NEW YORK — Jason Reitman was under the same impression many are of Charlize Theron. He knew she was a fiercely talented actress, prone to burying her stunning beauty behind gritty, intense performances like her Academy Award-winning one as a murderous prostitute in 2003's "Monster."
Then she told him a dirty joke.
Theron approached Reitman at last year's Oscars to tell him how much she liked his then recent film "Up in the Air" and that she'd love to work with him.
"I got a tap on the shoulder and I turn around and it's all 6-foot-6 of Charlize Theron," recalls Reitman, intentionally exaggerating Theron's height by 8 inches. "I was really understandably intimidated."
But when Theron, already a few drinks into the night, revealed a more depraved sense of humor than her image would suggest, Reitman realized they had more in common than he expected: "I was like, 'Oh! I like you.'" (Theron, for her part, doesn't recall the joke, but, with a glimmer in her eye, acknowledged, "That sounds about correct.")
The meeting was both fortuitous, in that it directly led to Theron staring in Reitman's new film "Young Adult," and an early hint to the tone of their collaboration. In "Young Adult" (which was penned by Diablo Cody of "Juno"), Theron plays Mavis Gary, a teen fiction ghost writer who returns to her hometown in rural Minnesota to lure her now-married former boyfriend. As a woman whose nostalgia has swelled to demented proportions, Theron is bitingly caustic and hilariously candid.
The performance not only reveals Theron's comedic side, but shows more of her true nature than her previous work. Not that Theron is anything like Mavis' more deplorable aspects, but she shares Mavis' sharp elbows and sharper wit.
"Most people who know me who have seen the film are not that shocked," Theron said in a recent interview during which she was self-deprecating, unguardedly foul-mouthed and thoughtful. "The film is way more my personality and closer to anything that I've done."
It's also Theron's first film in nearly three years. In between, she prepared to star in an ambitious "Mad Max" sequel, "Fury Road," which was repeatedly delayed and still hasn't been shot. She worked on developing projects with her production company, including a drama series for HBO with David Fincher. She also split with the Irish actor Stuart Townsend after nearly a decade together.
"I'll be very honest: I wasn't missing it," Theron says of acting. "It's hard to miss something when nothing was kind of sparking that instrument to get excited about."
That period, though, appears to be over. Following "Young Adult" — which is earning Theron her best reviews since "Monster" — she'll be seen in Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" and the fantasy "Snow White & the Huntsman," which also stars Kristen Stewart.
Theron, 36, grew up on a farm outside Johannesburg, South Africa. While she was a teenager, her mother shot and killed Theron's alcoholic and abusive father. When she was 16, she became a model in Milan. She later moved to New York to train as a ballet dancer, but a knee injury pushed her out of dance and toward acting.
After a number of small roles as girlfriend types in films such as "The Devil's Advocate" and "The Cider House Rules," her performance in "Monster" changed her trajectory considerably. When she won best actress at the Oscars, Nelson Mandela hailed her for putting South Africa "on the map."
Since then, Theron, who lives in Los Angeles, received a second Oscar nomination for her performance as a miner in "North Country." Though the science fiction "Aeon Flux" bombed, Theron drew acclaim again for a supporting role in the somber anti-war film "In the Valley of Elah" and for the atypical superhero film "Hancock."
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