She is stunning, of course—the kind of woman you assume had it easy. Then you hear her story: Born in a South African farming community, at 15 she saw her mother shoot and kill her alcoholic father in self-defense after he threatened to murder them both. A year later, Charlize moved to Milan to model, having won a contest her mother had entered her in. After a short stint as a ballerina in New York, she bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, where she might have made a career of playing bombshells. Instead she refused to be typecast. For her Oscar-winning turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, she gained 30 pounds and allowed her face to be made unrecognizable. Serious about bringing important social issues to light onscreen and off, she has started an anti-rape campaign in South Africa.
When I walk through the door of her place in L.A., I see that she has transported a slice of her homeland here, with handmade drums in one corner, a bust of a black woman on the mantel, and a copy of Lost Africa on her coffee table. After serving me a scrumptious lunch (oh, the roasted potatoes!), she tells me about her childhood, her ambitions, her boyfriend, and the road to stardom...and we even have a friendly disagreement.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Charlize Theron
This interview appeared in the November 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: You were born in 1975. When I look at you, I think, This is what 30 looks like now. What does 30 feel like for you?
Charlize: It definitely feels like a different chapter. In my 20s, I felt I had to be doing something every moment. For years I'd had vivid dreams that I would die at 27.
Oprah: Where did the dreams come from?
Charlize: I have no idea. But at 28, I just relaxed. A weight lifted from my shoulders. I didn't feel as if the clock were ticking, like I had to run and do all these things. When you experience the death of others when you're young—and I did—you're aware of that clock.
Oprah: Are you talking about your father's death?
Charlize: Yes. Not just my dad, but uncles, friends. Funerals were a normal thing.
Oprah: Just the other day, somebody said to me, "Are you going to ask Charlize about her father?" And I said, "When something like that happens, you move on after ten or 20 years."
Oprah: You obviously didn't let that define your life.
Charlize: God, no.
Oprah: A lot of people would have.
Charlize: It's not that something like that doesn't scar you. But scars can heal. The way my father died was traumatic. I would wish for nothing more in my life than for it not to have happened the way it did. But I can't change that. In my late 20s, I hated talking about it because telling the story made me seem like the victim. Then I realized that if that's not how I carry the experience, then talking about it doesn't matter.
Oprah: That's right. I think the world is divided into doers and waiters. Obviously, you're a doer. You moved to Hollywood with just $400. What made you do that?
Charlize: You know what? It was just plain, simple, young, stupid naiveté.
Oprah: I would have thought, "Where am I going to work? Where am I going to live? How will I eat?" Did you know anyone in Los Angeles?
Charlize: Nobody. Not a soul. But I was living such a gypsy life. So if this didn't work, it would be just another adventure for me in a new place. I'd been modeling all over Europe—Milan, Paris, London. Before I left South Africa, my whole theory was this: If everything falls apart, then at least I got to see the world.
Oprah: How did you like modeling?
Charlize: Not my thing. I like to talk.
Oprah: I grew up idolizing beautiful girls. I'd think, "What would it be like to look like that?" Now that I'm older, I realize that would be the most boring thing in the world.
Charlize: There's definitely something artistic about modeling. It just wasn't artistically satisfying for me because I like to say what's on my mind. And in that business...
Oprah: Nobody cares what you have to say. Bottom line is, "Take the picture and keep your mouth shut. Turn to the left. You're beautiful, dahling!"
Charlize: Even in acting, you show up to play a character, but if the director will allow it, there's a creativity you're part of. That doesn't exist in modeling. You might have a passion for clothes, but you stand there while they put what they want on you, like it or not. Here's the other thing: I missed discipline. I was a ballerina, and ballet is something you have to work hard at. I couldn't figure out what I had to work hard at to be good at modeling—other than losing five pounds.
Oprah: At moments, does dancing feel like flying?
Charlize: For me dancing is similar to acting. I wasn't the greatest dancer in terms of technique. But when I went onstage as a dying swan, I became that swan. It was the storytelling aspect that I loved. But I had to stop dancing because my knees were so bad.
Oprah: After you packed up to go to California, you were so naive that when you got a ticket that read "Los Angeles"...
Charlize: I said, "Wrong place! I want to go to Hollywood!" Oh, I'm a smart one.
Oprah: Funny! When you got here, did you have a vision?
Charlize: I did have a dream—but I knew I had to survive as well. I began waitressing so I could pay rent. I also found a modeling agency. I was very marketable in Germany, where there are these big catalog jobs that pay three grand a day. They were crappy jobs that no model wanted to do because the clothes and photographs were so ugly. But I didn't care. I told the agency, "Look, I'm not trying to be a supermodel, and I don't want to be in magazines. I need three grand a day for the next six months." Then I got my role in...
Oprah: Children of the Corn III?
Charlize: Yes. I was one of the 500 kids running through a field. I actually had my own murder scene in it. I got dragged into the earth, kicking and screaming.
Charlize: Exactly. And they didn't even use my voice. I was dubbed.
Oprah: So you were 18 going on 19 when you arrived in Hollywood. Who the hell did you think you were?
Charlize: Stupid! If I had to do that whole journey again today, I don't know if I'd have the guts even to live in the places I lived. When I got off the plane, I asked the cabdriver to take me to the cheapest hotel in Hollywood. He took me to the Farmer's Daughter, which is not the Farmer's Daughter of today [with quaint furnishings and celebrity galas]—no Maxim magazine parties. Back then the hotel could be rented by the hour. But I'd lived in worse model apartments. I took a bottle of bleach and some rags, and I cleaned up my room and stayed there for a couple of weeks. From my window, I could see the Hollywood sign.
Oprah: In the movies, when a woman's going off to fulfill a dream, she's always carrying one suitcase, maybe two. I'm thinking, Is that her whole life?
Charlize: My whole life was in one suitcase. It was a fabric suitcase that I had to fix with hairpins because it had torn. But I just knew there was a world I wanted to see.
Oprah: How could you be so fearless?
Charlize: My only alternative was to go home. At the time, there really wasn't a future for me in South Africa. I didn't finish high school or go to college.
Oprah: Was your family considered middle class?
Charlize: Yes. The problem is that we lived really nicely when we shouldn't have. My father was spending money where there was no money to spend. When he died, we were left with major debts.
Oprah: How much was the Farmer's Daughter?
Charlize: About $28 a day.
Oprah: Let me tell you, you're not going to get a good thread count in your sheets there. Did you take acting classes?
Charlize: I went to a couple that I just couldn't deal with because though I didn't know anything about acting, I instinctively knew it shouldn't be manipulated the way it is in most of the classes. Then one day in a bank, I got my chance. I was trying to cash my last check from a modeling job in New York, but because it was an out-of-state check, the bank wouldn't accept it—and I really needed the money. So I began pleading with this teller to help me.
Oprah: From what I've read, you were throwing a tantrum.
Charlize: I know that's what people say, but I'm like, "It's survival, people." If I didn't cash that check, I wouldn't have had a place to sleep that night. I said to the teller, "You don't understand—please!" I was begging and pleading, and a gentleman came over and tried to help. I had to fill out a ton of paperwork and open an account, and I cashed the check.
Oprah: There's nothing like knowing you're going to get kicked out of a $28-a-night hotel.
Charlize: There's nothing more powerful than a vulnerable woman. I knew my power. What I didn't know is that I was auditioning for a guy who would end up being my manager. On the way out, the man who'd helped gave me his card. [He was John Crosby, who represented John Hurt and Rene Russo.] He said, "If you're interested, I'll represent you."
Oprah: Why do you think that happened?
Charlize: I'd be unbelievably wrong to say there isn't such a thing as the right place, right time—luck. If I hadn't met John, I don't know what I would have done next. I had no idea how to get a manager. If I hadn't been in the bank that day, I honestly don't think I'd be here right now. There are so many talented actors who don't ever get the chance.
Oprah: Why did you?
Charlize: I don't know, but I go down on my knees in extreme gratitude. I don't take it for granted. I know all these actors who are probably more talented than I am. I've taken the chance and done my best with it.
Oprah: I don't believe in luck.
Charlize: I think I was lucky. Can you imagine if I had just walked into some agency with the really, really heavy South African accent? My accent wasn't French-sexy or Spanish-sexy. It was some crazy accent nobody had ever heard, and I had never acted in my entire life. "Can you represent me?" Please! I was definitely lucky.
Oprah: Don't you think your looks had something to do with it?
Charlize: I'm sure. He's a guy, right? But at the end of the day, I was also aware that looks can only get you so much.
Oprah: Let's talk about your beauty for a moment. When I first walked in, I thought, "You are as beautiful as beauty gets."
Oprah: You just are.
Charlize: That was never emphasized in the house I was raised in. I don't think my mom ever said, "Isn't she a pretty girl?" She'd say, "You should hear her sing. You should read this poem she wrote." The praise was always about what I'd done, not how I looked.
Oprah: You were fortunate.
Charlize: What most people don't realize is that no matter how others see you, you have to wake up to yourself every morning. And I really love myself. I'm comfortable in my skin. But there are some mornings when I look in the mirror and go, "Not so good." Then other times when I get my hair and makeup done, I stand at the mirror and go, "I like it. It's hot." And I think all women do that.
Oprah: I agree. But what's worth honoring—and I do mean the word honor—is that by society's definition, not just your own feelings about yourself, you are a beautiful woman. It's a reality.
Charlize: It's not something I'm comfortable with.
Oprah: Well, I think you need to get comfortable with it. A multibillionaire once said to me, "Wealthy men and pretty women never hear the truth." What do you think?
Charlize: I'm going to raise my hand and say, "Not true." As long as I have my mother next to me, I will always hear the truth. In South Africa, you develop a thick skin early on. That's true in every country where there's great hardship. When life is really difficult, there's less time for sensitivity. You've got to survive. You've got to stand up and go on with your life. That's the South African way.
Oprah: Something just clicked for me. Because your identity was formed in a place where life wasn't American-style comfortable, you have a healthy attitude about your own beauty.
Oprah: If you'd been raised in this country, you would have had your mother and everybody in every store talking about what a pretty little girl you were.
Charlize: I witness that here in America. I also see friends raising their kids without discipline. The kids rule. In South Africa, it's a much harder life because survival is so at the core of everything. It's a farm life. That's partly why in the beginning of my career, I was so uncomfortable being cast as a sex bomb. Well, at first, I was comfortable in that—I was very comfortable in my own sexuality. And I thought, These people exist, so I'm going to play them. But when I started talking about how comfortable I was with that, people thought I was a freak. And I was like, "Wow." I wasn't raised to think any of that stuff was bad. But at the same time, I knew that wasn't the only thing I wanted to do. People said, "You can't play the girl who gets left by her boyfriend."
Oprah: You fit into the pretty girl box.
Charlize: It's not a fun box to be in.
Oprah: What's a more interesting box for you?
Charlize: Life. Everything around the box.
Oprah: Is there still a lot of emphasis on the way you look?
Charlize: Monster killed that. I've made sure that puppy's gone to bed.
Oprah: How did you get the role in Monster?
Charlize: For the first time ever, something came to me that was different from how people saw me. Patty Jenkins wrote the script with me in mind.
Oprah: That's what's so incredible.
Charlize: I never questioned it, because transformation is just what I do. I like to get into the makeup, the hair. When I saw Patty two weeks ago, we were laughing because the whole thing happened so organically. We built teeth and played around with contact lenses.
Oprah: So were you instrumental in deciding how the character would look?
Charlize: Yes. Toni G, who did the makeup, played a huge part, too. She has this incredible eye. You can't just take a mask of somebody and put it on someone else. You have to manipulate the features of the actor. She really transformed my face. We'd play around in my kitchen...
Oprah: This kitchen, where I just sat and had the nice potatoes?
Charlize: Yes. We were filing down false teeth. Patty and I were actually like, "Do you think it's enough?" By the time we began the makeup and hair tests, we'd gotten so used to my [new] face. I stayed in it most of the time while I was on set. I would wear Aileen's clothes all the time, have my hair the way she would, so the crew really got to know me as Aileen.
Oprah: Didn't you have to get hours of makeup every morning?
Charlize: No. The whole thing took just under an hour.
Oprah: That's right—because you'd put on all that weight.
Charlize: The only prosthetics we used were on my eyelids, to make them heavier. Everything else was handpainted and airbrushed. Then I'd pop in the teeth and put in the lenses. I didn't do anything with my hair. I would wet it in the morning, then comb it back and let it dry that way.
Oprah: I'm sitting here looking at your luminous skin. How did they change that?
Charlize: They put an alcohol-based liquid on my face and dried it with a blow-dryer. It made my skin look leathery and sun-damaged. But I never felt ugly.
Oprah: I didn't think Aileen was ugly. I just thought she was different from you. Did you make a conscious effort to gain 30 pounds?
Charlize: No. I just thought, "I'll see how much I can gain."
Oprah: What a delight. Dear God in heaven!
Charlize: It was over Christmas, so it was perfect. I finished everybody's desserts.
Oprah: What did you splurge on?
Charlize: I'm not a big sweets person, but I love savory cheeses and creams and breads and pastas. I crave them so badly.
Oprah: That's fantastic, girl.
Charlize: After a while, it's not that fun.
Oprah: Where were you when the Oscar nominations were read?
Charlize: In this house, asleep. I didn't turn on the telly.
Oprah: You really didn't? Okay, you were at least thinking about it?
Charlize: No. I'd completely forgotten about it the day before.
Oprah: Even though everybody was buzzing about you?
Charlize: Yes. The phone rang at 5 A.M., and my boyfriend, Stuart, turned to me and said, "Who is calling at 5 in the morning?" It was my publicist. Then I was like, "Oh my God, this is insane!" Then I ran away.
Oprah: Did you?
Charlize: I did. It was a lot—the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, National Board of Review, one right after the other.
Oprah: Suddenly, you're the It Girl.
Charlize: I wanted to escape. So I packed a backpack and went to Brazil, to this little fishermen's village. When I came back to L.A. three days before the Academy Awards, I was rested and excited. Everybody had been saying, "You have to do this press and that." I said, "I've done the film. I don't want to force it down anybody's throat. Let it speak for itself. If it happens, it happens. And if it doesn't, it'll still be fine." After a while, it's like, "People are dying in Africa. We can talk about something else." But during that season, there's a lot of pressure. Then people start saying things like, "You know you've got it in the bag." I don't want to live my life thinking that I've got anything in the bag.
Oprah: And then there's the gown pressure.
Oprah: I have to tell you, I gasped when I saw you come out across the stage.
Charlize: You're kidding.
Oprah: The dress, your presence—it was a moment of supreme destiny for you.
Charlize: Oh my God, Oprah. Thank you!
Oprah: I didn't know much about you, but I knew the moment was huge. There aren't many things that make me gasp.
Charlize: I think a lot of that was because I was really having a great time.
Oprah: You were so fully there.
Charlize: The last thing I wanted was that glazed-over look. I'd said, "The most important thing is that I want my mom there, and Stuart, and my longtime manager, who took me on when I was 19." Then I said, "You know what? Bottom line is that we're all dressed up. I'm going to have a great night." I had a blast.
Oprah: Well, I have to say, you radiated. As you walked across the stage, I said, "That is a movie star."
Charlize: I was very happy. A dear friend from Gucci made the dress. It was really easy—I had one fitting. I wore tiny little slipper shoes, just really comfortable.
Oprah: So you weren't wearing five-and-a-half-inch Manolos? I've seen people do that and then lose themselves. Part of them is still in the seat when they walk across the stage.
Charlize: On the day of the Oscars, around noon, I had a big fish fry-up—fried eggs, fried bacon, just ten of us. Opened a bottle of Champagne. Pigged out.
Oprah: You could pig out before putting on that dress?
Charlize: They don't feed you. I didn't want to sit there starved.
Oprah: That is so good.
Charlize: We were all in my bedroom sprawled on the bed. We played music and had fun. Then we got in the car, went to the awards, and had a great time.
Oprah: That's the best way to do it. On a more serious note, tell me why you started an anti-rape campaign in South Africa.
Charlize: When someone gave me the facts, they devastated me. I knew rape was a big problem in South Africa, but I had no idea how bad it was. One out of every three women there will be raped in her lifetime. Every 26 seconds, a woman is raped.
Oprah: I think the percentage may be even higher.
Charlize: I do, too. It's incredibly sad. I know how people think in South Africa. AIDS, rape, divorce, violence against women—nobody ever talks about it. You just sweep it under the rug. I want to do something to change that mentality. It has to change. What kills me is that people with HIV in South Africa can't live their lives honestly because they become outcasts. They get kicked out of their communities and have nowhere to go. Same with rape. I feel that if there was a conversation happening in South Africa where rape became a topic at dinner, then women wouldn't have to hide or feel that they caused it.
Oprah: I agree. You're so mature. At 30, do you feel like you've found yourself? I know why they call that series The Young and the Restless, because all through my 20s, I was anxious to get into life.
Charlize: I always felt there was something I was missing out on. That's gone now. Now that I'm 30, I can't wait for 40!
Oprah: It only gets better, let me tell you.
Charlize: I feel like my mom's life started at 50. When I look at photos of her in the late 1980s, early '90s, she is an old woman. Now she has completely come into herself.
Oprah: Is your boyfriend, Stuart, the One?
Charlize: I think so, but I don't want to put so much emphasis on it. There are no guarantees. I don't know how he's going to feel in ten years about me. Here's what I do know: Every single day I have with him, I wouldn't want it any other way. Every night when I go to bed and I get to fall asleep next to him, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I feel I have a family in him. The things I always wanted to share with just my girlfriends, I can't wait to tell him, too. He tells me the truth. I'm lucky.
Oprah: You keep saying you're lucky, and I can't take it. You're not lucky. You are blessed and graced. Luck is just preparation meeting opportunity. For instance, in the moment you met your manager in the bank, if you hadn't been psychologically or emotionally prepared...
Charlize: Things might have gone completely differently.
Oprah: Even the word blessed doesn't capture the bigness of it. When you are in alignment with the divine current of your life, that's when that thing people call luck happens. What do you know for sure?
Charlize: That I will die. That's the only thing that's certain.
Oprah: What makes you laugh hysterically?
Charlize: My dogs. Stuart.
Oprah: What is your greatest aspiration?
Charlize: To continue to do work that matters to me. Human beings are still so undiscovered, and I want to add to our discovery in my work. I want to bring characters like Aileen to life—to give us patience for how different we all are. If I can do that, I'll be happy.
Oprah: Are you happy now?
Charlize: Very happy. Over the moon.