December 1998 By Philip Berk
She’s the hottest star in Hollywood, currently on the cover of Vanity Fair and starring in no less than four movies.
She walked away with the best reviews for Woody Allen’s Celebrity. Before that she almost stole The Devil’s Advocate from Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. Her latest Mighty Joe Young prompted the Los Angeles Times critic to call her, “the most gorgeous woman working in film.”
And if that wasn’t enough she’ll next be seen in The Astronaut’s Wife opposite Johnny Depp, followed by The Yard with Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, and still later in the year, in Lasse Halstrom’s Cider House Rules.
I met her three years ago when she was totally unknown. Because we were both from South Africa, her publicisasked me to interview her for the purpose of creating her bio. She had just completed her first film 2 days in the Valley.
Since then I’ve interviewed her twice, for Celebrity and Mighty Joe Young. She’s changed in many ways but was always remarkably articulate and self assured.
Today she is the knock-out you see on the screen, tall, beautiful, statuesque, and elegant. She could well be the first star since Marilyn Monroe to combine innocence and sexuality.
So how did this young lady from Benoni, South Africa, overcome anti apartheid prejudice to conquer Hollywood?
At that time, white South Africans were not only unwelcome wherever they went, they kept their nationality a dark secret. (Nelson Mandela was still in prison when Charlize left South Africa.)
So how did she do it?
“I was fifteen when I left South Africa. I lived all over Europe for two years and I stayed about a year in New York, then lived in Miami, before coming to L.A. just over four years ago.”
Why did she leave South Africa?
“I was studying ballet at what was then the only Afrikaans art school in South Africa I had been doing it for about twelve years, very much in love with what I was doing, but always aware that this was not what I wanted to do.
“Ever since I was five years old, I can remember being in my mom’s room discovering characters in front of her mirror. I had that fourth wall up all the time. I was so blocked out from other people — I don’t know if it was because I was an only child, entertaining myself, living on a farm where I had just one friend — I really don’t know, but I just knew that I was always very intrigued by movies.”
“The video store was one of my favorite hang-outs. I looked at movies and I thought, ‘God, I can do that so much better. God, that’s me. That’s what I’m supposed…’ that’s my life story right there. I also knew that if I was going to do it, I would have to do it the right way and Hollywood was the only way.
“My great fortune was winning a modeling contest at fifteen. I was asked to go to Italy and model. I was very flattered at that time, but I was also very realistic — I saw it as a chance for me to get out of South Africa and move closer to where I wanted to be, which was Hollywood.”
How tough was it?
“At fifteen, just trying to get food on the table was my a priority.”
Another was trying to loose her very thick guttural South African Afrikaans accent.
How did she accomplish that ? (She speaks American without a trace of accent.)
“I made that choice when I was in New York, trying to do commercials. I remember so well going to a Coke audition and trying to sell it with my South African accent. It just didn’t work. It was either keep the accent and starve or lose the accent and survive, so I made that choice. But I never had any coaching. Basically I watched a lot of television.”
Before coming to New York, she modeled for a year in Germany, barely able to support herself.
Wasn’t her mother worried that something bad could happen to her?
“My mother happens to be my best friend. I mean, she is my mentor and my hero. She taught me to be determined and to stick with what I wanted to do. That question comes up a lot. I’ve often asked myself, would I be able to do that? It’s a tough decision, but you must remember my father died three months before I left South Africa. I had become a little rebellious. My mom had no choice but to let me go. She just said, ‘Here’s some money to get you off your feet. Go and chase your dreams, but just know that I will not support you.”
Wasn’t that rather callous?
“No it wasn’t. She always knew that I had bigger dreams than normal children and if she didn’t let me go, I would bring the house down, so it was never really an issue. She has always been behind me and proud of me.
“The first time she visited me in the States, it was on the set of 2 Days in the Valley, she knew that I wasn’t over here partying my life away, I was working hard. And that’s when she realized that she had done the right thing, which I’m sure makes her feel better.”
Arriving in Los Angeles with $400 in her pocket, Charlize asked a taxi driver to recommend a motel (“The Farmer’s Daughter.”) A chance argument she had at a nearby bank, which had refused to cash her check, was witnessed by a Hollywood agent, John Crosby, who was so impressed with her spunk, he gave her his card.
Did she realize who he was?
“Not at all, and I knew that in Hollywood, if you walk on Hollywood Boulevard, everybody wants to make you a star. But it turned out that he managed people like Rene Russo and John Hurt, so he was legitimate. He was like the person that I’d always wanted to meet, and for him to just be a little bit interested in me was just mind boggling. I sat down with him. I basically had nothing to show him, so I said, ‘Look, I’ve always had a feeling that this was the one thing in my life that I could be good at and happy at the same time,’ and he said ‘Well, let’s give it a shot.’ He introduced me to UTA, and I actually went to my first reading which was for a Paul Verhoeven movie. Later Paul put in a good word for me which was very nice. When I look back at all these things, meeting these people, being at the right place at the right time, luck had a lot to do with it.”
So when did things start happening?
“I was receiving maybe ten scripts a week, meeting people. The toughest thing was walking into a casting director’s office, where they were casting a Bruce Willis movie or some huge production, and realizing that maybe this was not your place. You come from nowhere. You have no material. There’s no reel. There’s no tape to show. You’ve never done anything in your entire life, and you have to prove to these people that you can actually pull it off.
“That’s what happened with 2 Days in the Valley. I met with the casting director. I went in an outfit — God only knows how I put that little ensemble together — but I wore the garter belt and the whole thing. I walked in and I said, ‘I understand the character.’ I did the work. They felt it was there, but it took a lot of persuading. You have to make these people believe you can actually do it.”
How did she get her follow-up role in Tom Hanks’s That Thing You Do?
“That story is just so unbelievable. I met with the casting director, and he said, ‘Oh, so you’re reading for …” and he mentioned another movie, and I said “No, I’m here for the Tom Hanks’ movie,” and he said “Oh, my God, you’re too old. We’re looking for teenagers.” And I said, “I’m only twenty. I just turned twenty.” Maybe I looked a little too sophisticated that day or whatever, but he insisted I read for the other movie. Finally I said to him, ‘You know, I really would like to get a shot at this one. Just try me out,’ and I did a scene for him and he said ‘Okay, I’ll let you meet Tom Hanks. Come in tomorrow at three and you can meet him.’ That was the most nerve-racking experience of my life. I mean, this man had been such a big part of my life. I mean, I grew up on his films. He was almost like a god to me, and meeting him in real life was just — I remember walking in and saying I just have to get one thing off my chest. I am your biggest fan, and I love your work, so can we get started now.’ And he put me on film. We did about four scenes, and I got the part which was my first chance to do comedy.”
Does she hide the fact that she is from South Africa?
“I feel I don’t have to prove myself to anybody. It was very hard for me to leave South Africa at the time that I did. People look at you, and their first assumption is that you’re a racist. I’ve learned now that the more you argue, the more you put your foot in your mouth, you just get in deeper and deeper.
“But I knew the situation in South Africa had gotten to the point where it was really just ridiculous. I was very happy not to be part of it, but part of me will always be part of it, because my family lives there; so no matter how at home I am here I always have to think about my family living there and the situation they’re in.”
Are things improving there?
“There’s been a lot of changes but I’m not going to sit here and say they’ve all been for the better. South Africa is going through a lot right now. It’s in the process of healing. It has a lot of problems, worst of all is the crime. Everybody who lives in South Africa is in horrible fear. It’s extremely violent. The violence is the highest in the world right now.”
And so are road fatalities. Her step brother was killed in a car accident just last year.
How does she deal with loss?
“I’ve had numerous experiences with losing people around me. I learned at an early age that you have no control over that part of your life. The only thing you have control over is the time you have and how you use it. So I don’t take anything for granted. I’m grateful for whatever good fortune I have. I don’t have visions of me ten years from now. All I have is the moment, so I spend as much time as I can with people I love.”
Speaking of people she loves, for almost five years she was pretty much on her own. Is she by nature a loner?
“I’ve never ever been a loner. Somehow, I don’t know how to explain it, but I’ve always been surrounded by a lot of people. When I got to L.A., I didn’t know anybody, but the next day I met my best friend (Ivana Milicevic) who moved in with me, and to this day is still my roommate. She was born in Bosnia but grew up in Detroit, Michigan.
“I’ve always hung out with different groups of people; people who are the total opposite of what I am. I’m very intrigued by people like that, but I also need people around me that are like me, that understand me. I mean, friendships are very important to me. That’s how you observe and learn. It would be very hard for me to be a loner and be able to act. Everything I do on screen is stolen. You have to steal from the best, either from people on screen or people around you. Of course I like to be alone sometimes, but friendships are very important to me.”
What about relationships?
“I’m too busy for that, but whenever I’m not working and I don’t have much happening in my life, I think, ‘Now would be a nice time to maybe start a relationship,’ but it never happens. It’s when everything is happening in your life, that it happens. You deny it for the longest time, and then you realize you’re actually in love, which is what happened to me.
“I had two days off after Mighty Joe Young, started Celebrity, and then did three weeks press tour for Devils Advocate. Two days later I came to New York, started Astronaut’s Wife and I met a person — my intentions in the beginning were pure admiration. Three months later I found myself unable to call him on the phone. My first line of thinking was I don’t want a boyfriend right now, but you can’t choose those things, and when they happen to you, you have to celebrate and take them as they come.
“But the nice thing about our relationship is that my boyfriend is just as busy as I am, so together we have something really beautiful, but it happened purely out of the blue when we least suspected it.”
And who is he?
Reluctantly she admits, he’s Stephan Jenkins, of the rock group, Third Eye Blind.
“I’m a huge fan of his music, I saw him perform in Hawaii, went backstage and that’s how we first met.”
Did she enjoy working with Woody Allen?
“The truth is, I almost didn’t do the film.”
“When the offer came to me, because of scheduling problems, I had to turn it down. I forgot about it completely because you can’t dwell on those things. But then the day we wrapped Mighty Joe Young, he came back and re-offered it to me, and I just went, ‘This is weird!’ because I had told him through my agent that I didn’t think there was anything challenging playing a supermodel.
“Then he wrote me a letter asking me to look at the material saying that he would allow me to do anything with the character. That’s quite powerful when a director says that, so I knew I had to take advantage of it.”
Did he offer her much direction?
“Of course he’s just a genius, but we didn’t communicate that much. We barely spoke ten words to each other the first week. It’s such a different process working with him. The first week you’re like, ‘Oh speak to me. What am I doing?’ but after a while, I realized he was observing behind the camera, and I felt comfortable knowing that if I was doing something that was over the top, he would come to me and tell me. So I realized he was actually giving me the freedom to do whatever I wanted, so I took advantage of that, showed up with crazy, crazy ideas, which were well received by him, and that’s how the character came about.”
Is Charlize her real name?
“It’s on my birth certificate. It was given to me.”
Where does it come from?
“I’ve always asked my mom because I get asked that so many times, but, basically, the only thing she ever told me was my father’s name was Charles, and the pronunciation of that name in Afrikaans is very similar to Charlize, so I think that is where it came from. I have a very creative mother.”
Is she still close to her mother?
“Not only are we close, she’s my best friend, and I think of her as a brilliant mother. That’s what’s scary. I sometimes wonder if I could ever step in her shoes and play that same role. I hope I’ll be able to, knowing how a big role she plays in my life.”
What does she do?
“She’s in the construction business. She’s in a man’s world. I grew up with a very strong and determined mother. She ran the business with my father and when he died, she automatically took over and is still running it, and the business is still in great shape.”
Does she ever yearn for the ballet?
“I did for a very long time after I left South Africa. I danced with a lot of studios. But I just knew I was too tall and I didn’t have the time. It was very hard to give it up. I miss it a lot, still go to ballets and cry.”
December 1998 By Philip Berk