Clint sits down with Charlize Theron!
There wouldn’t be too many people out there who’d be too concerned if beautiful Oscar Winner Charlize Theron was stalking them – filmmaker Niki Caro, being one.“I saw Whale Rider and just loved it”, says the beautiful South African-born beauty. After several brief meetings at screenings and parties (which the versatile actress describes as “Stalking”), Theron sucked it in and introduced herself to the New Zealand director.
Ironically, Theron was circling “North Country” at the time, the story of a single mum who rallies her female co-workers at the local mine to rise above sexual harassment and abuse. At that point, the actress was reluctant to sign on, because she knew that though “it was a beautiful script…in the wrong hands it could’ve easily become [a] very black and white [film].
“Warner Bros had sent me the script, but there was no director attached. That was my biggest concern, so I didn’t want to agree to do the film until I found out who was going to direct it – just in case we didn’t have any chemistry or the director didn’t want me in the film, things like that”, explains Theron, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wournos in Monster in 2003.
Once they’d officially met, Theron “begged” Caro to consider directing the film – it didn’t take much. “After the success of Whale Rider, I received many offers – but this was the one that I couldn’t put down”, says Caro. “She didn’t have to do much to convince me”.
The two discovered they shared many similar views, especially when it came to the film. Over a meeting at a hotel, Theron noticed, “She would finish every sentence that I would start. From that, it was evident that we were definitely on the same page”, she says. “I also liked the fact that she didn’t see the film as a Lifetime original, which is a cable channel we have in America, where everything is watered-down and overdramatic. It might be that she’s a New Zealander, but she seemed to know this story – she’s a real broad and a great individual. She’s also not scared of life, whether it’s beautiful or the ugly side. That gave me a lot of reassurance, because I think a lot of a directors vision comes from, I believe, who they are”.
Caro says she felt North Country was a film that needed to be made, if only to remind people “especially in Liberal countries – that this stuff still goes on.”
The director finds it difficult to assume one precise reason why the male miners treated the women this way, but believes it has a lot to do with the fact that its someone invading their territory. “Those mines up there in northern Minnesota have been completely dominated for three generations. The population is mostly descended from unskilled Scandinavian immigrant labour, and I think it’s almost too much to expect men who have for generations been in complete control of their environment to suddenly know how to behave appropriately when women come in cold. You see in the film that a lot of the abuse actually stems from humour, from joking around and having fun – they’re not evil moustache-twirlers by any stretch of the imagination. The film does try to look at that really honestly, without flinching from the nastier behaviour. We tried really hard not to make a film that said men are all bad and women are all good because I know that not to be the case. I have some compassion for men who are completely bewildered by the fact that women are suddenly in a place where the men believe they shouldn’t be.”
Theron doesn’t see any real correlation between her roles in “Monster” and “North Country” – even though audiences might.
“I know that’s an easy assumption to come to, given both films, but I’m way more interested in human nature than specifically female nature. I’m also very interested in projects that are a little bit different and that offer up different challenges. Unfortunately, it’s still the case that projects with female leads that aren’t completely vacuous are quite rare. They’re really quite rare, and I was really attracted to this material because it was tough and because Josey Aimes is similar to Pai from Whale Rider in that both of them face fierce opposition but both rise to the challenge in a very gentle and unexpected way. They’re not crusading feminist heroines at all, they’re quite reluctant. I feel these characters in a very real way – I walk around with them and I love them very much. They’re both much stronger than I would be in their positions and I like to explore that.”
Caro is ecstatic with Theron’s performance in the movie, but just as happy with the turns of her co-stars, which include Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Sean Bean and the always-underrated Richard Jenkins, who plays Theron’s closed-off father. “He read and everybody in the room cried. I couldn’t consider anyone else”.
You’d think Theron would be pretty much burnt-out after this role (and the equally gruelling “Monster”) but she knows when to call it a day. “I’m a bit of a cow. Keep milking me and I’ll eventually go dry”, she claims.
The actress, who also recently starred in the action film “Aeon Flux”, believes that “if you do your research, if you ask as many questions as you can and if you feel you know your characters circumstances – the thing that makes them tick, the thing that makes them go on – and just observe things about how these people, say, talk to their children or how they treat their children…these are the things that start living under your skin – and you don’t even know about it. Hopefully, if you’ve done enough of that (observing) by the first day of shooting, you can switch it all off and not manipulate it (the performance)”.
Caro didn’t mind hearing that Theron had done enough research though because it meant they could “spend some time drinking beer and playing pool”.
“Nobody in that hotel room is going to know what it’s like to play pool with the local Minnesotans”, adds Theron. “For me, the thing that I learnt on Monster is that if you do the work – doing the research, asking as many questions as you possibly can to really understand the character’s circumstances, the thing that makes them tick, the thing that makes them want to survive and how they go about that – and you spend enough time in that community, and I’m talking about something as simple as watching them make a pie or kiss their children or what they make for supper, those are the things that crawl underneath your skin and start living there. And you don’t even know about it. Hopefully if you’ve done enough of that, when it comes to the first day of shooting the film you can switch it all off and not manipulate anything. And hope that’s what naturally comes across. That’s behaviour, and that only comes from being in that world. You have to dedicate yourself to living there and being a sponge that soaks up everything they give you. It’s always the small things. People ask ‘How much time did you spend in the mines?’ I didn’t spend that much time in the mines, honestly, because the work these women did was dirty jobs like cleaning up. I can clean up. What I did do a lot was hang out with them, have a beer with them, watch them with their children, hear the way they told a joke. When Niki did Whale Rider and then this, she’s so specific to that culture. I think as an actor, you have to be just as specific. That’s when the human condition crosses any barrier. She’s a New Zealander, I’m a South African – this film, I think, affects people from all over because it’s the human condition.”
At the end of the project, Theron was a little sad to leave; she’s proud to admit.
“I think it actually has a lot to do with getting used to being around this great group of people – and in this case, this amazing family was instantly created. It’s like going cold turkey. One day, you fly home and you suddenly find you’re not waking up at six o’clock in the morning, you’re not having a coffee with Woody Harrelson outside your trailer, you’re not joking around with Fran in the make-up trailer. That stuff’s very hard for me. Because you do get very attached. I get very attached. And I go through a little bit of a depression afterwards, saying goodbye to a character. Some days are harder than others. But it’s nice to go home and go to sleep knowing you did everything in your power to show the truth. That’s the most incredible thing. I would never want it to be easy. I would rather chew my arm off.”
As for her next project, she’s not going to automatically chase something big-and-grand just because it’s what the audience expects from her now, after starring in two big-time studio hits.
“I don’t mean this in a mean way, I really don’t, but I’ve never really cared that much what people think. Because I feel like this industry is such a gamble. There is no right and there is no wrong. And when people are being so judgemental about actors’ choices or directors’ choices, you have go with your gut, your instinct, and you have to own and be responsible for your choices. If I’d listened to everything everybody told me to do after the Oscar, again I’d chew off my arm. It’s really nice feeling knowing that it’s not an over-thought process. I know that when I watched Whale Rider I was so incredibly moved, and that was enough for me to say ‘I want to work with this woman’. And with this material, so many people said ‘Oh, you’re doing the gritty thing again’ – I don’t care about that as long as I’m doing something that’s real and true and creatively satisfying to me. Because at the end of the day I have no power over how successful the film is going to be or how critics are going to feel about it. That’s out of my power. The only thing I have some control over is what I decide to dedicate myself to, and that’s about it.”
NORTH COUNTY Commences tomorrow in Australia
– CLINT MORRIS