Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
Fashion Week-styled frivolities be damned. Glamorous and sexy though Charlize Theron may be, there's a funky lefty boho lurking inside this near-six foot tall, South African-born former model. So while some might assume love drove her to take a relatively small supporting role in longtime companion Stuart Townsend's directorial debut, "Battle In Seattle," her passionate promotion of the film belies her politics as well as her emotional ties.
A pastiche of true stories, amalgamated characters, and classic agit-prop, "Battle In Seattle" details the experience of several activists thrown together to mount massive protests against the World Trade Organization's 1999 Ministerial Conference held in Seattle, WA. After the mayor and Washington's governor had enthusiastically fought for conference to be there, they were blindsided by the intensity of the reaction and protests. During those five days, demonstrators peacefully protested in Seattle's streets to stop the WTO talks but as it escalated into clashes with police, a State of Emergency was established that pitted protesters against the Seattle Police and National Guard.
Within this framework, actor/director Townsend takes an in-depth look at characters on both sides of battlelines but his position—and that of Theron's—is clearly aligned with the anti-globalist activists, those who believe that unfettered capitalism is out of control.
Having already established herself as someone inclined to go against type—she started out playing the innocent wife and high class girlfriend—the 30-something Theron won an Oscar depicting a wretched looking serial killer in "Monster" and was nominated for another when she portrayed a sexually harassed mine worker in "North County." She played an unglamorous young cop in "In The Valley of Ellah" as well.
As intense as these roles have been, Theron can seem both surprising innocent yet fervently committed, if only because she doesn't to succumb to gossip-mag expectations. Since she refuses to be pigeon-holed, Theron has made a case for this film and the ideals it supports.
Q: Unlike a lot of films, where something is expressed in general terms like, "War is bad"—which everybody agrees with—this one specifies its targets, like the World Trade Organization conference that was held in Seattle.
CT: I’m so glad you think that. Thank you. Yeah!
Q: So do you see this as a political movie or a character-driven one?
CT: Have you seen the film? I’m always fascinated when people ask questions like that because I think that pretty much every movie I’ve ever done is a political film because I think the social condition is somehow going to intervene with what we live in, and what we live in is a state of politics with emotional highs and lows—so it’s both. You can’t have one without the other. Even great character pieces have a foundation of an economic structure or a social relevance.
Q: How involved or knowledgeable are you about the crisis with the world as a whole?
CT: I hope every single person who lives on this earth tries to be involved in that. It’s up to us to get the information, and I think it’s clear in this day and age, that what we get may not necessarily be the ultimate truth—well, it’s been proven historically to have been going on for eons—but it’s up to us to go and educate ourselves. We have to stop sitting back and bitching about "the media;" we have to take control and have to be responsible for getting the information that we need.
Q: Have you ever been involved in a picket or protest before?
CT: I haven’t, but I only recently became an American citizen, and we all know what happens to people who... I realize how tricky it was because right before I became an American citizen, I had produced and financed a documentary on Cuba ["East of Havana"], and when we started doing press on it, I realized that it was hard to just state an opinion without having any kind of aggression or negativity; to just state a fact, without people going, "you’re very unpatriotic and you should leave this country." I [figured] that I probably should get my American citizenship before I [say any more]...which is an unfortunate thing to say, but it’s the truth.
Q: Do you find American politics more fascinating, than say South African politics? You are international personality, but you seem to find American politics to be most fascinating.
CT: No. Politics, especially the things this movie deals with, know no border. This is trade, this is the world. What we do over here in our decision-making process, is going to affect everybody in the world, so I think about it in those terms, not as a politician, but just as a human being.
People were fascinated that [New Zealander] Niki Caro could direct "North Country," which is like a quintessential American story. Stuart Townsend is Irish, and this is a quintessential American story. The fact that they’re both international, they’re not American, makes you understand that we have to be interested in world politics and stop looking at just what’s good for America and what’s good for the country that we live in. We have to start thinking about the world.
Q: Is it a struggle for actors to speak out politically?
CT: It’s wrong to believe that because you’re an actor there’s no way you could have a valid opinion. I think that’s unfair, that somehow when you’re an actor and you live in Hollywood you don’t understand real life, which is really interesting to me, because most actors, where they come from, it’s probably the most real-life stories you could hear, and it’s very much the American dream, which is, to rise above it, and reach for the stars.
I think actors speak out because you can’t help but look at your fortunate life and realize that, maybe out of your fortune, there’s a place for you to voice an opinion and care, because, you know, we’re not all born this way.
Q: Coming from South Africa, do you think street protests are effective?
CT: It’s amazing. When we say the government works for us, we forget that, and then you watch over a million people protest this war in Iraq, and [it's amazing] that those governments don’t go, "Wait a minute, we work for these people," and that was worldwide.
It was something magical to watch, and in many ways, it was to me, Chicago or Seattle, battle to battle, there is something about it that you can’t ignore when you see these images of people standing together [against this war in Iraq].
Whether you like it or not a lot of what happened in Seattle—the success of Seattle—was those tactics being used today that make the [protestors] effective. Protesting is not what people like to consider it; [they think of] this sort of hippie movement, peace, love, and let’s get high and walk through the streets naked.
It’s not like that anymore. It’s people who understand their rights, understand government, and they understand what their effect can be on government, so I’m always impressed when I see that, no matter what country it is.
And, just so you know, I wasn’t trying to deny that this is a political film. I think that life is politics, and we forget that, and a lot of times, when we do movies that are considered political, people run away so fast, but what they don’t realize is that is life, that’s real, and that’s what people need to start...
The brain needs to get re-wired so we can’t stop making these movies because people don’t want to go see them; we have to just start marketing them differently and talk about them differently, so that people understand, you’re not going to go and get preached at. You’re going to have an amazing ride, you’re going to watch amazing characters, and you’re going to maybe learn something about the world you live in, without being hit over the head with a hammer.
Q: Was your character entirely fictional, or was there some basis in reality?
CT: Stuart read so many different books, and looked at internet sites on the event, that you sort of double up on things. There was one story that didn’t double up so much in a lot of the coverage he did, about a woman who had a miscarriage from tear gas, and he remembered reading that, and thought, "This woman wasn’t a protester, and she had a miscarriage from the tear gas..." He thought that was so heartbreaking, and I think that’s where Ella [Theron's character] comes from.
Q: At the beginning, your character wasn’t thinking at all about the WTO, and then became a victim caught in the crossfire. She obviously goes through personal trauma... Did you think about what she was thinking about that?
CT: What I loved about her, was that she was the outsider, she was the audience. She was anybody. If you said, WTO, they might not know what that is. I like that she was that character that just lived in Seattle, didn’t feel one way or the other, and just went about her life, innocently, shopping at a store, not knowing that these little clothes came from little kids’ sweatshops. I think that, not in a judgmental way, is how a lot of us live, we just live, we don’t think, and I think we’re now at a time when we have to stop and have to start asking, "What does it mean when I buy this thing, and where does this come from, and what does it mean if I keep drinking bottled water? Where is this plastic going to go?" Yeah... [gestures towards the bottled water on table].
I love how she wasn’t there by choice, she got caught in it, and I think then, has to take a step back and realize, maybe she has to ask a few more questions. To me, she was the heart [of the film], and people were like, "You could have probably had any part, he is your boyfriend," and I was like, "That was the part I fought for..."
Q: Did you find that working with Stuart, the fact that he’s an actor, he had a kind of knowledge helped him get nuanced performances out of you and the rest of the cast (Woody Harrelson, Michelle Rodriguez, Martin Henderson, Ray Liotta, etc.)?
CT: I always feel that no matter what I say, people think I’m biased because I sleep with him. So it’s very hard because you know, not just working with him, but I had to read the script. I was the first person who got to read the script, and unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who can just bullshit their way towards something, and I knew that our relationship is very honest, and anything that we do, whether it’s just a movie, there’s always a truth in our opinions towards each other, and I value that so much.
So in reading the script, that was the scariest moment for me. I’ve worked with so many first-time directors... and I love the idea of not knowing. I love the idea of not having anything to look at and go, “This is what it’s going to be.”
I loved the idea of asking, "What will it be?" I found him incredibly effortless. I mean, the guy put five years of his life into this, and by the time that he got to Vancouver and was ready to shoot... Mind you, five days before production was supposed to start, they were going to pull the plug on him because he didn’t have a cast. Yet he was so prepared, so unbelievably prepared [that it worked].
I mean, we would go on vacation to Fiji and be like, “Romance!” and he’d have a pile of [things to look at], and I’d be like, “Oh my God, this is so not sexy!” But that passion paid off for him as a first-time director. He saw this story visually, so that for me as an actor, working with him was great, because he created a set that was effortless.
There was nothing forced, there was nothing pushed. It was quiet, just great. He loved it. I’ve never seen him so happy, which hurt my feelings [laughs].
Q: When two actors get together, they say it’s no good because one of them is always waiting to answer the phone but your relationship obviously works so well. How do you explain it?
CT: We have different phones, so we don’t have to answer for both phones to ring [laughs].
It’s about the person you’re with. It doesn’t matter what you do. I don’t believe that an artist can’t go out with a banker. It’s about the personal connection, and when you’re with somebody good who is looking out for your best interest and loves you in every possible way, then how can there be a jealousy?
My God, nothing makes me happier in my day to know that he got a good review, or that this movie is getting some really great buzz, or that this is his first film, or that he wrote a script. Those things actually turn me on [laughs].
Q: You are traveling with Stuart to promote this film...
CT: We have traveled nonstop to conventions and tons of film festivals. This has been a six-month effort... Another interesting thing about him... Stuart and Redwood Palms [are distributing the film]. This was a decision that Stuart made, which I thought was incredibly brave for a first-time director, talking about independent filmmaking, because so many people look at this, talking about the business of these films, and they don’t want to touch these films.
So Stuart decided, after he got an offer from ThinkFilms to buy and distribute this film, to basically self-distribute this film though Redwood Palms. Stuart has been working on an amazing grassroots [level]—which is the only way to do it when you only have a dollar fifty.
And the amazing thing is, everywhere we’ve gone, the audience has had this overwhelming emotional reaction, and you know that these people are going to leave that theater and spread the word. It’s the best marketing you can hope for.
Q: And you’re a part of it.
CT: Me and my lover [laughs].
Q: Are you encouraged by the great success of these movies [targeting] women—"Sex and The City" and "Mamma Mia?"
CT: I’m very happy when girls can go and sell movie tickets, always very happy.
Q: You were involved in one of the better Iraq War-based movies, yet like other films based on the war, "In the Valley of Ellah" was “ice” at the box office. Does is worry you about the fate of this film; some say it's a hard sell. Is this a passion project for you?
CT: It’s a badass movie. When I read [the screenplay], I didn’t think, “Independent,” or "What’s the message?" I didn’t think, "Political." I just thought this was a badass movie. I read it and thought, "Jerry Bruckheimer could make this film. This could be a giant blockbuster, and just because we had to do it on, like, a dollar fifty, and none of us got paid, and because it’s in that [indie] category, as we like to label things... But it’s not that kind of film. It’s a badass movie.