Charlize Theron Interview, In The Valley of Elah

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline sat down with Academy Award winner Charlize Theron ("North Country,” "Monster”) at the Los Angeles press day for her new film "In the Valley of Elah,” directed by acclaimed filmmaker Paul Haggis ("Crash”). Inspired by true events, the suspense drama tells the story of a war veteran and father’s (Tommy Lee Jones) search for his missing son, a soldier who is reported AWOL after recently returning from Iraq. Susan Sarandon plays his wife Joan and Charlize Theron plays Emily Sanders, the police detective who helps in the investigation.

As the evidence grows, Sander’s missing person’s case begins to look more and more like foul play, and soon she finds herself in a fight with the military brass as she and Hank struggle to keep control of the investigation. But when the truth about Mike’s time in Iraq finally begins to emerge, Hank’s entire world is challenged and he’s forced to reevaluate long-held beliefs to solve the mystery behind his son’s disappearance.

Charlize Theron is one of the great actresses of our time. With her ability to capture a plethora of characters, she relentlessly demands the audience’s full attention as soon as she appears on screen. This South African native is continuously being praised and admired for her inspiring and powerful performances.

Theron captivated audiences as female serial killer Eileen Wuornos in the independent gem "Monster” and won multiple awards for her breakthrough performance. She was next seen in the drama "North Country” opposite Frances McDormand and Sissy Spacek for director Niki Caro. She is currently filming Peter Berg’s "Hancock” starring alongside Will Smith and Jason Bateman. Charlize Theron is a terrific actor and we really appreciated her time. Here’s what she had to tell us about her new movie:

MoviesOnline: We understand you were the first on board with this. Can you tell us a little bit about your conversations with Paul over the past couple of years while he was writing it?

CHARLIZE THERON: I got to know Paul when I was nominated for North Country. We were doing the award circle. He was doing it for Crash. And the two of us were, like, the only losers in an alley smoking cigarettes, and he told me about this project. And he was still writing it. We kind of kept running into each other and he kept talking about it. It sounded fascinating. He had sent me a script, he was in Italy and he emailed me a script and I read it, and the next day I said, "Count me in.”

It's usually a combination for me trying to find good, solid material that I'm really interested in, but it's just as important for me to get a director that I really want to work with. I really, really wanted to work with Paul.

MoviesOnline: Was it the story or the character in particular?

CHARLIZE THERON: No, it was the story. It's always the story, always. You can have the best character in the world in a crap story and it doesn't matter, so I'd rather be in a good movie. And whether I'm in it for two minutes or two hours, that doesn't matter to me.

MoviesOnline: Given the current political situation, what were the biggest message points that came across to you personally when you read the script?

CHARLIZE THERON: To me this was a human story. It was about people, it was the truth. Politically I didn't feel like this carried any kind of agenda. I didn't feel like there was any liberal or Democratic or Republican kind of message behind it. I didn't feel like it was pro-war or against war. I felt like this was just the truth about the realities of we are at war and we are sending these very young kids over there to go and do something that very few of us would go and do. And I have a great respect for that. But they're coming back here, and we can't expect them to kind of fit back into society and be normal, functioning citizens. It's just not going to happen. We have to give them the right tools and we're not.

So that to me was something, obviously, that kind of touched me because I've met people who've gone over there and fought. And to hear them come back and not be looked after, I think that's very ungrateful when we can't do that. But this story was the truth. It really happened. That to me was heartbreaking. My character was never part of the real story. But as a story that just, on a human level, really connected with me, I thought it was heartbreaking, so I really wanted to tell it. Thanks! [Laughter]

MoviesOnline: Charlize, there's an element of Emily's story, too, though--her world, where she's not accepted for various reasons like so many women in the workplace---

CHARLIZE THERON: For being a woman?

MoviesOnline: For being a woman and also for how she got her job or at least how the guys around her perceive it. How important was it to you for that to be an element of her character?

CHARLIZE THERON: It wasn't. It was something that I never talked to Paul about. It was there. I think it's very truthful, just from all the research that I had done on North Country, you know? What I liked about it was that he brought it, and what I think is very truthful--I always said this when I was doing North Country--that a lot of this stuff happens on a very humorous level. That's why it's considered innocent. And I think in a way it was a little bit of a layer this movie needed. It was a very serious film. So we always treated it like what I had found in my research to be very true.

I mean, these incidents are not big--not all of them, most of them are considered to be a joke. These guys don't think they're doing anything terribly wrong. So we never wanted to hit that kind of over the head, but I think he cast really great actors and we had a great time kind of playing off that, never making it too serious. I think Emily knew. She was smart, she had thick skin, she could deal with it. It was just exhausting.

MoviesOnline: But what about the element of her sleeping her way into the job? The Josh Brolin character, her boss there, was the guy that got her the promotion because they had been lovers.

CHARLIZE THERON: What I liked about that was that it was something that you could consider so easily in the workforce as being kind of what the guys are thinking it is--that she slept her way to the top. And the irony of it is that she actually really fell in love with this guy and he was married. She had an affair. She got pregnant. She decided to have the baby. Loved that, you know? How not right, you know? How not accepted. But that's the truth of a lot of people, right there. And I liked that she carried her head high, and said, 'You know what? That's fine. I got myself in this situation.'

But I think she really truly cared for this guy. She could never have him. I thought that was a really nice little complication for her in the story and that everybody around her just thought that she did it because she was a slut. That was really not who she was.

MoviesOnline: And then she gets to show that she's really the best detective in the group there besides Tommy Lee Jones.

CHARLIZE THERON: Yeah, next to him. I loved that. I said to Paul, 'I'm starting to feel like those classic, '60's television programs where you're just kind of like (swings arm), every single time, Dah!' I loved that she was very flawed and she wasn't the greatest detective but she really had heart. And she went after it as hard as she possibly could. She wasn't necessarily... You know, how boring to play the guy who always gets it right. It was a nice layer, I thought. And I thought it really helped with the chemistry between me and Tommy's character.

MoviesOnline: Did you spend time with female detectives?

CHARLIZE THERON: Yeah, I did in Albuquerque I spent a little time. Really just because I was intrigued by interrogation scenes and I wanted to hear what that was really like. And we had a really big one that I thought was really important in this film and I wanted to do it as truthful as possible. And I didn't really have a lot to pull from, so I wanted to hear from somebody what it was really like to interrogate people and how do you really get information out of people? And it turned out to be very boring. [Laughs] You're not supposed to lose your cool. You're not supposed to be all overly dramatic. It's supposed to be a very normal conversation, a very reasonable conversation.

And I think that Paul initially really wrote it that way, so that was important for me to know that we weren't doing something that wasn't... I mean, it’s always important for me on all those levels. I don't want to go and do something that's too showy. It's interesting for me to go and find the truth.

MoviesOnline: Could you talk about working with Tommy Lee? I loved watching you go toe-to-toe with him in scenes.

CHARLIZE THERON: I loved him. I loved working with him. I think he's incredibly talented. I was very intimidated. And I actually owe Frances McDormand a lot because I had talked to her when I had decided to do this and Paul was going to have Tommy do it. I said, "How is it working with him?” And she said, "You know, you just give him a big hug every time you see him and it just drops his guard.” [Laughs] And I did the first time I saw him, I gave him a big hug. And from that moment on he just kind of took me under his wing and we had a great respect for each other and worked really hard and well together. Yeah, I had a great time working with him, definitely. It's great to be in a ton of scenes with somebody that really kind of keeps you on your toes, you know?

MoviesOnline: Along those same lines, how was it acting opposite not only the actors, but the soldiers who had actually fought in Iraq?

CHARLIZE THERON: It was a combination of a few things because at first I looked at Paul and I said, "Are you sure about this?” because we were on a tight schedule. There were very, very, big scenes with these guys, very important scenes. You just kind of want to go like, you hope… These guys aren’t professional actors. You hope you're going to make your day. And he said, "Trust me,” and I did. And they showed up and I was blown away.

I couldn't tell the difference between the actors and the real soldiers. I actually became really good friends with one of them. I think in a way it was so incredibly helpful to have that around all the time. Just to stay on the road of truth. And just on a human level, I'm just fascinated, too, and intrigued by what they have experienced and where they are and how they felt. It was great having them around. It really was great. And amazing, amazing actors, really amazing. And I know why, because I think all of this is so fresh for them, you know? And that really was what this work was about, the truth of their lives. And I think that really helped.

MoviesOnline: Paul Haggis had an interesting comment before about how in post production, the more he edited out the better it got. It made me think about the value of stillness because there are many scenes in this film without dialogue, that it’s the character’s behavior that we learn from and that speaks volumes about them. Is that something as an actor that you have to learn to value, rather than pages of dialogue, to have a good scene?

CHARLIZE THERON: I’ve always had a great value for it and I think it’s from being a ballerina for 12 years and never having words. I’m not a fan of words. Directors hate me sometimes because I have a very clear understanding of how powerful the physical can be. I played a swan and I never had any feathers or said anything, you know, but I was a swan. So the physical to me is incredible. I think it’s something that you can have an entire monologue and sometimes as an actor we get lost in these kind of showy moments of ‘yes, we want that monologue’ and ‘we want that’ and I really have no desire for a monologue. And when Paul started writing my part, I was like, "Can you cut down on the lines, please?” You know it was really intense writing.

In a way that’s why I liked this character because I had never done anything really like that. I tend to play the Tommy Lee part in films, the emotionally driven character, and it was really interesting to be the actor in the scene that wasn’t emotionally driven. There are levels of it but nothing close to what Tommy has to go through and in many ways I’m there to pass along a lot of information and that was a huge challenge for me. So it was great.

There were a couple of times, little tiny moments, like the day after she finds the young girl in the bath tub and she’s sitting at her desk. Paul had this secretary kind of come over and she’s giving me the bank statements and he said, "So she’s going to come up and she’s going to say "I’m sorry” and you say "Don’t worry” and I said "No, no, no, no. I can’t say anything. I’m guilt ridden. There’s no way. I can’t look anybody in the eye. I mean I fucked up.” So that was a great example of just really understanding that there were no words needed there. There was nothing needed there. Those are usually my favorite moments. I always say I’m a really good actor when I’m not speaking and you’re shooting me from behind. Always.

MoviesOnline: You said before that directors hate you, is that because you always say I want to do this shorter?

CHARLIZE THERON: Yeah, I’m always cutting lines. I will strip it down to the bare bones. But the good thing about having a director like Paul is that he covers all bases and then he does it editorially so it’s one of those things when I’m doing it, in my head I might go like "God, this really doesn’t feel right.” But I know that Paul, at the end of the day, can always lose it. But if there’s a hole in the story, you might need that point. So it’s kind of one of those give and takes. But yeah, I would have loved to have been in silent films. [Laughs]

MoviesOnline: You’re in a big budget Will Smith movie called "Hancock.” Can you talk a little about your experience on that?

CHARLIZE THERON: Great. It’s been a great experience. It’s been a really, really great film to work on. I would make a film about tape recorders if Will Smith was in it because I love working with him. I just think he’s an incredible actor and I love the experience of being around him. I love Jason Bateman. I thought it was a really well written piece that wasn’t just fluff, you know. There was a real intelligence to it, yet it was fun, but it was smart, complicated, had a lot of conflict. I don’t see a lot of that come 4th of July. I liked it.

MoviesOnline: Did Will Smith pursue you romantically in this movie?

CHARLIZE THERON: Well now, I think this is about The Valley of Elah, isn’t it? [Laughs]

MoviesOnline: Do you have any reservations about doing another comic book movie despite all the reasons you had for Hancock?

CHARLIZE THERON: Would I do it again?

MoviesOnline: I was wondering if you had any reservations about playing another superhero? You’ve done Aeon Flux.

CHARLIZE THERON: No, it’s all different. That’s like saying I’m not going to do another genre-based film. I don’t believe in that. It’s two completely different stories. Completely different. Yeah.

MoviesOnline: What do you find more challenging: the character-driven dramas like this movie or the action?

CHARLIZE THERON: They’re all different in different ways. They’re all challenging in different ways. I find John Hancock a challenge because it’s not something that I’m familiar with. It’s not a comfort zone for me. You throw me in a drama and I know I can swim. I like the idea of doing this and looking at Will and going, "I don’t know Men in Black 4. You tell me. I don’t do these.” I like that challenge and what I love about this piece is that it’s very complicated. It really crosses over so many different genres. And it’s really interesting to shoot out of continuity and to figure out where you’re heading what because it’s not just silly comedy. There’s a lot of heavy stuff in this – really, really heavy stuff.

MoviesOnline: Can you give us an update on the Africa Outreach Project and also, with so much film production going on in South Africa -- Gavin Hood shot a lot of Rendition in Capetown – do you see yourself making a film there soon?

CHARLIZE THERON: I think I’m like the only actor who hasn’t shot a film in South Africa and I’m the goddamned South African. It’s just ridiculous. So I would love to shoot something in South Africa. That would just be amazing. I’m always struggling to try to find the time to go home so that would be amazing to do it for a job. But yes, I am going back towards the end of the year. I don’t know exactly what months or when. We’re trying to figure out the dates but it will be after John Hancock to go and do the African Outreach Program. We’re been building the mobile clinics for the last six months and they’re almost finished. I’m very excited to go and do that.

MoviesOnline: So you’ll be traveling around the country with them?

CHARLIZE THERON: Yeah. I will be traveling into very rural communities with them and bringing anti-viral drugs to communities and education and I’m very excited about it.

MoviesOnline: Did you discuss the war or the soldiers during the film production? Because you are not an American, maybe you have a different point of view?

CHARLIZE THERON: Well in a way I actually just became a citizen this year so I’ve lived in L.A. for 13 years. I lived here altogether almost 16. I’ve been in America for 16 years and have always considered this my home, a different kind of home, you know. I put my feet down in African soil and something happens to my blood but I live here as well and I consider this my home. Maybe coming from a country like South Africa that has gone through so much turmoil, that’s the way I grew up so maybe I’m interested in what a newspaper has to say but I also believe in independent press so I’m always looking at it from both sides – just like I think anybody else would in America.

I think when you go into a war, it’s pretty impossible to go through your life and not run into people and talk about it. I don’t know how people could do that. It’s part of what we’re going through right now so, of course, I think just in general there is a debate going on in this country and I’m interested in what other people have to say. It doesn’t necessarily come from a South African point of view. I think it just comes from a human point of view. It wasn’t the basis of this film and I loved that. I would have been scared of this movie if it was.

I loved that we always went back to these human beings and then the circumstances that they were in. But I think just in general people were talking about it a lot because it was happening and we had real soldiers around us and I wanted to know what that experience was like. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. So I was very interested to hear their point of views.

"In the Valley of Elah” opens in theaters on September 14th.


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