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 one. And 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?
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.