“Oh my god, you’re gonna make me cry, stop it,” Charlize Theron tells me at the end of our recent phone conversation, humbled. But I’m simply being honest when I express gratitude for her continued dedication in seeing that LGBTQ people are represented on screen.
Since her Oscar-winning portrayal of real-life murderous prostitute Aileen Wuornos in 2003’s Monster, playing opposite Christina Ricci as her lover, the 44-year-old actress has been personally responsible and invested in portraying a cadre of queer and bisexual characters to aid in normalizing non-heterosexuality in film, allowing LGBTQ characters to exist beyond their identity alone.
In the 2018 Diablo Cody-written film Tully, Theron embodied an overworked mom named Marlo, her bisexuality casually revealed. For her Sapphic action-thriller Atomic Blonde, Theron’s agent character, Lorraine Broughton, shared a sex scene – no explanation necessary – with another female spy, played by Sofia Boutella.
In Bombshell, which she executive produced, Theron hands off the queerness to co-stars Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon. Both work at Fox News and play, respectively, Kayla Pospisil, a queer, Christian associate producer new to the network, and Jess Carr, a closeted lesbian producer (and closeted Democrat) who’s been with Fox long enough to know she can’t be out. While their characters are composites of real Fox News employees, Theron inhabits a precise replica of polarizing network anchor Megyn Kelly, down to her husky voice and facial resemblance.
Before our near-tears epilogue, Theron spoke candidly about when she first became aware of “really f*cked up” anti-LGBTQ culture, how she chooses to stand against it with her film work, figuring out she was straight (“it’s a little bit of a bummer”) and getting her trans daughter’s pronouns right.
You’ve been an ally for as long as I can remember, and you even have a GLAAD award – the Vanguard Award, which you won in 2006 – to prove it. When did LGBTQ causes first become important to you?
I think I was always aware of it. I grew up in South Africa in this kind of farm community, and our neighbor had a gay son but nobody talked about it. He just always was hanging out with his “friend” and nobody wanted to admit it; it was something that was so unspoken. So, I think I’ve always had this awareness of like, “That’s just really fucked up.”
How did you know he was gay?
Because my mom just one day said, “Yes, he’s gay.” And I went, “Well, why is nobody saying anything?” And there was this complicated conversation around, “Well, you know his father doesn’t want to admit that, and it’s just a weird thing.” South Africa was just very conservative and religious, so from the age of 4 I can remember living there and next to this boy who was gay, and nobody wanting to talk about it.
And now you celebrate the LGBTQ community both in your work and in your own life. I saw you went to Pride this past June, and you wore what looked like a rainbow tutu and I still want it to be a rainbow tutu.
It is a rainbow tutu!
Do you make Pride an annual tradition?
Yes, we do. I try to always get my family to go and support, and these people live in my community and I love them, and so whenever I can support or be of support, of course I would be there.
At what point in your career did you realize that you had an LGBTQ following?
Oh, wow! I never really thought of that. (Laughs.) Yeah, listen, I try to live my life not compartmentalizing people. I am very aware that the world does that, so it’s this kind of position that you wanna take where you just want to normalize everything and not talk about it in such a walled-off, labeled sense.
Though the mission is to normalize, in many parts of the world it’s not normalized. It can be easy to feel like we’re living in a bubble.
I’m very vocal about what I believe is the right thing to do and how we should treat each other, and at the same time I feel like the thing that maybe I could bring to the table in moving all of this stuff forward is to just make sure that the stories that I tell and the characters that I play reflect the world, which is the gay and lesbian community, in a way where we’re not asking a million questions around it. This is just how it should be.
But I know what you’re saying, and so the advocacy part of it is, if I’m on a stage or if somebody asks me, I will, of course, always speak out. But I think my strength as an artist is that I can just play these characters and have nobody even ask a question about it. That is really what I want the world to be, and that maybe, hopefully, the more we see that, the more we just don’t ask so many questions anymore.
Based on your track record when it comes to queer characters in film, why do I have a hunch that you are responsible for giving us some queer ladies in Bombshell?
(Laughs.) No, I wish I could take credit for that, but no. It was something that was written in the script when I got it and I thought it was really interesting. And it is so interesting that people kind of go, like, “Wait, I don’t understand.” I was like, “You can’t understand that a conservative Jesus-loving girl could also love other women?” I’m like, isn’t that so strange?
Listen, it was great that it was in there and it wasn’t something that I brought up. And we definitely wanted to make sure we handled it in a way that felt authentic. Again, to me, I always say, “Are we asking too many questions? Are we underlining things too much? Why can’t this just live and breathe in its own space and just let it be?” And that’s what I love about that relationship. We don’t set up a lot of explanation as to why they end up sleeping together or whether she’s gay or not; these are all things that I think you have to work within the nuance of all of that instead of underlining everything.
Have you challenged queer narratives in any of your past films?
No, I’ve been really lucky that I’ve worked with people who are very like-minded and want to explore those things. I think the only one that I really kind of fought for that wasn’t originally in the story was Atomic Blonde. I mean, she was never kind of bisexual or anything like that and that to me was just like, why not? I mean, come on.
Even if the rest of Hollywood tends to shy away from portraying same-sex sex scenes as intimately as other sex scenes, you have not. Do you recognize a double standard in the treatment of heterosexual sex scenes versus same-sex sex scenes?
I mean, I think if you look at the sex scene in Atomic Blonde, we didn’t cut away! (Laughs.) I feel like I just personally don’t struggle with that: handling or treating it any different. For me, the bottom line is, you’re playing real people and real human dynamics and that’s where these things have to live and breathe, and when you start kind of thinking that one is different than the other, I don’t really know what the point is, then. Then you should probably just not even touch it, you know? If you’re not willing to be as accurate and authentic as you possibly can, then just don’t bother. It does a disservice, I think.
LGBTQ representation and authenticity in film is an ongoing conversation in the industry and among LGBTQ community members, and you’ve talked about going through a period of sexual exploration when you were younger. I wonder, because of those experiences, does it make it easier to access queerness in films?
No. I experimented and I did what I think every young person should do: feel brave enough and free enough in order to figure it out. It’s not like the stuff is laid out on a piece of paper for us; we have to kind of go through a life, and until you have certain experiences you don’t really know who you are. I was just lucky that I grew up in a house where my mom was never scared of those things. My mom always said, “Figure it out. I don’t want you to be me. Go figure out what it is for you.” And I think it was because of that I got to share those things with her; when I did go on those explorations I had this person that I could share it with, that I felt safe with, who wasn’t going to judge me or label me. But it turns out – ahh! – that I am straight. It’s a little bit of a bummer.
For many women, yes, Charlize, it is.
(Laughs.) So I never had enough experience where I think it’s like, “Oh, I feel like I’m working this out in my work.” It really is just more about honoring the story and the film and the character that you’re playing and that what’s right is right, and you want to take care of that and treat it empathetically and authentically.
Have you had that same conversation your mom had with you with your own children?
They’re a little too young, but we definitely have these conversations whenever they say, “I’m gonna get married” and I’m always like, “What is it gonna be? A boy or a girl? What is it gonna be?” I love that my kids just know that that’s a normal question to ask. One of my daughters (4-year-old August) is convinced that she’s gonna be married five times and it’s gonna be three boys and two girls, and I just love that she has the freedom to think that way. God knows what it’s going to be, but I love that she feels safe enough to explore in her little-girl brain that anything is possible and that she’s gonna go and discover that for herself.
I get the impression you’re the kind of mom who is incredibly conscious about the kind of world your children grow up in. I’m curious if having a daughter who happens to be transgender influences your decisions when it comes to taking on the LGBTQ characters you do or, for that matter, don’t.
Well, this is all pretty new for us, so it hasn’t really kind of come into question. I don’t really necessarily know if it will. My daughter’s story is really her story, and one day, if she chooses, she’ll tell her story. I feel like as her mother, for me, it was important to let the world know that I would appreciate it if they would use the right pronouns for her.
I think it became harder for us the older she got that people were still writing about her in the wrong pronouns, and also I was still talking about her in the press using the wrong pronoun. It really hurt her feelings. I don’t want to be that mom, and that was really why I said what I said a while back (in an interview with The Daily Mail earlier this year, Theron revealed that her eldest daughter, 7-year-old Jackson, told her at age 3, “I am not a boy!”).
I haven’t really talked about it ever since, again, because outside of just asking that respectfully of the press – and the world, hopefully – the rest is really private and it’s her story, and it’s really up to her to decide if she wants to share that.
As someone who has sought to normalize queerness in film, how far do you think the industry has come in doing that? Are you seeing progress?
I am! Listen, it’s never enough. I think that we can’t become complacent – that’s a very dangerous place to get to – but I feel so hopeful and optimistic when I see shows like (HBO’s queer-inclusive teen drama) Euphoria and I see the characters and the actors in that and, again, the normalization of it, the fact that nothing is underlined and nothing is being overly explained to you. You’re kind of just being dropped into a world of real people living their lives and struggling with real things that people struggle with – especially that young people struggle with. I’m optimistic when I see stuff like that being generated in our industry. I want more of it, and I think we’re always going to need more of it.