Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary in ’Young Adult’, from Paramount Pictures and Mandate Pictures.
After a three-year hiatus, Charlize Theron returns to movie screens Friday with “Young Adult,” a pitch-black comedy about making war – and a little bit of peace – with the past.
Because “Young Adult” takes a walk down memory lane, Theron is more than happy to offer up some less-than-flattering stories about her own youth, spent in Benoni, a small South African town outside Johannesburg.
Far from the most attractive – or popular – kid in school, Theron, 36, insists she was “pretty much of a mess” from the ages of 7 to 12. Even though the popular kids excluded her, Theron admits she was “obsessed” with her school’s Queen Bee.
“I mean, like you would go to jail for that stuff today,” the actress says with a laugh. “I’m so embarrassed to say this, but I was in tears one day because I couldn’t sit next to her. I have issues.”
Theron is adamant that, during her high-school years, boys never gave her the time of day.
“I wore really, really, really nerdy glasses,” she says. “I was blind as could be, and boys don’t really like big, nerdy glasses. Sure, I had a crush. I didn’t have any boyfriends, but I had a massive crush on this guy.”
Recently, a reporter for Vogue tracked down the one-time object of Theron’s desire. The lucky guy claimed he was just as wild about Theron as she was about him. But the actress isn’t buying it.
“This guy did not know I existed in school, but he was like, ‘Tell her the crush was mutual.’ F--k that. It was so not mutual. Then he was, like, ‘Oh, and I remember she wore those glasses.’ ”
Given her willingness to revisit her own past, it’s no wonder director Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”) and scripter Diablo Cody (“Juno”) suspected Theron would be perfect for the role of Mavis Gary, a teen-lit author whose existence is shaken to the core when she receives the news that her former high-school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) has just become a dad.
Mavis immediately jumps on a plane bound for her hometown in rural Minnesota with hopes of winning her ex-beau back despite the fact that he’s married and a new dad.
Theron describes Mavis as “delusional” and “just a beautiful car wreck.” But that didn’t stop the actress from identifying with her alter ego’s hopes and fears.
“I thought that the things she did were pretty despicable but not to the point where I was disgusted by her,” Theron says. “I never had a hard time liking her. I would love to go and have a beer with her. I would never let her hang out with my boyfriend, but I would love to hang out with her. … I found her fascinating.”
Mavis might be a heavy-drinking, wise-cracking, self-absorbed grab bag of dysfunction but, thanks to the actress, she never seems beyond redemption. Theron chalks up a lot of Mavis’ questionable behavior to her unwillingness to grow up.
“What I liked, when I read Diablo’s script, was that Mavis is dealing with issues that are very, very common to women in their mid- to late 30s … but Mavis is dealing with them the way a 16-year-old would deal with them. I thought that was really fascinating.
“When she says things, like, ‘Don’t you know that love conquers all?’ That’s something that a typical 16-year-old would say. Here she is at 37 trying to get her life together, and she just doesn’t have the tools to do it.”
The last thing Theron wanted to do in “Young Adult” was try to elicit sympathy for such a complicated character.
Yet Theron clearly understood Mavis. While the actress has played plenty of admirable women in her career – think of the steely crusader in “North Country” and the determined police detective in “The Valley of Elah” – she achieved her best reviews, and an Oscar, for her turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.”
“I think that people get really kind of freaked out when they see real women conflicted on screen,” Theron notes. “People keep going to me, ‘Oh, it’s so brave’ (to play Mavis). But it really isn’t. It’s just refreshing. It’s so great, as an actor, to get the opportunity to do something that’s incredibly truthful.”
In real life, Theron has survived her share of dark times. When she was a teenager, her mother shot and killed her abusive father after he threatened both women. Not long afterward, Charlize moved to the United States to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer. She was a member of Joffrey Ballet before injuries sidelined her at 19.
She subsequently moved to Hollywood, where she aced roles in such fluffy films as “Mighty Joe Black,” “Celebrity” and “Two Days In The Valley.” In 2004, she reinvented herself as a dramatic powerhouse with “Monster.”
Theron hasn’t been on screen since 2009’s “The Road” but the actress has been busy, overseeing potential TV projects for her production company and preparing for two films set for a 2012 release: “Snow White and the Huntsman” with Kristen Stewart and Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic “Prometheus.”
In early 2010, Theron passed on “Young Adult” because she already had committed to “Fury Road,” the fourth film in the “Mad Max” series, with Tom Hardy taking over the Mel Gibson role. But when “Fury Road” was pushed back a year, she immediately reconnected with Reitman about “Young Adult.”
Now, there’s talk of Theron netting her third Oscar nomination (after “Monster” and “North Country”) for her ability to walk the fragile line between humor and heartbreak.
“It’s just really nice to have people come up to me and have these little tiny anecdotes about what they connected with in ‘Young Adult,’ ” she says. “The movie kind of puts them in a little bit of a Mavis mood, and so they feel free to admit that they’ve done things like Mavis has done, which is just so endearing. I love that so much.”