By Melisa Wu
Charlize Theron is one of Hollywood’s biggest names. She’s a successful actress, producer, fashion model, and activist — but she didn’t get there by just being a pretty face. She’s a rarity among typical Hollywood stars, in that her character defines her as much as her acting talent.
She was born in Benoni, South Africa on August 7, 1975. Although a natural at modeling, dance was actually her first love. At 18, she attended Joffrey Ballet School in New York and used modeling as a way to pay for her classes, until a heartbreaking knee injury ended her dance career for good. At this point in her life, she had already faced much adversity: her father was an abusive alcoholic who was ultimately killed in an act of self-defense by her mother. At 19, she moved to Los Angeles. There she found herself completely broke, and she lived in a cheap hotel and stole food to survive. Despite these hardships, she didn’t take the easy way out and run home to South Africa. One day, while in line at a bank, she was noticed by talent agent John Crosby, who handed her his business card; the rest is history.
Little wonder Theron excels at playing villainous characters: she’s the definition of fearless. Overcoming more adversity in her early years than most of us would in a lifetime, Theron is as courageous as she is inspirational. In interviews, she can never escape questions about her father’s tragic death, but she lets the world know that her past doesn’t define her:
“I did experience a very traumatic experience, an event, in my life. And somehow it’s formed me…I try to just live my life in as good and authentic a way as possible. And I just wish people would write about that and the matter-of-fact way that that is, rather than: ‘On a summer’s day, her mother shot her father.'”
In her most recent film, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), a one-armed Theron plays Imperator Furiosa, the daring soldier who betrays Immortan Joe in order to free the Five Wives, his female sex slaves and concubines. We didn’t think it was possible to look more imposing than Tom Hardy, her Mad Max co-star, but Theron does it with ease. She may have even started a new trend for the shaved look. But let’s be real here: Theron has always been this bad-ass. Her first significant role was in the crime drama 2 Days in the Valley (1996) where she played an assassin who gets caught up in a murder scandal. Then in 2003, she played serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the drama Monster (a film she also produced), which earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress, a role for which she made herself into an unappealing and psychologically damaged character. Hollywood and the world, could not ignore her talent and range.
Aeon Flux (2005), an adaptation of a popular animated series, was the next high-profile role after her Oscar win. Theron starred as Aeon, a sci-fi action hero, and despite being initially nervous about the role, she convincingly played a rebel assassin, sporting short pitch-black hair while showing off her ability to kick some butt. Yet this was the first time she was required to do heavy stunts from beginning to end, and she later noted:
“This was something that scared the living s**t out of me, because it’s a genre that I’ve never really touched upon, so it’s a world that I’ve never really experienced. And physically it was something that I’d never done.”
If there’s one thing we know about Theron, it’s that she’s one of the most dynamic actresses that Hollywood’s ever seen. When she’s not leading an underground rebel organization, or unleashing her evil powers on Snow White as Queen Ravenna, then she’s making people laugh. She appeared in the third season of Arrested Development, and in 2005, she received a Primetime Emmy nomination for her role in the TV comedy movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
But best of all, she can even turn what would seem to be a mundane role into one of her greatest performances. In 2011, she starred in Young Adult as a middle-aged woman named Mavis, once a high school beauty queen, but now a divorced ghostwriter on the brink of losing her job. Mavis returns to her hometown to win back her high school sweetheart, ignoring the fact that he’s married and just had his first child. She plays the disheveled, borderline-insane-alcoholic role so well that you don’t know if you want to hate her or feel bad for her.
“The character of Mavis makes Young Adult tricky to process. As I absorbed it, I realized what a fearless character study it is.”
– Roger Ebert on Theron’s Young Adult role
Needless to say, Theron is a phenomenal actress. But her roles on-screen are second to her incredible roles off-screen. In the last 10 years, she’s dedicated a huge part of her life to social activism. She created The Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP) in 2007 as a way to help African youth in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
In 2008, she was named the United Nations Messenger of Peace for her ongoing support to women and children in South Africa. She’s also been an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and animal rights. Every year, it seems like she tackles another social issue. In 2015, she made a bold statement against Hollywood’s pay structure when she successfully negotiated equal pay to her male co-star, Chris Hemsworth. This was in response to the infamous Sony hack, which revealed that many A-list actresses were getting but a fraction of their male counterparts’ salaries.
“Girls need to know that being a feminist is a good thing. It doesn’t mean that you hate men. It means equal rights. If you’re doing the same job, you should be compensated and treated the same way.”
While there may be no such thing as a perfect human being, Theron comes precariously close to earning the title.