Charlize Theron on 'The Old Guard' and Her Heartbreak Over the Furiosa Prequel
Needless to say, 2020’s summer movie season has not gone according to plan, and the remnants of its theatrical slate could go by the wayside at any given moment. Fortunately, Charlize Theron and filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood’s soulful action drama, The Old Guard, will ably provide the feeling of watching a summer actioner — all within the comfort and safety of your own home on July 10. While the Netflix film has all the summer action movie conventions, The Old Guard offers so much more including a deep cast of three-dimensional characters and relevant themes that correspond to today’s headlines. Theron plays Andy (short for Andromache the Scythian) who leads a team of immortal warriors that have altered history across many centuries.
With three well-received action movies in a row including Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde and The Old Guard, Theron has come a long way since her first action movie, Æon Flux, disappointed critically and commercially in 2005. At the time, Theron thought her dreams of being an action star were over, especially since the role nearly paralyzed her. Even though she had to wait a decade to reinvent herself as Furiosa in George Miller's modern-day classic, Fury Road, Theron knows how rare a second chance can be for women in the action genre.
Heat Vision breakdown
“A lot of women don’t get a second chance, but when men make these movies and fail miserably, they get chance after chance after chance to go and explore that again. That doesn’t necessarily happen for women,” Theron tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Fury Road came a good decade after Æon Flux, and there’s always been that voice in the back of my head that still somewhat responds to that. I’m still influenced by that, and it’s one thing that drives me. It’s unfortunate that we feel like the opportunity will be taken away from us in a heartbeat if we don’t succeed, but that is the truth. It’s not a very forgiving genre when it comes to women.”
In May, the New York Times published an oral history of Fury Road, and in the process, filmmaker George Miller revealed separately that he’s already casting a Furiosa prequel. Since Miller plans to chronicle a young Furiosa, he’s decided to recast the role with an actor in her 20s. Understandably, Theron can’t help but be disappointed. After all, Furiosa became a pop culture phenomenon in the summer of 2015, and despite only one movie, Theron is just as synonymous with Furiosa as Keanu Reeves is with John Wick.
“It’s a tough one to swallow. Listen, I fully respect George, if not more so in the aftermath of making Fury Road with him. He’s a master, and I wish him nothing but the best, “ Theron admits. “Yeah, it’s a little heartbreaking, for sure. I really love that character, and I’m so grateful that I had a small part in creating her. She will forever be someone I think of and reflect on fondly. Obviously, I would love to see that story continue, and if he feels like he has to go about it this way, then I trust him in that manner. We get so hung up on the smaller details that we forget the thing that we emotionally tap into has nothing to do with that minute thing that we’re focusing on.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Theron also discusses The Old Guard’s relevance to current events, what she learned from her mistakes on Mad Max: Fury Road and the status of Atomic Blonde’s much-anticipated sequel.
Charlize, I have a pretty big problem on my hands. I already wanted more adventures with Lorraine Broughton, as well as Furiosa, but now I need more time with The Old Guard’s Andy and Co. What am I supposed to do with all this demand?
(Laughs.) Well, that is really nice. I’m going to take that as a massive compliment, and we’re going to try and feed your need for more.
Because of your recent action roles, are you picking up fight choreography a lot quicker now and noticing muscle memory?
Yes, it’s always a little overwhelming that first month in the gym, and you worry that it’s not going to come back. Even when I started, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I think my past as a dancer really helped — my years of being a ballerina. Using my body in that way, I think that connection between the brain and the body doesn’t go away; you just have to wake it up again. But it’s still tedious even if you have that. It’s still just tedious work, and you have to be somewhat crazy to put yourself through it. It’s punishment. You have to just show up and keep doing it.
At 18, a doctor told you that you couldn't dance anymore due to various injuries. Has action choreography filled that void for the most part?
Yeah, I think so. There’s a level of physical storytelling that I definitely associate with my years as a dancer. It was, in many ways, how I discovered that I wanted to be an actor. It’s strange. I think you have to have been part of something that involves a lot of discipline around it, and coming from that world, I missed it. Yes, even as an actor, there’s a certain amount of discipline to that, but I don’t think it’s so reliant on your success of really getting behind a character or if you miss a day here or there. There’s something about martial arts that’s very relatable to dance, and maybe my brain is just somewhat wired in a sense where it functions well under those conditions of like, “Okay, it’s discipline, and we’re going to do this every day.” I function well with that, and I like that kind of structure. I like the physical aspect of pushing myself. Mentally, I get a real pleasure out of that.
Was Andy’s labrys (double-bitted axe) attached to you for quite a while?
(Laughs.) It was! There were definitely a couple of moments where a valet brought my car around, and this axe was just lying in the backseat. So I definitely got some looks. My children found it very entertaining as well, and I had to really hide it from them because they wanted to play with it all the time. But there was a real necessity; there’s something about getting that second-nature feeling with it where the movement just becomes so natural. That’s why I had to have it with me at all times.
We meet Andy at a time when she’s incredibly frustrated by the fact that all the good she’s doing is consistently undermined by people who don’t want the world to change. Because of current events, I can’t help but notice the parallel to real life as certain people are hindering the efforts of those who want to better the world. Have current events also affected the way you perceive not just Andy’s struggle but entertainment in general?
I think all of that stuff influences you on some level, whether it's subconscious or unconscious. For me, there’s definitely a sense of the world that’s always being reflected in storytelling, and so whatever that story or character is, I am always wondering, “Well, how does that reflect our world? How does that show the realities of life and humanity?” In a million years, we never could’ve predicted how timely this film would actually be. When we made it, it still felt timely and now more so than ever just given our current state of crisis. Unfortunately, there are things in humanity that don’t change as fast as we want them to. It’s not even being an irresponsible storyteller; it’s being an ineffective storyteller when you don’t take all of things into account.
While I was introduced to you via 2 Days in the Valley, The Devil’s Advocate and That Thing You Do!, it recently occurred to me that a younger generation thinks of you as an action star first. Obviously, you’ve come a long way since your first action movie, Æon Flux, underperformed in 2005, but was there a point where you thought you wouldn’t get to do more action movies, let alone be in the position you are now as one of the very best action stars?
Yeah, definitely. Unfortunately, the very sad truth of any film in the genre with a female lead, whey they don’t succeed, there is this mindset of, “Well, if it doesn’t work, you just don’t touch it again.” A lot of women don’t get a second chance, but when men make these movies and fail miserably, they get chance after chance after chance to go and explore that again. That doesn’t necessarily happen for women. It’s kind of like you get one chance, and if it doesn’t work… If you look at me, for instance, Fury Road came a good decade after Æon Flux, and there’s always been that voice in the back of my head that still somewhat responds to that. I’m still influenced by that, and it’s one thing that drives me. It’s unfortunate that we feel like the opportunity will be taken away from us in a heartbeat if we don’t succeed, but that is the truth. It’s not a very forgiving genre when it comes to women.
Andy has a number of cool attributes including a very discerning palate as a result of thousands of years of life. She can identify every ingredient and flavor in something such as baklava, as well as its origin. With that in mind, do you also have a discerning palate that can pick up the faintest of ingredients or flavors?
No! (Laughs.) I do not. I am very easily pleased when it comes to my palate. The one thing I have a hard time with is cheap red wine. I am definitely a bit of a snob when it comes to cheap red wine, and I blame my mother for that. But no, I don’t have anything as distinct as what Andy has.
As the trailer shows, Andy’s team is gunned down at the start of the film in order to establish their immortality to the audience. When Andy is on the ground and coming back to life, her dilated pupils transition to normal size during a long closeup. Was this effect achieved practically through lighting, or was it a VFX shot?
No, it was a VFX shot.
It’s getting harder and harder to tell what’s what these days, especially with the more low-key shots.
(Laughs.) Good! We succeeded.
You’ve been a producer throughout your career, but you’ve really taken to the role these last five years. When you have a tough day as a producer, do you ever think back to earlier in your career and reinterpret what certain producers were going through on set? In other words, do you have a newfound respect for the job?
100 percent. I now encourage young actors, all the time, to produce. It’s so valuable to really understand the logistics of putting a film together, and it really does give you a whole new appreciation for the entirety of making films. Actors can be narcissistic. They can sit in their trailers and complain about their turnarounds all the time, but once you become a producer, you become way more empathetic to all of those things. You have such an appreciation for people who get that and are understanding and forgiving when you have to knock on their trailer and say, “Listen, are you okay coming in an hour or two early?” So, I for sure see it in a whole different light now.
A few weeks ago, I watched Spike Lee’s new Netflix film, Da 5 Bloods, which is about four present-day Vietnam veterans. The film also flashes back to their time in the Vietnam War, but instead of using de-aging technology or casting younger actors, the present-day actors just played their younger selves. And it worked out beautifully since Spike established characters (and actors) that immediately ingratiated themselves. Despite my roundabout way of asking, do you mind if I send a print of this film to the great George Miller?
(Laughs.) I would be totally fine with you doing that. I hear you. It’s a tough one to swallow. Listen, I fully respect George, if not more so in the aftermath of making Fury Road with him. He’s a master, and I wish him nothing but the best. Yeah, it’s a little heartbreaking, for sure. I really love that character [Furiosa], and I’m so grateful that I had a small part in creating her. She will forever be someone I think of and reflect on fondly. Obviously, I would love to see that story continue, and if he feels like he has to go about it this way, then I trust him in that manner. I feel like storytelling, on many levels, is really pushing the envelope. We’re seeing shows like Chernobyl, a quintessential Russian story, and you have British actors playing all of these historical Russian characters. There’s something refreshing about it; the emotional impact of the story isn’t lost. But I agree with you; we get so hung up on the smaller details that we forget the thing that we emotionally tap into has nothing to do with that minute thing that we’re focusing on.
I read the recent New York Times oral history of Mad Max: Fury Road, and I really appreciated how you and Tom (Hardy) both admitted that you made some mistakes in terms of your working relationship. Unless they’re caught red-handed, people tend to dig their heels in and won’t admit they’re wrong, especially in this day and age. So, I thought your admission was a rather classy gesture.
Oh, it’s the truth! It’s the truth. That’s the great thing about time, right? It gives you a moment to really reflect and have all of those things permeate. That’s evolution. That’s how we learn. That’s how we become better. So, that was not a hard thing for me to do. It’s just the truth.
I also have to compliment you on two great films of yours: Tully and Long Shot. For whatever reason, strong reviews are no longer enough to ensure at least some box office success. When you know you’ve done your job and made a good film per the consensus, does box office frustration ever get any easier as the years go by?
No! (Laughs.) No, it doesn’t. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those actors who doesn’t care, and maybe it is because I’ve become a producer. But I do care. You work really hard on these things, and there’s nothing easy about it. When you somehow feel like you missed the mark, and people just didn’t either have an awareness or didn’t feel like there was a reason to see it, there’s definitely this moment where it sometimes feels like years of work is just all of a sudden gone in a heartbeat. That’s the unfortunate thing about what we do. It’s not overnight. You don’t pull a good film off overnight. It’s tedious. It’s a lot of time and energy, and when it doesn’t work, you feel it; you really feel it.
I’m going to speak for the entire world on this next question because I know that they would agree with the sentiment. You’ve already had arguments with this person on-screen, but when are you going to trade punches with Keanu on-screen?
(Laughs.) Listen, as soon as I get the call, I’ll be there. They just have to tell me where, when and I’ll show up. Keanu is one of my most favorite people in the whole wide world; I absolutely love him. I respect him, I admire him and I am so grateful that I got to make two movies with him. We both kind of find ourselves in this new stage of our career, and so much of Atomic Blonde was influenced by John Wick. So, if we can get those two characters to meet up in a timeline that makes sense, I’m all about it.
Do you realize that you inspired John Wick?
I inspired John Wick? What?
In 2001’s Sweet November, your terminally ill character, Sara Deever, mailed a dog to Keanu’s character, and that was 13 years before John Wick’s terminally ill wife, Helen Wick, did the same thing in John Wick.
Oh my god! I cannot believe you just made that connection. You are such a film nerd; I love you. That’s incredible. Oh my god — I’m literally going to text him right now and tell him that.
While (Atomic Blonde filmmaker) Dave Leitch told me that the ball is in Netflix’s court, is there any good news to report on the further adventures of Lorraine Broughton?
Yes, we’re in the development stages right now, and that’s the one thing that lockdown has been good for — being able to develop with writers over Zoom. So, we’re actively developing [an Atomic Blonde sequel] right now.
You produced one of the best TV shows of the last decade, Mindhunter, which shared some heartbreaking news a few months ago. Is there any hope that it might continue someday?
I’m always optimistic. I have complete empathy, and I fully understand everybody’s decision. Never say never, but I fully understand why, for this second, we have to hit pause.
The Old Guard is available on Netflix as of July 10.
by Graeme McMillan
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by Graeme McMillan