"She is a gazelle in a goddess suit." We are discussing Charlize Theron, and that is how her director, Niki Caro, describes her. It is true enough, yet consider the role for which Theron won an Oscar two years ago and the new role for which she will undoubtedly be nominated this year. In "Monster" (2003), she played a desperate hooker who worked freeway rest stops, was overweight, her face mottled, her teeth awry.
Now in "North Country," opening Friday, she plays a miner who inspired the first class-action suit over sexual discrimination in U.S. history. As Josey Aimes, the miner, she looks good on Saturday nights when she goes to the local bar, but on the job at the mines and covered with grime, deep in exhaustion, she is filled with despair as her male co-workers make her the target of relentless sexual outrage.
Because you are beautiful, I said when I interviewed Theron at the Toronto Film Festival, it is strange that in your two finest roles you work against the beauty or hide it.
"I find that a weird question," she said, "as if I'm expected to think a lot about how I look. I was raised in South Africa and didn't grow up in a way where much importance was placed on such things. I was raised on hard work and discipline. When I'm working in a movie, I'm almost fearless about how I look. I don't care, as long as I look right for the role."
In "North Country," she plays the single mother of a teenage boy and younger girl, who flees from an abusive boyfriend and moves back in with her parents on the Minnesota iron range. She gets a job as a hairdresser, then discovers she can make five times the money if she works in the mines.
Though women had been hired as miners since 1971, when she hires on in 1989, 29 out of 30 mine workers are men, and women are resented because they are "taking a man's job." The man needs that job to feed his family, she's told. She needs the job to feed her family, she replies, but the answer is blunt: There must be something wrong with her if she can't find a man to take care of her.
"When I was growing up," Theron said, "my mother was the only woman in the road construction business, so I knew some of what goes on. When we were preparing for 'North Country' I met Lois Jenson, the woman the story was inspired by, the woman responsible for the class-action lawsuit. She wasn't the quintessential Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich character, the big personality who takes over a room. She was soft-spoken, she wasn't a ball-buster, but she found the strength to change history. For her, this wasn't just something that happened in the mines. She was haunted by it in every aspect of her life, because it was systematic degradation based on the fact that she happened to be a woman."
In the movie, Theron's character and other women are insulted physically and verbally, made the subjects of obscene graffiti; their lockers are defaced with feces, and after they win the right to Porta-Potties, to use one is to risk having it turned over while they're inside. Watching the movie, you're shocked at the viciousness of the male behavior but convinced it is portrayed accurately. "The story is loosely based on real events," Theron said, "but my character is completely fictional. Lois, the woman who inspired the story, has seen the movie, and she's happy with it."
Her co-star in the movie is Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for "Fargo" (1996). In "North Country," she plays a union representative who contracts Lou Gehrig's disease and fights physical deterioration as the case proceeds.
"McDormand is an incredible gift to the cinema," Theron said. "There's something so organic about her character, straight from the gut."
In "Fargo," McDormand and the other actors used the regional Minnesota accent to comic effect -- you betcha they did. "Preparing for these roles," Theron said, "we were concerned we were going to sound too broad, and maybe get laughs in the wrong way. We tried to fine-tune it a little, staying kind of neutral. Part of the transformation in any character is a new way of speaking. Also the physical look. Once again I worked with Toni G, who did my makeup for 'Monster.' "
When Theron first saw the screenplay, "It was kind of black and white, and I like the gray zones. Five days after the Oscars, Niki Caro called and said she wanted to direct it. She'd just made 'Whale Rider,' about another woman who was thought to be unsuited to man's work. She understood the gray zones, and she directed that way. Every sentence one of us started, the other one finished."
Actress Charlize Theron's career has been a steady progression -- she has gone from playing the supporting character to the showcase role, with her last effort, 'Monster,' culminating in an Oscar win. In her new film "North Country," which opens Friday, she plays a miner who fights sexual harassment in the workplace.
1997: "Devil's Advocate"
1999: "The Cider House Rules"
2003: "The Italian Job"
2004: "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers"
2005: "North Country"