When Charlize Theron arrives at our interview, poolside at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood, she’s still showing the effects of a weeklong bout with the flu. With her blond hair pushed back into a no-fuss ’do and dressed Hollywood business casual in jeans, a white shirt and a black sweater vest, she looks, well, incredibly normal. And yet, days earlier, on the set of the W photo shoot at the western edge of the Mojave Desert, there was no overlooking her ultralean Amazonian physique, her mile-long legs and her startling green eyes, framed by a perfectly symmetrical heart-shaped face.
Perhaps surprisingly then, for an actress whom Esquire last fall named the “sexiest woman alive,” the 32-year-old Theron has always resisted taking on roles that play only to her innate beauty. She fired her first manager after he sent her scripts on the order of Showgirls and Species. “So, we can see where he saw my career going,” she quips. But ever since her haunting, Oscar-winning portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in Monster—for which she gained 30 pounds, wore prosthetic teeth and cannily captured the physicality of the hard-bitten lesbian serial killer—Theron has been dogged, she says, by a public perception that she actively seeks to mask her beauty whenever she plays steely-minded, gritty women.
In fact, the surest way to rile her is to suggest that she’s somehow “transformed” herself yet again in several post-Monster roles, among them, a female miner battling sexism in the Minnesota iron mines in the 2005 film North Country, a Tennessee detective (who’s a brunette) in 2007’s In the Valley of Elah and, most recently, a desperate single mom in this year’s Sleepwalking.
“Oh, no, you better not be bringing up ‘ugly,’” she admonishes when I broach the subject. “Look, I get it,” she says. “Monster was a transformation.” But after that, she points out, whenever she’s played “women in middle America living normal lives,” she’s heard cries of “ugly,” no matter what they looked like. “North Country was dirt. That’s what happens when you go into a mine. In the Valley of Elah—that’s when I took real offense, because that was just my real hair color and me with no makeup.”
Her greater transformation, she says, comes on the red carpet. “It’s great fun when you have three people coming to your house, and one’s doing your nails, one’s doing your hair and one’s doing your makeup. Two hours later, you look gorgeous,” she says. “But that’s not my life.” Looking at her, you have to conclude that Theron is being unduly self-deprecating, and that the truth lies somewhere between the red carpet and North Country.