The legendary way that Charlize Theron was discovered foretold how the South African-American actress would become one of the most respected and powerful women in Hollywood.
A newcomer trying to make it in Los Angeles, Charlize did not take it lightly when a bank teller refused to cash her out-of-town check. Her dramatic outburst got the attention of talent manager John Crosby, who was standing in line behind her. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
The actress has come a long way from the farm outside Johannesburg where she grew up. She’s come a long way from art school, where she was learning ballet, and she’s come an even longer way from the troubled past she endured as a child. Her path took her from South Africa to Milan, where she took on modeling jobs throughout Europe, and then to New York, where she returned to her first passion by training with the Joffrey Ballet. A knee injury cut short her ballerina dreams, and she briefly returned to modeling before leaving for LA.
The statuesque beauty turned out to be a gifted thespian, winning a best-actress Oscar, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild Award in 2004 for Monster. At 44, the proud mom of two adopted kids has become a producer as well. She starred in and produced Bombshell, an absorbing dramatization of how a group of women took on Fox News head Roger Ailes and the toxic work environment of sexual harassment he cultivated. In what is perhaps the first major film about the Me Too movement, Charlize has earned praise playing American journalist Megyn Kelly, who was a news anchor at Fox News from 2004 to 2017.
Bombshell fuels conversations about sexual discrimination and harassment. How have those conversations changed over the years from your perspective?
The conversation about sexual harassment has always been around for as long as I can remember being a woman, which happens to be my whole life (laughs). It’s a changed conversation now. Women were always aware that this wasn’t the case — we really didn’t have access to or could be a part of that conversation, because I don’t think anybody believed us. We are now at a time and place when so many women have bravely stepped forward to share their stories, and that’s why we have movements like Time’s Up and Me Too.
What does it say about our culture that the media is dominated by blondes?
Just look at the “diversity”, right? It’s really important for us at Denver and Delilah [Charlize’s production company] to make sure that we are fully aware of the diversity that we bring to a film. There was just no diversity at Fox. It’s a commentary on the world that we live in. It’s really disturbing.
There were only a couple of brunettes. It was the quintessential bombshell image that Roger Ailes wanted to create. If you Google the women of Fox, this image comes up with these tiny photos of everybody who worked at the company; the majority of them are blonde. It was actually an image that we used at the end. You can feel like there was a Svengali behind it, who manufactured it.
Jay [Roach, Bombshell‘s director] talks a lot about how it felt like a cult. It felt like there were these rules set in place for this world to thrive as Roger Ailes wanted it to thrive.
It’s crazy that we still allow men to dictate that visual image of women. We don’t want to not be feminine. That’s not the point. But to be told or to be coerced into something like that and have your job be on the line if you don’t, is the real problem.
Are you optimistic about this issue?
Now, when you see the reality of somebody like Roger Ailes actually being let go from an organization that he pretty much built… Somebody like that, with that kind of immense power, to be taken down the way he did, sent a real message. The same with Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. There’s a real message being sent that we’re not taking this lightly anymore and that companies don’t have that luxury anymore.
It’s not just sexual harassment. It’s the fact that women have never been at that same level, at the top places of power, as men.
What is the most important quality you have that has made you an actress that everyone likes to work with, and a powerful producer in Hollywood?
I think it’s a combination of a lot of stuff, right? I’m fully aware of the kindness, mercy and grace of a lot of people who took me under their wing, believed in me, encouraged me, helped me, created opportunities for me. To think that I did all of this on my own would be a huge misconception.
There’s a quality that all South Africans naturally have — that’s resilience. That played a little bit of a role. I was just never willing to roll over and stop. I’m grateful for having that in me. I really credit my country for that because growing up there, it taught me to be tenacious, to not just cower at the sight of anything that felt like an obstacle.
How do you see the future, especially for your children? Do you, as a mother, think they will live in a better world?
I think human beings will always be complicated, messy and make mistakes. But I do believe that we are finally in a moment where I do feel like, maybe not for me, but for my children, that there will be more recourse, there will also be more consequences for bad behavior.
We are definitely at a place now where everybody is saying “no, that’s actually not good.” So that part of where we are right now makes me very hopeful that there will be more consequences at hand, that people will actually think twice.