Charlize Theron: ‘I trained for five hours a day for three months to get stunts right’
Charlize Theron is tackling sexism both on and off screen with her new action movie Atomic Blonde. Susan Griffin finds out more about the film that's set to confound the traditionalists.
It's 20 years since Charlize Theron's breakthrough role in The Devil's Advocate alongside Keanu Reeves. Two decades on and she credits her former co-star for inspiring her to raise her game in the blistering action-thriller Atomic Blonde.
She and Reeves, who was prepping for John Wick: Chapter 2, trained together in the months leading up to respective cameras rolling.
"Seeing how committed he was to getting things right and nailing all his moves brought out my competitive side and made me work even harder," she told Empire magazine.
"There was no way I was going to let John Wick show me up."
And Theron most definitely doesn't.
In Atomic Blonde, she plays Lorraine Broughton, a secret agent who's as glamorous as she is deadly.
Sent alone into Berlin on the eve of the wall being dismantled in 1989, she's tasked with tracking down an espionage ring that's killed an Allied undercover agent, as well as locate a priceless dossier of double agents.
Obliged to cooperate with charming yet conniving station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) under the wary eye of MI6 investigator Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA operative Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), Broughton also finds herself tailed by French intelligence agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), who takes a personal interest in her that intensifies into a torrid affair.
"Broughton is expert in espionage and evasion, weapons and hand-to-hand combat. When London sends her somewhere, it's to be 'the final word' on the matter," says South African-born Theron, who lives in Los Angeles with her two adopted children.
"She's utterly professional and devastatingly destructive, yet she also carries with her the history of a career in which dirty hands are not easily cleansed."
The movie is directed by man of the moment David Leitch, who co-directed Reeves in John Wick and is currently working with Ryan Reynolds on Deadpool 2.
"Broughton is a terrifically complex character, and through her, this story offers a very modern take on the spy genre," reflects the former stuntman, who's doubled for Matt Damon and Brad Pitt in the past.
"As a spy, she possesses ruthless resolve and discipline, but also tendencies and traits that most of us would find hard to understand. She's cool and stylish, maintaining a certain emotional detachment necessary for her deadly job, but there is a caring and pained humanity operating underneath the surface and that bleeds through."
Theron's not only the star of the show, but the person responsible for bringing the movie to the big screen in the first place.
Exasperated by the lack of leading, complex roles for women in Hollywood, the actress founded her own production company, Denver And Delilah Productions, and promptly snapped up the rights to the 2012 graphic novel series The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, on which Atomic Blonde is based.
"It was a wild west atmosphere," remarks Theron (42), of the film's time period and location.
"You had the Soviet KGB and the East German Stasi against the American CIA, British MI6 and French DGSE. Graft, bribery, blackmail, violence - this was the daily diet for those agents at that time."
Theron is known for her blistering performances in Monster, which earned her an Academy Award in 2004; North Country, which earned her an Academy Award nomination in 2006; Snow White And The Huntsman; Prometheus; Mad Max: Fury Road and, just recently, Fast And Furious 8.
Theron delivers again in Atomic Blonde, and on both sides of the camera.
As co-producer Kelly McCormick notes: "What everyone found is that there is no ego involved in Charlize's producing. She's highly disciplined, hard-working and likes to problem-solve together. She made the experience that much more special for everyone."
Bar a few scenes depicting famous Berlin landmarks, the majority of the movie was shot in Budapest, as it retains what production designer David Scheunemann calls "the same textures" as Berlin during this period.
"Such textures still exist in Budapest, and could match both East and West Berlin. Budapest has stunning old abandoned buildings, which have marvellously decrepit exteriors and crumbling interiors that make perfect backdrops," he explains.
"Also, the city is much denser, with narrower streets, which is more cinematic for a spy story."
The film's stylised look is unique, but it's the stunts that have everyone talking.
Stunt director and second unit director Sam Hargrave notes Broughton's fighting style is "a John McClane complex: she'll walk over broken glass to do what it takes to win".
Everyone involved wanted the action sequences to feel visceral, so audiences would feel every head slammed, every bone crunched.
It was during pre-production that Leitch constructed the 12-minute, one-camera fight sequence in which Broughton systematically takes out her would-be killers.
Although stunt double Monique Ganderton was on standby, every single shot of Broughton in this scene is Theron, and she had the bruises to prove it.
In preparation, the actress, who trained to be a ballet dancer in her formative years, worked in the gym up to five hours a day for three months, as well as memorising intricate choreography.
The scene itself was shot over three days, with one particular move requiring the actress to slam a stunt performer onto a wooden table.
The props and set decoration departments were kept busy replacing not only the piece of furniture, but other items destroyed during the confrontation.
Take after take ensued until only "kindling" was left, Theron recalls.
"So David said, 'We gotta nail it this time'. And we did."
The same could be said for the final cut.
John Wick better watch out, there's a new secret agent in town.
- Atomic Blonde is in cinemas now