Eventually, after auditioning for six months, she won her first big part, in 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate, which starred Al Pacino as a lawyer who is secretly Satan and Keanu Reeves as a new attorney at his firm. Theron was cast as Reeves’s wife, who suffers a mental breakdown. The Devil’s Advocate proved to be Theron’s breakout film, and years later, it was her nuanced performance that convinced Monster director Patty Jenkins that Theron was the perfect actress to play Aileen Wuornos. “She wanted to lay eyes on me, see who I was and what my deal was,” Jenkins recalls of her first meeting with Theron. “Charlize, like any beautiful actress, has a lot of people after her to take her clothing off and play lesbian serial killers.”
At the time, Jenkins was not aware of the role’s resonance with Theron’s own past: When Theron was 15, her mother shot and killed her abusive husband in self-defense, while Charlize cowered in her bedroom. (Theron went public with her story just as the film came out.)
Theron remains extremely close to her mother, Gerda, who eight years ago moved from South Africa to a house two minutes away from her daughter’s. They see each other almost daily, but Theron is reluctant to divulge even the most mundane details of her personal life. After mentioning that she, Townsend and some friends had recently gone camping, she’s asked where they went. “I’m not going to tell you,” she says with a smile. “I don’t want anyone else to go there.” Most other weekends, she says, are spent with the couple’s tight-knit circle of friends and family: “We cook great dinners and have shared many bottles of great red wine.”
After Hancock, Theron will return to a dramatic role in The Burning Plain, the directorial debut of 21 Grams and Babel writer Guillermo Arriaga. The intertwined, looping narratives center on Theron’s character’s quest to reconcile with her mother, played by Kim Basinger. Theron also has a role in Townsend’s first directing project, an indie called Battle in Seattle, which he is currently showing at film festivals.
In the meantime, Theron is producing an American remake of Chan-wook Park’s thriller Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and searching for her next role. Each day, she heads to her production office and sorts through stacks of scripts and books. “With everyone in the office, I’m like, ‘Read, read, read! Give me an idea! Anything!’” she says. “Things aren’t necessarily just always handed my way, but I go out there and I fight!”