Charlize Theron on Playing a 'Bitch' in 'Young Adult' (Video)

This past Monday, I spent a large chunk of the day and night in the company of Charlize Theron, the strikingly beautiful South African who won the best actress Oscar eight years ago and is now in the running for it again for her work in Jason Reitman's Young Adult, which opens nationwide Dec. 9.

I first met Theron, 36, at a Paramount-hosted luncheon for the film; hours later, we were seated together -- with her Young Adult co-star Patton Oswalt between us -- at the Gotham Awards, where she received a special career tribute; and, in between, we recorded the interview that appears at the top of this post. From these interactions, three things became pretty clear to me about Theron: First, she is every bit as attractive as she appears on the screen (she wore two eye-catchingly low-cut outfits); second, she is much cheekier than advertised (she has a bawdy sense of humor and is also not above whacking a journalist for taking notes instead of looking at the stage during an awards show); and, third, she is as proud of Young Adult as she has been of any film of which she's been a part since she won her Oscar in 2004.

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As we discuss in the above video...

Theron left South Africa to model in Europe and then to dance with the Joffrey Ballet in New York. By age 19, however, painful knee injuries forced her into retirement, dashing her dreams for the future and thrusting her into a deep depression. She recalls that her mother came to her rescue -- as has often been the case in her life, most famously in 1991, when her intoxicated father threatened both of their lives, leading her mother to shoot and kill him in self-defense -- by convincing her to try her hand at acting and buying her a one-way ticket to Hollywood. Theron was in town for only two weeks before a fateful encounter at a bank led to her association with a manager and the beginning of her film career.

Many of the early projects that were offered to Theron -- including Showgirls (1995) and Species (1995) -- lacked substance and sought mainly to capitalize on her good looks. For the most part, she avoided them and began to win notice for her acting ability, as much as her exterior, with her performance opposite Keanu Reeves in Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate (1997). Subsequent noteworthy work included parts in Lasse Hallstrom's The Cider House Rules (1999), James Gray's The Yards (1999), and F. Gary Gray's The Italian Job (2003). But it would be her performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003) -- a film that was written for her by Patti Jenkins, who had been impressed by her work in The Devil's Advocate and seen in Theron potential that no one else had -- that would change her career forever. Theron lost 40 pounds, shaved her eyebrows, donned prosthetic teeth and morphed into a twitchy, unpredictable maniac in what the film critic Roger Ebert described as "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema" and the Academy deemed the best leading performance by a female of the year.

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In the years since, she has quietly done standout work in a number of films, including Niki Caro's North Country (2005), as a striking coal miner (earning herself another best actress Oscar nod); Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah (2007), as a no-nonsense police detective; then-boyfriend Stuart Townsend's Battle in Seattle (2007), as the pregnant wife of a riot cop; Guillermo Arriaga's The Burning Plain (2008), as a woman with a dark past who tries to reunite with her parents; and John Hillcoat's The Road (2009), as a wife and mother whose will to live begins to slip away as the world around her begins to disintegrate.

Young Adult presented Theron a completely new sort of challenge, one that did not necessitate any sort of physical alteration but that did require her to shed any desire for likability -- which is asking a lot for a movie star. Theron's Mavis Gary is a cut-and-dry "bitch," as she readily admits, a woman who, despite her good looks and fairly successful career, can't help but live in the past, when her life was simpler, she was popular, and the guy she loved (and still loves) loved her back. The selfish and cruel things that this bitterness leads her to do to others have led the New York Times to describe her as "one of the more unlikable protagonists to come along in years ... in some respects even less sympathetic than Wuornos." I find it hard to disagree.

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On paper, all of Reitman's previous protagonists sound somewhat unlikable -- a cigarette lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart) in Thank You for Smoking (2005); a teenage girl (Ellen Page) who treats pregnancy like a joke  in Juno (2007); and a guy(George Clooney) who earns his living by firing people in Up in the Air (2009) -- but, once you watch them in action, you can't help but root for them. The same cannot be said for Theron's character, who you -- or at least I -- just want to shake some sense into and then never see again.

But just because a character is scheming and manipulative doesn't mean that the actor responsible for it didn't give a commendable performance -- if it did, we wouldn't remember the Oscar-nominated work of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Anne Baxter in All About Eve (1950), Nancy Kelly in The Bad Seed (1956), Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Faye Dunaway in Network (1976), Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987), Kathy Bates in Misery (1990), Sharon Stone in Casino (1995), Annette Bening in American Beauty (1999), Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and the list goes on.

I suppose that it will be up to each moviegoer to decide whether or not Theron did a good job ... being bad.