By accident rather than design Charlize Theron took a three-year break from acting recently. Starring in Jason Reitman’s hilarious black comedy Young Adult marks a welcome return and it was, she says, the best working experience she’s ever had.
“It really was. And that’s quite something because I’ve had really amazing experiences. I think it was a combination of several things – the role, working with Jason, the material and the fact that I hadn’t really acted for three years.
“And to go back and have my first film in three years be Young Adult with Jason on a 30 day shoot, no hair and make up, sweat pants every day, and go to work and do some amazing character studies, was just a joy. Every single day I had a giant smile on my face and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much.”
Her role in as Mavis Gary, who writes teenage fiction, drinks far too much and has an knack of saying the most inappropriate things at the most in-opportune times, almost didn’t happen and that makes it even sweeter, she says.
Q: Where did you first see the film?
A: I saw the first cut at my house. Jason was still in the process of working on the film so I think the same as I always think the first time I see a film that I’ve worked on – that it’s a little overwhelming (laughs). It’s fun but at the same time you are trying to get your head around what you were doing and how it all works together. So the first time you see something, it’s like putting the puzzle together, how we shot it and how it ended up and I don’t really have that experience of enjoying the film. The first time I saw this with an audience was when I really enjoyed it. I don’t think you understand what an audience will tap into or respond to until you see it with an audience.
Q: Did what they responded to surprise you?
A: Yes. I think it’s always a surprise (laughs). I’m always surprised when people like the films I’m in. I don’t think you can go through the movie making experience and just kind of assume that people will like it. So it’s always refreshing and it’s always a nice surprise when people respond and tap into the things that you did when you did the film.
Q: What appealed to you about this one?
A: It was really different. When I originally read it I thought that it was ballsy in the sense that Diablo wrote a character, a protagonist who learns a lesson but doesn’t necessarily make a change in her life. And it felt very real to me. It felt very human to me.
Sometimes when I watch movies they can feel very unrealistic and the third act is always kind of like this ‘a-ha!’ moment for every character and I just don’t know those people in real life. And it was really nice to read somebody on the page that felt human to me, a woman who doesn’t go through this amazing ‘a-ha!’ moment. And of course the idea of Jason Reitman directing it was very appealing to me. I’m very director driven and to get the chance to work with him was really the thing that sealed the deal for me.
Q: Did you have any qualms about it at all? Because she is a very uncomfortable character to watch and at times it makes you question some of the things that you have laughed at…
A: Yes, I know and those are the things that make it feel real. I think when you do comedy for the sake of the joke versus character driven comedy, I guess it’s a personal thing, but for me I like those characters, I like the ones that have character base and the character is drawing the comedy from real situations or circumstances.
And in this case, it’s dark. The comedy is being pulled from some very, very dark, real places and it’s unflinching. And yes, she definitely has issues and she definitely doesn’t have the tool set to cope with adult things and she has kind of been in this arrested development that has not given her the insight to deal with or see things for what they really are.
Q: There’s that wonderful line when someone describes her as a ‘psychotic Prom Queen bitch…’
A: (laughs). Yes, I love that line.
Q: Do you have to find something in a character like this that you can relate to?
A: Well there was a lot that I could relate to. She is a real girl, she is doesn’t feel like a movie person to me. So there was definitely a lot of her that I could relate to – that I’ve seen in other people, that I’ve seen in myself that didn’t feel foreign to me. I don’t know how to play ‘movie people’ or caricatures; I only know how to play characters that I feel I can ground in reality. I mean, if my feet are not grounded in something that’s real I don’t know how to play that.
I don’t think I would be good at that so the only thing I can rely on when I say ‘yes’ to a character is the knowledge that there is something in there that I can wrap my head around and make real. So however kind of absurd she is and how big she is, or how outrageous and embarrassing and how cringing she is, there has to be something that is rooted in something real. And I have to say that I only succeeded in that because of my partnership with Jason Reitman on this film. I really couldn’t have done it without him because I feel that this character has to be paced correctly and you really can’t do that as an actor alone, you really need a director to guide you through that.
So there were a lot of moments on set when Jason was going ‘I think you need to be a little bit more bitchy here..’ and you’re going ‘oh God, please no!’ and then you just end up doing it because I had ultimate trust in him and he never gave me any opportunity to not trust him. And I feel like the success of this film and this character is really because of him.
Q: Did you know each other before this?
A: No, I literally ran into him at the Oscars and told him how much I loved Up In The Air, it was my favourite film of that year. And about a month later I ran into him again at a restaurant and he said ‘I read this script last night and it’s going to be my next film and I think you would be brilliant in it and let’s do this together..’
Q: But am I right in thinking there were a couple of setbacks along the way?
A: There was a lot of stuff that happened. I actually wasn’t available at first. I was about to leave for Australia to go and do Fury Road so I was a little bummed about the whole thing because Jason Reitman has been on the top of my list for a really long time and so when I thought that I couldn’t do this I was really depressed about it. And I went to Australia to start rehearsals on Fury Road and then that film pushed and then I came back and Jason called me and said ‘I heard that your film pushed, do you still want to do this with me?’ And I was like ‘oh my God, that would be amazing..’ So it happened in a kind of a roundabout way but thankfully it all happened.
Q: So at one point you thought you had lost it?
A: Yeah, I just thought that I wasn’t available and that I knew that Jason had another film that he really wanted to do, Labour Day, and so I knew he wanted to do Young Adult really fast because he wanted to do Labour Day right after and I didn’t even ask if he could wait. And plus Fury Road was a year long shoot in Australia.
Q: It was meant to be….
A: I like to think it was fate and I’m very grateful to the movie Gods for that (laughs).
Q: So you’ve got Jason Reitman as the director, Diablo Cody has written the script so when you get on set do you stick to the script word for word? Or is there room for some tinkering on the day?
A: Diablo wrote a great script and then Jason came in and got his voice around it and I kind of came in and added my voice. It’s a great collaboration, which I love. I think anything in the arts has to be collaborative otherwise you can get robots to do anything. I think it’s all about chemistry – it’s getting the right people together to cohesively set out to make the same movie and that’s sometimes the hardest thing to do.
Q: So you have a similar approach?
A: Yes we do. I mean, Jason hates rehearsals and I hate rehearsals. Logistically Jason and I are very, very similar and we like exactly the same things. We don’t like a lot of takes, we don’t like to fuck around but we really like the whole process of showing up and finding that magic moment and in my experience if you don’t have it in the first couple of takes you’re probably not going to get it (laughs). But you know it’s very hard to explain that kind of chemistry that you have with someone or that kind of working relationship – it’s like magic in a bottle and at the end of the day I think that’s what filmmaking really is, it’s like capturing magic in a bottle and that’s all dependent on the people you put together to do it. I think that’s the most important thing about making a film.
Q: Was Diablo on set?
A: Diablo came out for two days, I think. She’d had a baby right before we started filming so she had her hands full.
Q: I just wondered whether you had talked to Jason and Diablo about where this character came from? And where the idea for the story first came from? Going back to a home town and re-visiting a High School romance is a rich vein and this is a very unique take on that…
A: I think you should probably ask Diablo (laughs). I shouldn’t speak for her – you should ask her where the idea came from.
Q: High School is such a vivid time in everybody’s life and this character has idealised it…
A: It’s the idea that we can all relate to in our lives, whether it’s High School or some other time, that you are trying to fill the void with something and it’s usually with the moment that you think you were at your best, which sometimes isn’t the case (laughs).
So this story could have taken place with other circumstances but I love the fact that this girl was so popular, she was what everybody thought that they wanted to be and yet as this character, Matt (played by Patton Oswalt) points out to her, ‘by the way, you really weren’t at your best back then..’ I think Patton has some of the most crushing lines in the film – because they are telling the truth, the truth of her world, that she is so disillusioned by. He just kills me in the film – there’s a line where he says ‘you weren’t at your best and I was at my best and you didn’t even notice me..’ There is a loneliness in that line that I think anybody can relate to, whether you relate more to Patton’s character or more to Mavis’s character.
Human beings can suffer severe loneliness at any stage in their life and whatever that thing you try and fill that void, that loneliness with, tends to be the things that are not healthy for us and the things that are not truthful about us. But Patton kills me. That line where he says ‘guys like me are born to love girls like you…’ every single time that line just crushes my heart. It’s a great cast and the more we shot on this film the more that love story, between Mavis and Matt, became more evident, which I don’t think any of us really were aware of until we were doing the film.
Q: You get to do some very funny stuff with this. I’m thinking of the opening sequence with the hangover and the dog. What was that like to do?
A: That was the hardest part of the movie for me because it was the first week of shooting and I don’t know of any actor who likes the first week of shooting and kind of diving into a world. Everything is still the discovery process and you are like a baby taking their first steps – you are kind of walking for this character and speaking for this character and behaving as this character for the first time so everything in that first week is a little wobbly. And that who opening sequence in her apartment was shot in my first two days and those are hard to do. None of it was played for the jokes, trust me.
I remember saying to Jason ‘wow, I’d forgotten how little she says for the first 30 pages of the script…’ And Jason said to me ‘welcome to the world of a writer…’ So that was really helpful – Jason and Diablo, as writers, both understood what that world feels like when you are so isolated, when you are trying to write something and I’m not a writer so I don’t know any of that stuff. So it was really just trying to kind of live in that isolation.
If I’d played those scenes for laughs I don’t think anybody would have found the humour in them but I think people laugh at it because it is so sad and lonely and isolating and you know, there’s this girl that has a drinking problem and a small dog and somehow, when you’ve got a great script by Diablo and you’re directed by Jason, that equals a laugh.
Q: But at times it is uncomfortable because she is sad and she is lonely and yet there are situations where you do find it funny. She’s self destructive and like a hand grenade waiting to go off…
A: I think the great success of the film is that people initially think that they won’t identify with a character who is this mean – and Mavis can be really mean – but they do. Jason talks about how going to the movies is like holding up a mirror and seeing yourself and I believe that, too.
I know that the films that move me the most are the ones that I can see myself in. And they are not necessarily the ones with characters that have these great attributes that I aspire to, although those are much easier to see. It’s the ones that make me see the flaws, the not so pretty stuff. And I think that’s why people, especially women, respond to Mavis.
And for me that’s the cherry on the cake – the fact that women can actually see themselves in her and, let’s be honest, she’s not the most beautiful, in the sense of her heart and soul, protagonist I’ve seen on film! (laughs).
Q: What could you see of yourself in her?
A: Oh my God, are you kidding me? (laughs). A lot! I mean, I think a lot of the things that she does that are so unflattering are things that all of us do to kind of get through the day, it’s really survival mode. The little lies and the way that she continually thinks that the grass is always greener on the other side and this idea that your life is so fantastic and how you project yourself to other people.
With Mavis it’s extreme but there’s a truth in there that a lot of women recognise. And of course, there’s the loneliness. Mavis is very lonely, even though she wouldn’t admit to anyone, and I think every human being has experienced loneliness. There’s a lot of stuff in there that a lot of people are responding to.
Q: Was working with Jason what you hoped it would be?
A: I’ve had a lot of great experiences making films but this was the best experience I’ve ever had. And that’s quite something because I’ve had really amazing experiences and I think it was a combination of several things – the role, working with Jason, the material and the fact that I hadn’t really acted for three years. And to go back and have my first film in three years be Young Adult with Jason on a 30 day shoot, no hair and make up, sweat pants every day, and go to work and do some amazing character studies, it was just a joy.
Every single day I had a giant smile on my face and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much. The other day somebody asked me ‘what role would you go back and play again?’ And I’d never thought about that and I’d never sort of longed to do a character from the past again, ever. But I realised that if I could do that it would be playing her again. And I sent a text to Jason and said ‘I would give anything to go back and do this movie with you again…’
Q: Not that you would play her different but because you enjoyed the experience?
A: Yeah, I loved being her and I loved being in that world and I loved having Jason as a partner in that world. I think this is challenging material and this character could be very scary and cringing and embarrassing but there was something about having Jason as a partner and the two of us just jumping off the cliff head first and going ‘this is what we’re going to do..’ And I think that is what made the experience so enjoyable and so amazing.
Q: Why the three-year break from acting? Was that intentional or just the way it turned out?
A: It was just kind of just the way it turned out. There wasn’t anything coming my way that was blowing me away and also I started producing and developing a lot of television. So I was really busy and at the same time I was physically getting ready to go and do Fury Road so I was kind of off the market and belonging to Warner Brothers. And I was kind of sitting around waiting for the film to happen so I just started developing some stuff with HBO and David Fincher and with Ridley Scott’s company and so creatively I was really happy and busy but I just didn’t work as an actor.
Q: Did you miss it?
A: Actually, I wasn’t missing it. I was really creatively satisfied and it was a really bizarre thing. People say ‘oh you work so much..’ or ‘oh you’ve taken three years off..’ And the great luxury that I’ve had, which I think is the greatest blessing you can have as an actor, is not to have to work to pay the rent and I don’t take that for granted.
I’m in an incredibly lucky position where I don’t have to do that and so the love for the work has always taken priority. And I love being in a place where I do what I love instead of doing things because I have to. And so I was really enjoying developing these projects so I was creatively satisfied and for me, I don’t think I have to be in front of a camera to be creatively satisfied, which is great.
Q: How do you look back on your own High School days? Do you look back on that time with affection?
A: Yeah, I mean, I think I look back the same way that everybody does – with affection, embarrassment and cringe-worthy moments mingled with pure hatred (laughs). I think it’s conflicted. And I think High School is a conflicting time for any teenager, right?
Q: Did you do Prometheus after this one?
A: Yeah. And working with Ridley was amazing. Of Ridley’s generation I think there are abut three that are masters of filmmaking and Ridley is one of them. I think every actor has a director that they dream to work with and for me it was Ridley. Out of all of those guys of his generation I’ve always walked around saying ‘God, I would give anything to work with Ridley Scott..’ and he was everything that I hoped and dreamed for. I’ve been a really lucky girl lately.
Q: You’re shooting Snow White and the Huntsman at the moment. How’s that going?
A: It’s going really well. It’s super ambitious and very big and it’s been interesting and really good. We’re being very ambitious over here.
Q: Is it quite liberating playing a character like Mavis? I’m thinking of scenes like when you’re checking in the motel with the dog in your handbag…
A: You know, I have to tell you there wasn’t a dog in the bag at that point, it was like a little machine that the prop department had, they could push a button and it made a noise and moved around so it was better timing – and we couldn’t put a poor dog in there and make it suffer (laughs).
Q: But is it funny on the day when you’re doing a scene like that?
A: Jason and I were constantly laughing. But Jason and I were laughing at things that were also not actually in the movie. But that’s the energy that you have creatively when you work on something like Young Adult. The spirit of the movie bleeds into other things so we might not have laughed at the joke that we were going after with the dog and the bag but you know Jason and I laughed a lot.
And what I loved about Jason was that he’s not the kind of director who laughs at your jokes to make you feel good about yourself – he is very honest and we have very similar taste in our sense of humour, which tends to be very dark. And so we would have each other in stitches on set and a lot of it you could probably never repeat because it’s so off the chart and so wrong and yet so in keeping with this film was. And I think it made us both comfortable because we knew we had this exact same sense of humour.
I love a director who pushes you and isn’t there just to stroke your ego because I don’t want that, I want someone who I can respect. So we had some laughs but they were mostly off camera when we were just hanging out and when we were working we were pushing each other to find the truth of all of this and some of it was hard but it was always enjoyable and we both loved each other’s company. I can’t say enough good things about him – he’s the real deal.
Q: You never seem to choose easy roles. Why is that?
A: I think I’m not really looking for anything. I think people think you walk around with these grand ideas of characters and I don’t. I watch a lot of films and I get inspired by filmmakers and writers and so I spend a lot of my time sitting down with writers that I like and directors that I like and that’s where my process starts. So for me it’s about finding people that I want to work with.
Q: And a guy like Jason obviously fits the bill?
A: In my experience people who inspire you, whose work you like, people you feel who are pushing the envelope, tend to always have material that does that. Like Jason. And I read a lot of stuff and all I know is that when I read something I want to feel something that I want an audience to feel, which is something original, something that pushes storytelling to another level. Making a film is really time consuming and I don’t think a lot of people understand that. It takes a lot of your time to make a film and so when I say yes to something I know what that entails and it had better be something that creatively keeps me excited otherwise I get bored. I get bored and then it’s not fun. I don’t want to go to work with my eyes closed – I want to wake up and be scared and not know what I’m going to do and work with people who feel the same way as I do and figure it out with them. To walk through a film with your eyes closed, well, to me I can’t think of anything worse.
Young Adult is at cinemas this Friday 3rd February