LOS ANGELES -- Monster is a deceptive title for Charlize Theron's new film. Given its intentions, it should be called "Not a Monster."
True, Theron plays a real-life serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, a Florida prostitute who kills her pick-ups with horrifyingly sadistic punk bravado, making her seem to get high on their death. True, in real life, the state found Wuornos' crimes so monstrous that it executed her. She was convicted of killing six men during a 1989-90 spree linked with trying to get money to impress her female lover. She was executed in 2002, after serving the intervening years on death row.
It's also true that Theron, a divinely statuesque blonde with sparkling blue eyes and the graceful, confident poise of a ballerina (which she once was), transformed herself into something many would call "monstrous" to play Wuornos.
She put on 25-30 pounds. She wore two different sets of false teeth, diminishing her electrifying movie-star smile. She wore the kind of tank tops and T-shirts one might pull from a trash can at a truck stop. And she chose a hairstyle -- or non-style -- to match. Using make-up, including gelatin applied to her eyelids, she changed her face into one that looked like Wuornos' -- tired, heavy, frightened, sun-baked and hard. Her body movements and speech patterns matched that pit-bull-tough face.
Theron says her makeover was about getting at a greater truth that Wuornos was not a monster. Critical acclaim for her performance -- so much so that she has been labeled a favorite for a Best Actress Oscar nomination -- indicates she did the right thing.
"If you watch this movie with an open mind, yes, you'll see all the horrendous things she did. She killed some very innocent people and that's unforgiving," Theron acknowledges. "But at same time, here's the person who ended up doing these things, and here is her journey.
I think that in that greater truth, you'll find empathy with that person."
In Theron's words, we'll see Wuornos as a troubled human -- not a monster. Sitting in a hotel room at the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills for this private interview, she is looking decidedly un-monstrous. Heavenly, even, with her hair elegantly brushed backward and tapered on the sides. With a brown blouse with a tunic collar and slender gold earrings falling from her lobes, she is the picture of subtle, sophisticated grace.
She's a bit defensive -- protective, even -- about the issue of her physical transformation in Monster. "I didn't want people saying, 'Oh, Charlize Theron is trying to look ugly for the sake of looking ugly,' " she says. "I wanted to get as truthful as I could to looking like her without making fun at her expense.
"Her body was the way it was because she had a child at 14. She was homeless and ate whenever she could, and usually it was crap. She hung out in a lot of biker bars and liked to drink beer. Those were things she did to cope. The way her skin looked, the way her teeth looked, her eyes ... those were all things because of her lifestyle, because she'd been living out in the sun and didn't have a home," Theron explains.
"A lot of (the film's) financiers thought I wasn't making the right choices -- if I played her like this, why would anybody want to see this film?" she confides. "Nobody thought I was going to transform the way I did."
Theron recites some of the complaints that she heard from the "suits" during filming. "They were concerned that, in doing this, how do you sell the movie at the end of the day? Who would want to go see it when Charlize Theron looks like this, and it's a serial-killer movie, and she's a lesbian so that makes her a man-hater, and she doesn't smile a lot, and she's grumpy and very confrontational."
Theron gets impassioned and exasperated reciting those complaints. "But she's a real-life character," she emphasizes. "I don't think you say, 'I'm going to play a real-life character by getting as close as I can to her emotionally, but the physical part I just forget.' I don't think I could have done this if I didn't also do the physical part. I was a ballerina for 12 years of my life, and the body is an instrument I rely on very much. It's just as important for me as an actor to use the body as it is to use any other element."
Listening to Theron's passion for the project, one might think Monster was her idea. But it wasn't, even though her production company, Denver & Delilah Films (named after her cocker spaniels), helped make it. The idea for Monster came from its first-time director/writer, Patty Jenkins. She remembers following Wuornos' case when it happened. Eventually, after studying directing with the American Film Institute, she began communicating with Wuornos, who was on death row.
"What is interesting to me is the story of good people crossing into a place where they're capable of doing horrible things," says the brash, blunt Jenkins, in a separate interview in another hotel room. "That is the subject of endless contemplation since the beginning of drama."
From the project's start, Jenkins envisioned Theron as Wuornos and sent her a script. The actress loved it, but was confused what Jenkins saw in her. After all, because of roles in The Cider House Rules and Sweet November, her screen image hardly screams "serial killer." Nobody confuses Theron with Courtney Love.
Still, Theron has seen tragedy in her life. When she was 15, growing up on a farm in South Africa, her mother shot and killed her father in self-defense. No charges were filed. She left South Africa as a teen, first to be a model, then to join the Joffrey Ballet School and, finally, to act.
"I couldn't believe it," Theron says, recounting Jenkins' eventual explanation. "She said to me that she woke up one morning at 3 a.m. and the television was on and Devil's Advocate was at the scene where I'm telling Keanu (Reeves) that 'they took my ovaries.' " (In the 1997 film, a variation on Rosemary's Baby themes, Theron plays a sensitive, endangered wife.)
"She said she looked at that scene and from that moment on started writing this with me in mind," Theron says. "She said she thought there was something I was capable of doing maybe a lot more than I'd been given the chance to do. There was something in my background she felt came from a survival aspect of being very capable of taking care of myself.
"She said, 'I've thought of a lot of girls (for the part) and I thought I could kick their ass, and for you I wasn't so sure.' In one sense it's funny that a director would tell you that. But I've got to tell you honestly that I originally didn't think I would be able to pull this part off. But she did. She thought I was capable of entering and fitting into the world the way Aileen did."
Ultimately, Jenkins convinced Theron she was capable of playing a woman who was a killer -- but not a monster.
Cincinnati native Steve Rosen has written for The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Denver Post. He is currently a freelance journalist in Los Angeles.