Charlize Theron is a certified badass action hero, and Comic-Con celebrated her last Friday with a panel looking back at her career and looking forward to what she hopes to continue to accomplish in the genre. Moderated by Terri Schwartz, the Q&A touched on several topics including sexism and ageism in Hollywood, the evolution of action movies, and what drives Theron to keep raising the bar as a female action star.
Theron is a thoughtful interview subject who clearly cares deeply about the projects she works on and the issues that the film industry has with gender representation. In trying to narrow down her best quotes from the panel, it was a struggle not to simply post a transcript, because all her answers were insightful and inspirational. I highly encourage you to watch the whole thing, especially if you’re a fan of Theron, action movies, or conversations about how Hollywood treats actresses.
Theron said that she was raised on action films but that there weren’t many opportunities for women to play action roles early on in her career. She got more opportunities after she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for 2003’s Monster, but she was still quite limited in what people thought she could (or should) do in 2004’s Aeon Flux: “It was really hard making that film, Aeon Flux. It was really hard in the sense that there were so many preconceived ideas and there were all these boxes that everybody wanted to kind of, like, squeeze you into. It was a character that I think today would be celebrated, you know, cinematically way more than it was in 2004. It was just hard. And I remember the film…didn’t play as well as everybody thought. And there was just this moment in my career where I realized very clearly that because that movie didn’t really perform that I wasn’t necessarily—maybe I wasn’t going to be given another opportunity. And it was really harsh. It was like, ‘No, women can’t make these movies successful.’ It was harsh.”
Theron also talked about double standards on the set of 2003’s The Italian Job and how it motivated her to work that much harder as a woman working in what was perceived to be a man’s genre. “The Italian Job was a great experience in the sense that I realized there is still so much misconception around women in the genre. Even though that film is—the action is really based on cars, we had to physically do a lot of that stuff. I mean, the only good thing that came out of that experience was that there was a real pressure to pull off those stunts with the actors, and that was the first time I experienced anything like that. But there was a very unfair process that went with that. You know, I was the only woman with a bunch of guys. And I remember vividly getting the schedule in our pre-production, and they had scheduled me for six weeks more car training than any of the guys. And I just, it was just so insulting. But it was also the thing that put a real fire under my ass. And I was like, ‘All right, you guys wanna play this game? Let’s go.’ And, you know, I made it a point to out-drive all of those guys.”
Charlize Theron went on to say that she was very proud of the work she did on The Italian Job, particularly a stunt where she did a reverse turn in a warehouse filled with props and people. “I did that stunt completely on my own, and it was like a, it was a huge moment of…’Yeah, we can do all of this stuff.’ Women are so unfairly thought of or treated when it comes to the genre.” She went on to express frustration over a lack of substantive roles for women in all genres, saying that she was always jealous of actors like Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro, “who got to play all of these really fucked up people. And women very rarely got to explore that…There was this inherent fear of putting a woman in circumstances where she might not shine…I do believe, you know, society has us still somewhat in this madonna-whore complex box, like we can either be really good hookers or we can be really good mothers. But anything in between, people are sometimes not brave enough to want to go and explore. And it’s so sad to me because the richness of those stories are…not only great entertaining stories to tell, great movies to make, but it’s a disservice to women in general. We are more complicated than those two things. And we can be many things.”
Charlize Theron said that her career trajectory changed forever after the masterful Mad Max: Fury Road, adding: “I don’t think I will ever recover from the making of that film…it was a tremendous feat, what we pulled off, all of us.” She spoke about how physically challenging the movie was, since so many of the stunts were done without the aid of wirework, and she praised George Miller for making movies that have fast-paced action but that never cheat the audience in the editing room. Looking back on Furiosa’s legacy, she said, “I am incredibly proud of what we pulled off, I really am. I’m really proud of that character. Furiosa is definitely one of…I think the most important characters I’ve ever played.” She said that she knew right away how special Furiosa was, comparing the character to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley: “The closest moment in my own life that I can look back to was when—the first time I saw Sigourney Weaver play Ripley, it just changed everything for me. It was like the world opened up and the possibilities were just endless. The amount of intelligence that she brought to that role…she owned that world. But it wasn’t forced, and it wasn’t written, and it wasn’t acted—it was just lived.” Theron said that, just like Ripley, Furiosa felt so real to her that she didn’t even see her as a character anymore, but as a living, breathing human being. “If that character can in a small part do what Ripley did for me as an actress—as a woman—that’s something that I’m incredibly proud of.”
Theron followed up her instantly iconic turn as Furiosa with action films like Atomic Blonde and The Old Guard that keep raising the bar for the genre. She emphasized the discipline and training needed for The Old Guard and the importance of finding a fighting style in Atomic Blonde that shows how women fight rather than trying to replicate male stunts. Regarding the fight choreography and stunt coordination in Atomic Blonde, which included long, continuous action takes, she said, “That is an incredibly difficult thing to do…it felt to me like we were pushing the envelope, and we were saying that this concept that somehow women in the industry have been arguing to fight like men is just so ridiculous, and that when we celebrate women fighting like women and that we’re smart about what body parts we would be using…we can fight just as hard with our elbows, with our heads, with our knees. That was when it became really exciting to me…what’s great is that there is no one way, but that we are definitely pushing it.”
Theron served as a producer on Atomic Blonde, and she talked about the pressure to get everything just right: “I was relentless on that film.” On every project, she carries with her a fear of not getting another chance if a movie doesn’t perform up to expectations. “There’s still a part of me as a female actor that always feel like this might be the last opportunity…it’s terrible that that’s kind of in my psyche; it’s also the thing that drives me and puts a real fire under my ass to get it right.” She said that Hollywood’s ageism added another layer of fear: “I made Atomic Blonde when I was 40 years old…there’s this sense of, like, feeling like, ‘Okay, time is running out: you gotta get it right. If you really want to—if this means this much to you and you want to kind of stay in this game, you gotta get it right.'”
Regarding the future of action films, Theron said that it’s important to lift up other female actors and filmmakers and to pass the baton: “It’s not just about you.” Acknowledging how far Hollywood still has to go in fighting sexism in film, and in action movies, in particular, she said that “[W]e have to kind of keep putting the pressure on our industry to change that.” Audiences respond to female-led genre films, she argued: “We can’t hide behind ignorance anymore. Audiences love these films. They love how we’re now telling these narratives with women at the core…it feels fresh to kind of explore the world of action with women fighting, and all of that stuff really excites me.”
Make sure you check out the full panel below!