Charlize Theron likes the darkness. It calls to her. It’s a place where she’s come to feel comfortable over the years, thanks to her ferocious, starkly nuanced performances as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (for which Theron won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2004), Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: FuryRoad, the wicked queen Ravenna in Snow White & the Huntsman, and the icily lethal MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde. So if you’re surprised to learn that she’s playing the romantic lead in the latest Seth Rogen rom-com, Long Shot, you’re not alone. “I never thought I would be in a rom-com,” says Theron, laughing. “I don’t think I would know how to do justice to a straightforward rom-com.”
We’re at Milk Studios in Hollywood, where Theron, 43, has just finished her cover shoot for Marie Claire. Dressed in an aqua wool crew-neck sweater, long caramel-colored palazzo pants, and shearling-lined Birkenstocks, she looks casual but also decidedly regal, with her sable hair cropped in a pageboy and green eyes sizzling in the afternoon light. Theron was a serious ballet dancer in her teens, and you can see it in her straight-backed posture, with her shoulders thrust back and chin held high. She’s reserved at first but grows increasingly warm as our conversation progresses. You get the sense that Theron would be a great person to be friends with—and a terrible person to cross.
This combination of warmth and wariness is part of what has made Theron one of Hollywood’s most compelling—and enduring—stars. But it was her hilarious appearances on late-night talk shows that inspired Rogen to pursue her for the lead as the elegant, hyper-adroit secretary of state Charlotte Field running for president (opposite his weed-loving lefty Brooklyn journalist, Fred Flarsky) in Long Shot.
“Obviously, she’s one of the most talented people on the planet,” says Rogen, who spent five years developing the script with Theron, director Jonathan Levine, and writers Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah.“But I’d also seen her on talk shows and knew people who knew her, and they always say she is a very funny person and a very light person in a lot of ways that we haven’t really seen in her films.” That lightness, he says, combined with “the intimidating level of competence and professionalism she exudes” made Theron a natural choice for the powerhouse diplomat who naps with her eyes open but is also fully capable of geeking out at a Boyz II Men concert. (Yes, the Boyz make an appearance in the film.)
But Theron was nervous about taking the part. “When you do something that’s outside your wheelhouse, you naturally function from a place of fear a little bit,” she says. “And Seth is a very confident writer, actor, and director. He steps into the space with so much confidence that it’s intimidating. But he is also so available, and I realized that I could fully trust him and that he had my back.”
To say that the two are good together in Long Shot is too mild. Somehow, in the midst of this “golden age of television,” when the impending demise of everything but big-screen superhero franchise movies is being forecast every week and we all seem to be in imminent danger of never leaving our sofas ever again, Theron and Rogen have served up a sharp, fearless, big-hearted, gut-bustingly-funny political valentine of a movie. Like its forebear Pretty Woman (to which Long Shot is glee-fully indebted), the movie seems specifically engineered to be enjoyed in a theater full of fellow laughing humans.
It’s an interesting career move for Theron. She’s been acting for over 20 years now, and she’s proved to be good at pretty much everything she sets her mind to, from the bulletproof ass-kickers who are her mainstay, to the darkly comedic antiheroines in Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s films Young Adult and Tully, to producing acclaimed TV (like David Fincher’s Mindhunter) and films (like the Marie Colvin biopic A Private War) with her company Denver and Delilah. So maybe it was only a matter of time before she decided to try her hand at a romantic comedy; nevertheless, it’s a joy to see her shine in this new genre. As a powerful, ambitious woman who’s sacrificed her personal life at the altar of professional success, Charlotte is a poignant reminder of the loneliness that can go hand in hand with a career in the spotlight, and one of the great pleasures of Long Shot is watching her slowly lower her defenses and become increasingly vulnerable and idealistic and giddy and tender. At a certain point, it becomes clear we’re seeing something we’ve never seen before: We’re seeing Charlize Theron fall in love.
It's been a long time coming. By now, most of the free world is familiar with the trauma of Theron’s childhood in South Africa. Namely, when she was 15, her mother, Gerda Jacoba Aletta Maritz, shot and killed her abusive alcoholic father after he threatened the two of them with a gun. Theron is frank about the impact the event has had on her. “My early life, I was just speeding through, because I saw a lot of life taken away around me,” says Theron, who moved to New York at 16 to study ballet at the Joffrey Ballet School but switched to acting at 19 after suffering a debilitating knee injury. “My 20s were like ‘You can die, so get it done.’ I always felt like there was a clock ticking, like everything was life and death, and I’m not a citizen, so if I don’t make it...”
Get it done she did, racking up a string of high-profile films, including The Devil’s Advocate, The Astronaut’s Wife, and Sweet November, but it wasn’t until director Patty Jenkins convinced her to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster that the real extent of Theron’s range became apparent.
“I didn’t think I could do it at first,” says Theron of her Oscar-winning portrayal of Wuornos—a role for which she gained 40 pounds. “The thing that convinced me ultimately was that I had never had—and I get emotional thinking about it—I never had somebody believe in me like that before. I was always the person who would go into audition after audition after audition and lay myself on broken glass and not get the part. And all of a sudden, this woman is sitting in front of me, and she’s like, ‘You have to. You’re the only person who can.’”
Theron wells up for a moment. “I was blown away by that. It’s super emotional because I don’t think a lot of women get an opportunity like that. And we are only as good as—the way I talk about Seth, I feel like when you work with people who believe in you fully like that, if you have that kind of faith in me, I will do anything for you.”
Jay Roach, who directed Theron as Megyn Kelly in the Roger Ailes biopic Fair and Balanced (due out in December), testifies to the near-religious level of dedication Theron brings to her projects. “Her fierce commitment to getting the story right, her ability to focus on solutions—she’s incredibly self-aware and confident enough to know that real strength is not always being right; it’s being able to own it when you’re wrong too,” he says. “She prefers if I am really blunt. If she senses that you’re handling her or sugarcoating feedback, she’ll press you until you reveal what’s really going on, and that is so rare.” He raves similarly about Theron as a producer. “She’s a partner as much as an actor,” he says. “In preproduction, we were all set to go, and two weeks before shooting, we lost our studio; we lost Annapurna for reasons we still aren’t sure about, and it wasn’t the budget. We already had the cast—Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, a dream team on every level—and we were all set to go, so I called Charlize, and within 48 hours we had multiple offers to pick up and keep going and stay on schedule. Her leadership and producing chops and knowing how to talk to investors about the issues, it was really astonishing.”
Theron cheerfully chalks up her abilities to an obsessive personality. “I’m definitely obsessive,” she says. “I’m on a job right now, and I’m obsessive about the martial arts I’m learning. I get up at 4 a.m. to do it. I lie in bed at night thinking about the different hand positions. Obsessing is good for me. I’m very focused on the stuff that I really care about, but I do struggle with a bit of OCD, so I have to organize things that I can see: closets, drawers. That has to do with when I feel that things I can’t see are out of control.”
“I didn’t discover therapy until my mid-30s,” she continues. “My reasons for going had a lot to do with South Africa and uncertainty and living with an alcoholic every day in my life. What I discovered was that my life was an all-encompassing thing. It showed me that I can see the big picture and understand the reason to get to a place where I could create a life for my own kids.”
Seven years ago, Theron adopted Jackson, or “Jacks” (seven), followed a few years later by August, or “Auggie” (four), and she talks about motherhood with undisguised joy. “I love being a mom,” she says. “I get up with them at 5:30 every day. I make them breakfast. I pack their lunches. On the weekends, we hang out with family and friends. I’ll cook lasagna for them—or steak. We do a lot of grilling. We go to Medieval Times.”
The “we” includes Theron’s mother, who lives two miles away and “totally coparents with me,” says Theron, whose three rescue dogs and her mother’s three rescues are also part of the brood. “She comes by the house every morning at 5:45 to take the dogs hiking. And when I’m in a job, my mom really steps in.” This summer, Theron is shooting The Old Guard—based on the comic series about a group of immortal mercenaries (hence the martial-arts training)—in England, and Gerda is already overseas, prepping for the arrival of Team Theron. “She’s in London right now, getting everything all set up.”
Although her broken engagement to Sean Penn made headlines in 2015, she is clearly thriving with her family. “My 20s were really about getting a lot of stuff out of my system—wanting to experience the world, do drugs, travel to Turkey for four months with a backpack,” she says, “and I did all that, so by the time I had kids, I was really ready.” She grins. “I’m in bed at 7:45 every night now, and I love it because I’ve lived. You don’t want to be 80 and on your death bed and wonder what might have happened. If I die tomorrow, I’m at peace with who I am in my life.”
This article originally appears in the June 2019 issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands May 21.
Lead credits: Brunello Cucinelli blazer, Bulgari necklace.