Charlize Theron is the happiest of celebrities. The stunning South African-born Oscar winner may regularly grace magazine covers and seems to live the high life – and yes, when working she travels with extensive entourages. Yet her best moments, she says, are the smaller personal ones, spent with Irish actor Stuart Townsend, her partner in love and in intrepid adventures, on the hoof to one of the far-flung reaches of the planet.
When she recently took a year and a half away from acting to develop her own films and regain her energy – following her Oscar campaign for North Country and her taxing stint as an action hero in Aeon Flux, she naturally took off with her handsome beau.
“We saw a lot of great places,” enthuses the 32-year-old former model, who shares her Malibu beachside home with Townsend. “We spent some time in Greece, Turkey, we went to Ireland, South Africa. We spent time in Paris; we just came back from Belize and Guatemala. We travel all the time. We love to just kind of grab a backpack and go.” Around Christmas the pair was even spotted in New Zealand.
While they don’t mind roughing it, she admits “I do have a thing with sheets – that’s my only prima donna thing. I don’t mind not taking a shower for a week or anything like that, but I don’t want to sleep on dirty sheets.”
Today, looking nicely scrubbed up in a flowing black sleeveless plunging v-neck top with big shiny square black buttons, Theron is wearing an ornate ring on her engagement ring finger, which begs the marriage question to be asked. “Oh, it’s not an engagement ring. It’s a forget-me-not ring Stuart gave me a couple of years ago. I mean, we’re married,” she notes assertively. “He’s my husband. We’re just not married in the eyes of the Church and State. We didn’t need the piece of paper. It’s actually an old Victorian ring that opens up,” she continues, offering me a peek inside. “It has this little compartment in the bottom where you can put love letters.”
So he’s romantic? “He is,” she coos. “He’s a catch and he’s hot!”
We are naturally meeting to discuss a movie, Paul Haggis’s In The Valley Of Elah, a moving drama where everyone worked for a fraction of their usual fee. Theron recalls continually bumping into Haggis, the writer-director of the Oscar-winning Crash, when they were out and about on the awards circuit.
“I was nominated for North Country and we were the only two losers who would be outside, smoking cigarettes in the alleys. This job is the best thing cigarettes have ever given me,” she quips, “because we started talking. Paul told me the story of the real family and the combination of working with him proved very alluring.”
In the story Theron’s detective, a single mum raising her young son, helps Tommy Lee Jones’s retired detective investigate the death of his son, who had just returned from fighting in Iraq.
While Theron refrains from talking politics in our Venice Festival interview – she’d already expressed her view that the American soldiers should be brought home from Iraq at the film’s press conference – she says she likes that the film asks questions that need to be asked. She delivers a more subdued performance than usual and her character’s authenticity stems from spending time with female detectives.
“More than anything I wanted to know how you really interrogate somebody because that was a huge part of what I have to do in this film,” she says.
The reason Theron has succeeded as an actor where other models have failed is that she has developed chameleon-like qualities, though she doesn’t always go as far as covering her perfect skin in latex as she did to play Aileen Wuornos in her Oscar-winning Monster role.
“I feel very blessed to have had the opportunities that I’ve had, but then I’ve really worked my balls off,” she says.
Theron’s underlying earthiness stems from her upbringing on a farm near Johannesburg, where she tended chickens, her pet goat and about 20 dogs.
One of her formative experiences came at the age of 15 when she watched her mother shoot her father dead in self-defence, though the assertion he was violent and alcoholic has recently been disputed. “The most important lesson I had to learn was that it wasn’t my fault,” Theron once said. “Early on my mum and I realised that we had to make peace with ourselves and go forward.”
She left for Milan and Paris at 16 after winning a modelling competition, and went on to use her new-found wealth to pursue her dream of studying ballet in New York. When she injured both knees she decided to give acting a go and ventured to Los Angeles at the behest of her mother, Gerda.
She was in a string of unremarkable films, including The Astronaut’s Wife, Men of Honor and 2002’s Trapped (where she met Townsend), but it wasn’t until Monster that she was taken seriously. Theron has teamed with Townsend to star in his directing debut Battle In Seattle focusing on the huge protests surrounding the 1999 World Trade Organisation meeting in Washington.
“Stuart’s a great director,” she says of her favourite Irishman. “People think I’m being biased because I sleep with him but I was really blown away. The movie is incredibly powerful.”
While she looks forward to one day starting a family, marriage she says, “isn’t really my thing”. In one of her grander statements, the articulate and sometimes outspoken liberal said she would marry Townsend if gay marriage became legal in the US.
“I just think love is so hard to find and to say it has to be a man and a woman is unfair. It’s quite prehistoric in my view,” she says.
Naturally when the couple eventually have their own children Theron says she’d like them to be global. “I want them to see different cultures and different countries and experience that. I think the greatest gift my mum ever gave me was to always encourage me to be an individual. She gave me the information and said to come up with my own conclusion.
“My mum never forced her opinions on me when it came to religion. So I was obsessed with church and then one day I didn’t want to go to church any more. The priest came by and said, ‘We need to talk to you about your daughter not coming to church any more’, and my mum said, ‘You don’t need to talk to me; she’s right there in the room’. I was eight years old.”
These days Theron is more spiritual than religious. “I don’t practise anything particular, but I’m a scholar of eastern religions and, in fact, I’m fascinated by all of them. I try to educate myself as much as possible. But at heart I think I’m pretty much a pagan. A hike is a good church for me. Nature is as close to God as I’ve ever been.”