Behind those baby greens is a will of steel and a gutsy, outspoken actress who isn't afraid to offer a little payback to a Hollywood director who did her wrong. Here, the star of North Country (a film about the first successful class-action sexual-harassment case in U.S. history) speaks with fierce frankness about the mother who made her tough and the redemptive power of forgiveness.

More than a decade ago, before she became the big screen's siren of choice and well before she could put an Academy Award on her mantelpiece, Charlize Theron was an 18-year-old aspiring actress, dewy-fresh from her South African hometown of Benoni, thoroughly unschooled in Hollywood dos and don'ts. So when an experienced director asked her to read for a role in his latest film, she was eager to take part. "It was a little odd that the audition was on a Saturday night, at his house in Los Angeles," she recalls. "But I didn't know anything about the business, so I thought maybe that was a normal thing."

Off Theron went ‑- but when the director opened his door that night, "he was in his Hugh Hefner pajamas. I thought, Maybe this is how he works. I go inside, and he's offering me a drink, and I'm thinking, My God, this acting stuff's very relaxed ‑- when do we actually start working? It pretty soon became very clear to me what the situation was. And then you're either someone who can't deal with that situation, or..."

Or you're Charlize Theron, apparently. "I think when you put forth a certain kind of attitude, people don't fuck with you," she says. "I never walked into a room the naive farm girl from South Africa." So, even at 18, "I knew how to deal with it: 'Not going to happen. Wrong girl, buddy.'"

Sitting in L.A.'s Chateau Marmont hotel wearing jeans and an off-the-shoulder yellow top, Theron is relaxed, with skin that's just as flawless as advertised. It's clear that the wait is over for 30-year-old Charlize Theron ‑- one lecherous director's Wrong Girl has become the Right Woman in Hollywood's eyes. Theron's fearlessness made its mark right away ‑- 2 Days in the Valley, Reindeer Games, Devil's Advocate ‑- but it climaxed with her rendering of a serial killer in last year's Monster. Her performance won her a Best Actress Oscar and proved to the world that she could play both sex goddesses and society's outcasts.

Theron will appear in the gritty drama North Country (in theaters October 14), the moderately fictionalized tale of the first woman ever to file a successful class-action sexual-harassment suit in the U.S. Theron plays ringleader Josey Aimes, a single mom who goes to work in the mines of her Minnesota town, only to be terrorized by the mine's males, driving her to legal action against the mining company. To prepare for the movie, which was shot in the same region where the actual events took place, Theron got to know many of the female miners involved in the landmark case. "They were incredible," she says. "I think they know that they were part of history ‑- part of something that changed a lot of things for women all over the world."

For Theron, among the biggest challenges of playing Aimes was a scene in which she addresses a meeting of the miners' union...a challenge, because Theron is actually scared of public speaking. "I get this really strange sensation where everything goes black, and I see white spots, and I break out in hives," she says. "It's probably the most frightening thing you can make me do."

But that's just what North Country director Niki Caro did make her do. "Four hundred guys, some of the real deals," sighs Theron. "It was my first day of shooting, and literally, I couldn't breathe. I couldn't talk. I thought I was going to faint. I didn't know what was happening."

Family

Theron may talk of vulnerability, but her inner toughness always prevails. The cornerstone of Theron's confidence has long been her relationship with her mother, Gerda, who raised her and did the housework while at the same time running a construction company. They've enjoyed a closeness that wasn't hindered by the strict punishments Gerda used to keep her daughter in line. "My mother disciplined me," Theron says. "It couldn't happen in America today, because she'd be put in jail, and to me that's a very sad thing, because I always deserved it. Never once did I go, 'God, this is so unfair.' Afterward, I would go up to her and apologize, because I knew that I had been wrong."

What did Theron's mother hit her with? "Whatever was around: a hairbrush, a shoe ‑- the shoe was a big one," Theron says. One such spanking came after Theron was rude to an older woman in a store. On another occasion, she says, "I went to school with imprints of Disney cartoons all over my thigh from a hanger that she had grabbed that had all these cutouts on them." That time, Theron had disobeyed her mother by eating a bowl of tomato soup while still wearing her girls'-school uniform...and then accidentally spilling the entire bowl down her shirtfront, staining it. "I deserved that one, because that was very disrespectful," Theron says. "She did all the washing and laundry and cooking; she ran the house while running the business. I completely understand. 'I have to be respectful. I'm not washing the clothes, she's washing them.'"

Theron knows such stories may offend contemporary sensibilities, but she feels sure that in her case, mere words wouldn't have made enough of an impact.

Even while Gerda kept her daughter on the straight and narrow, "she was a friend at the same time," Theron says. "I always felt that I could say anything to her without being judged. I knew that I could trust her ‑- and I still do. The woman knows everything that has happened in my life. There are no secrets."

Their closeness endured after Gerda, in self-defense, shot her husband to death in front of 15-year-old Charlize's eyes. It's the sort of personal trauma that could have cast an inescapable shadow over Theron's life. But that didn't happen. "Our lives have gone on; it wasn't like we were living day-to-day, haunted," Theron says. "I mean, in a way you are, but you have to be healthy about it. It's something that will be in my blood forever. It's something that I can't change. So I've had to make the decision to either have it live my life for me or to admit that it happened, and admit that it was something bad, and let go of the guilt. I mean, goddamn it, it's my father, you know? I don't want to walk around with this haunted notion for the rest of my life about him. So I don't. I walk around with fond memories of him."

While some might assume the death of her father would be Theron's dominant emotional memory, as well as a key to the power of her acting, she says otherwise. "I think other things have actually shaped my life much more," she says. "There's this private little chest of ammunition that's just mine, that I get to play with. And I feel like the less people know about that, the more powerful it remains." She laughs. "I guess if I didn't have this job, I'd have to go to therapy. But I don't go to therapy ‑- so I need this job! I don't really want to pay someone to tell them my problems. I would rather be paid to tell my problems."

And she's willing to be revealing: On-screen nudity and portrayals of physical intimacy haven't been a problem for Theron. "I don't have any regrets about the things that I've done nudity-wise," she says. "Would I want kids to see it? Maybe not when they're 7 ‑- but would it be the kind of thing that I would tell them not to do? God, no. I think that all women have to go through a period in their lives when they have to discover themselves before they can have a man discover them."

In fact, the American obsession with the nude female form never ceases to amuse Theron...especially around the holidays, when she gathers dozens of friends and family members for a sunny island getaway: "It's so funny, because the first thing we want to do is take our tops off. And the Americans are like, [uncomfortably] 'I don't quite know how I feel about that...' Then, within a week, they're all topless and they're having the best time ever."

Romance

Romantically, Theron is five years into her own "best time ever," with actor Stuart Townsend...though she admits that initially, their relationship (which began when they appeared together in Trapped) wasn't supposed to be all that intense. "He had all the criteria for somebody who wasn't going to be anything serious," she says. "He lived over there [in England]; I lived over here. So we were very honest with each other: 'I think you're hot, I think you're nice, I think you're smart. We can go on dates. What do you think?' And then, things happened." Before long, he'd become the first man she felt close to as both a partner and a lover ‑- "a very sexy friend," she calls him. "The gods of love must have been looking after us."

With Theron not planning to do another movie until 2006 and Townsend starring in the TV series Night Stalker, the couple has enjoyed some old-school domesticity this year. "We're kind of like ‑- what's that American couple?"

Ozzie and Harriet?

"Yes! It's like, 'Bye, honey.' Then when he comes home at night, 'Hi, honey. I dropped your dry cleaning off, and I made some jam.' I feel like I'm going out with a nine-to-fiver ‑- it's great!" The prospect of the pair getting married has been tossed around in the press. "It's not really what I want, or what he wants. But that doesn't mean I don't want to spend the rest of my life with him. I really don't need to wear a white dress and throw a big party. That, to me, is like a premiere."

Or like the many awards shows that Theron braved at the beginning of 2004, as her Monster performance went from scrappy underdog to presumed winner. "At the Golden Globes, my mother couldn't talk to me ‑- that's how nervous she was," Theron says. "I was like, 'Okay, either we need to get wasted right now or something has to change.'" So the week before the Oscars, Theron and Townsend snuck off. "We just backpacked through the southeast of Brazil. No television, three rooms, tiny little fishermen's village, middle of nowhere. It was the best thing I could have done, just to escape all of that noise. Because the day we walked down that red carpet, I was really happy. I was nervous, but I didn't feel like I had all this pressure."

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