Playing an ass-kicking international spy can’t be easy, but Charlize Theron really suffered for her craft in “Atomic Blonde.” She twisted her knee, bruised her ribs and had to undergo extensive dental surgery, because she clenched down so hard on her jaw she cracked two teeth while getting in shape to throw burly men over her shoulders.
“It happened the first month of training,” Theron says. “I had severe tooth pain, which I never had in my entire life.” She thought it was just a cavity at first, until her dentist told her she’d need to have an operation before leaving for the shoot in Budapest. “Having to cut one of the teeth out and root canals,” Theron says. “It was tough. You want to be in your best fighting shape, and it’s hard. I had the removal and I had to put a donor bone in there to heal until I came back, and then I had another surgery to put a metal screw in there.”
It’s the kind of confessional that would make even the toughest male star wince. But Theron tells the story matter-of-factly, offering a look to a reporter that signals: Next question?
“Atomic Blonde,” a high-adrenaline action movie that feels like a mash-up of “The Bourne Identity” and “Alias” set in 1989 Berlin, is poised to be a summer hit when Focus Features debuts it on July 28. Following the success of “Wonder Woman,” which has grossed more than $350 million at the U.S. box office, it just may be that female action stars are finally getting some respect in the business where cash speaks even louder than sexism. At the same time, their macho big-screen counterparts, Tom Cruise, the Rock and Charlie Hunnam, have suffered costly box office disasters this summer.
Director Patty Jenkins, who made “Wonder Woman,” says she’s hopeful that the age of the female action star has dawned. “For our films to be successful and make a lot of money as well as having a female lead sends a huge message to the world that this is something possible,” she says. “People are watching and paying attention.” Although Jenkins hasn’t seen “Atomic Blonde” yet, she feels a kinship to the project because she directed Theron in her 2003 Oscar-winning role in “Monster.” “Every once in a while,” Jenkins adds, “I’ll see a newspaper with a picture of Gal Gadot on the left and Charlize on the right, and I’ll get emotionally confused. Those are my girls!”
It feels like the perfect moment in the zeitgeist for strong women to roar on-screen, amid a renewed wave of feminism that has risen up against the Trump administration. But this wouldn’t be the first time that Hollywood was stuck in the past. Even an A-list star like Theron wasn’t being courted for tentpole action pictures until power agent Bryan Lourd slipped her the script to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and she met with director George Miller for the part of the one-armed Imperator Furiosa.
“I got offered a lot of stuff in action movies that was either the girl behind the computer or the wife,” Theron says. At a peak in her post-“Monster” career, in 2005, she tried to launch a strong female hero, only to be savaged by terrible reviews. “When ‘Aeon Flux’ came to me, I thought that could be something. I was never completely sold on the entire concept, but I really loved [director] Karyn Kusama’s movie [‘Girlfight’]. So I threw myself into that with the belief that she’s a great filmmaker.”
“And then we f—ed it all up,” she says with a laugh. “I just don’t think we really knew how to execute it. And it’s disappointing, but it happens. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that you cannot get it right every time. I might have gotten this right because of that.”
“Atomic Blonde” was a passion project for Theron that she produced through her company Denver & Delilah Prods. (named after her dogs), run by Beth Kono and AJ Dix. She spent five years developing the material, after reading a treatment based on a then unpublished graphic novel named “The Coldest City.” She hired screenwriter Kurt Johnstad to expand on the character, an enigmatic woman named Lorraine who is ruthless and tough. And she brought on David Leitch (“John Wick”) as the director, after interviewing both men and women, to choreograph dazzling fight sequences on a shoestring budget — for the genre — of $30 million.
Word of mouth has been so positive since the movie premiered in March at SXSW that executives at Universal took over the marketing from its indie division, sidelining Focus from its own release. “It does look like a big movie,” says Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley, who envisions the story as the first in a franchise. “It’s a phenomenal character that she’s created, and I see deploying that character in many different adventures and scenarios.”
Yet even the budget of the movie points to gender disparity in the industry. When Matt Damon and Vin Diesel flex their muscles on-screen, the studios line up with buckets of dough. Theron, who is making $10 million a film after starring in hits like “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Prometheus,” took a pay cut in exchange for a percentage of box office receipts.
The actress spent a long time preparing to step into the stilettos of Lorraine, a mysterious Brit with no attachments or backstory. “You know nothing about this woman,” says Theron, who wanted to avoid contrivances like having her grieve for a dead husband. “It’s so rare that a female gets that in a movie. A lot of critics had issue with that — that’s such old-school thinking. You don’t need to be emotionally manipulated to feel something for someone.”
For two and a half months before the shoot, Theron trained for four hours a day to learn how to fight convincingly. It was daunting. “I’m coordinated because I was a dancer, and I definitely have movement memory, but I’ve never been a fighter,” she says. “I’m also really tall and a girl. That tends to make you look like you’re Big Bird.”
Theron appears in nearly every scene in the film, and she staged many of her own stunts. On the second day, while rehearsing an elaborate fight sequence in a stairwell, she twisted her knee. “I was like, ‘Why are you rehearsing!’” Leitch says. “We got to get this on camera.” The 50-day shoot was emotionally draining because they kept resetting the big fights. After Theron caught the flu in the freezing Budapest winter, she worked through her fever. “Even when she was sick, she’s wearing a little miniskirt and kicking ass,” says co-star James McAvoy.
Theron wanted to break the rules that had been set for women in the genre. When Lorraine gets hit, she bleeds, and Theron wore a prosthetic on her face to suggest that she was on the verge of death. “A lot of times studios or producers are not comfortable with seeing a woman with bruises,” she says. “We really wanted to pay attention to that authenticity.” After a fight in the third act, she trades her vanity for a swollen face and a sealed-shut eye. “We had early makeup tests where she had no whites in her eyes,” Kono says. “That’s how far they wanted to go.”
For a love interest, Lorraine is too suave to be impressed by the male colleague played by McAvoy. Instead, she has sex with another female spy (Sofia Boutella), without stopping to explain her bisexuality. “I just loved it,” Theron says about the idea. “For so many reasons: My frustration of how that community is represented in cinema, or lack thereof. And also, it made perfect sense. It just suited her. It just felt there was a way through that relationship and the fact that it was a same-sex relationship to show a woman not having to fall in love, which is one of those female tropes. ‘It’s a woman; she better fall in love — otherwise, she’s a whore!’”
And the sex scenes are right out of the 007 playbook, although Theron rolls her eyes at the comparison. “James Bond doesn’t have such hot you-know-what,” she says. “I loved that we didn’t hide under the sheets.”
Theron acknowledges that she’s following a path carved out by other high-octane female action stars. “I think we would be remiss not to acknowledge Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton,” she says about the protagonists of, respectively, the “Alien” and “Terminator” franchises. “We’ve had moments like this, where women really showcase themselves and kind of break glass ceilings. And then we don’t sustain it. Or there’s one movie that doesn’t do well, and all of a sudden, no one wants to make a female-driven film.”
“And look,” she says, “I am ashamed that I’m part of an industry that has never allowed a woman to work with a budget higher than what the budget has been on ‘Wonder Woman.’ That’s so f—ing caveman-like. I am always hoping that this is the movie that’s going to change it and keep it for us.”
Theron didn’t have a movie playing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but she still flew to Park City on a snowy Saturday morning in January, on the day after the inauguration, to march for women’s rights. “I went there because I’m a woman. I went there because I have kids,” she says, referring to her two children.
A photo from the event went viral because it showed Theron in tears. “It’s so weird,” she says, explaining what happened. “I made eye contact with a man” — she starts to cry, thinking back to that day — “I think it just caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting to see a man so emotionally charged in that march. I just felt like he had kids, or maybe little girls. It touched me, as you can tell,” she says, wiping away the tears running down her cheeks.
Theron’s drive was instilled in her from a young age, growing up in a country governed by apartheid. “I had to be very resilient as a kid in South Africa,” she says. As she was helping one of her children prepare for a class assignment recently, she remembered a moment from her grade school days. “The teacher asked us to go home and find an outfit and come back the next day and talk about what we wanted to be,” Theron recalls. “And I said I wanted to be a doctor because I found a really good coat that looked like a doctor’s coat and goggles.” She says she had no interest in medicine. “I think there was an actor inside me even at that age.”
She harbored dreams of being a ballerina and landed early work as a model. When she came to the United States at age 18, she arrived with only $300 and a single fabric suitcase (which she’d stitched with bobby pins because it was worn) packed with clothes and maps from the places she traveled all over Europe, with a pager, waiting for her next job. When did she think she made it? “When I got an extra role on ‘Children of the Corn III,’” she says. “I called my mom and said I can see the Hollywood sign and I just did a movie. And by doing a movie, I ran through a field with 100 other kids and had my scream looped.”
She was never afraid to shed her beauty for a role, like when she packed on 40 pounds to play a serial killer in “Monster.” Winning the Oscar turned her life inside out. “As far as work goes, it opens up a lot of doors,” Theron says. “But also, it’s so overwhelming to have everybody clamoring and saying, ‘This is what you should do.’ There’s so much noise. I felt a little unstable afterwards.” Asked how she found her way, she says, “Someone else wins. So it takes it off you.”
When she finished “Atomic Blonde,” she was looking for a role in a small film where she could lose herself. That’s why she reunited with her “Young Adult” director, Jason Reitman, on “Tully,” which required her to gain weight again to play a mom with three kids. But it was harder for her now than when she was in her 20s. “It was brutal in every sense,” Theron says. “This time around, I really felt it in my health. The sugar put me in a massive depression. I was sick. I couldn’t lose the weight. I called my doctor and I said, ‘I think I’m dying!’ And he’s like, ‘No, you’re 41. Calm down.’”
If you walk down the Universal lot, past the statue of the foulmouthed talking teddy bear Ted, you’ll come upon Theron’s production offices, decorated with posters of her previous movies and her awards (including two trophies from Victoria’s Secret for Sexiest Legs of the Year). Her company, which she launched 14 years ago, signed a first-look deal with Universal in 2015 that gave it a studio home. “I think our mission and mojo remains the same,” says Dix. “It’s a mandate to fall in love with great characters and great worlds.”
Along with movies, Denver & Delilah makes TV shows, such as Netflix’s “Girlboss.” Theron doesn’t need to star in all of the projects; she’s happy to launch young talent. She doesn’t see a differentiation between movies and TV anymore either. “It’s the same thing,” she says.
When she co-starred in “That Thing You Do!,” she recalls asking Tom Hanks to sign her script. “He obviously had done ‘Bosom Buddies,’ and I’d never seen it,” Theron says. “He wrote in my script the most flattering, most beautiful things about how he’ll always say he discovered me. And he ended it with ‘Promise me you’ll never do television.’ And I bet he’s eating his words.”
Theron has kept her eye out for material anchored by female characters, estimating that more than 60% of her projects center on women leads. Many female stars in Hollywood talk about the importance of mentoring other young women, but Theron walks the walk. She first met Kono years ago, when she was answering phones at the desk of her late agent, J.J. Harris. When Kono was at a crossroads in her career, Theron brought her on as a personal assistant on her movie sets, giving her room to grow into a full-fledged producer. “I’m so lucky,” Kono says. “I’ve been so fortunate to work for some of the most wonderful women who nurture other women.”
Yet in spite of some progress that’s been made in Hollywood, there’s still a long road ahead. After the Sony hack, Theron negotiated to receive the same pay as Chris Hemsworth on “Snow White and the Huntsman,” but she doesn’t necessarily see that as a victory. “We have a ways to go,” she says. “I asked for it, Universal was supportive of it and it happened. The fact that I got that doesn’t mean 90% of women get that, especially not in our industry.”
On the day of our Variety interview, Theron had spent the morning glued to the TV, watching the James Comey hearing. “This is a very big thing that’s happening in our country right now,” she says. “I’m concerned about all of that stuff.” Does she think she’ll see a female president in her lifetime? She sighs. “I mean, we would literally be the last country to come to that party,” Theron says. “That’s not even special anymore! Look at the world. The world is like, ‘You guys are seriously still having this conversation?’”