The search for the next James Bond is over—Charlize Theron is perfect for the role. Proof positive: In Atomic Blonde, in theaters July 28, Theron displays her suave spy talents as Lorraine Broughton, an undercover MI6 agent who is sent to Berlin in 1989, five days before the Wall falls. As Lorraine, Theron is an exhilarating mix of icy beauty, alluring mystery, in-your-face sexuality, and fierce, fearless fighting skills.
In one epic battle, she takes on a team of brutal bad guys on a staircase, pummeling and decking them one by one while looking stunning in thigh-high boots and a shaggy bob. It is a triumphant female-power moment that is rarely seen in cinema, and Theron owns it completely.
“I didn’t just want to play a girly spy who depends on her flirty ways,” Theron told me at the W photo shoot, which channeled the late-1980s, gritty punk-meets-glam mood of the film. “It would be so boring to just be ‘the girl’ and wait for the guys to come in when there’s a fight. Instead, I thought about Atomic Blonde the way I imagine men think about parts in action films. I was intrigued and challenged.”
The role wasn’t easy. The film’s director, David Leitch, was once the stunt double for Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, and he trained Theron, who has a background in ballet, for three months, four to five hours a day. (Theron, along with her producing partner, Beth Kono, developed the film, which is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City.)
In an interesting twist for an action film, Lorraine bears the marks of her battles. She is scarred and bloodied, and those scars are vital to the power of the movie. Like Bond, she is wounded, emotionally and physically. “I remember it was day two, my body was hurting, and my face was all bruised up, and my eye was swollen shut,” Theron said in an interview with The New York Times. “I remember thinking to myself, Really?”
Lynn Hirschberg: When you developed Atomic Blonde, did you think about James Bond at all?
Charlize Theron: Lorraine is a little bit like Bond. He drinks a lot of martinis, doesn’t he? Shaken or not stirred, or whatever they are. Yeah, Lorraine and James are equally messed up. Maybe they should marry! Maybe they should have a baby! That would be an interesting baby.
Are you a fan of action films?
I really like them. One of my first memories is of watching Die Hard and just loving it. Maybe something’s wrong with me.
In one of your first films, you had a memorable action scene in a catsuit.
Yes! 2 Days in the Valley. Rotten Tomatoes gave it number 17 on the list of 20 Greatest Fight Scenes Ever. The fight was between me and Teri Hatcher. I hit her really bad.
Did you knock out her teeth?
No. But I think she was bruised. And because it was Teri Hatcher, who was a star, and I was this bleached-blonde-Amazonian, catsuit-wearing nobody who was punching her in the face, I was like a wild animal. Back then I didn’t know how to hone in my energy and I was knocking over lights. I had no concept of a set. I connected right with Teri Hatcher’s face. I felt terrible about it. I had no money and sent her some cheap beer the next day. Sorry, Teri.
Was it difficult to stage the fight scenes in Atomic Blonde?
Yes, but it’s like dance, and I grew up taking ballet. I love discipline. I function really well within the parameters of discipline and knowing what to do. For instance, you have to throw yourself into ballet 100 percent, and that was really good for me as a young girl. But other than Teri Hatcher, I had only connected my fist with a girl’s face once in my entire life, so I had to do a lot of training for this film.
What? Who was the girl you socked in the face? And why?
I was working in Milan as a model, and this girl got very aggressive with me at a bar. She pushed me and started talking smack, and that was it. My body just took over, and I thought, I didn’t just do that, did I? It was not badass like Lorraine at all. With Lorraine, we talked a lot about, ‘What would it be like if a girl was really fighting these big guys?’ David Leitch was so specific about knowing that a girl would never punch with her wrist, or her wrist would break. She would use her elbows. Or her knees. He designed the fights around what my strengths would be. And we made sure that we showed the impact of the hits that she took. We wanted the audience to feel the pain.
Do you think you would make a good spy?
No. I think I would just hide. I’d be really good at hiding. [Laughs] But I would fight. I would try, you know? To fight to the death you have to have a certain personality. Someone who lives like Lorraine cannot be superhealthy and dream of unicorns. She’s haunted.
Was it fun to toss a huge guy over your shoulder?
I do, like, a wrestling move. It took me a while to get that right. I was like, ‘We’re not throwing big dudes, right?’ But I did. I was pretty proud of myself.
You have a whole new future: WrestleMania!
That would be kind of awesome. I’ve always wanted to stand on the ropes and scream.
In addition to Atomic Blonde, you are the villain, Cipher, in the massive global hit The Fate of the Furious. You were also the villain in Snow White and the Huntsman. Is it fun to be bad?
Ravenna, in Snow White, was fun. She’s obsessed with youth and, yeah, she’s a psychopath. She kills young girls and sucks the life out of them. [Laughs] Look, I’ve always been fascinated by abhorrent behavior. I have a real interest in why people do horrible things. I read a lot of books and am fascinated by whether deviant behavior is caused by nature or nurture. There’s a part of me that wants to understand that darkness, but I can’t really understand it. So, it is cathartic to play a character who is evil. It’s a free pass for your soul: Nothing bad is going to happen, and you can explore what it would be like to be in that skin.
Like Lorraine, do you have any surprising skills?
I’m a great driver. I grew up on a farm. When I did The Italian Job, Mark Wahlberg, my costar, would do one 360 and start puking. I was like, ‘What’s up, girl?’ [Laughs] And also, I’m really, really good at cleaning—at laundry! I love coming back from a trip and opening my suitcase and doing laundry at 4:30 a.m. because I’m so jet-lagged. I dig that. I can’t help myself: I’ll walk into my kitchen, and be 20 minutes late because I’m cleaning and I can’t stop. The worst is when I’m making a film and I don’t get enough cleaning out of my system. It kind of builds up, and I’ll be in my trailer with my toothbrush cleaning the filthy corners. They’ll say, ‘We’re ready for you, Charlize,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m going to be right there! Just need to get some more corners.’
On an entirely different topic, where was your first kiss?
In my backyard. In South Africa. I was 12. His name was Mickey Smith, and he had braces. He worked at the local video store, so I would see him all the time and flirt with him. We were really nervous about the kiss. We had set it up: This weekend, we are watching Friday the 13th and we are making out. But we stalled and stalled and stalled, and finally his mom was in the driveway honking for him, and we were like, ‘Come on, let’s just do it.’ And we did it. It was horrible. Super-rushed and terrible.
No follow-up a week later or anything?
Nope. He was the sweetest guy ever, or was back then. He could be a serial killer now. I don’t know.