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The Burning Plain - Charlize Theron interview

The Burning Plain

Interview by Rob Carnevale

CHARLIZE Theron, the Oscar-winning star of Monster and other movies such as The Italian Job and Hancock, talks to us about appearing in Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga’s first film as director, The Burning Plain, and how she went about researching a character who is in the depths of emotional despair – as well as learning the odd swear word or two in Spanish from the director!

She also reminisces about her Oscar success and why she was so happy that Milk took two awards this year, given her views on gay rights and the need to keep discussing them out in the open.

Q. What appealed to you about The Burning Plain?
Charlize Theron: I was just really blown away by the story. I knew that I was going to get a great script from Guillermo Arriaga because I think he’s one of the best writers that we have at the moment. I’d been a fan of his writing for quite some time. So, I think it was the story overall and the themes that he played with. I was also really impressed by how he used four women to guide the story. It’s hard enough to find one good female role. There was something about these three women and one young girl that was somewhat poetic… to see them experience life in what might not be the most perfect circumstance, but in a very grounded and truthful way.

Q. Presumably you can’t relate to that level of despair. But how do you research that?
Charlize Theron: I’m not playing a real person but you do as much homework as you possibly can. For me, the most important thing is to have a constant conversation and dialogue with my director. I’m the first to admit that this is a director’s medium and I need to really, truly understand and have a clear idea of what kind of movie he wants to make and what kind of story he wants to tell. Only then can I use myself as a vehicle to tell that story. It’s always different, too…. it’s never easy to talk about your process because it’s never just one thing. I find myself constantly being in a state of panic and grasping for anything that can help the process along.

Q. What relationships did you dwell on to portray the bonds she feels?
Charlize Theron: It’s a lot of things. From the time that I say “yes”, the process isn’t a 9 to 5. It’s something that’s always there. When I know I’m going to do something, it’s always then consciously in my head, whether I’m going to sleep and thinking about it… and when you least expect it, an idea might come to you, or you might see something on the street. In this case, the fact that she was a cutter reminded me of a documentary I’d seen a while back about a young girl who was a cutter and I tried desperately to get a copy of that and send it to Guillermo. We then watched her. But you do a lot of things…

Q. It’s Guillermo’s first film as a director. Were there any signs of nerves from him?
Charlize Theron: This was the craziest thing… my producing partner and I were with him the night before we were due to start shooting. But he’s the nicest guy, so even toned. People say: “Is he always like that?” And he is, always like that. It’s amazing. I turned to my partner, because we’ve only produced first-time directors, and we’re used to being called at midnight as they have massive panic attacks… but they do tend to freak out a little bit. But I turned to my producing partner and said: “So, when do you think it’s going to actually happen for him?” But it never did. There’s not anything within Guillermo that suggests anything is a panic. So, working with him was such a joy because he really came from a place of not worrying about anything other than telling the story. That was it for him. And nothing was every a panic.

Q. Guillermo is one of several Mexican directors to have made a huge impact with the quality of their work in Hollywood and beyond. What do you think has happened in Latin America to make this possible now?
Charlize Theron: I think it’s happening everywhere, though. When you look at this year’s Academy Awards, for instance, you really realise through the people who were honoured, and even nominated, that this is a medium that crosses all boundaries. I mean having that Japanese guy up there who could barely speak English, but who was thanking his pencil, you realise how powerful this medium is.

I mean, he could barely speak English but he moved people. He somehow translated something that people connected with. They tapped into something that he did emotionally. I think that no matter what the story, the problem, or the culture is, it’s still a human being and that’s what we all relate to. I think a good filmmaker that can do that no matter where they come from is going to have success.

Q. Did you speak Spanish on set?
Charlize Theron: I’m really embarrassed to say that I don’t speak Spanish. I’ve lived in California for eight years and I think it’s a pre-requisite. I think you should be able to speak Spanish if you live there. I had this fantasy that I would learn Spanish before I shot the movie with him, and he’d be really impressed. But of course, it never happened.

Q. Did he teach you any swear words though?
Charlize Theron: Of course, he taught me some really dirty stuff. He had a friend with him and the two of them thought I was a messenger between the two of them. His friend Adrian would say: “Go up and Guillermo and say….” I can’t remember it now [laughs] but the crew would hear and burst out laughing.

Q. Given your views on gay rights, how did you feel about Milk winning the Oscars for best screenplay and best actor?
Charlize Theron: I love that movie. I had lunch with Gus Van Sant not so long ago, because I think he’s such an interesting filmmaker. His work is so interesting. He’s a bit like Guillermo in that there’s a freedom about him where he doesn’t fit into a box. He’s never tried to fit into a box. He wants to be that mirror to real life and does that really well with very interesting characters.

Sean [Penn] is a friend of mine and I actually met him for dinner while he was shooting and when he showed up, there was something about him that was just different. I was like: “Something’s happening here…” It always does with Sean anyway, because he’s brilliant at disappearing into roles, but I had a feeling that him and Gus and that material would be special. I just love the film, the way it was embraced, the speeches and this conversation that we’re constantly having about this issue. I don’t want that to go away. I want us to keep talking about it.

Q. Why are gay rights such a hot button issue for you?
Charlize Theron: Because I don’t like living in an elitist world. It bothers me. I don’t want to be part of an elitist, sexual preference. It bothers me. It bothers me that I have a lot of friends… maybe because I came from a country where I lived under Apartheid, I don’t know. But this is a form of Apartheid and I don’t want to be a part of that. It’s not the reason why I’m not getting married but maybe there is a piece of me. It’s just so caveman. I can’t believe we’re still talking about it.

Q. Gwyneth Paltrow has said that winning an Oscar was just an illusion and it means nothing day to day. Do you feel the same about winning yours?
Charlize Theron: Look, it doesn’t vacuum or wash the dishes! But it’s definitely an incredible honour. Every time I see the Oscars on television… this was the 81st ceremony and you realise there’s only been 81 actresses that have been given this honour. That’s huge! I never thought that it would happen to me, so the fact that it did is really special. But maybe what she was trying to say is that you can’t just get stuck on that. You have to wake up the next day and go on with life.

Read our review of The Burning Plain

Read our interview with Guillermo Arriaga