She played the brutalized wife of a demonically possessed lawyer in 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate, a serial killer in 2003’s Monster, a sexually harassed miner in 2005’s North Country, a one-armed rebel warrior in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road and a kick-ass spy in 2017’s Atomic Blonde. But Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron tells SF Weekly that no role’s taken a greater toll on her than that of Marlo, an overburdened mother of three, who reluctantly hires a night nanny named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) to ease her load in her latest film Tully, which opened Friday, May 3.
From Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air director Jason Reitman and Oscar-winning writer Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), with whom Theron last worked on Young Adult, Tully takes an unflinching look at the sacrifices new mothers make.
Theron opened up to SF Weekly about the hardships of motherhood, the depression she battled on the set of Tully and why carrying her children, herself, was never an option.
You’ve said that you really connected to the Marlo character and fell in love with her. How do you identify with her?
I guess, just on the surface, being a parent and knowing what it feels like those first couple of months when you’re just in the throws of the fear of fucking it up and not doing it right and not sleeping. Even though I never suffered from depression or any postpartum, because I didn’t naturally birth my babies, I definitely related to this idea of once you have kids, you definitely question, “Am I still who I was, or am I giving that part up forever?” And I think that struggle was something that I definitely could relate to.
One of my favorite parts of the film is when Marlo finally gets her mini-vacation from motherhood and lets loose. How do you, as a mother, make sure that you get your own needs met?
I feel like my circumstances are very different from Marlo’s, and I’m grateful for having the circumstances that I have, and that’s that I had kids way later in my life. My career felt like it was settled, like it was something that I could maintain and not necessarily chase while having my children, so having the freedoms to make those decisions changed the outcome for me a little bit, where I don’t feel like that was necessarily the case for Marlo.
It’s always been easier for me. With my first kid, it was definitely different than my second. With my first kid, it was definitely harder for me to ask for help because I definitely suffered from that symptom of if “I’m not doing it all, then I’m not being a great parent.” But the second one, I was like, “Help” — like handing over the child to a stranger. But I think I just come from a culture in South Africa where we really believe that it takes a village to raise a kid. I was raised that way, and it’s a philosophy that I really love and try to instill in my children. They were both introduced to their village the first night they came home and that village is still very much and will always be a part of their lives. I’m lucky to have access to those people, so I can continue to work and I can continue to be me and have that balance. I know that’s a great luxury that a lot of parents don’t have.
So what are your favorite things to do on the odd night that you get to do you?
Every time I hear parents say, “Oh, it’s so great when my kids go to sleep, the house is quiet and I get to read,” I’m like, “Really?” Because I just want to take an Ambien and go to sleep. So there are days where their godmothers will come and take them for a day. They literally will drive out of the driveway, and I’ll be in my sweats and T-shirt, and I will be in the same outfit when they come and drop them off. All I’ll have done is lay in my bed and have lunch in my bed, watching reality television. Just being able to lay in my bed without a child running in and saying, “Mom, can you wipe?” or something is such a gift. People are always thinking you’re, like, “I’m going to the spa. I’m shopping at Neiman’s.” I just want to be alone in my house with nobody else here. It’s such a gift.
You’ve said that when you take on a role you completely immerse yourself in it. How do you immerse yourself in some of your more difficult roles to the level you do without it destroying you?
I think that some of the scars that you get from making a film, those definitely come home with you. But the emotional part of it, it’s very easy for me to leave behind. This movie was harder; this was probably the hardest time I had, just because I gained so much weight and was eating so badly that I actually dealt with depression for the first time in my life so that emotional part was just in my body.
How did that affect your day-to-day?
I would go home, and I just had no energy. I wasn’t me, and that was the first time that’s ever happened in my career. I remember when I did Atomic Blonde, I’d come home and my body would hurt so badly and my kids would just knee me right in the chest and I’d be like doubled over in tears. So you come home with those kinds of things, and you’re like, “Mommy hurts,” and they don’t get that. But the emotional stuff, I couldn’t imagine making this movie for more than the days that we did, because it’s exhausting. I admire actors who can stay in that emotional state, because, for me, it’s almost too draining. I show up to work, not having enough energy to do the job, and that’s just my own experience.
I like having the energy to find the places I need to go. But if I’m too exhausted or emotionally drained because I’ve been in that place for too long, it’s harder for me to go there. But I think that’s why every actor figures out what works better for them. I also made a deal with myself. I love my life, so knowing that I can still sustain the quality of work that I want to sustain and get to go home and have my life, those are things I love. I love having that balance, but this one was definitely physically and emotionally much harder.
So once filming stopped, you lost the weight and felt like yourself again?
I lost the weight a year and a half later. It didn’t happen so quickly. It was a very long process. I thought I was dying halfway through. I called my doctor and said, “I have not eaten anything bad, I’ve worked out every single day, but my body is not changing.” And he’s like, “Yeah, you’re 42, bitch.” It was a very long process.
You’ve done so much charity work to better the lives of women and children. You were made a United Nations Messenger of Peace for your dedication to improving the lives of South African women and children and since founding the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project in 2007, you’ve helped keep African youth safe from HIV. Did you always know that you wanted to be a mom?
Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be a mom. But I also knew I didn’t want to be a mom in my 20s. I knew that very clearly. That was frightening to me, but I always knew that I would be a mother and that I would always be a mother through adoption, always. When I was 8 years old, I wrote my mom a letter asking her to adopt a sister for me. I never asked her to have another sister for me. I asked her to adopt. My mom had the letter and gave it to me when I adopted my first child, and she said, “This has always been your journey. Even when you were eight years old, you wanted me to adopt a sister for you.” So this was always my first choice to have my family this way.