The Warm Embrace of Charlize Theron
A day with our cover star involving yoga, sushi, and Sean Penn.
Esquire: James White
Charlize Theron has bronchitis.
This is not the second coming of Sinatra and Talese and 1966, however, not least because Charlize Theron is no overcompensating Hoboken warbler, all due respect. Theron is more the quiet warrior, a dewy goddess with a hacking cough. She’s done the antibiotics; now she’s going to sweat out the rest of it in the very last row of a packed yoga class in West Hollywood. Her mat sits close to the back wall and near the window; her entourage, which consists of her mother and me, have their mats on either side of her.
The Therons are twice-weekly regulars at this morning class, sixty or seventy devotees led by Vinnie Marino, a man The New York Times once called the Yoga King of Los Angeles. Vinnie’s walking all the way from the front of the room to the back to size up the New Jersey jackass in gleaming new sweatpants, a Happy Dog T-shirt, and socks.
“Scott, this is Vinnie, our teacher,” says Charlize. She’s all in black and long of tapered limb. She looks, for all intents and purposes, just like Charlize Theron, bombshell luscious, but bigger, very close. I can hardly drink her all in without gawking. This happened to me once before, with Jeff Goldblum, also very tall and quite an eyeful, but there was a table between us, and he was more fully clothed.
“Hiiii?” Vinnie asks. There are far less friendly ways to inquire as to why I’m taking up space here. He has a New York City accent and I hear pain in his voice. I see pain in his grin. My pain.
Be gentle, please, I say.
“Do you have sixteen towels?” he asks.
No, but this is a new headband.
“You’ll be fine,” he says. “You’re a happy dog.”
Vinnie walks back up to begin class.
“I always tell myself I’m never coming back,” Charlize whispers.
Gerta, more compact than her daughter, and more muscular, looks me square in the eyes.
“I’m going to say it,” she says. “You should be terrified.”
Vinnie’s bells tinkle. I try. Honest I do—briefly, intermittently—but this is no beginner’s class, and mine body is an instrument trained for one pose: sitting.
I can grunt. I can thud. I have an excellent new headband. But I can’t do any of this stuff.
Vinnie spots this right away.
“Take breaks,” he says. “I have no medical training.”
“Don’t do anything you can’t handle,” Charlize whispers. “I need you for the rest of the day. You can also just sit.”
Yes I can, while Charlize and Gerta, supple and strong, handle every bit of it. Charlize trained for ballet from age four until her knees broke down in her late teens; at thirty-nine, she still coils and uncoils with an athlete’s grace. But it’s really Gerta’s show. She’s my age, sixty-two, and holding a horizontal handstand—the Crow, I think—for I don’t know how long. Palms spread, arms steely, steady as a rock. She might or might not be grunting; she’s on the far side of Charlize, whose hacking and whimpering are occasionally audible between the sweeping, swelling chords on Vinnie’s playlist.
“Oh, my God,” she moans after releasing from what I believe to be a Dolphin Plank. “I’m going to cry.”
She doesn’t cry, of course.
“So after we do these two backbends,” Vinnie tells the class, “I’m gonna have my friend Scott from Jersey teach a few of the poses.”
There is general laughter. At last it has arrived: the precise moment to finally remove my socks in preparation for demonstrating the Stubborn Fungus.
Charlize Theron, my hero, my pal, steps in and sets things right.
“Vinnie, you’re such an asshole,” she half-snarls, half-joking. “Stop being an asshole.”
Vinnie’s cool. Charlize and Gerta, too. Sinatra, though—now there was an asshole.
It’s not a matter of full disclosure—we’re in Hollywood, not Mosul or Donetsk—but it’s worth noting that Charlize Theron and Sean Penn are in love, and Sean and I have known each other a long time, and I had asked him to put in a good word for me with Charlize, and he did, and at lunch she asks me to text him a photo from yoga class—”You might be able to get even Sean to go”—and I do, a shot of my face, cockeyed and wretched, above the words “Do not EVER try yoga.”
The sushi joint, on the second floor of one of the faceless, endless, countless strip malls lining Sunset Boulevard from La Cienega to infinity, turns out to be great. And I’m sorry: I know that a yoga class followed by a Sean Penn name drop followed by a great sushi lunch adds up to I’m a hack. A whore. A starfucker. True all of that—so was and is Talese sometimes—but utterly beside the point: The fish here is terrific.
“You don’t order,” says Charlize. “They do it. It’s a standard thing.”
I saw the warning sign out front: no takeout . . . no spicy tuna roll . . . no tempura.
“That’s the sign of a really good place. ‘We’re not gonna let you fuck this up. We’re gonna make this great for you. You’re welcome. Just shut up and eat.’ It’s only what’s fresh, so it changes. You’ll never come here and have the same thing. My office is just down the road, and both of my producing partners love this place, so this is where we have more business meetings than anywhere.”
The slow parade starts with halibut on the left, snapper on the right, and proceeds plate by small plate. Omakase: chef’s choice.
“Butter,” she murmurs. “Butterbutterbutter. That you can pack that much flavor in a bite is ridiculous.”
She seems happy, even with the hacking cough. Why not? She has a son who just turned three, a summer blockbuster on the way. Yoga’s over. The albino salmon is here. Albacore. Unagi. Toro. The little plates keep marching, two by two.
Quite a lunch, Charlize.
“I get a real enjoyment out of food. That’s why I have to work out four times a week—because I really like to eat.”
Not that I was staring at yoga or anything, but you’re very . . . fit.
“You saw my mom. My mom was a gymnast and an athlete—I grew up with that.”
She grew up an only child on a dirt farm in South Africa, thirty miles east of Johannesburg, near Benoni, a city of 200,000. Her folks ran a construction business; little Charlize ran free.
“I don’t even remember how old I was when I knew how to drive. I had one of those little—what do they call them? tuk-tuks in Malaysia—they’re like motorcycle engines, but they’re built like little trucks, with a bed and everything. My dad was a mechanic and he built up one of those, and I think I had that from the time that I was eight. I would drive that everywhere. I would load all the dogs and take them down to the lake.”
How many dogs?
“A ton of dogs. My mom brought everything home—dogs, cats, birds.”
“Yeah. I loved watching movies. Escapism, stories that you could lose yourself in—I loved that. I loved stories. And it’s Africa. You grow up on mythology. You sit, you hear stories.”
What did I just eat—that orange stuff?
“Urchin, yeah. A lot of people don’t like the texture.”
Gaggy. But it tastes like pure nature.
“Ocean—deep ocean. It tastes like you’re diving into a wave. I love it.”
The waiter comes by to ask if we’d like anything else.
“I’m so happy,” she tells him. “Thank you.”
I leave $65 on the $218 tab and ask her if that’s sufficient.
“Oh, my God. That’s really generous. Now they’re going to think I’m a complete asshole. Thanks for that, Scott. They’d better treat me like a princess next time.”
Charlize, you are a princess. Yoga and sushi? That’s a helluva day right there.
“I felt like I was letting you down, because I don’t do anything. We could’ve gone grocery shopping. Are you catching a ride with me?”
Theron is on the level sweet.
She’s happy to be out and about—she was sick in bed all weekend—happy to be back at the office, where everyone’s happy to see her back on her feet, glad to sit with me and talk. It’s a sunny suite in a Sunset Boulevard office tower, home to her production company and her Africa Outreach Project, focused on AIDS/HIV education and prevention. She’s formidable, too—smart, self-aware, tough in the clinches. In the wake of the Sony hack sewage, she insisted on a paycheck equal to her costar’s on The Huntsman. And in the years-long making of Mad Max: Fury Road, she and Mad Tom Hardy mixed it up a bit.
“Anyone who really, really, really goes into the deep dark corners of what emotional truth is, as somebody who works opposite of that, you have to be grateful for that. I beg for that. I beg for that on a job, that potency to the stew that makes it that magic that it is.”
She leaves for a minute and comes back with a self-portrait Hardy painted and left in her trailer as a wrap gift, with a red handprint on the back and an inscription:
“You are an absolute nightmare, BUT you are also fucking awesome. I’ll kind of miss you. Love, Tommy.”
“We drove each other crazy, but I think we have respect for each other, and that’s the difference. This is the kind of stuff that nobody wants to understand—there’s a real beauty to that kind of relationship.”
Her career is pure stardust.
She was a teenage model in Italy, came to New York City at eighteen, and left for Los Angeles when her knees gave out for good; there she was discovered by her first manager, who was in line at the bank where she was trying—loudly and without success—to cash her last New York modeling-job check to keep her room at the Farmer’s Daughter, formerly an L. A. fleabag. But Theron came up hard in a hard country, on a hard continent.
“On the street where I was raised—75 percent of the people who lived on that street are not alive anymore. For no reason. For nothing. Life means nothing. In my formative years, I was in an environment that was filled with turmoil—political turmoil—in a world that was incredibly unsafe. And still is. In the early nineties, we were number one in homicide in the world. In HIV/AIDS, we’re still number one. We were number one in carjacking; I think we’re now number three. It became a place where the value of life—there was no value of life.
“You can’t oversimplify it; it comes from a very real place. It’s sad, because the people are good. They’re good people, and they’re resilient people, more than anywhere else in the world that I’ve ever come across. There’s something about South African flesh—we get up and we move forward, and we sometimes don’t take a moment for a little bit of self-awareness or self-pity. We’re such beasts at having to survive—I have the utmost respect for that, but it’s not the healthiest way to go through life. We’ve become a generation in South Africa that is driven by very valid anger, but the cost is coming at such a high level—and that’s a painful thing to watch. A lot of my emotional drive comes purely from the fact that I was born on that continent, and that I was raised there, and that it was different. I have a very strong relationship with Africa, one that’s built on lots of love and massive pain.”
Some of that pain is close to home and hard to talk about.
“It always ends up in articles,” she says. “Monster was the instant connection—’Oooh, ahhh, I’m connecting the dots.’ No, fucker, you’re not connecting any dots. Please.”
Monster, the story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, is a singular, seminal film, and Theron’s work is peerless. Roger Ebert, no less, blessed it as “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” Gerta was there to see her daughter win the Oscar for it, and Theron, who surely was the most stunning beauty to walk the earth that night, spoke directly to her at the end of her acceptance speech.
“My mom—you’ve sacrificed so much for me to be able to live here and make my dreams come true, and there are no words to describe how much I love you.”
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and there wasn’t a story about Theron in the press that didn’t harp on the most painful parts of her childhood.
“My mom didn’t ask for any of this stuff to ever be. I hate that every article she has to read, that that’s the thing—a life is full of color and depth and highs and lows, and it really feels like the easy shot, the easy presumption of where somebody’s depth comes from.
“There’s never enough context, and there never will be. For the actors out there who really understand the power of secrecy and how effective the weapon can be when you work from that place—I’m almost there completely, where I feel like I can work from that place for a little bit longer because everybody just assumes that that’s the thing that drives me. Then you do something like Young Adult and it kicks a lot of people in the ass, because it kills the assumption that that’s the only machine you drive from.”
Ah, Young Adult. Pay attention to the undressing scene featuring Theron, a demented former prom queen who comes back to the small town she despises and lands in bed with a crippled, sexually disfigured former classmate, played by Patton Oswalt, in a sequence as cruel and sad and funny as sex between two mammals can ever be.
Oswalt’s a brilliant stand-up and writer, and I asked him about working with Theron on Young Adult.
“There are people who up your game when you’re around them,” he said. “It’s beyond professionalism. It’s intimidating and inspiring. She helped me get rid of a lot of my Method-actor pretensions—she said, ‘Let’s do the work and we’ll figure it out.’ It was a scary thing, but she made me feel ‘I’m a professional fucking actor—I can do this.’ ”
Theron wants me to see the two trophies on her desk.
“This is so you can see what I really find important in my life—this is my Victoria’s Secret What Is Sexy? award, and that’s my Victoria’s Secret What Is Sexy? award—two years in a row. Sexiest Actress, Sexiest Legs. Oscar, shmoscar. That’s why we have glass desks, as well—so I can see my great legs.”
“My Oscar’s in my house.”
Is it displayed?
“Yeah, it’s displayed. I’m very proud of it. We couldn’t sell that movie to save our lives—we were going to sign a deal to just release it on video. A lot of people didn’t want to buy in to how horrific her story was. ‘You can’t do that’ is all I kept hearing when we were editing. But what if that’s the truth? You should be able to tell her story as a human being with all her flaws. You should be able to do that.
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“People give in. They end up with a movie that’s not the movie they set out to go and make. People buckle. Not that we had any ground to stand on, but we never buckled. We believed that we had worked hard enough to earn some kind of understanding. That’s something that’s very rare. Very rare. That was shit-scary, to invest that much time and go, I’d rather just sign this off to Blockbuster knowing it’s the movie we set out to make. None of us got paid. We worked our balls off. This should be the prize.”
Sean Penn won his first Oscar—for Mystic River—on the same night as Theron, in 2004.Who knew?
“We’ve been friends for twenty years. He was married, I was in a long-term relationship, our spouses—not regularly, but we were in each other’s lives. I think our friendship stemmed from mutual respect—more on my end, because I real-ly didn’t have a body of work twenty years ago, but my love and passion for making films—that was our common ground. And also, Sean liked to have conversations outside of just making movies. That’s sometimes hard to find among friends here, and that’s where our friendship really blossomed.
“A lot of people want to tell you the answer to solving all of Africa’s problems from what they’ve seen on CNN. Sean is not that guy. When he started working in Haiti and I started working on the AIDS front in South Africa, we spent a lot of time talking about those worlds. I think that for both of us there was never a moment where we thought that this—what we have today—would ever even be a possibility. Evereverever. I think we’re both finding ourselves at this moment in our lives kind of shocked. Both of us. Just when you think you know how things are supposed to go down, life just kicks you in the ass and guess what? You don’t have a clue.
“It is nice to be in something where the friendship came first. I’ve never had that. There’s a weight to the relationship already that I don’t think you have when you just meet somebody and enter a relationship. There’s a foundation of twenty years that the two of us have shared with each other in all these different ways that is really the foundation of something that has brought a lot of beautiful things into my life.
“We get so stuck in wanting to predict the future that we forget the moment that we’re in. And the moment that we’re in is just really good. It’s really good, really nice. The marriage thing is always so strange to me anyway. I love the possibility of anything, but I’m really enjoying myself and the everyday moment and how that coincides with my son and my life and my friends. I’m a very, very, very lucky girl. Very lucky.”
Plus, he’s easy on the eyes. Although he’s getting . . . craggy.
“He’s hot. He is hot. How do you say that in an interview? You’re a forty-year-old woman sounding like a sixteen-year-old. There’s something beautiful about that, but you lack the articulation of really saying what it’s like when somebody walks into your life and makes you see something that you really never thought you’d be able to see. If somebody had said to me, ‘This is what it will be,’ I would’ve said, ‘Fuck off.’ As you can see, it makes me smile.”
She’s smiling, and she’s yawning. Yoga was a long time ago. She kindly gives me a lift to my car—Sunset at rush hour is hell. And she drives well and she knows the turf.
Thanks for today, Charlize.
“We had a fuckin’ amazing day, Scott—that’s what I think. Now explain to me where your car is.”
The red Ford Flex, facing the smog.
“Let me get out and give you a hug.”
Nice is nice. I shut my eyes and think of Gay Talese.
She coughed and she was gone.
Due to an editing error, this article has been slightly altered from the version that appears in the May 2015 issue.