Tall, beautiful, imposing, the Sunset Tower rises above West Hollywood's Sunset Strip with her art deco nose in the air – tight-lipped and straight-backed, her ball gown trailing in the dirt. Once a chichi apartment block, now a ritzy hotel, the Tower's history is as star-dusted as that of any building in LA. Still, appearances can be deceiving – even, or perhaps especially, in Hollywood. The facade is glamorous, refined, but if walls could go off the record…
In Hollywood's golden age, the Tower was home at one time or another to Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and Ava Gardner. That's just the gals. Sinatra kept an apartment here. So did John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Errol Flynn and the gangster Bugsy Siegel. The Sunset Tower, Truman Capote wrote, "is where every scandal that ever happened, happened."
Today, the bar at the Sunset Tower Hotel remains a prime spot from which to observe the comings and goings of the movie industry's power players, their plunges and ascents, losses and win-wins. Particularly today, with only three days to go to the Oscars and the town – or at least this ultra-privileged corner of it – rehearsing its collective acceptance speech, a knot in its yoga-toned stomach.
Trouble is, right now the bar is closed. Which wouldn't be so bad, except I have an appointment for drinks with a Best Actress – also tall, also beautiful, also imposing. What to do? Where to sit? Who to call? I find a table in a corner of the lobby, order a sparkling water, and try to ignore the sound of drilling coming from the lift shaft.
"Who the fuck closes a bar?" Charlize Theron announces upon arrival. She shrugs off her coat, collapses her elegant frame into a low chair, clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth, leans way back, runs her hands through her hair, stretches her arms in the air, and finally comes to a rest, fixing me with a look, languid but expectant – not quite a challenge, maybe more in the region of a dare. Go on, then, this look says, its left eyebrow raised: ask me something good.
Charlize Theron is a bombshell in the classic style. Even dressed down, as she is today in faded jeans and a pink sweatshirt, the woman is poised, soignée: what one understands they used to call, back in the Sunset Tower's ring-a-ding heyday, a classy broad. Lithe and athletic, with a halo of golden hair and cool blue eyes, quietly appraising, she is quite something to behold, and also to be beheld by.
If I hadn't met her before, I'd be a little intimidated. In fact, I think I am a little intimidated, even though I have met her before, and I know that the supermodel's bone structure, the sportswoman's physique and the penetrating stare don't tell the whole story. Charlize might initially seem a little daunting – but she's good fun, too.
That said, "You certainly do have to bring your A-game when you go for a drink with her," the writer-director Paul Haggis told me when last I wrote about Charlize, in 2008. "She's got an incredibly quick wit. If you're not careful, she'll twist you around in a knot."
"I went to lunch with her recently and ordered a salad," the director Jason Reitman tells me by email. "Her immedate response was: 'Are you fucking kidding me?!'"
"She's a take-the-piss artist," says Woody Harrelson, Charlize's co-star in three films to date. "That's one of the cool things about her. She can drink you under the table but at the same time she's laser-focused."
Laser-focused and no-nonsense – scarily so, if you're the kind of person liable, in weaker moments, to fall back on nonsense. Six years ago, in a photo studio in New York, she became exasperated with me when I momentarily forgot myself and said something bland and fluffy, the kind of insincere compliment that is often tossed about in photo studios when famous people are present: "Thanks so much, Charlize! That was amazing."
"Don't say that!" she said. "That's bullshit! You don't even mean that."
Embarrassed in front of my colleagues, I crumpled a little, which only made her angrier. "Be a man!" she said. And she whacked me in the chest. "Bitch."
This time, I'm careful not to slide into lazy celebrity sycophancy. Still she pulls me up sharply when I attempt an awkward segue from her film career to her love life.
"Shit, Alex, you did so well up to that point," she says, looking at her phone to check how long I've managed to be not annoying. "Wow. That was like a solid two hours."
Not that she refuses to talk about her private life, just that my indirect way of asking about it – you might call it cowardly – irked her. She's one of those people: there's nothing small about her. Consequently, because no one wants to be disapproved of by someone admirable, she makes you want to be bigger and better than you are.
It's not just me who finds himself falling short. Even here and now – in the lobby of the Sunset Tower during Oscar week: world epicentre of flummery at its moment of greatest oiliness – she will only allow a certain amount of fuss before she begins to look bored and uncomfortable. Dimitri, the Sunset Tower's slick, bow-tied maître d', buzzes around her, dispensing compliments like warm nuts. She plays the game but her smile becomes effortful.
When we actually need a waiter, of course we can't find one. Charlize wants a Gibson. What would I like? I'd like a vodka and tonic. She bolts upright and strides across the lobby towards the bar, calls back over her shoulder: "Any particular kind of vodka?" Er, Belvedere? She returns not quite triumphant – it's not that big a deal – but satisfied, and we clink glasses, look each other in the eye. "Good to see you again," she says. And because her own bullshit detector is so sensitive, this doesn't seem like an empty statement. It's good to see her, too.
Before I get too caught up in the moment, a solidly built man, dapper in a dark suit, and with the faintest pencil moustache decorating his weather-beaten face, passes by our table. On his way through he leans down to tap Charlize on the shoulder and point to the bar, towards which he hurtles, still in a semi-crouched position, like a sprinter coming out of the blocks. It is, unmistakably, Sean Penn, Charlize's new beau, ready, when we're finished, to take her to a party. Later, she makes the introductions: "Pleasure!" says Sean, and he, too, clinks my glass. (All this could go to a boy's head.) The following night at another party – it's Oscar week; there are lots of parties — I chat briefly to Sean. He is an intense, committed actor, as everyone knows, but in private he turns out to be an open and convivial sort, a man pitched at an amused angle to the world, knees slightly bent for balance, like he's standing in a boat on a gentle sea – or maybe a surfboard.
Sean has been dating Charlize for close to four months when I meet them. He makes no effort to disguise his happiness about this. Not that it's particularly relevant to our story, but for this, among other things, I like him. (Also: he's Sean Penn.)
Ten years ago, almost to the day of our interview, Charlize Theron won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the independent film Monster. Chilled as a cocktail olive, she says it hadn't occurred to her until I mentioned it that this anniversary was looming. Not that she's sniffy about the Oscars. She'll be presenting an award at the ceremony on Sunday, and she's learned over the years that rather than pretending to be above such things, it's best to enjoy the hoopla for what it is. "It's like our prom," she says, which I take to mean the showbiz community's chance to put its glad rags on – again – and obsesses about whether or not they are likely to bump into a former partner and his/her new squeeze.
(Hollywood trivia. The winner of Best Actor on the night Charlize won for Monster: Sean Penn, for Mystic River. As is customary, they were photographed together, beaming, 2004's Hollywood prom king and queen.)
Charlize was 28 when she won her Oscar. A former fashion model and dancer – her ballet career ended prematurely by an injury to her knee – she already had seven or eight years' experience as a successful movie actress. She'd worked with big stars and for top-drawer directors. Some of the films were good, others less so. Charlize always lit up her scenes, even when she wasn't given an awful lot to do.
Still, it's no exaggeration to say that Monster changed her life. A good deal was made at the time of her physical transformation from glossy thoroughbred into bloated street hooker, and the weight gain and make-up job are certainly impressive, but her work on the film was more than cosmetic. Charlize brings a defiant humanity to Aileen Wuornos. It is one of the great performances in modern American film.
"You wait a whole career for a chance to be that miserable," Charlize tells me at the Sunset Tower. This sounds flippant. It's not meant to. Monster revealed Charlize as an actor deserving of far more interesting parts than the leading man's great-looking girlfriend. She was something rare: a character actor in the body of a star. A descendant, in her way, of the high-minded actresses of the Seventies and Eighties – Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, Jessica Lange and others – who combined off-screen glamour with on-screen grit.
In the decade since, Charlize has continued to seek out work that is challenging and discomfiting. She was nominated for another Oscar for North Country (2005), a film based on a true story about a group of women who sued the owners of a Minnesota iron mine for sexual harassment. Bridesmaids it ain't.
In the sombre In the Valley of Elah (2007), she was a put-upon, single mother cop. In Sleepwalking (2008), she played a fading beauty who abandons her child – literally kicking her out of bed – in favour of a last shot at romance. In The Burning Plain (2008), she was a self-harming, sexually incontinent restaurant manager stranded in dreary Oregon. She took a small part in The Road (2009), the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's terrifying downer. In Jason Reitman's magnificent, misunderstood Young Adult (2011), she played a hateful author of fiction for teenagers. Her character was slovenly, solipsistic, dowdy, delusional, drunk – a woman who greets each morning with a hangover and a curled lip. She also wasn't very nice.
It's not that Charlize never signs up for crowd-pleasing blockbusters, just that even when she does there tends to be a sting in the tail. A few years ago, she made a superhero movie, but in the case of Hancock (2008), the superhero was a misanthropic alcoholic; she was a cheating wife. More recently, in Ridley Scott's sci-fi shocker Prometheus (2012), she was a chilly corporate executive. In Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), she was a vicious fairy-tale queen.
But it's for the unflinching portrayals of working-class women in desperate situations that she is now best known. And so Charlize has become fixed in the public consciousness as a rather serious person. Someone who, for all her personal glamour – and even undiscovered Amazonian tribespeople cannot by now have escaped her ubiquitous Dior billboards – appears far more interested in exploring the darker corners of America and of the human psyche, than in manufacturing the shiny entertainments provided by her contemporaries. She is a sex symbol without any apparent vanity. A campaigner, through her Africa Outreach Project, against HIV/Aids. A UN Messenger of Peace. Not someone to be trifled with.
Something else plays into this image of Charlize, at least as it is presented in profiles like this one: a biographical detail from her early life that cannot help but shock, no matter how simply stated.
She was born in Benoni, South Africa, and raised on a farm in a small, Afrikaans-speaking community. Her parents, Gerda and Charles, ran a road construction company. Charlize was their only child. One night in the summer of 1991, Charles returned home drunk and threatening violence. Acting in self-defence, Gerda shot him dead. Charlize was 15. Not long after her father's death, she left South Africa for Milan to work as a model.
Charlize has been irritated – that's possibly too mild a word – in the past by journalists who make the connection between the traumatic nature of her father's death and the fact that she has chosen more than once to play characters suffering some kind of trauma of their own. The suggestion is that she is drawn to dark stories in a bid to understand or reconcile the darkness in her own past.
She finds this reading of her work reductive and the enduring interest in her father's death prurient. "Some things are sacred," she told me the first time I interviewed her.
Still, I suggest now, it's not completely stupid to assume that events in her past would compel her to seek out dark material. "No," she says, "it's not completely stupid, but I think it's completely irresponsible for someone who's writing an article on someone else to pinpoint who they are and what their work is, just based on one thing that's somewhat sensational."
Nevertheless, she is, clearly, interested in stories about women in extreme situations. "I'm interested in people," she says. She says that Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet, to take two of her peers, play characters who struggle and suffer, but nobody suggests this is because of some horrifying event in their past that they are trying to work through. She says that she seeks roles with the most dramatic narratives, and these often tend to be stories that depict people in extreme situations. She says that people who live in tough environments, like the one she comes from, often have more interesting stories than people who live where we are sitting now, in sunny West Hollywood. She thinks this explains why so many of her films are set in the American Midwest, far from the wealthy coasts.
The thing that bothers her most, she says, is that it's not really any deeper motivations behind her work that the press and the public are interested in. We just want the salacious details of what happened to her family. "It's titillating," she says. "It sells magazines, at the expense of me and other people who were involved."
I demur slightly; I'm not sure that discussion of her father's death helps sell magazines. "Oh, I totally think it does," she says. "Especially the way people write about it. The reason why I said I was annoyed by that was because I try to come at [interviews] as honestly as I possibly can and so it's… devastating is not the right word, I'm not that dramatic about it, but it's a little bit of a let-down when you do that and then you read something and you feel like you've been made one-dimensional: you are this dark person who comes from this dark past who is therefore obsessed with playing these dark people – and it couldn't be further from the truth."
Jason Reitman directed Charlize in Young Adult, perhaps her most unflinching – and, perversely, funniest – character study. "Charlize seems to want to explore and experience each emotion," Reitman says. "This includes glowing romance and unthinkable pain. It also includes vanity and cruelty. She is somehow completely tapped into a wide range of emotional experience that allows her to swim in all kinds of waters. We're all dark, she's just not scared to reach in and grab it."
I tell Charlize I've been reading Dark Places, a thriller by Gillian Flynn, author of the bestseller Gone Girl. It's about a profoundly damaged woman, Libby Day, investigating the deaths of her family, who were killed on their farm when she was a child, possibly by her brother. Charlize has produced a film adaptation for release later this year, in which she stars as Libby.
"I'm asking for it a little bit with that one," she says. "I'll 'fess up to that." She thinks for a moment. "This is why it's so hard: I get it. I get that people, if they know the book, would be like, 'Oh, of course Charlize is doing this.'"
But actually, she says, despite the superficial similarities, she feels she has less in common with Libby than with many of her previous characters. Not that she's denying any personal connection with the world of Dark Places. "I'm not denying that at all," she says. "I'm not denying that [her father's death] is a part of me. I just don't think it's the only part of me, and I think sometimes people like to blow it out of proportion. And I think the part that always gets me the most is that other people who are involved in that scenario always bear the brunt of it."
The other person involved being her mother? "Yeah."
In 2012, Charlize herself became a mother, to Jackson, whom she adopted when he was nine days old. She was single at the time, having broken up with her long-term boyfriend, the Irish actor Stuart Townsend. She had wanted children for a while, but the timing hadn't been right. "It's not the reason we split up," she says. "In his defence, it was not that he didn't want to have children, it was just something that never worked out."
She says she always knew she would adopt a child, at the same time as hoping – and continuing to hope – that she will have biological children as well. As soon as Jackson came along, she says, "I was like, 'Ah, finally!'"
The blossoming relationship with Sean Penn, on the other hand, was not pre-planned. She had been content, she says, over the past couple of years, to focus on being a new mother, happy to be single. "I wasn't in any place that I even wanted something like [a relationship]. Then one day you go: Oh, [Jackson's] almost two now, and he has his little activities that he goes to and he's got a bedtime now, and you have more time again. And it's like if you are open to something, if you just let it happen, it will happen. When you least expect it."
In summary: "It was nice to be single and now it's nice to be not single."
These recent, happy changes in Charlize's life have occurred against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic nightmare. In 2009, she signed up for Mad Max: Fury Road, the writer-director George Miller's long-delayed return to the dystopia he first visited in the original – and still thrilling – 1979 Aussie punk-western, which made a star of Mel Gibson.
Charlize spent a full eight months training for the physical challenge that would be required to play her character, the less than cuddly Imperator Furiosa. She worked hard to build muscle, to gain weight, to get into what she calls "warrior shape".
She joined the rest of the cast and crew in Australia in 2010 for the beginning of filming, but the desert locations that had been chosen were suddenly – disastrously, for the production – transformed by heavy rain into lush green meadows. A further year was spent waiting for the right weather conditions. Because she was under contract, for a period Charlize was unable to accept other offers of work, so she was forced to turn down the lead role in Prometheus, which went to Noomi Rapace, and she initially had to say no to Jason Reitman when he brought her Young Adult. Ultimately, Fury Road was made in Namibia, southern Africa, in 2012. Charlize wants to believe that the enforced delays were beneficial to the film. It is better now than it would have been, she thinks. Her performance, too, was helped by having so long to prepare. She shaved her head for it, which might not sound such a huge thing but she feels it was a key moment, allowing her to fully inhabit her character – who at points in the film has to pass for a man – and signalling, to herself as much as anyone, her commitment to the project.
She took Jackson with her to Africa, when he was just three months old. Gerda came, too, uprooting herself for a year to live with her daughter and grandson in remote Namibia. It was wonderful to be able to spend that time with Jackson, she says, but the making of Fury Road was not an unalloyed pleasure. It was, she tells me, the hardest thing she's done in her career.
"When I originally said yes to the movie, I had just split up from my relationship [with Townsend]," she says. "So, there was a part of me that thought, 'This is what you need to do, you need to go and sit in a desert. I'm going to go to Australia and have a walkabout. I'm going to find myself. I was excited about it."
Three years later, all that was a distant memory. "I had become a mum and I was nesting and I was happy and I was like, 'Fuck!'"
She's always prided herself on not being the kind of actor who brings her work home with her. She leaves her characters, their flaws and neuroses and pain, on the set. That was more difficult to do in Namibia. "You couldn't go home," she says. "You couldn't really call anybody because you're 12 hours ahead, or whatever the fuck it is. And you're experiencing things that nobody can really relate to. They can't even imagine where you're at. I don't like that. I didn't enjoy that. I felt isolated. I can do anything for a couple of months but that was a lot." She thinks for a moment. "It was hard to remain happy on that movie."
Charlize returned to LA from Namibia both physically and emotionally exhausted, with a temperature of 39ºC (104ºF). "I was sick," she says, "just drained."
After that ordeal, I tell her, I hope the film, when it is finally released next year, turns out to be good.
"You do? Fuck you! What about me?"
Following Fury Road, she was determined to do something entirely different, something fun. A Million Ways to Die in the West, in cinemas now, is a comedy western from the showbiz polymath Seth MacFarlane – actor, writer, director, producer, animator, crooner and creator of Family Guy – whose previous film, Ted, about a foul-mouthed cuddly toy, was a huge hit in 2012.
Starring opposite MacFarlane himself, as well as Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried, Charlize plays a quick-draw gunslinger who falls for a klutzy sheep farmer. She still seems pleasantly baffled by this turn of events. "I don't do comedies," she tells me. "I mean, I just don't."
This is not strictly true. Early in her career, she did two Woody Allen movies: Celebrity (1998), as a horny supermodel, and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), as a boozy femme fatale. And in 2005, she did five episodes of Arrested Development. But it's true that comedy is not the genre with which one associates her. I ask Seth MacFarlane how he came to cast an actor best known for harrowing dramas in a bawdy summer romp.
"I don't think of Charlize as dark or gritty or whatever," MacFarlane says. "She's very strong, but she never loses that feminine quality, either. I found her to be somebody who could do any tone successfully." The trick with his movies, MacFarlane says, is that for the jokes to work they must be delivered with total sincerity – a denial of the fact that any joke is being made. "It takes a heavy hitter of an actor to do that," he says. "The jokes are on the page and they don't really need to be gilded with a bunch of shtick. If someone is a great actor, they can be a great comedian in one of my movies. And Charlize is certainly a great actor."
"I don't think I'm funny in it," she says, plain speaking as ever. "But I don't think that was my job."
We've been talking for a few hours now. Sean is waiting for her at the bar. I try to tie up some loose ends by remarking that Charlize's life now seems very settled. Her career is in good shape. She is a mother. She is in a new relationship. The exchange that follows is, I hope, illustrative of her allergic reaction to the platitudinous nature of the celebrity interview. It would be so much easier for her to nod and smile and concede that all is well. But that's not Charlize's style.
It doesn't suck to be you, I say.
"It depends who you ask," she says.
I'm asking you.
"If you're asking me then, yeah, my life is really good."
Who would say it wasn't?
"I'm sure some people would be like, 'I would never want to have that life.'"
Why would they say that? You have an enviable life.
"Oh, I'm sure there's a lot of aspects to my life that a lot of people wouldn't want."
"Just personal choice things. Like the fact that I'm single at 38. That's not necessarily what a lot of women want."
But you're not single.
"I mean unmarried. But I'm just saying, a life is good if it's the life that you want."
Is this the life that you want?
"Yeah, it is. I am living my life in a way that if tomorrow it ended – and I hope not because I have a kid – but if it did, this was the life that I really wanted to live. But I work at that, you know?"
She stops again, fixes me with a look. "Here's the one thing I'll give you. If you do go through any severe trauma, if you are put in a situation where you understand that it very easily could have gone the other way, you realize very quickly the value of life. That becomes very, very clear."
You were 15 when you learned that.
"I learned it at a very young age."
But it wasn't the death of her father alone that taught her to value life. "I was raised in an environment where our country was heading towards civil war," she says of apartheid-era South Africa. "There was violence, there was an Aids epidemic. There were a lot of things reminding me, constantly, of my mortality."
As a result, she has never been the sort of person to let life pass her by. She couldn't afford to be. That's not always the way, she says, with people who survive tragedy or trauma. Some people are defeated by circumstance. They are defined by their victimhood.
"That can happen as well," she says, "you go through something and you just never come out on the other side. You just walk around with a chip on your shoulder and go, 'The world owes me because I've been fucked over.' That happens a lot. And a lot of times people come from trauma and don't end up being good people."
Why does she think she didn't fall prey to that?
"I think I am who I am today because I was raised by parents who instilled certain fundamentals in me," she says. "Yes, there were things in my family that weren't healthy – like any family but maybe to a little bit more of a severe degree – but the one thing I can give both of my parents was that I was raised with a really good foundation. I was fucking lucky to be born into that."
What was it that her parents taught her?
"Self-worth," she says. "Being a young girl and not putting your worth into your beauty. That was not something that I was raised with. So when I left home and everybody was like, 'Oh, you're pretty,' I was like, I don't even know what that concept means."
Her eyes flash when she says this. On this point, as so many, she is impassioned, almost angry. It marks her out, this intensity, here in the gilded lobby of the Sunset Tower, where everything is plump and comfortable. It's not just the way she looks, although that is part of it. It's her singular self-assurance that makes her stand out. She's not haughty, not at all. There's no froideur. But she really is quite formidable. And now she's done with the chit-chat. She promised Pharrell Williams she'd make an appearance at a charity event he's hosting tonight, and she's running late.
"I'm dumping you for Pharrell," she says. "I hope you're OK with that."
And off she goes to the bar to collect Sean, head held high, stride brisk and purposeful. The Sunset Tower has seen movie stars before: dazzling, powerful, take-no-prisoners women, larger in life even than on screen. But they don't come along too often like this any more. Even the beautiful old building seems impressed.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is out now. Article taken from the July issue of Esquire, out 5 June. Click here to subscribe.