Charlize Theron's killer makeover

Screen beauty is out to prove she can be a beast if role calls for it

January 01, 2004|By Barry Koltnow | Barry Koltnow,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

If nothing else, Charlize Theron hopes her new movie will make people forget the orange dress.

The tall, beautiful actress with the ballerina legs has been haunted by that orange dress - a Vera Wang design - since she wore it at the 2000 Oscars. The form-fitting gown apparently was so stunning and memorable that Theron believes that it actually hurt her career.

"I can't tell you how many times I've auditioned for a role, only to have my agent come back and say, "Listen, Charlize, they saw you in the orange dress and they don't think you can do it."

Patty Jenkins never saw the orange dress. And that proved fortunate for Theron, who was just nominated for a Golden Globe for her remarkable performance in Monster, in which she plays real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. (The film has not yet opened in Baltimore.)

For the role, Theron transformed herself from a 5-foot-9 goddess into an alcoholic prostitute with bad hair, bad teeth and a potbelly.

Somehow, Jenkins, a first-time director, saw that potential in Theron by watching the 1997 movie The Devil's Advocate on television. The actress played Keanu Reeves' emotionally distraught wife in that movie, but she still looked pretty good.

"I've always known that Charlize was not just another pretty face in Hollywood," Jenkins said between sniffles at the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills, where she was nursing a cold. "There have been tell-tale signs in every role she's had, even when she was saying bad lines, that she is an actor who fully commits to a role. She is a courageous actor who can be both a [hard case] and heartfelt, and that is what I needed for my movie.

"If I didn't have an actor in the lead role who could humanize Aileen and, at the same time, not be afraid to show the dark side, then my movie was going to be a joke. There are a lot of pretty actresses in Hollywood who try to act tough and the audience laughs. Nobody laughs at Charlize in this role."

Theron knows exactly what this role can do for her career. It is not unlike Nicole Kidman's miraculous transformation in The Hours or Halle Berry's dramatic break with her glamorous image in Monster's Ball, both of which resulted in Oscars.

"It could be a magazine cover, a movie role or even an orange dress," Theron explained over tea in another part of the same Beverly Hills hotel. "People in this town get stuck on an image and don't realize that it is the job of an actor to transform. There are a lot of actresses out there who are willing to strip down and get raw, dirty and nasty for a part.

"Many actresses who are considered beautiful are pigeonholed by the people who cast movies. I never thought that my beauty held me back, but I did think it perhaps held other people back from using me. Listen, I don't mind playing the wife or the girlfriend as long as the roles are well-written. It's just that they are rarely well-written."

Theron, 28, said she was on the set of another movie when her agent dropped off the script for Monster.

"I'm not picky. I'll read anything that comes my way. That's why I know how many bad scripts are floating around. Most of them follow a formula.

"But Patty's script broke all the formulaic rules. I was reading a story about a serial killer but I was also reading this incredible love story. I didn't even realize it was based on a real person until after I finished it. ... "It's a fascinating story, and the role of a lifetime."

Wuornos, who was executed last year in Florida for the murders of six men, turned to prostitution at an early age. At 28, she met a lesbian in a bar (played by Christina Ricci in the movie) and fell in love. What may have started as a killing in self-defense turned into a killing spree.

"When we first started filming, the TV journalists were only asking us about the kissing scenes between Charlize and Christina," Jenkins said. "Now that journalists have seen the movie, nobody's asking about the kissing scenes anymore. That's not what this movie is about."

Theron, a native of South Africa whose ballet career was cut short when she injured her knee, agrees.

"The first thing people think about when they hear something about this movie is either the lesbian thing or the fact that this was the first female serial killer ever executed in this country.

"But those aspects don't represent the heart of the movie. This is first and foremost a love story. I'm not even convinced that Aileen was gay. She was so desperate for love that she just fell in love with a person. It didn't matter what sex she was."

Theron said the movie is not trying to elicit sympathy from the audience but it definitely is aiming for a little empathy.

"I don't even like how sympathy is used in movies these days," the actress said. "It's used as a hammer to hit you over the head so that you'll feel a certain way about a character. I would rather people leave the theater thinking about how they feel.

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