People thought Charlize Theron was just another model-turned-actress. They were shocked when it turned out she was good. Then they were shocked when it turned out she could be funny. Then they were shocked she could be serious. Then they were shocked when won an Oscar. Then they were shocked that she could do action. Then they were shocked that she could do villains. They were even shocked that she could almost literally turn into Megyn Kelly.
Perhaps some people are still shocked whenever Charlize Theron pivots for the umpteenth time, revealing yet another skill she’s mastered, yet another innate talent. To be steadily employed by Hollywood, as Theron has for some 25 years, and especially if you’re a woman, requires being good at everything. If one hustle dries up, find another. When that dries up, another — and so on and so forth. The people who last in the industry — not just the big stars but those who’ve simply been on screens consistently for decades, such as the recently late George Segal — know this all too well.
It would be easy to say Theron got her foot in the door thanks to her looks, but that’s unfair. And it’s untrue. On the surface, her breakthrough did treat her like eye candy. She first caught attention during the post-Pulp Fiction avalanche of generic imitators, with 1996’s 2 Days in the Valley, in which she played a moll to James Spader’s casually amoral assassin. Spader’s character treats her like an object, like a living air doll. The movie’s ad campaign featured her prominently, scantily clad, beckoning horndogs who’d seen Reservoir Dogs too many times.
But watch her performance. She’s alive, hungry, more thirsty than the men who lust after her. It’s even her first brush with action: She gets into a show-stopping melée with Teri Hatcher that ends in tragedy. She spends her final minutes expiring slowly and agonizingly, tearfully begging for her life with each short breath. Allowing Theron the space to give a great, painful death scene is maybe the movie’s only smart and novel move. But this is more than a better-than-the-movie-deserved performance. It’s Theron’s future career in miniature: She excels at a lot, sometimes with limited resources, all without breaking a sweat.
Less than two months later audiences learned another thing about Theron: She’s hilarious. Tom Hanks had the foresight to cast her in That Thing You Do!, his chronicle of a ‘60s one-hit-wonder. Theron’s role is small: She’s the girlfriend of Tom Everett Scott’s drummer protagonist — at least for a while. On paper she’s a sexist stereotype: impossibly vain, unenthusiastically going to his gigs and spending more time touching up her makeup than rocking out. But Theron makes an art of it. She’s just not that into him, perhaps sensing — rightly, it turns out — that he’s not going anywhere beyond a brief dance with fame. The best scene finds her stuck on the phone with him as he brags about a successful show. Bored by his boasting, she casually hangs up the phone without saying goodbye. It might be the funniest thing Theron has ever done — unexpected, perfectly timed, perversely badass.
There was a period early on when Theron was treated as a mere pretty face. But she always brought gravitas and wit. It’s devastating to watch her come slowly and epically undone in the over-the-top trashy The Devil’s Advocate, where she delivers another heartbreaking death scene. And there are early signs of the durable and versatile Renaissance Person that would soon become impossible to ignore. Theron won her Oscar for Monster, from future Wonder Woman steward Patty Jenkins, in which she uglied herself up and struck gold. But her work doesn’t seem calculated just to win trophies. It seems that by literally transforming her face, she thought she’d finally get the plaudits she’d always deserved.
Still, she might be even better in another, less auspicious movie from that year, the remake of The Italian Job. Everyone else — Mark Wahlberg, Jason Statham, Mos Def — is having a blast, but she’s not. The movie begins with the baddie (Edward Norton) murdering her father (Donald Sutherland), and while the boys are cracking jokes and stealing minis, she’s furiously committed to furious vengeance — a turn as serious as her raw nerve work in the movie that made her an Oscar-winner.
That pain is really what unites Theron’s characters, across genres and across types. They’re all dealing with something dark, even in the lightest comedies. Sometimes they can’t deal with it (The Devil’s Advocate). Sometimes they stew, hilariously, in their misery (her twin Jason Reitman-Diablo Cody movies, Young Adult and Tully). Sometimes their pain makes them tough (most of her action movies, and let’s not forget when she stole Seth MacFarlane’s spoof A Million Ways to Die in the West without a single joke). Sometimes it fills them with righteous fury. Speaking of which, there’s Furiosa, the real star of Mad Max: Fury Road — a supremely damaged woman who has quietly planned her vengeance against the men who wronged her.
Fury Road was when Theron officially added action to her arsenal. She’d done it before — not just 2 Days in the Valley but also the big-screen take on the MTV Liquid Television staple Aeon Flux — but here is when she became a real ass-kicker. It’s not like it came out of nowhere. In Atomic Blonde and The Old Guard, she was drawing on yet another talent: She’s a trained dancer. She’s a natural at fight choreography, but she doesn’t have the ego that comes with a perfect ass-kicker like Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris. In the more strenuous parts of her action films, she loves getting hurt, receiving as good as she gives.
Right now action is Theron’s main business, but not her only one. She can juggle kicking butt with being even funnier than Seth Rogen in Long Shot. Or getting an Oscar nomination for playing a justly wronged Fox News host everyone otherwise despises. The business that hesitantly welcomed Theron, that assumed she was just another hubristic looker who would be quickly put in her place, does not remotely resemble the one today. But she’s endured and evolved in part because she knows that you can’t just be good at one thing. She’s a model not only to those who want a sturdy Hollywood career, but to anyone in today’s weird economy, where cushy full-time gigs are rare and patchwork existences, sometimes culled from different skill sets, are becoming the norm. Who knows that life better than an actor? And who knows how to be great at lots of things more than Charlize Theron?