When people in the movie business talk about Charlize Theron, they use a lot of predictable descriptions. Beautiful, of course. Sexy, ditto. Bombshell? Yeah, yeah. But those who actually have had conversations with the woman will use adjectives you probably wouldn't expect. "Fiercely intelligent," for one. "Gloriously opinionated," for another. And how about this: She's an actress who, in the words of one high-powered film agent, "refuses to be shallow, on-screen or off." Maybe that's because Theron, who grew up in South Africa under apartheid, was exposed to intense, thought-provoking experiences at a young age: As a teenager she was present as her mother, Gerda, shot and killed Charlize's drunken and reportedly abusive father, Charles. (Her mother, who remains very close to Charlize, was never charged; authorities ruled that she acted in self-defense.) When Theron left her home at 16 to model in Milan, she was told she could become one of the world's top models if she just lost five pounds. But modeling was never her passion, so it was off to New York, where she pursued dance at the Joffrey Ballet School but had to quit when her knees failed. Next up, Los Angeles--and this is where the fairy tale kicks in: Theron, who'd never acted, lived in a cheap hotel, stole rolls from bread baskets and was discovered by a talent manager while she was cashing a check at a bank. Soon she was being offered what critics might call "babe roles,"and she took some, in 2 Days in the Valley and Devil's Advocate. But Theron craved more substantial parts, so she gained 30 pounds to play a serial killer in Monster, the role that won her the 2003 Best Actress Oscar.
Since then the 32-year-old A-lister has focused on playing complicated women. This month, though, she costars in the Will Smith comedy Hancock. Surprised that super-serious Theron took on a role in a movie primed for blockbuster status? Well, get ready. This actress is full of surprises, especially when you get her talking. She's got lots of opinions, some controversial, which she defends intelligently, and she can be laugh-out-loud funny. Despite the fact that she's recovering from the flu, she agrees to meet me at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont hotel, and as she relaxes her five-foot-ten-inch frame into the couch, I get right to the point: Why is she obsessed with playing complicated women?
CHARLIZE THERON: I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, Skip, but women are complicated.
GLAMOUR: Yes, of course, but...
CT: And women are not allowed to be [complicated] in our society. We still very much have a Madonna-whore complex [when it comes to women in movies]. We're comfortable seeing women as great mothers, and then we're comfortable seeing them as hookers, but there's no in-between. And cinema definitely hasn't celebrated it at all. I think that's why my role as [serial killer] Aileen Wuornos in Monster stirred people up. We've never seen a woman do things like that, but we're comfortable watching Jack Nicholson do it.
GLAMOUR: Do you feel frustrated that there aren't more scripts written about real, complicated women?
CT: One out of every 10 or 20 scripts has that kind of character. I always ask writers, "Why don't you write more of these stories?" And they say, "People have issues with a woman who's flawed and conflicted. She's not going to be likable."
GLAMOUR: Well, it's a lot of fun to watch you play the sexpot. There are some men in this country, in fact, who think your performance in that Dior commercial, where you walk down a hallway and take off your clothes, is one of your finest moments in front of a camera.
CT: [Laughs.] I've always been comfortable with my sexuality. I'm blessed to have been raised by a woman who never made me feel ashamed about what's underneath my clothes. That's a part of me and I don't run away from it.
GLAMOUR: Speaking of taking off clothes, you once said you were very amused at the way Americans are afraid of topless beaches.
CT: [Laughs.] It bothers me that in this society, it's OK seeing a guy blow another's head off, but a child seeing Janet Jackson's boob at the Super Bowl is the worst thing that could happen. It's not the end of the world! It's just a breast!
GLAMOUR: I read that your mother taught you the philosophy that you don't ever want to be lying on your deathbed and asking yourself, "Why didn't I do that?"
CT: My mother is one of those very unusual, superb human beings--she's innately strong and incredibly smart. She created an environment for me to explore [who I was]. When I was 18 years old and my knees gave out, I was living in a friend's basement in New York City and feeling depressed. She said to me, "If you're going to wallow in self-pity, you can do that back in South Africa. Now, what do you want to do with yourself?"
GLAMOUR: And that's when you decided to move to Los Angeles. One thing you haven't talked about publicly for a long time is the tragedy that took place with your father. But recently, on a trip back to South Africa to introduce a mobile HIV treatment and education clinic you are sponsoring, you told some teenagers about him. What did you say?
CT: These kids deal with death every day. Many of them do not have one or both parents, and I thought [talking about my father] was a way for me to say, "Whether you have one parent or zero parents, you can turn that negative into a positive."
GLAMOUR: How did you turn that negative into a positive?
CT: My father had a horrible disease. He was an alcoholic. I could have been one of those adults who go through life not taking responsibility and saying, "I didn't have a [good] example [of a father]." But I actually had the best example. I had the example of what not to do. It was up to me to choose a life and to live that life.
GLAMOUR: Isn't it interesting that you found a man in your life who makes you so happy? You've now been with Stuart Townsend [the Irish actor, screenwriter and director] for exactly seven years. Has the fabled seven-year itch emerged?
GLAMOUR: So what is it that keeps the relationship going? Why Stuart?
CT: He's got beautiful feet and hands. [Laughs.] Here's the thing: The Beatles had it wrong about love. They did! I think if you are in a one- or two-year relationship, love is enough. You can thrive on that. [But] when you hit years three and four, you realize that if you're going to live with somebody and not just live near somebody...you have to be nurtured emotionally and spiritually, and you have to be intrigued. Because if that intrigue runs out, you're not going to want to go home anymore.
GLAMOUR: Well, what happens to you when you get on a set with a really beautiful man, or a man with all kinds of energy that attracts you?
CT: That's the most absurd question!
GLAMOUR: It is not! It's a valid question!
CT: I have no problem telling Stu, "I think Will Smith is hot and I'm really glad I got to work with him." I'd be an idiot if I said, "No, [Will's] not that good-looking." There'd be something wrong with me.
GLAMOUR: Well, what if Stuart flirts?
CT: I've always said that I worry about being with a man who doesn't flirt. I love that Stuart can watch tennis and tell me that he's got a crush on a tennis player. We're not meant to just like one person. But [that] doesn't mean you go and build a life with another person.
GLAMOUR: Thus, the inevitable question: Why don't the two of you get married?
CT: I want to be clear: I am not judgmental about [the institution of] marriage. I am judgmental about how our government doesn't want to see the reality of gay and lesbian marriages. [But] I have always known [that marriage is] not something for me. Even when I was a little girl I never dreamed of the white dress and all of that.
GLAMOUR: So you don't think marriage is the next logical step with Stuart?
CT: I've had good friends who got married after they've been together for years and they've said that it was the "next step" for them. Or, they've said, "You just can't bail out anymore." And I've wondered, What made you think you could just bail out before [the wedding]? You don't invest that kind of time and energy with somebody and then just go, "All right, see you later."
GLAMOUR: You really somehow manage to stay out of the tabloids.
CT: Stuart and I are private because in this business, it's hard to hold onto something sacred. In this town, you know where not to go if you don't want [attention].
GLAMOUR: But mostly you stay at your home in Malibu?
CT: We have friends come over and we make food, have some wine. Right now we're obsessed with this dominoes game called Mexican Train.
GLAMOUR: Excuse me, Charlize Theron plays dominoes?
CT: Eight people play and there are all these little conniving things you do.
GLAMOUR: You became a U.S. citizen last year, which means you get to vote in your first presidential election this November. Who's going to get your ballot?
CT: I'm voting for Barack Obama. He's inspiring. Stu and I were watching a documentary the other day about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and there was something about looking into his eyes that reminded me of looking into [Nelson] Mandela's. And that also reminded me of looking into Obama's eyes. There is something [in Obama] that transcends.
GLAMOUR: What happens to you next? Do you have a timeline about when you might direct a movie? Or have a child?
CT: I don't believe in making five-year plans. I don't want to say, "Yes, I want to have children in the next five years," because I don't know. I've always known that I'd like to be a mom, but I don't want to live by a schedule. If I [did], I wouldn't be living in the moment. I try as much as I can to live the life I want [right now].
GLAMOUR: So it all goes back to that philosophy your mother taught you, doesn't it? About making sure you're not on your deathbed regretting things.
CT: Yes. Because it's true, man--you just don't know if you'll be around tomorrow. You just don't.