly having trichotillomania. She uses the the hair extensions as a way of covering it up. The trichotillomania is another form of OCD that Mavis has which I think makes for a pretty damn brilliant character study. It was subtly incorporated into the storyline and I for one appreciated that we were never beaten over the head with this information. It IS addressed during the breakfast conversation Mavis has with her parents in which her father appears to be concerned (he asks her if she is still pulling her hair out) but her mother brushes it off and I believe actually compliments Mavis as having "beautiful hair". This coupled with the fact that Mavis won "Best Hair' in high school is quite jarring. There are so many great moments in this film-- I'm glad you liked it Nathaniel. Do you think Charlize will be nominated? She was my fave performance of the year. Patton Oswalt too but he seems like he's way more of a dark horse :(

I think my very favorite moment in this film is when Mavis tells Matt that Buddy is a good man and is kind. And Buddy asks, "Are other men un-kind?" and Mavis' response is just heart-breaking. "He knew me when I was at my best." I won't even get into Matt's reaction because that pretty much had me in tears. I do have a question about it though-- when Matt is talking about how Mavis always looked in the mirror in her locker when Matt was at his best, does he mean that Mavis was preoccupied with looking at herself instead of ever noticing Matt pre-brutal bashing?

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDee

Amazing read, Nat. She really seems to have empathy for her character. It frustrates me when so many critics label Mavis an "asshole" and leave it at that – she's more complex, and Theron completely understands these complexities. I don't think she'll be nominated but this is one of the best performances of the year.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMayukh

@Philip - I inferred that the hair-loss problem was, at least in part, a result of Mavis' excessive boozing as that's not an uncommon side-effect for alcoholics.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

All I wanna say to her about the bad-ass trailer: It wouldn't be that bad-ass if it wasn’t because of her looking so deliciously evil.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMikhael

Nat would you put her in your top 5 best actresses of 2003 for monster in hindsight.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

Mark -- i've never rewatched the film so I couldn't say. Though I am able to believe that i was possibly wrong about it as it was the apotheosis to me of all that was wrong (and remains wrong) of why people give statues to actresses.

so even if is totally deserving and i was wrong about it it still is all of those things ;)

January 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Dee you spoiled the best part.

I am praying she's takes the 5th spot. 20 more days until nomination. ,

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChand

Ahahah, why the hell did I say it was from the hair extensions? I knew that was covering it up. I just wanted more info on it. But I totally feel you, Dee, and your strong appreciation for the movie makes me appreciate it even more. :)

Chand, let's start a prayer circle for Charlize!! tehe.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

@Chand- what did I spoil? It's pretty much laid out in the trailer. Sorry if I ruined anything for you... that's not what I was going for. Nonetheless, I agree with you- I hope she gets the 5th spot too. I think she may :)

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDee

Thank you for the interview. I, too, hope she gets the nomination. She completely deserves it (and so does Patton). Still unsure about the ending of the movie, but really liked it.

And Charlize is my go to gal if I had to, uh, with a woman. So, so gorgeous!

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Nat I confess that I got (more than a little) starstruck when I read that she called YOU. How cool is that?

I loved reading this - and I hate to say, Charlize is becoming the "anti-Nicole" for me (as much I love La Kidman's onscreen performances, which you know I do.) In terms of wit, intelligence, background, relative lack of egotism, and what seems to be genuine kindness (I can't see Nicole apologizing to the day actors), etc, Charlize just seems like a genuinely interesting person. A conversation between her and Annette Bening would be all kinds of awesomeness (before the universe imploded and was sucked into a black hole, But it'd be worth it.)

I didn't have any great amount of interest in the film when I first starting hearing about it, but all the word of mouth (a lot of it on this site) from other writers, especially, has put this on my must-see list. (When it finally gets to my area, here's hoping it does.)

January 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Finally saw this tonight and HOLY SH!T was I impressed. Even after all the great reviews, it still exceeded my expectations on almost every level. Charlize is freaking brilliant in the part and in my mind gave absolutely the finest performance by an actress this year (or, last year... GOD dates are so confusing!), but because the film's so... spiky, she won't get the Oscar, even if she manages a nomination. It's funny, for all the talk about how she de-glammed and made herself "ugly" for Monster, I'd say she did the make-up artist on that film one better with this. THIS is how you de-glam, people. From the INSIDE.

January 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny
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