Theron, naturally, prefers to focus on the blockbuster’s unlikely depth. “This is really complex material, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t do it,” insists the actress, adding that her first thought was not, Oh, goody, I get to be pretty! “What Mary seems on the surface,” she notes, “is not what she is, but that’s every character I’ve ever played. In the second act, you think you know where the film is going, and then it just completely...” Theron stops herself before she reveals too much.
Originally titled Tonight, He Comes, the script had been working its way around Hollywood for years, gaining a reputation as one of the best movies no one had yet made, before Smith committed to the project as star and producer in 2005. The first actor cast after he signed on was Theron.
“She seemed like the perfect actress to understand that this is funny, but this is a drama too,” says Smith, who met Theron when both starred in Robert Redford’s 2000 film The Legend of Bagger Vance. “What better way to make sure that texture is captured than [to hire] an Academy Award–winning actress? She brings the power and truth that Tommy Lee Jones brought to Men in Black.” She also brings her beauty, notes director Peter Berg. “Who is a better actress that looks like that? No one.”
Theron jokes that she took the part because “there was a scene where they said I might have to make out with Will.” She recalls that when she asked Smith why he wanted her for the role, he explained that he hoped to bridge the gap between commercial and dramatic fare by trying to go for both in the same movie. “He said that there’s this idea within the industry where you do your independent film that’s made for under $2 million, it’s a struggle and then you win your Academy Award for that, because that’s your best work. And then you do what’s considered these kind of sellout roles in the big blockbusters. And he’s like, ‘Why can’t we do the best work in a big movie that can be a blockbuster?’”
Leaping across that chasm has seemed to be a lot easier for men: Actors such as George Clooney and Matt Damon have moved seamlessly from films such as Ocean’s Eleven and the Bourne series to the more high-minded Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana. Talented actresses, however, are under greater pressure to choose either quality films or commercial ones. Among Academy Award–winning actresses, Angelina Jolie has been the most adept at moving between big action parts and searing dramas. Others, including Theron, Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry and Hilary Swank, have had a tougher time, and when their big-budget movies have tanked (think Kidman in The Golden Compass or Berry in Catwoman), they’ve had to endure a barrage of ridicule and career damage.