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The Life and Death of Peter Sellers - Charlize Theron

Interview by James Ashwood/ Excerpts compiled by Jack Foley

Charlize Theron plays Britt Ekland in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

 It is a film which has caused controversy - not least from Britt herself, who was said to be very much against the choice of Theron in the role.

But it was nothing that the actress could not handle.   At 30, she's beaten remarkable odds to become a Hollywood star.   She won a best actress Oscar earlier this year for her role as the world's first woman serial killer in Monster.

Q. In the film you play Britt Ekland - how did you research the part?
There were many hours of home video of Britt and Peter together that I was able to watch.  Peter was quite obsessed with the video camera. In a way, he was making his own movie about his life.
 There was a lot of footage of the two of them. Geoffrey Rush, who plays Peter Sellers, and I, watched them together.  
We came up with many moments from those home videos which we put in the film. I remember watching the wedding video and Britt was a little bit tipsy after a few glasses of champagne.  She was hanging off Peter and saying: “I love you”. So you just try and watch and read, as much as you can, whatever is out there.   

Q. Did you have any other help in creating the part?
Stephen Hopkins, the director, was a great help because he has known Britt for a couple of years. He spent a lot of time with me and the writers have done so much research, so any questions I had they would double check. But her accent and mannerisms came from the home videos.  

Q. Britt was your date at Cannes Film Festival - how strange an experience was that?
It was very nerve-wracking for both of us. I had called her up a couple of weeks before then, because I had heard this vicious rumour that she did not like the movie. It was very upsetting for me.
I am very sensitive to that, because I am portraying her life and did not want her to be unhappy. So I called her and wanted to know if she really thought those things. She said that she had not even seen the film so they were completely untrue.
I said: ”Well, what are you doing in two weeks? Do you want to be my date in Cannes?” She said she would love to.  It was scary sitting next to her knowing she was seeing it for the first time.  

Q. How did Britt react to the film?
She became a little emotional at some scenes. I think it was a very painful experience for her. When we got in to the car on the way to the party, I just looked at her and said: “We should just go home and make tea. I feel like taking care of you right now.”
She was emotionally drained. I asked her how it felt to see five years of her life on screen.
She said she shouldn’t have stayed with Sellers that long and said: “The only reason was because I was too young to know any better.”

Q. Did Britt have any problems with the story?
No, because the writers had really done their research.  She said some of the characters were too tall or too skinny, but nothing huge.

Q. What did she say about Sellers?
I think she was a little too emotional to talk about him. The first thing she said was that Geoffrey Rush was amazing.  She broke down a few times in the theatre and remembers that time as being very volatile. 
The only objection came later, when she said: “Peter came across as a bit of a monster - but he was far worse than that.”

Q. Were you concerned that Britt may come across as a dumb blonde in the film?
I did not have any fears. It was obvious she was just this naive 21 year-old girl when she met Peter. Watching the home videos you could see that, sometimes, she was not comfortable in front of the camera. 
Peter was bouncing off the walls. I think most of the time she was just observing.  She was always a couple of steps behind him. I think everyone was in his life.

Q. Do you think Britt married him to boost her profile?
The only story I heard about how they got together is that she had no idea who Peter Sellers was when she met him.
They were both in the Dorchester Hotel, in London, and she was very flattered by this charismatic man who had asked her on a date.  
She told her manager she was going to a movie with this man called Peter Sellers.  The agent told her: “Get ready - and look your best.”  
But she still did not know who he was.

Q. How did they get together?
The manager set up a photo shoot and manipulated the whole thing.  But I truly believe they fell in love with each other.

Q. How did the marriage effect her career?
She was a serious actress. I think her frustration was finding the balance in being married to a man who was very driven - and being a young mother who wanted her career to continue.
Peter was very much in control of what she did. He was so insecure he forced her to take part in his movies - so he knew where she was and what she was doing. In the home videos, you see inside the house and there were posters of his films all over the walls. That was just him - he loved himself.
Again, I think Britt fell in to this world and before she made a decision things were happening around her. She had to find the strength within herself to get through it.  

Q. You have had personal experience of violence and abuse in the home. How did you find the strength to get through it?
I walked away from a hellish experience [when her mother shot dead her father].
I realise I had two clear choices - either I drowned or I could swim. So I started swimming, very fast.
Before my father’s death, I thought my life would be simple. I was going to get a job, get married and raise a family. Then everything changed.
Sometimes, I think it was part of another life which happened to another person. Then it is suddenly so real and vivid that if I think about it, I know I will burst in to tears.  I will always carry it with me. It is the same for my mother.  

Q. How did your mother cope?
. It was a matter of pride and dignity. Suddenly, we had every bank in South Africa on our back.
My father had a road construction company and they thought that because there was a woman on her own, she would be willing to sell it cheaply and quickly.
My mother's ambition was not to build roads. But she had to learn. We helped each other. We had to play with the cards we had been dealt. Neither of us allowed the other to give up, which is why we have such a close bond.  

Q. You delivered an emotional Oscar speech - how did you manage not to break down?
There was a lot of ignoring going on. I could not look at my mom. I started to break down while I was still in my seat. I thought: “I can not allow myself to be like this - it will be terrible.” 
So I managed to pull myself together and thought: “Just don’t look at her - ignore her.”
I could not talk about her at the start of the speech, because I knew that would be it and I would break down. I had to leave it until the end.  

Q. You are in a secure and happy relationship, but can you understand Britt and Peter’s marriage?
I think the idea of meeting a man who is successful, funny and charming is appealing to any woman. That is the thing. Peter knew how to sweep all of his wives off their feet. He was not a normal boy who would take a girl to dinner. He would buy the restaurant for the night.
So I think at 21, when a man is doing all this for you, it is bound to make you feel special. Especially for Britt, who was a fun girl.  

Q. When did Britt realise things were going wrong?
I asked her that question myself - she said it was the sixth week of marriage. That was his period of wooing and getting what he wanted. Then he started to struggle with his demons again.  

Q. What is next for you?
A romantic film which is coming out, which I did with Stuart, called Head in the Clouds.  
We started shooting straight after I finished Monster. I had five days off, went to Los Angeles, coloured my hair back to blonde, got a facial, packed and flew out to Montreal to start filming. 
I was so lucky to have Stuart with me at the time. I felt so drained and wrecked, needed his support.


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