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The Contenders: Charlize Theron's 'Young Adult' role grew on her

The actress sought out Jason Reitman to see beyond her looks and give her a challenge. She had her work cut out for her.

December 01, 2011|By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times
  • Actress Charlize Theron photographed at Lulu's Cafe in Los Angeles. Theron stars in the film Young Adult.
Actress Charlize Theron photographed at Lulu's Cafe in Los Angeles.… (Wally Skalij/ Los Angeles…)

Much like her character in the new film "Young Adult," Charlize Theron is a stalker. While the film's Mavis goes after an old boyfriend, Theron has begun targeting interesting directors willing to see beyond her striking beauty.

After having taken on challenging roles in the past only to have them disappoint in the execution, the 36-year-old actress now looks to work with visionaries at the helm of her films. She sought out Jason Reitman at last year's Academy Awards, where the writer-director had been nominated for his George Clooney-starring "Up in the Air," Theron's favorite film of 2009.

"We were walking into the theater, and he and his wife were in front of us. I thought, 'Oh, God, don't be that person,' but I was. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'I just love your film,'" said Theron, whose shyness often prevents her from reaching out to those she admires.

She adds, "The directors that I really suss out, the ones that really inspire me, make the kind of films I feel could raise my bar.... I'm a bit of a director groupie."

Theron's single-minded desire to work with the 34-year-old auteur led her to the challenging "Young Adult," a tar-black comedy written by Reitman's "Juno" collaborator Diablo Cody. That dedication helped Theron understand the role of Mavis Gary — a thirtysomething ghostwriter trapped in a state of arrested development who feels her life will get back on track once she reconnects with her high school boyfriend — despite the fact that he is happily married and a brand-new father.

"I knew that there was something great about her," said the actress of the character, while sipping a Coke poolside at the Chateau Marmont. "I didn't know how to go about doing it. I think that's always a good sign. She wasn't an easy character to find. She definitely played hard to get."

Mavis is anything but a sympathetic character. She's a reality-TV-watching, hair-pulling alcoholic with little self-awareness. She may be the protagonist, but she's hardly an antihero because she lacks the tools for any kind of change.

Theron empathized with Mavis, but she never liked her, and that was more than enough to interest the former ballerina and model. "I think the greatest characters are the unlikable ones, but mainly men get to play them. Rarely do women. And they are so delicious. Like Nicole Kidman in 'To Die For,' I wanted that character to live next to me. Did I want her to be my daughter? No. But those characters are so interesting."

Despite Mavis' complexity — or maybe because of it — Theron had a great time on the set of the film. "Young Adult" was shot in a speedy 30 days in upstate New York. To Theron, it was her favorite way to work: small crew, long hours, no frills. The actress even bypassed the traditional hair and makeup artists and put herself together — a process that worked well for Mavis, who, when she's not desperately trying to seduce her ex (Patrick Wilson), can be found trudging down the street in day-old makeup and battered sweats.

"On the drive out to the suburbs, I would just sleep in my makeup. I would literally get out of the car and walk onto the set and be ready to shoot," said Theron. "And we would shoot all day long. I wouldn't go to my trailer. It almost felt like a student film."

Theron's costar Patton Oswalt appreciated her drive. "It was such a relief to work with someone who's a professional, who doesn't have the belief that her talent comes from somewhere up high. No, her talent comes from working really hard. That's all she believes in."

With the humor in "Young Adult" so dark viewers may not be sure whether to laugh or cry, even Theron was ambivalent toward the finished product upon her first screening, saying she felt like she'd been "punched in the face over and over again." She has since watched it with audiences during test screenings, which has been easier. "I didn't know what people would respond to. Are they going to get it? It was nice to see what they responded to, what they laughed at."

Ultimately, Theron trusted her director and his vision. The film ends in a rather surprising manner, which is sure to have a divisive effect on audiences. But it was an ending Theron believed in, and she signed on to the film only after Reitman promised her he would not change it.

"The third act is my favorite part of any movie I've ever done," the actress says. "It's the most deserving third act I've ever been a part of: the rawness, the surprise, the curve."

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

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