Since the beginning, across the Hollywood landscape, there has always been a profusion of male action stars. However, some women have spent their career carving out their own niche, becoming icons in their own right. Over the past three decades, Charlize Theron has created a wildly varying career for herself, using her diverse portfolio to make herself one of the most profitable stars in Hollywood. Theron used her inherent beauty to get her foot in the door of Hollywood but, as Buzzfeed recently chronicled, she was never content to be just a pretty face.
After a series of supporting roles, from lovers to madams, Theron quickly grew tired of people not seeing anything beneath the surface. She wanted to take on new and exiting roles that pushed her out of her comfort zone. Charlize was not fazed or intimidated by the boys club of Hollywood, but she could not get them to take her seriously. She was determined to change how they saw her, but it would take a fellow woman to recognize that Theron was more than just a gorgeous woman in a vintage orange dress.
Diving In Headfirst
Yet when Patty Jenkins approached Theron for the title role in her film Monster, even Theron had some doubts. An aura of emotional toughness, especially off-screen, had always been a part of #CharlizeTheron’s image, but for the first time someone saw her potential to tap into that trademark to bring a role to life. In 2003, upon the release of Jenkins’s film, Theron knocked down doors with her Oscar-winning performance as real-life serial killer Aileen Wournos. The film would prove to significantly alter the trajectory of Theron’s career.
Charlize's profile immediately rose to the top of the A-list and she was able to take on increasingly more interesting roles, including diving headfirst into the action-packed crime thriller The Italian Job. Directed by Straight Outta Compton’s F. Garry Gray – whom Theron would work with again a decade later in 2017’s The Fate of the Furious. The film showcased Theron’s talent for stunts both behind the wheel and in front of the camera and, according to Buzzfeed, Charlize excelled at technical stunts that left her male costar, Mark Wahlberg, puking.
It was clear Theron would thrive in the action arena, and her first starring role in an action movie came two years later with the release of Aeon Flux. Theron, as a futuristic assassin, was able to showcase her combat skills and insisted on doing her own stunts — even after injuring her neck during filming. Unfortunately, after the studio cut director Karyn Kusama’s version, the film that was released to viewers received tepid reviews and did not do much to boost Theron’s career. It would be another full decade before she would again star in an action film.
Becoming The Queen Of Ice
First, she would venture into the sci-fi/fantasy realm with Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and its sequel, The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016). In both films, Theron’s merciless Queen Ravenna faces off against several powerful women — Kristen Stewart in the first and Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt in the sequel — and she still manages to effortlessly dominate the film, stealing every scene in which she appears. Theron perfected her icy visage with Ravenna, her face never betraying emotion, and she continued to bring that elusiveness to many roles after that. During an interview after the first film’s release, Theron even demonstrated the proper way to walk like a queen: “Shoulders down, neck long, and then just think murder.”
She continued to refine her skill for portraying manipulative characters as Weyland Corporation supervisor Meredith Vickers in 2012’s Prometheus. As an employee of the company long responsible for all the death and destruction in the Alien franchise, Vickers seems confident in her role, but she arrives shrouded in suspicion. She is a headstrong and determined woman, but no one knows where her loyalties lie — which is ultimately with herself.
In her own personal life, Theron was similarly reticent to tell all. She has always been known for keeping her private life private, yet is rarely described by her peers as duplicitous. Just like the screen legends of old Hollywood, Theron wanted to be a blank canvas upon which she could paint anything, and the audiences’ opinion of her personal life didn’t color her performance. She would go on to deftly explore several unique and polarizing women, including in the next world she would inhabit onscreen: a violent, apocalyptic wasteland.
Pedal to the Metal
George Miller’s 2015 Mad Max: Fury Road would be the fourth installment in the dystopian world he created almost four decades ago. While Max has ostensibly always been the focus — it is his name in the title after all — it’s clear from the start that this story belongs to someone else: Theron’s ruthless, one-armed rebel, Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa, the leader of dictator Immortan Joe’s zealous war boys, has rescued and smuggled Joe’s harem of women out of their compound in her massive rig. She intends to return to her homeland, “The Green Place,” where she hopes they can all start over.
Furiosa is clearly not to be trifled with; she may be hopeful for an oasis, but she is on a mission to save these women and will kill anything that gets in her way. As Max hangs along for the ride, once he decides he too doesn’t want to die by her hand, Furiosa leads a non-stop car chase trying to outrun her pursuers. Most of the stunts in the film she performed herself, including her skillful driving.
Theron’s driving skills were tapped again two years later when she joined the cast of The Fate of the Furious as the unapologetic evil hacker, Cipher. As one of the most successful action franchises in the world, The Fast and the Furious were eager to snap up an Oscar-winning actress who more than knows her way with a car. Not only does Theron get to show off her skills behind the wheel, she also gets to play a broadly manipulative and controlling woman who knows no remorse.
Most recently, Theron brought the same detachment to the screen staring in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, an action-packed cold war spy drama, extremely reminiscent of a pseudo-James Bond. Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is an MI6 spy sent on a mission to Berlin. From the moment she steps off the plane, she spends most of the running time kicking the ass of every person who tries to kill her. As the plot largely takes a backseat, the action becomes the centerpiece. The hand-to-hand combat in the film is top notch — the staircase scene is especially spectacular — and Theron looks amazing while doing it all, which is noteworthy because Theron did all her own stunts — even breaking two teeth while filming.
Personally, Lorraine is completely detached from those who surround her: her superiors (Toby Jones and John Goodman), her put upon ally-gone-rogue David Percival (James McAvoy), and her new lover, Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). Only when she is unable to save Delphine does Lorraine finally break down — but only for a moment — before she dusts herself off and gets back to business.
Charlize Theron’s ability to inhabit a moral gray area is what keeps audiences coming back for more. She has paved the way for other women to follow her example and continues to clear a path ahead for herself. At this point in her career, I don’t think there is any doubt Theron is a bonafide action star — and could easily kick your ass on the red carpet while she's at it. Now that’s she’s crossed that off her list, she could feasibly work forever. And with a little luck, #ImperatorFuriosa will ride again.
Do you think Charlize Theron is the best female action star?