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Why Charlize Theron is Such a Fascinating Screen Presence

Why Charlize Theron is Such a Fascinating Screen Presence

[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with DIRECTV and the suspenseful thriller, Dark Places,” which is available now, exclusively on DIRECTV.]

Charlize Theron started out in the background. Her first role – an uncredited bit part as “Eli’s Follower” in 1995’s “Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest” – didn’t give her too much to work with, and in just two scenes she’s tasked with sitting stony-faced in a church (the “follower” thing) and then being attacked by a many-tentacled monster (appropriately enough, in a cornfield). It wasn’t an auspicious start, but everyone has to begin somewhere. Theron started small.

Horror films – especially popular franchises that are bizarrely corn-based – didn’t end up being Theron’s bag, fortunately enough. Instead, the actress has carved out a career that relies on one thing: her tremendous screen presence. Theron’s prodigious range is both the cause and the result of said presence, and her ability to slip between genres, periods, and parts with obvious ease is perhaps her biggest asset as a performer. Theron is consistently watchable and perpetually engaging, particularly thanks to her knack to slip into roles with ease, regardless of how different new parts are from old ones. She’s always willing to do more, and do it differently. 
Two decades into her career, and Theron has already exhibited not just an interest in, but an actual ability to embody a wide range of roles within a sprawling spectrum of genres. Theron doesn’t do just one thing, and she certainly doesn’t just one kind of film. Her resume is peppered with period pieces (like “That Thing You Do!,” in which she had a small, but memorable part, or even “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” which offered her a true starring role in a film kitted out with other heavy hitters), big blockbusters (think “Hancock” or even “Snow White and the Huntsman,” both of which made over $395 million at the global box office), and even the odd outlier or two (“Sweet November,” one of the aughts’ most awkward romantic offerings). 
That kind of talent is rare, and it allows Theron to constantly push forward in new, different, and unexpected roles. Even when you know what kind of Theron you’re going to get – blockbuster Theron, or funny Theron, or ass-kicking Theron – based on the film at hand, her wide-ranging experience allows her to tap into different facets of her characters, often finding unexpected humanity in the process.
Even when it comes to her signature role – her Oscar-winning turn as real-life murderer Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ “Monster” – most attention is paid to her altered appearance, and the majority of the praise heaped upon her work in the film forgets that Theron was also tasked with playing an actual person in a period setting. The unforgiving make-up, the grizzled appearance, the fried hair, that was all part of a larger, much bolder performance that extends beyond her willingness to inhabit the role in basic physical ways (read: she looked really awful, and purposely so). Theron’s appearance in the film was certainly its most splashy element, and to deny the tricky appeal of an actress as traditionally beautiful as Theron obscuring her looks for a part is hopeless, but the end result wasn’t a film built on such a contrivance, but one built on Theron’s ability to stay compelling even when she’s playing a roundly unlikable character.
Recently, Theron has taken her willingness to (quite literally) play unattractive, in new directions. In Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult,” Theron plays Mavis Gary, perhaps her least likable character ever (and, yes, that does count Aileen). Mavis is rotten to her core, and Theron’s good looks only serve to highlight the festering disgust that swirls in Mavis’ heart. She giddily tricks people into buying her bullshit – again, the looks sure help – but even one watch of the 2011 black comedy is enough to make Theron’s ability to go truly nasty pretty plain. The shocker, of course, is that she’s still compelling to watch, as Mavis is perpetually poised to go in any number of different directions, and Theron happily toys with audience expectations. Be good, Mavis, we think, and she just never is. It’s a role that would be considerably less interesting in other hands, but Theron manages to subvert expectations, with her Mavis not only staying just awful, but doing it unapologetically. 
Theron’s good looks have certainly served her well – oh, Hollywood – but a pretty face isn’t much without anything to back it, and Theron frequently capitalizes on said pretty face roles (like in “Devil’s Advocate,” “Mighty Joe Young,” or “Reindeer Games”) with something harder to fully quantify: chemistry. Theron could have chemistry with an animated and oversized ape (been there, done that), but she’s also able to spark with a bevy of Hollywood’s biggest actors. She’s matched wits with Smith, Wahlberg, Hardy, Reeves, and Fassbender (even robot Fassbender can’t quite conceal how compelling her finds her in “Prometheus”), and has often emerged as the more engaging of the pair. 
Part of that has to be owed to her good humor, too, because even though Theron is a serious actress – win an Oscar, you get that title for life, it’s a rule – she’s not afraid to have some fun, too. Her recurring turn on “Arrested Development” is deliriously doofy (still, who wouldn’t want to live in Wee Britain, even for a spell?), and she gamely matched wits with a wide cast of comedic actors (and also Seth MacFarlane) in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” Theron stays fascinating to watch because she’s always ready to mix it up – even “Million Ways,” which was otherwise unremarkable – saw Theron blending humor with gun-slinging toughness.
That toughness doesn’t hurt, either, as Theron has also found time to add action into the mix, what with starring roles in “Hancock,” “Aeon Flux,” and her recent turn in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Theron isn’t just content to mix up her work, but also seems to be actively compelled to kick its butt with big, badass roles that surely look daunting on the page. That’s perhaps the key to Theron’s appeal: her ability to transcend genres, to rely on her talent over her looks, and her keen interest in keeping things fresh for both herself and her audience. When a performer makes it their business to keep pushing forward in ever-changing ways, the audience can only make it their business to keep watching.

[Indiewire has partnered with DIRECTV to present the premiere of the thriller “Dark Places,” available now, exclusively on DIRECTV. A woman (Charlize Theron) who survived the brutal killing of her family as a child is forced to confront her memories when a secret society with an obsession for solving crimes investigates the cold case. Find out more and how to watch here.]

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