Charlize Theron Talks Equal Pay, #MeToo and Social Justice with Kweku Mandela

Courtesy of Jordan Strauss/Invision for The Geffen Playhouse/AP Images
From left: Chelsea Handler, Charlize Theron, Kweku Mandela and Soledad O'Brien

Kicking off 100 Conversations, inspired by the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the Oscar-winner revisits equal pay issues on 'The Huntsman: Winter's War' and looks to millennials for leadership in a fundraiser at the Geffen Playhouse.

To honor the centenary of South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela’s birth, Charlize Theron and Mandela's grandson, Kweku Mandela, discussed issues related to the icon's legacy in a conversation at Westwood’s Geffen Playhouse on Feb. 10. Following opening remarks by Chelsea Handler was a wide-ranging talk on topics like equal pay and #MeToo, moderated by Soledad O’Brien.

“I’m proud to say that I am a fucking feminist!” said Theron, a South African native, rousing about 125 guests in the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater after recalling how she used to shy away from the term. “I remember always saying being a feminist meant a different thing to everybody. And I would apologize for it. And I had to ask, why was that? Why couldn’t I just say, 'Yes, I’m a feminist?'”

She went on to mention the flap over The Huntsman: Winter’s War, for which she demanded and got equal pay (over $10 million) to costar Chris Hemsworth. “I am in a position where I could put my foot down and say, 'I want equal pay to my male costar,' who I had billed another movie with. We were doing a sequel, we had done it together, why not? What was interesting about it was I had a studio that said all right. And I was like, 'Oh? We just need to say this? We just need to not be so polite about it and say what we want?'”

It was a lesson she relayed with the caveat that she occupies a unique place in Hollywood, and many other actors would likely be fired for demanding equal pay. “I felt lucky,” she concluded — then took it back. “No, I didn’t feel lucky. I deserved that and I asked for it.”

Both found it easy to link the demand for equal pay and movements like #MeToo directly to Mandela's legacy — a populist call for justice spreading like wildfire. "The amount of traction and the amount of women who are being empowered by other women to step forward and actually speak their truth, I know in my life I’ve never seen anything like that," said Theron. "I think success for us as women is going to come out of the support that we give each other, out of not stopping this moment. This is a rock rolling down a mountain really fast, and I'm quite enjoying watching it."

The evening was the first of 100 Conversations that will be happening around the globe as part of an initiative launched by Kweku Mandela and Patrick Finnegan. The idea is to expand Mandela’s legacy of tolerance and empathy through conversation, but also to explore social justice issues affecting individual communities.

“2017 was a year of a lot of division and my hope is that 2018 will not only be the year of women, but also be the year of love, where we realize that connection is the solution,” Mandela told the crowd. “It’s something my grandfather talked about a lot, the importance of realizing what we have in common with each other rather than what makes us different.”

Both Theron and Mandela (co-founder of the House of Mandela Family Foundation) agreed that the key to a better future lies with millennials, although the latter expressed concern that while many know his grandfather’s name they may not know what he stood for. “For me, it was really important to find a platform where I could encourage them to look at my grandfather’s legacy and then realize the impact they can have," he said. "They probably have the biggest potential to impact our world.”

A crusader against colonization and segregation, Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962 and served 27 years for conspiracy to overthrow the government of South Africa. Upon his release, his continued campaign against apartheid and a wave of populism swept him into the presidency in 1994 after he'd won the Nobel Peace Prize a year earlier. 

The fundraiser was part of the Geffen Playhouse Unscripted Live series, with proceeds going to the Geffen Playhouse High School Partnerships Program and the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP), focusing on youth and HIV/AIDS awareness and protection. Established in 2007, the program has reached over 300,000 in a nation with the highest HIV rate in the world.

Surprisingly, throughout the night South Africa was mentioned only in passing, despite the fact that Feb. 11 marks the day Mandela was released from prison in 1990, as well as the launch of centenary celebrations throughout 2018 in Cape Town. The conversation can be heard on the podcast Geffen Playhouse Unscripted starting Feb. 21.

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