This article originally appeared in Esquire and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
“WOW, HE REALLY just left us here. Do you think he left us? I don’t think he would do that. Can you make a fire with two sticks and a rock?”
Charlize Theron is anxious. Not greatly anxious, not distraught, but still. Anxious. This is not safe, this standing around the Griffith Observatory in the middle of the night, surrounded by woods and wackos, under the steely darkness of a new moon. Whose idea was this, anyway, to come up here and gaze at the stars? Do they expect her to get metaphysical and deep? That's not what she's about, and besides, there aren't any stars to look at. It's Los Angeles, after all. No stars here, not real stars, not heavenly stars, just smog and fumes and airplane lights. Okay, this is stupid. Where the hell is the limo?
She should have driven herself tonight. Who needs a limo, anyway? She never takes them. That was the magazine people. They wanted the limo. And now the limo has vanished, so she's stuck here with this guy, this writer she's never met before, and, oh, my, God. People are asking for her autograph, which is always creepy, and the loudspeaker is blaring that the park will be closed in fifteen minutes, that everybody should go home, which, frankly, she'd love to do, but she can't. She's stranded.
Plus, she's hungry. She was supposed to be seated favorably at some swanky restaurant on Sunset Boulevard by now, some phony place she doesn't even like. But she agreed to go just to be a good sport, except now she can't even be a good sport about it, because they're stuck on top of this mountain, because they've spent the past forty minutes looking for the fucking limo, and it's starting to feel like a bad date, when everything goes wrong, which is... You know what? You know what you'd do if you were on a miserable date -- like in high school, before you could drive -- if you started getting restless and uncomfortable, if you wanted the whole thing to end?
"Okay," she says, digging into her bag. "I'm just going to call my mom and have her pick us up."
YOU HAVE SEEN Charlize Theron, of course. You probably saw her in 2 Days in the Valley or maybe The Devil's Advocate. Or if you haven't seen those, then you've seen her in magazines or on Leno or Letterman or Conan. And if not there, then you've seen her in the trailers for The Cider House Rules and Reindeer Games. Honestly, it doesn't matter where. Let's just say that you've seen her, and by seeing her, you have formed a few impressions of her. Vague, general ideas about how she might be.
For one thing, she seemed like California incarnate, with her platinum hair and preternaturally lineless tan. Then there was the way she spoke, the "Like, I think so" and the "Oh, my, God." You know about girls like that. And finally, her irresistible presence: five feet ten, frequently unclothed, with a classic face, Marilyn-meets-Katharine-meets-Rita. She was it, she was that thing, she was the quintessential Hollywood trinket. She was baseball, she was apple pie, and when you looked at her roles, all those smiling cheerleaders and femmes fatales, you couldn't help thinking that this was just another model standing around. It seemed obvious to you that Charlize Theron was not going to be the next Meryl Streep or even Susan Sarandon, that she would probably be just another flash in the pan -- here this morning, gone by noon.
And if you thought all that, if you suspected that Charlize Theron was nothing but another pretty California face, then you've made her a very happy woman. Because that's what she wanted you to think. She was acting.
"Kawow mai! Und di kar ut vacharai. Di kar wut un si cum aflai et peri Griffith Observatory!"
This is the sound of Charlize Theron speaking to her mother in Afrikaans, the language in which she was raised. This is the sound of Charlize Theron speaking to her mother, who is, as she listens to her daughter's call for help, waking up, looking for something to wear. This is the sound of Charlize Theron in a time of upset, not calling her assistant or a car company but calling her mother, who is neither the overzealous mother of a starlet nor the discarded mother of a star, but who is something much more like a confidante, a counterpart, the only other member of Charlize's immediate family.
Her father died when she was fifteen, leaving them to fend for themselves in Benoni, South Africa, to manage the farm and the road-construction company, the employees and work contracts and bills. Gerda and Charlize clung together, plucking the chickens, wading in mud, surviving. And when she won a local modeling contest at age sixteen and was escorted from the farm to a glamorous life in Milan, then New York, her mother was there, grounding, soothing, encouraging her. When she grew weary of modeling, her mother was there again, supporting her decision to leave the industry, to try her luck at ballet. When her knees gave out and she could no longer dance, it was Gerda who believed in her future, who pointed her even farther west, saying simply, "Hollywood." And when Hollywood wasn't saying, "Charlize," when she was auditioning her heart out and failing, when ulcers were forming in her stomach, Gerda was still there.
So now, when Gerda arrives at the observatory in her white SUV with sleep in the corners of her eyes, she is utterly unperturbed, beaming at her daughter, and her daughter at her, until Charlize leans through the open window and cries, "Ma, are you naked in there?"
"Yah," says Gerda, in the accent that Charlize has toiled to disown. She is, in fact, wearing little more than a T-shirt, but Charlize just shrugs and enters the car, which roars off, away from the woods, slipping past Beverly Hills and speeding down Sunset, until at last they arrive at the swanky hotel restaurant, where Gerda stops to let Charlize out, then waits as her daughter comes around to the window for a kiss goodnight.
INSIDE, CHARLIZE glides across the lobby in a shimmering pink tank top, diamond earrings, and that haircut, that particular tousled, spiky, messy sort of haircut that creates the illusion that you and she, very recently, have had passionate sex. Eyes, then heads, turn as she floats through the foyer.
She is not going to the restaurant. Her mind is made up on that. She is not going to sit in an uncomfortable chair amid a crowd of producers drooling over directors drooling over agents drooling over actors drooling over meatless, cold summer soups. Not tonight. Not after the observatory episode. She has decided to go upstairs to see how these magazine types live.
She takes the elevator to the second floor and turns into suite 210, grabs a beer from the minibar, and seats herself at the marble desk, where she is surrounded by an endless assortment of articles, photos, and notes, every last one about her. She begins flipping through the papers, her eyes darting up occasionally to make contact, as if daring someone to stop her.
"This is so creepy," she says with an air of delight, rifling through the stacks, sorting through her public persona. It still amuses her, this role she has learned to play. It happened so quickly: A manager saw her at a bank, arguing with a teller, and he loved her at once, both for being herself and for her potential to become someone else. He signed her and coached her, she shed her accent, and the next thing she knew, she was cast, receiving offers to play those classic Hollywood women, vixens and temptresses, sweet wives and dolls. And soon it was difficult for anyone to tell that Charlize Theron was not what she seemed, that inside she was just a twenty-four-year-old South African raised on a farm, whose best friend in the world is her mom. Slugging the beer, she continues digging until she finds her own publicity package, the biography that her agency gives to writers. She has never seen this before, was not even aware it existed. But here it is, much to her surprise, and apparently to her pleasure, because she's grinning now, pointing clear gray eyes at the page.
"I love this," she says, reading out loud: " 'The seductive charm of Charlize Theron.' " Another sip. "Yeah," she chuckles. "Seductive charm -- that's what I was going for."
AND NOW SHE is looking for some tequila, going down Sunset to a bar. Not just any bar, mind you, not some hotel fern joint, but a real bar with red wobbly stools, with slumping alcoholics and bartenders who can't stand movie stars.
It's been a long, hard day posing for photos, as wimpy as that may sound. Twelve hours posing, primping, being futzed with. She has suffered through it because she's proud of her new movie, The Cider House Rules. But at the end of the day, she's had enough, and she nearly crawls to the bar for a drink. For the camera, she has been playing a role, the sinewy, half-dressed starlet, the young blond bombshell, the metamorphosed version of herself. And now she's tired. She wants to relax, to be the other Charlize, the real one, the one who longs to go camping, to feel the mud between her toes. She props her elbows on the counter, hooks her heels into the stool, and barks, "Gimme a shot of Patron," which she drains in an instant, ordering another, then another, then a beer, her eyes on the counter.
A few stools down, a man is looking at her, a blond man in shabby clothes. Not recognizing her, he sees only beauty, raw, undeveloped potential. "I'm a producer," he mumbles in a British accent, sensing a major discovery.
She turns, looks him up and down, grinning. "Really? What are you producing?"
"Well," he says. "It's a project." He pauses for a drink, then looks at her, serious. "Are you in the industry?"
Five years ago, she might have said yes, might have swooned, looking for a part, for some spot in his film. But now things are different, and the hard thing these days isn't finding a role to play. The hard thing is finding a way not to play roles, a way just to be herself. And the irony is that to be normal right now, to be just another girl at this bar, she'll have to play one more role, a brief stint sitting here on this stool.
So she turns to the man and says with a sigh, "No. I work at the ASPCA, and I had a bad day today. We had to kill two dogs. That's why I needed a drink."