Charlize Theron could be the living embodiment of Indie Impact: a glamorous star who keeps taking the plunge in big-budget studio tentpoles, yet just as consistently keeps crossing over to demanding roles in gritty, small-scale personal projects. Equally at home in effervescent comedy and gut-wrenching drama, she’s a passionate promoter of progressive efforts to bring about social change.

At Variety ‘s 2005 screening of “North Country” — one of the few films of the last decade which tried seriously to take on class issues in the U.S. — the star proudly announced, “Warner Bros., I tip my hat to you for having the balls to make this movie.” It’s a classic Theron gesture, offering her bosses public kudos for thinking outside the box.

Of course, like any other star, she’s spent her time within a studio “box.” If she can have some fun — cracking safes in her lingerie for “The Italian Job,” for instance — you sense she’ll go along, at least until an edgier, more interesting role comes her way. And when the parts don’t materialize on their own, Theron will step in as producer, using her clout to help get such passion projects as “Sleepwalking” and “Monster” off the ground.

Her resume evidences no desire to court audience affection: not by playing a no-nonsense homicide detective in “In the Valley of Elah,” nor in her Oscar-winning “Monster,” during which no less an authority than Roger Ebert failed to recognize the actress playing the doomed Aileen Wuornos, and ultimately deemed her work “not a performance but an embodiment.”

She’s even less cuddly in her current indie, “Young Adult,” as alcoholic, narcissistic genre writer Mavis Gray, who returns to her home town to steal her old high school boyfriend from his wife and infant daughter. When a reporter confesses her antics made him cringe, the actress is delighted. “Isn’t it nice when somebody says, ‘I’ve been cringing the whole time watching the movie,’ and it’s actually a compliment? Yeah, it’s definitely a highlight of my career.”

If her choice of material smacks of casual instinct, so does her approach to it. “I think I’m obsessive, so when I read something I like and I wanna do, I become obsessed,” she confesses. “I just think about it all the time, and then I find myself walking down the street and I’m seeing somebody do something and I just obsessively bring it back to … the character.”

She dislikes the pace of moviemaking (“I’m a bit ADD”) and has no use for rehearsals. Pressed further on her way of working, she finally asserts, “I don’t really like fussing about. I think for me finding a character is a very isolated process, and I don’t even really know what the process is. So when I use that word, please don’t take anything serious.”

And don’t take all that glamour stuff too serious, either. The South Africa native is still a country gal at heart. At BAFTA’s “A Life in Pictures” tribute, when quizzed about her “transformation” into the gritty protagonists of “Monster” and “North Country,” Theron explained how easy it is to slip in false teeth or rub some dirt on her face.

“The real transformation,” she gently reminded her inquisitor, “is for the red carpet and the gowns.”

Palm Springs International Film Festival 2012
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