Charlize Theron on playing action heroes, fashion regrets and motherhood

 (Josh Olins for Christian Dior)
(Josh Olins for Christian Dior)

‘That was a low moment for me,’ says Charlize Theron, with a sigh. ‘To be honest, I’ve yet to recover from it.’

I am just five minutes into my transatlantic phone chat with the Oscar-winning actress, and already we’ve stumbled into deep waters — a moment of profound regret and embarrassment from her past. Namely: Theron’s decision, as a twenty-something, to dabble with that questionable beauty trend now known as ‘Nineties Eyebrow’. ‘It’s funny because so much of that Nineties stuff is coming back into fashion now,’ she laughs. ‘Kitten heels, silk slip dresses — it’s like déjà vu. If you live long enough, it comes back around. But the [ultra-thin] Nineties Brow...’ Another mock-mournful sigh: ‘Yeah, I don’t know if that one will ever come back.’

The reason I am discussing ‘low’ fashion moments with arguably one of the most stylish women on earth is Theron’s current involvement in a certifiably high fashion moment: the new campaign for L’Or de J’adore, the latest fragrance from Dior. It marks the brand’s first collaboration with legendary French perfumer Francis Kurkdjian — also the creator of Jean Paul Gaultier’s famed Le Male — and a man whose near-magical scent-conjuring abilities Theron can personally attest to. ‘When I met him, I told him about a scent I find really nostalgic — the smell of rain hitting dust,’ she recalls. ‘I remember that so vividly, growing up in South Africa. Francis didn’t even flinch. He was like: “Oh, I can do that for you.”’ Sure enough, the next time they met, Kurkdjian presented her with a bona fide rain-hitting-dust-scented candle. ‘It really does smell like it!’ she marvels. ‘I was like, “Okay, this is why I love talking to you.”’

Theron has been working with Dior for almost two decades (‘It feels like we’ve climbed several mountains together,’ she laughs). What is it about these collaborations she most enjoys? ‘The scope has been tremendous,’ she says. ‘The familiarity of working with the same people, and everyone wanting the same thing: for these campaigns to be authentically representative of women. And to always be curious about what that means. [Dior] is respectful of tradition, yet bold enough to disrupt.’

Boldness — and disruption — have been major features of Theron’s own career, too. When the 48-year-old first upped sticks from South Africa to Milan as a teenager, having landed a one-year modelling contract there, she had barely been out of her home country. ‘South Africa was right down the bottom of the map,’ she says. ‘I’d look at the rest of it and think, “What the hell is up there?”’ She recalls backpacking through Paris — home of Dior — in 1992: ‘I’d never travelled anywhere before and suddenly I was staying in youth hostels, taking a train for an hour and ending up in a totally different country. I’d model for a while to get some money, then I’d go off travelling again.’

By the mid-Nineties she had swapped modelling for acting, and was living in Los Angeles, trying to break into movies. But while most young actors would be scrambling for any bit part they could get, Theron was constantly being offered work — and turning it down. For years, her then-manager brought her nothing but scantily clad, ditzy-blonde roles, and she rejected the lot, holding out for something meatier. For a fledgling actor just out of her teens, that’s pretty damn bold. ‘Bold or… stupid,’ she chuckles. ‘In retrospect, I’m happy. But I think about if my kids were on that same journey and doing that. I’d be like, “What are you doing?! That’s so risky!”’

 (Josh Olins for Parfums Christian Dior)
(Josh Olins for Parfums Christian Dior)

The risk paid off, though. After a slew of standout parts in the late 1990s (clearly casting directors were happy to overlook that Nineties Brow), Theron bagged an Academy Award for 2003’s Monster, in which she played serial killer Eileen Wuornos (‘one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema,’ according to top critic Roger Ebert). Does an Oscar win take some of the pressure off as an actor? Was there a sense of: ‘Okay, I’ve proven myself now, I can relax?’

‘Actually, in the beginning I felt [more] pressured,’ she admits. ‘There’s an unhealthy amount of focus placed on you after something like that. It kills creativity, and the privacy around creating. So, it was not great in the beginning. But then I had a failure or two [after the Oscar win], and I felt like: “I have nothing to lose, let’s take advantage of these open doors and do what I really want to do...”’

One of the things she really wanted to do, it transpired, was kick butt. Having conquered both drama and comedy, Theron has spent the past 10 years becoming an action stalwart, too, powering high-octane blockbusters such as Atomic Blonde, various Fast and Furious outings, and, most notably, 2015’s stupendously entertaining Mad Max: Fury Road.

‘I was terrified making that movie. Terrified,’ she recalls. ‘In the hands of [director] George Miller, you know you’re going to enter this fever-dream-like world, but his process was so insular. I almost wish I could do the movie over again...’ Seriously? It turned out pretty well, Charlize… ‘It really did!’ she laughs. ‘That’s why I wish I’d enjoyed it more. The whole time I was like: “What am I doing? Where am I driving to?”’

Her next movie is an actioner, too: a sequel to The Old Guard, the 2020 superhero movie she made for Netflix, based on a graphic novel about a team of immortal warriors. Out later this year, the film features one sure-to-be jaw-dropping stunt in which Theron’s character, Andy, hangs off the side of a helicopter. Sounds positively Tom Cruise-esque,

I suggest. She laughs: ‘It would have been Tom Cruise-y 10 years ago: now he’s jumping off cliffs on motorcycles. No, I’m definitely not a Tom Cruise. I like action but I can’t do the big stunts any more. I’m older now: I’ve got herniated discs. So I’ve got to be smart about it. Meet with great stunt co-ordinators and ask them: ‘What’s not been done before? What have you never been allowed to do, but you know is safe?”’

Theron also produces The Old Guard films — in fact, she’s had a hand in the production on most of her movies for the past decade. Does she have ambitions to direct one day, too? ‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I don’t foresee doing anything like that while I still have my children in my house. But when I’m an empty-nester it’s something I might do. A director has to sacrifice a lot and I can’t do that as a single parent. I don’t have somebody else raising my kids. But when they’re out, I’m going to be directing something on five different continents.’

Theron’s daughters are 11 and seven, both adopted from her home country of South Africa. When we speak, she is in the thick of summer holidays and very much enjoying the three of them staying home, doing very little indeed. ‘My kids are super active and obsessed with dance,’ she says. ‘They go to dance class on weekends, which means I basically become an Uber driver. But now we’re off school and off dance, and it’s been so nice not to do anything for a while. I asked them yesterday: “Shall we go out to dinner?” and they were like: “No, we just want to stay here and do nothing!” So right now we’re doing a lot of nothing.’

A quick glance at Theron’s stacked filmography will show that she’s earned it. And while she remains the face of one of the world’s most iconic style brands, her daughters will always be on hand to keep their mum grounded when it comes to ghosts of fashion past. ‘My kids see pictures of me from the Eighties when I was leaning right into the Cyndi Lauper, Roxette [look], and they’re like: “Oh my God! That is not you!”’ She gives a mischievous giggle. ‘I’m like: “Yep! It’s me.”’ But then, as Theron has already pointed out, fashion is cyclical. What goes around tends to come back around. ‘That’s what I tell them when we look at these photos,’ she laughs. ‘Wait till you’re at university — you’ll be wearing the exact same thing.’

DIOR L’or de J’adore, £144 for 50ml (