The making of a Monster: for Charlize Theron, the love scenes with Christina Ricci were the easy part. Every other aspect of playing homeless serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the film Monster was “extremely hard.” Just days from a likely Oscar win, she opens up about her journey with Aileen, nearly breaking down on the set, and what her mother thought
Bruce C. Steele
Charlize Theron is not what she appears. A tall, slim blond whose Olympian beauty has served her well in an evolution from small own South African girl to Jeffrey Bailer dancer to fashion model to Oscar nominee, Theron is more big sister than scheming ice princess. Her bubbling, nearly goofy acceptance speech when she won the Golden Globe in January for playing prostitute and seven-time murderer Aileen Wuornos in the brutal, brilliant film Monster was the real deal: In her mind, she’s just one of the guys, anxious for people to see through the glossy surface and find the thoughtful, congenial young woman underneath.
That’s how she seems sitting at a garden table at the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood, Calif.: drinking coffee, smoking Winstons, and sharing stories of the month she spent filming Monster in Florida, re-creating both Wuornos’s intense love affair with a lesbian named Selby (Christina Ricci) and her gruesome murders of seven johns. “Every (lay was a challenge,” Theron says. “Usually, you pick three moments in a script, and you wait for those three days to come and really stretch your acting muscles. But in this case, every scene was that scene.”
As an Alexander McQueen fashion show unfolds inside the lobby–an ironic and unexpected counterpoint that has conveniently emptied out the hotel’s garden–Theron seems to use the interview to continue the long, therapeutic process of analyzing exactly what happened to her during the making of Monster. Having had it comparatively easy in lead roles in more than a dozen slick, appealingly packaged movies, including The Devil’s Advocate, The Cider House Rules, and The Italian Job, Theron poured every ounce of her emotional strength into this indie project, written and directed by first-timer Patty Jenkins. As she tells it, the work brought her to the verge of a breakdown.
Both Theron and Jenkins were determined to humanize Aileen, a complicated, tortured, volatile roadside sex worker who was executed by the state of Florida in October 2002. Both knew that Theron’s physical transformation–the convincing makeup to weather her skin, the dentures an contact lenses, the 30-pound weight gain–would be powerless without Theron’s ability to feel what Wuornos felt. And that meant getting both the homicidal rage mid the heartbreaking lesbian love just fight.
While both actor and director were intrigued by “how somebody good crosses the line and becomes somebody bad,” Theron says that Monster is not so much about a descent into evil as it is “about love, the need and the willingness and the eagerness and the hunger and the survival of wanting to be loved by somebody, anybody.”
Putting down her coffee cup, Theron recalls one little-known fact about Wuornos: She was born in a leap year, on February 29. The day the Academy Awards will be given out this year would have been her 48th birthday.
The actual events of the movie take place in 1989–you would have been 14, still growing up in South Africa. When do you first remember hearing about Aileen Wournos? When I read the script.
Yeah. My manager sent it to me and said, “I really love this script–it’s an independent, just read it for about 20 pages–you have to look at it.” When I was reading it, I didn’t even know it was based on a real person. It was only after I loved the script and I called [my manager] J.J. and said “I really like this” that she said, “Well, maybe you should cheek out this Nick Broomfield documentary [Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer].” He was kind enough to send me a rough cut of [the second Wuornos documentary, Aileen: The Life, and Death of a Serial Killer,] that he was working on at the time. I saw the other one; I saw the A&E biography on videotapes and all of that–that was really when the whole story came to me.
Was the script illuminating in a way the documentaries weren’t?
Completely. It was only when we started reading some of [Aileen’s] letters from death row that. I started realizing how much research Patty [Jenkins] had really done as a writer, because actual moments in her life that she never talked about, that she only wrote about and talked to [Aileen’s longtime friend] Dawn Botkins about, were actually in the script.
The Advocate has been covering the Wuornos story since the beginning, but I did feel the film makes you understand her as a person in a way that news reports just can’t capture.
Yeah. Thank you. I feel like that was why Patty wanted to make the story.
Aileen was reduced to so many labels that it was difficult for anyone to see what kind of person could be behind all of those. The movie is able to reveal that person.
I really do think that Aileen didn’t start off as a bad person. I don’t think anybody starts off as a bad person. I think Aileen started off as a healthy, normal child who was just born into very specific circumstances, dealt with everything in her life, survived it, moved on, put it in the past, and was constantly hopeful to try and fix her life and make it better. But Patty and I talked a lot about what it takes for somebody just like me and you to cross that line and actually become a bad person–to become a killer. This was Aileen’s story, but that story in general really fascinates me. That’s why I love movies like Badlands and In Cold Blood. I think in films we explore, that world, but in our society we don’t.
Your manager was clearly supportive of your wanting to do this role, but how did your friends or other people in your life react when you said, “I’m going to go play a serial killer in a little independent movie by a first-time filmmaker”?
My mom read the script and site really loved it. She actually said, “You’d be crazy if you don’t do this.” My friends, I think … it was a slow process for them. I didn’t really talk to a lot of people about it. The only thing that happened was, I started watching the documentaries in my trailer [with costars] ,Jason Statham and Seth Green when I was doing The Italian Job. We had, like, four hours off, and I said, “I got an offer to play this woman and the script is really good, but I don’t know anything about her, so I was just gonna watch these documentaries, if you guys wanna come watch with me.”
When [Aileen] came on [screen], I think Jason or Seth said something like, “You’re kidding me, right? This is a joke, right?” I went, “No, it’s not.” I mean, that was their initial response when they saw her. [After that] we just talked about it every day. They would ask me what’s going on and it” I’m going to do it and “How are you guys going to do the transformation?” and “Who’s going to play Selby?” They were really interested in it, and I think they were really the only two. And then, of course, my boyfriend, who doesn’t have a choice in the matter [laughs], has to hear about, it day in and day out.
Did he read the script?
He did read the script. Yeah. He was extremely shaken up by it. [He said,] “Well, babe, I love you, and I don’t know if I want to go and see you go through all of these experiences”–in a very protective way. He was really inspired by the story and by the fact that Patty sat down and in six weeks wrote the script. That she went in and made it the way sire wanted to make it. I think all of that is very inspiring, whether you’re an actor or writer or anything.
Who’s your boyfriend?
[British actor] Stuart Townsend.
Oh, right. He’s cute. We like him.
[Laughs] He’s very cute.
Together you can be the newest gay and lesbian icon phenomenon.
Sure! Speaking of actors, one of the first things that Aileen says in the movie’s narration is “I wanted to be a movie star.” You had some traumatic events in your early life [including her mother’s shooting Theron’s abusive father to death when she was a teenager]: Was there any sense of “There but for the grace of God go I”?
Oh, all the time. I’m a trim believer in faith, but at the same time, we are the ones that make the decisions in our life. And I think a lot of the time our decisions are based on our survival; I think Aileen’s decisions were based on her survival. And we would shoot the movie and we would do a scene where she kills one of the innocent johns, and I would say to Patty, “If only she didn’t …” And we would constantly do that: “If only she didn’t–if only she’d just left.” Because the truth of the matter is, it wasn’t that she was pure evil, it wasn’t like she was walking around with this thing inside her. She was just trying to survive, and in doing that, she made really, really bad decisions in her life. And if she had maybe made one decision different, who knows how it would have worked out for her? Who knows how it would have worked out for me? I can’t imagine having to go back in my life and redoing it all over again. The small little decisions that you make that change your life forever, you know?
Tell me about living more or less as Aileen during the filming. You’ve talked eating potato chips and Krispy Kremes to put on the weight and how the makeup and teeth were developed and how it’s your own hair, which is just incredible. But more than the cosmetic transformation, tell me about the physicality of the role: Aileen’s way of walking and that amazing head toss that just captures her whole personality.
She’s so the opposite of me. I have really bad posture, and my head is always down. When I make a point I tend to squint my eyes. Aileen is like [momentarily takes on Aileen’s posture], head back, shoulders back, eyes big. What happened was, the more I dived into her life, the more I realized that everything she did physically came from an emotional place. I started realizing that all of this stuff–walking into the courtroom and doing that stuff–that’s a woman who’s been living a homeless life for most of her life. This is a woman who sleeps under an underpass. This is a woman who gets into a stranger’s ear and drives out of state with them. I can’t imagine living that life. That’s a woman who says, “I need to take care of myself. Don’t fuck with me.” You know? This is a woman who was 5 foot 3–which I couldn’t believe–who looks like she’s 6 foot 4.
How tall are you?
I’m 5-10, 5-9. The tension in her jaw and in her mouth was really interesting. She had very crooked teeth. I think we all carry tension somewhere in our face–for me, it’s my forehead. A lot of cinematographers say I act with my forehead. I think you just have that one spot on your face where it all goes, and with her it was all in the mouth. Which, again, was so not me; I barely move my mouth when I speak. But once I started wearing the prosthetic teeth, which we really based on her teeth, for some reason it just happened. A lot of those things just kind of happen. I mean, the way she swaggered into a bar–when I went into the Last Resort and I saw the guys that she was hanging out with, part of me started becoming that way too. It’s just your surroundings, you know?
Tell me about visiting the Lest Resort, the bar near Daytona Beach where she used to hang out–and where you later filmed several scenes for Monster.
Patty and I went up for a week to go and do research, and we hung out with some of the bar owners that knew her and people who were willing to talk to us. I did start wearing the teeth just because [at first] I couldn’t speak with the teeth–I had to basically learn to speak all over again with the teeth.
But tell me–you’re a fashion model, you’re a beautiful woman, you’re an actress–and suddenly, maybe for the first time in your adult life, you’ve transformed yourself into a woman who’s not these things that you have been, with extra weight and bad hair and bad teeth. Did people treat you differently?
No. It wasn’t like I was in L.A., hanging out with people who knew me. By the time I got to Florida I was constantly trying to be Aileen: I was trying to walk like Aileen, to carry myself like Aileen, things like that. And I think everyone [on the crew] got used to that right from the beginning. When I wasn’t Aileen–when I didn’t have the contact lenses in or the teeth in–they were treating me weird. Like, Patty wouldn’t be able to make eye contact with me. I would show up in the morning and she couldn’t look me in the eye until I had the contacts in.
Patty says in the press notes that she treated you as Aileen during the entire shoot, on camera and off.
Yeah, it was really funny. Everybody has to rediscover me after the film. Like [ex-Journey lead singer] Steve Perry, who was so kind to give us the Journey song [“Don’t Stop Believing,” which plays during Aileen’s roller-skating first date with Selby], really became such an “ally and a friend. I talked to him on the phone, and I wrote him a letter asking him if we could do it–we just hit it off immediately. Then he came to L.A. and he couldn’t look at me. I finally said to Patty, “I don’t think he likes me.” And she said, “Charlize, just last night she said to me, ‘I have gotten to know Charlize as Aileen so much that seeing her just be Charlize really freaks me out.”
Did you have any moments of running out for cigarettes and not looking the way you usually do in L.A. and feeling like the world was looking at you differently?.
No, I guess I just wasn’t that aware of any of that stuff. And the only thing that happened was, when we were shooting at the Last Resort, most of the extras were actual people who hang out there and knew Aileen. And so when I did come out in makeup and we did the first rehearsal, a lot of them just couldn’t look at me. And Al, the bartender who knew Aileen really well–who kind of laughed at us when we showed up for research and said that I was going to play Aileen–went to Patty and said, “This is really freaking us out, how much she looks like Aileen and how much she’s carrying herself like Aileen. Everybody’s talking about it.” And everybody kind of just distanced themselves–they couldn’t quite deal with it. And I completely understand.
Aileen spends a lot of the time in the movie looking in the mirror. In your mind, what was she thinking?.
Well, the first time, of course, is when she gets ready for the [date at the] skating rink. That was really the truth–Aileen was homeless pretty much all the time, and she cleaned herself up in gas station bathrooms. That was who Aileen was. And I just kind of remembered getting ready for high school dances and rehearsing yourself in the mirror and stuff like that. The other moment that I really love was after the first murder, where she looks at herself in the mirror. It was the first time that she had to be OK with herself, with what she had done. So a lot of [the acting] started representing Aileen kind of dealing with herself, having to face herself through all of this and not just through other people. She had to look at herself in the mirror as well and deal with all of this.
I also wondered what you thought when you first looked in the mirror in full makeup and contacts.
It’s not the answer that people expect. I was very happy [laughs]. I was very happy because I was very concerned that it would become a joke. I didn’t want it to become about makeup or about a caricature or anything like that. And so I was really nervous. So the first day that we did all of it and I looked in the mirror, I was like [gasps], OK, I’m feeling this–this feels very authentic to me and very real and it’s not a joke. I was very happy.
Your physical transformation is something you’ve talked a lot about in other interviews. Another question that I know you get asked a lot is “What’s it like kissing a girl instead of a boy?” Instead of asking the question, I’m going to ask how you feel when people keep asking that question.
[Laughs] I haven’t gotten it too much. And to me, that was the greatest compliment, because [Monster] wasn’t about two women finding each other and falling in love. It was about two outcasts in society who wanted the same thing so desperately: to be accepted without being judged, to be loved and taken care of. And they found each other.
A couple of people have brought it up, and you do the quick answer of “I had the prosthetic teeth and Christina Ricci thought I was a terrible kisser” and all of that stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s been really nice that that hasn’t been the first and foremost question about this movie, which I’m so extremely happy about. Because with Aileen, the thing that always broke my heart so much with her is that she was so not picky when it came to who was gonna love her. She would’ve taken it from anybody. From anybody. And that really broke my heat.
You see that hunger in the first scene after the skating, when it’s so clear that their physical connection is not about sexual satisfaction–it’s about human connection.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
But for anyone who knows more than the basic facts about Aileen, her sexual identity has always been complicated. Clearly Selby identifies as a lesbian …
Selby’s definitely the character that I think a lot of people [will identify with] who have been in that situation, where they’re trying to live an honest life but nobody makes it easy for them. Selby definitely represents that, whereas Aileen represents everybody, not just the gay and lesbian community. I think she represents–honest to God–just that search that I think we all [share] in our life, just to be loved.
Yet–because when the murders were taking place Aileen was with a woman–to the news media, therefore, she was a lesbian. End of story.
“The first lesbian serial killer”–yes, definitely.
Do you think that because she was labeled a lesbian, her claim of self-defense was a lot less credible to the prosecution and the jury and the public? Because it was easier to paint her as a man-hater?
That’s why the character of Thomas [Bruce Dern, who plays an older friend at the Last Resort] was very important to me, because she had guy friends. In talking to everybody, at the Last Resort especially, most of them are guys. I really, truly believe in my heart that she wasn’t a man-hater, and she even admitted it herself. She said, “I don’t hate men–I hate johns. I hate men who pick women up and rape them and abuse them and use them.” My God, this woman was a prostitute from the time that she was 8 years old–I can understand that. That makes sense to me. But she was not a man-hater. It’s one of the huge misconceptions about her. “Well, if she was a lesbian, then she was a man-hater, and that’s why she killed all of these people.” That wasn’t the case.
Do you think that if she hadn’t been with a woman at the end and therefore easy to label that way, she might still be alive? Do you think she could have been spared execution?
No, I don’t think so. The way her case was dealt with, the fact that she killed seven men, just who Aileen was, her past–I think “all of that just really played into the hands of a lot of politicians, and they were definitely going to use her at some point as a pawn for their good. I don’t think whether she was a lesbian or not would have changed that. I think that her crimes on their own were quite horrendous, and they were going to be smart and use that, definitely, to their own best interests.
It’s a difficult movie. What was the hardest scene for you to do?
Change it around: Which wasn’t? [Laughs] One scene that I only now realize why it was extremely hard for me was the bus stop scene [when she says goodbye to Selbyl, where finally all her emotions, all her guards break down, which is so not the Aileen that I had played up till then. Aileen up till then had been like, Everything’s fine, everything’s good. A couple of beers, a pack of smokes, I’m good. Got Selby over there; it’s all fine. And then all of a sudden you have to get to the bare bones of this woman who’s been suppressing all of this stuff. And I was suppressing all of that stuff. But once I did open the path [to those suppressed feelings], then I was kind of fucked for two days. It was like, Now I can’t hold it back again.
Was that at the end of the shooting day?.
No. [That afternoon] all of a sudden I’m [portraying Aileen as] “funny guy” at the restaurant [on a date with Selby], pushing the hostess around and trying to get into a fight, and my eyes are so swollen and sore. And Patty’s like, “Just be that girl who can take on any guy,” and I’m like, “I just sat in a fuckin’ alley for two hours crying–this is insane!” That was a hard day. And then also, our second-to-last day was extremely hard for me because we had an entire day of shooting: 1 think three scenes–[including] the last murder, the last john, who obviously is such an innocent. And we had to do it fight from the beginning–the pickup and going into the woods and actually killing him. That was an extremely hard day for me. I just remember lying on the ground with nothing [left], just complete numbness. Patty would come up and rub ray back as I was lying in the dirt, unable to move, and she said, “Babe … sorry, but we’re gonna need one more.” That’s when you know you’re with a good director-somebody who doesn’t let anything else sabotage what moviemaking is about. No matter how exhausted you are, no matter how much film you’re shooting, no matter how everybody else is saying, “You’re killing the actress–please stop doing this,” I never had to forgive her for it. I was like, Finally-here was somebody willing to expend the effort to actually push you out onto that edge [and not allow you to] just stop right before mid go, “Well, tiffs is it and I don’t know and I’m just not feeling it and I’m tired.” No–go, go. So all of that was great.
How were you after the film wrapped?
I was exhausted. I can’t remember the last time I was that tired. And I had three days in L.A. to get my hair colored and pack for four months, then got on a plane and went to Montreal and went straight into another film. I was in a lot of denial. I kind of showed up in Montreal going, Everything, s great, so let’s rehearse. I’m ready to go–no, it’s fine, don’t worry about it.” I was training three, four hours a day, barely eating, trying to lose the weight–I only had three weeks till we were shooting–and I still had a lot of emotional baggage in me. [Fortunately,] I was lucky enough to be working with my boyfriend.
This was Head in the Clouds, right? Because you’ve talked about the relationship between you and Penelope Cruz in that movie–how there might be some assumed lesbian history between them.
Yeah. Again, it’s very similar to Aileen: I play a woman who’s very desperate, very, very love-hungry, and very much a nurturer the way Aileen wanted to be a nurturer. She wanted to take care of somebody. She wanted to be “the man.” She wanted to be able to provide and support and do all of that stuff. And [Theron’s Clouds character] Gilda’s very much the same–she’s kind of the caretaker of everybody and doesn’t want people to leave her house. “Stay and visit, and let me take care of you, let me love you” and all of that stuff.
Do you think the line between love as comfort and love as sex is more blurred for women?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t be an expert on it, [but] I do think so.
You date men–you’re as much an expert as anyone.
[Laughs] But I also think there’s so many levels of gray–it’s not just black-and-white, you know? I do think with women it is different because we are–the pagan religion of us is just different. We gravitate with the moon, and I think we’re nurturers–we bear children and take care of them, and it’s just a natural thing with us.
Tell me about your own nurturing, growing up in South Africa. Did you know gay people?
Yeah, my neighbor was gay–my neighbor whose younger brother I went to school with. Or is gay, still. He was about maybe 12 years or 13 years older than me. I grew up with it. I don’t even remember my mom explaining it to me or anything like that. I remember going and having dinner at their house three times a week and having a barbecue, and he would be there with his boyfriend–and he would always have a different boyfriend. It was never an issue. And then for some reason, through my mom there was quite a big community of friends that we had that were either bisexual or gay. I guess I just understood it. I just got it.
And then you went into ballet and fashion!
[Laughs] Exactly! Yeah, you can’t go through an art school and not experience all of that.
How have your gay and lesbian friends responded to the movie?
They love it. And the funny thing was, I never went into the movie going, I’m gonna have to research that or really think about that. It really came from such an organic place of I want this human being to love me so much that I’ll do anything. So it wasn’t I’m gonna go and play a lesbian, so I should really look at my friends–you know what I mean? Maybe it’s naive for me to say that, but I don’t think there’s anything different. It’s love. You have to kind of tackle it from your roots of love and wanting to be loved. But I have had some of my lesbian friends comment on what a beautiful lesbian I ended up playing [laughs]. But no, everybody has just been really, really supportive. And really moved by the love story.
You’ve said that the notion that gay marriage is still up for debate seems prehistoric to you.
Very prehistoric. I just don’t understand that at all. It’s so unbelievably frustrating. So frustrating. I mean, I am surrounded by so many beautiful relationships just in my life, I can’t tell you–just so inspirational. And the fact that what the sex is [of someone you love] is an issue is just unbelievable to me. I mean, love is such a hard fucking thing–to find somebody who’s willing to love you and accept you and have patience with you and is willing to go through anything with you and stand by you–that, on its own, is so hard to find. The fact that people want to complicate it even more just absolutely baffles me. If it happens, cherish it! What does it matter if you’re sharing it with a man or with a woman? It’s very strange to me.
One last question: If the spirit of Aileen Wuornos is around somewhere, is there anything you would say to her?
I’d love to just listen. I don’t know if I would say anything. Knowing her story now and getting so close to the life that she had, I guess I wouldn’t mind just sitting in front of her and letting her speak and just listening to her. I don’t think she had a lot of that in her life. I guess that would be it. Just hear what she has to say and really, truly listen.
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