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."
But all the while, there were hints in her filmography of comedic leanings. In 2005, she had a memorable arc on "Arrested Development" as the love interest of Jason Bateman's character. Her character was mentally disabled, but the joke was on those around her, who didn't notice because of her British accent.
The opportunity arose when "Monster" director Patty Jenkins directed an episode of the series, and Theron asked her to relay to creator Mitch Hurwitz her pleading to be on the show. She calls the experience a "great, great learning experience" in how comedy needn't be played for comedy, but rather portrayed realistically.
Theron also appeared on an early episode of Zach Galifianakis' faux-interview Web series "Between Two Ferns," as revered of a comedy calling-card as there is. On it, Theron flirted with Galifianakis before pulling the rug out from him, cackling at the idea of her being attracted to a "fat garden gnome."
"The bizarre thing is that I've always had kind of a sick, twisted sense of humor," says Theron. "But my work, for some reason, has always veered to the dramatic stuff. I think that's because I've never really been that driven by genre, but I find that I want to play people that feel real. I do think in comedy it's harder to find non-caricatures. I always said that I would love to do something like that kind of comedy that the Coen brothers do, that more character study stuff. And that stuff is hard to come by, and I feel like my career was setting itself up to be another thing."
The comedian-actor Patton Oswalt, who plays an old high school acquaintance of Mavis' who turns into a drinking buddy in "Young Adult," said at the Gotham Awards that Theron "has the kind of humor that someone who looks like me has."
The two found an unlikely chemistry in "Young Adult" right from the start. Before ever meeting, they did a table read in Reitman's dining room and immediately connected.
"I realized I was going to be working with a really great actor," says Oswalt. "It made me work even harder so that I could be on her playing field. She is so instinctual and already ready to go every shot."
Whether it's "Monster" or "Hancock" or "Young Adult," Theron typically commits fully to a character. Asked how she manages that, she doesn't miss a beat: "Alcohol."
But thinking a little more about it, she says that ballet instilled in her a relish for performance. Though she acknowledges she's not a trained actor, she says she learned from other actors as her career unfolded.
"It was amazing to watch Al Pacino at 3 in the morning and suck ... and then be brilliant," says Theron, recalling "The Devil's Advocate." ''It was one of the greatest teachings that I could have been given. He taught me that in order to be great, you have to be willing to fall on your face. You don't get to that place unless you go balls out."