Charlize Theron in In the Valley of Elah.
Charlize Theron first met writer-director Paul Haggis on the 2005 film awards circuit, when they were banging the drum for North Country and Crash, respectively. She was immediately intrigued when he told her about In the Valley of Elah, an Iraq war drama combining a pair of real-life incidents, and when he finally e-mailed her the script, she read it the same night and committed to the project the following morning.
Theron stars as Detective Emily Sanders, an Albuquerque policewoman who must deal with the grief and insistence of retired Military Policeman Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), who comes to town to investigate the disappearance of his son from the military base of Fort Rudd. The South African-born actress, who became a U.S. citizen this year, says the only thing better than starring in Haggis’ first directorial effort since Crash was getting to work with fellow Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones.
Fandango: What struck you most about working with Tommy Lee Jones?
Charlize Theron: I tend to play the Tommy Lee part in films, the emotionally driven role. So it was really interesting to be the actor in the scene that wasn’t emotionally driven. There are levels of it, but nothing close to what Tommy has to go through. The thing that blew me away the most about Tommy is how accessible his vulnerability is, given who he is physically. You see this guy that’s just really tough and strong, and then the camera rolls and he has access to that. Very few men that I have worked with are willing to do that. I think it’s tougher for men, but for him, it’s just there. I had a great time working with him.
Q: Were you at all intimidated by the prospect of working with Jones?
Theron: Tommy doesn’t suffer fools easily, I think everybody knows that. And I have great respect for somebody who’s very direct and very honest. I don’t have a thin skin, so I’m OK with that. And I don’t know what it was, but for some reason Tommy really did take me under his wing. Frances McDormand [a co-star with Tommy Lee Jones in his 1995 TV movie The Good Old Boys, also directed by Jones] was great, because she said, “What I used to do when I worked with him is just walk onto the set and give him a big hug. And somehow his guard would just drop.”
So I took that advice; I came to Albuquerque to do a hair and makeup test, they were already shooting – it’s tough when the movie is already shooting and you show up as the new kid on the block. Tommy was about to do a scene and I just kind of walked up to him. I was shaking, but I just gave him this big hug and he just had nothing to say. But I think Frances’ advice worked, because his guard did drop.
Fandango: What was it like to work with Paul Haggis?
Theron: Actors are all different, and it’s very tricky when you throw us all together, because we all work differently. There was an instance where I said to Paul, “I don’t like rehearsal; that’s just me. I’m a cow and if you milk me too much, I will get dry.” But I was working with an actor who really loves rehearsal, who really loved working out every single kink. It’s definitely tough when you have two actors who are very different like that.
And it was about three in the morning, and it got to that place where Paul realized that I wasn’t delivering, because we had just overdone it. It was incredible because he and the assistant director just came up and said, “We’re going to pick this up tomorrow.”
Very few directors will be that in tune with the actors. They’ll just be on their schedule and it’s reasonable because they have to make their film. But Paul realized just from what I had told him and from watching my work that I wasn’t going to be able to go there. So we picked it up the next day and it was a little fresher for me, and I just thought that was so great.
Fandango: You met with an Albuquerque policewoman before working on the film. Why?
Theron: My biggest concern was the climactic interrogation scene. I met with a detective who interrogates all the time. She said that interrogations are actually very opposite to what is portrayed on television, because you really don’t want to antagonize the suspects that much. Sometimes you get to a place where you have to push a little bit. But she said most of the time the best thing to do is just to stay very, very neutral.
Fandango: You’ve just wrapped the big 2008 superhero action drama Hancock, directed by Peter Berg (The Kingdom) and starring Will Smith. What’s it been like to work with the Fresh Prince of Hollywood?
Theron: I would honestly make a film about tape recorders if Will Smith was in it, because I loved working with him. I loved the experience of being around him, and I thought it was a really well-written piece that wasn’t just fluff. Hancock may sound like a summer blockbuster, but it’s actually got a lot of weight to it. I thought the script was very smart and also had this kind of historical element that I was fascinated by. It’s not silly, it’s not stupid. I think [co-writer] Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code) writes really interesting material.
Fandango: Your next movie, the low-budget drama Ferris Wheel, is the first feature film since Monster that you’ve both produced and starred in. What made you want to take on that double role again?
Theron: Small movies have a hard time getting out there, and since I did Monster, I really started understanding how hard it is for first-time directors (Ferris Wheel is the maiden effort of X-Men visual effects wizard Bill Maher). With first-time filmmakers, it’s considered high risk and hard to get financing. There are so many great stories out there that now, if I find something I really like and I can get it off the ground, I will put my time and energy into it. But it’s a lot of work, so you’ve got to make sure it’s something you really, really want to do.
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