When Oscar-nominated screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (“Babel,” “21 Grams,” “Amores Perros”) set out to make his directorial debut, he turned to the A-list actress he thought could best carry his film’s story about guilt, forgiveness, and searing love: Charlize Theron. The Oscar-winning actress jumped full-force into the role of Sylvia, a beautiful but distant woman hiding from her past who, years later, still suffers from an unknown trauma that leads her down a path of self-destructive behavior ranging from self-harm to sexual addiction.
The resulting film, The Burning Plain, is a complex symphony that, in true Arriaga fashion, weaves seemingly unrelated stories together into a surprising tapestry of cause and effect. Theron’s damaged and emotionally fragile character plays counterpoint to Kim Basinger’s southwestern housewife, while newcomer Jennifer Lawrence (The Poker House) turns in a poised performance as a teenage girl discovering love for the first time.
In Los Angees to discuss The Burning PlainTheron , the Oscar-winning beauty shared how she spent years playing against type so that she could finally land roles that really mean something to her, and recounting how she was actually deported at one point during the development of her career. And, on a very serious note, she speaks out about the dark pull of addictions and ‘cutting,’ subjects she had to deal with while playing Sylvia, actually hold a haunting personal fascination for her.
JEN YAMATO: There’s a very serious subject in “The Burning Plain,” and that’s cutting and self-mutilation to mask destructive feelings. Did you have a personal connection to the psyche behind cutting, or to addiction of any kind?
CHARLIZE THERON: I have a real fascination with addiction, and I think addiction is coping.
YAMATO: In what way?
THERON: I think the kind of survival mechanisms that we use as humans to cope and survive boil down to trying to avoid some of the ugly things that we don’t necessarily want to look at — which is self mutilation, or addiction. I’m fascinated by the psychology of it. I think psychology is probably what I could have done with my life if I wasn’t an actor, because that kind of human observation is something that fascinates me.
YAMATO: Have you studied psychology?
THERON: Just that I’ve read a lot of books on it and spent a lot of time wanting to understand it more. I’ve never been a cutter and never been addicted to anything, but I’ve met people and been around those who were. And, I grew up in a house with addiction. I think that grief and pain and survival, just being somebody who’s alive and having to cope with guilt, really can create the desire to numb.
I think that’s what self mutilating is, and that’s what sex addiction is. The desire to numb. I’ve personally met a lot of parents who’ve lost children, and sex addiction becomes very prevalent. And they tend to split up, because one would actually cheat on the other. But it really is a moment that’s not about the sex. When we have sex, we chemically change; things actually happen to our body and to our brain that chemically change us. So it’s like shooting heroin, or having a drink — it’s a chemical reaction. And cutting is the same thing; the endorphins that hit your brain from feeling pain change you. It’s a need that, at the end of the day, is the common need to not feel. Just to have one moment of not feeling, of numbness.
YAMATO: You tend want to play darkly troubled women in characters-driven films. What about those darker stories do you find yourself drawn to?
THERON: I’m not saying that this is how it is, but I don’t necessarily think of them as dark roles. I think I like conflicted women, because I feel like we get so little of that, and I guess I like picking people up at a crossroads, where you find them in a place where they could either make a choice that could work out ok for them, or it’s really going to be not good.
YAMATO: With all those amazingly heavy and dramatic films behind you, do you think you might like to lighten up a bit and go for a comedy next?
THERON: Every director that works with me comments on the fact that it is quite ironic that I haven’t done comedy, because there is zero drama about me personally. I think a sense of humor is a very personal thing, and I don’t know if I am talented enough to do romantic comedies. I don’t think I could do the justice to them that a lot of other great actresses do who really get that genre. I don’t know if my comedic skills and timing would be good for that. But I do know that I love what the Coen brothers do, I love that kind of character, what Gus Van Sant does with comedy. I would love to do something like that. Spread the word.
YAMATO: Some actors use their own emotional experiences to fuel a performance and submerge themselves in their roles 24/7; others can walk away at the end of the scene or the day unscathed. What is your emotional investment or process like when you get into character?
THERON: I personally can’t talk about it, because it’s really hard for me to articulate it. My process is a bit of everything. I’ve learned over the years that you don’t have the luxury of just relying on one way of doing it. So for me, if I’m emotionally tapping into something and I feel like I have a great partner that I can look to and feel like they’re going to be truthful and direct me…I rely on a lot of things, and you have to, because some days it’s a 16 hour day, and thinking about your own drama and your own life might not affect you. I think acting is really fully adapting – to your surroundings, to your emotions, to the people that you’re working with, to being tired, to want to go home, to being lonely, to being happy. It’s adapting for me, and trusting. Adapting and trusting, that’s my format right there.
YAMATO: You’ve taken on increasingly challenging roles ever since your on-screen debut as a sexy femme fatale. Now, you’re known as much for winning the Best Actress Oscar for Monster as you are for starring in big budget films like Hancock. How has your approach to your career changed over the years?
THERON: I mean, look: when I started, I was ready to pay my dues. By no means did I think that I was going to walk in and do challenging work. I think in the beginning there was a part of me that knew there were going to be a few frustrating years, and that’s what you do. You get yourself out there and you work hard, and you hope that word of mouth carries and one day somebody will actually step up to the plate and say, ‘I believe that you can do this.’
I was very, very lucky. I was incredibly blessed. The first film that I did, 2 Days in the Valley, was an incredibly creative experience and by no means can I say it was just a job. There were a couple years there were I kind of had to hold out a little bit, where people accepted me in that role of the femme fatale and there was a lot of, ‘We just want you to just do exactly what you did in 2 Days in the Valley.
So it was a conscious effort on my part to kind of hold back, and I didn’t work for a couple of years, and I waited and really fought for roles, like The Devil’s Advocate and The Yards and Cider House Rules, and I went in and screen tested and flew myself out and stalked, and almost went to prison, and didn’t wash my hair, to kind of break this idea of what people thought of me. But I think I was very lucky, I was very blessed; I got do work on really great material. I look at my career and how I’m doing it now, and there’s something authentic in that process that I still try not to over-manipulate. When I feel something, I try to listen to that.
YAMATO: When did you almost go to prison?
THERON:: That was a joke. No, I actually did go to prison; I was deported when I was making Devil’s Advocate… but that’s another story. It’s gonna be for my book one day.
YAMATO: In addition to starring in The Burning Plain, you also came on as executive producer. What is it about that role that appeals to you?
THERON:At the end of the day, I don’t compartmentalize the job too much. From the first day that I walked onto a set, there’s always been a fascination that I’ve had with making a film, and I think that’s just grown. I feel really lucky that I’ve worked with producers who’ve always encouraged that and some of them have become great mentors to me, and are great friends.
There’s something about that circus life that I really love, and there’s also a business side of me that is really fascinated with how this industry functions and survives as a business, and how you can, as efficiently as possible, make a film. But once I’m on set, I’ll make a sandwich. I don’t care. That’s kind of the environment that filmmaking needs to be, for me anyway. Everybody’s in the same boat, and at the end of the day you’re just trying to do whatever you need to do, or can do, to make the best film that you possibly can. That’s about it. And then, knock on wood!
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