Based on journalist Mark Boal's 2004 Playboy magazine article "Death and Dishonor," Paul Haggis' new film In The Valley of Elah deals with the stories surrounding the disappearance of a US soldier home on leave from the Iraq War. Charlize Theron plays Emily Sanders, one of a pair of detectives (alongside Tommy Lee Jones) investigating what turns out to be a very troubling case which becomes a stark examination of the effect of war on the warrior...
Charlize sat down with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier in Los Angeles, CA to talk about her reasons for taking on new professional challenges, the experience of working alongside real-life heroes, and her now officially dual-South African/American life...
EI: In The Valley Of Elah is a very American story... and I recently heard that you just become a U.S. citizen?
Charlize Theron: Yes, I actually just became a citizen this year, though I have lived here for 13 years... longer – I’ve lived in LA for 13 years, altogether, 16 years: I’ve been in America for 16 years. I’ve always considered this my home – a different kind of home. I put my feet down on African soil and something happens to my blood. But I live here as well, and I consider this my home.
Maybe coming from a country like South Africa, that has gone through so much turmoil, which is the way I grew up, I am interested in what a newspaper has to say. But I also believe in independent press. I am always kind of looking at it from both sides and just like I think anybody else would in America. I think, when you go into a war, it’s pretty impossible to go through your life and not run into people and talk about it. I don’t know how people could do that–its part of what we are going through right now. Of course, I think in general there is a debate going on in this country, and I’m interested in what other people have to say.
It doesn’t necessarily come from a South African point of view, it just comes from a human point of view. Yeah, it wasn’t the basis of this film, and I loved that. I would have been scared of this movie if it was. I loved that we always went back to these human beings and the circumstances that they were in. Just in general, yeah of course people were talking about it a lot. It was happening, we had real soldiers around us, and I wanted to know what that experience was like. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, so I was very interested to hear their point of view.
EI: Weren’t you the first actor on board to appear In The Valley Of Elah?
CT: Yeah, I got to know Paul (Haggis) when I was nominated for North Country, and we were doing the award circle. He was doing it for Crash, and the two of us were the only losers in an alley, smoking cigarettes. He told me about this project, and he was still writing it. We kind of kept running into each other, and he kept talking about it, and it sounded fascinating. He had sent me a script – he e-mailed me a script when he was in Italy. I read it, and the next day I said, “Count me in.” It’s usually a combination for me, trying to find good, solid material that I am really interested in. But it’s just as important for me to get a director that I really want to work with. I really wanted to work with Paul.
EI: Was it the story or was it the character?
CT: No, it was the story. It is always the story, always. You can have the best character in the world and a crap story – it doesn’t matter. I would rather be in a good movie. Whether I’m in it for two minutes or two hours, that doesn’t matter to me.
EI: Given the political situation, what was the biggest message that came across to you when you read the script?
CT: To me, this was a human story. It was about people; it was the truth. Politically, I didn’t feel like this carried any kind of agenda. I didn’t feel like there was any liberal, Democratic, or Republican message behind it. I didn’t fell like it was pro-war or against war. I felt like this was just the truth about the realities of “we are at war.”
We are sending these very young kids over there to go and do something that very few of us will go and do, and I have a great respect for that. They are coming back here and we can’t expect them to fit back into society and be normal, functioning citizens. It’s just not going to happen, and we have to give them the right tools, and we are not. That, to me, was something, obviously, that kind of touched me.
I’ve met people who have gone over there and fought. To hear them come back and not be looked after, I think that is very ungrateful. We can’t do that. But this story – it was the truth and it really happened. That, to me, was heartbreaking. My character was never part of the real story, but as a story, on a human level, it really connected with me. I thought it was heartbreaking, so I really wanted to tell it.
EI: There is an element of your character, Emily and her story: She is not accepted, like so many women in the workplace.
CT: For being a woman? [Laughs]
EI: How difficult was dealing with the male characters for you? Was that always to be an element… ?
CT: It wasn’t... it was something that I never talked to Paul about. It was there. I think it is very truthful, from all the research that I had done on North Country. What I liked about it was that he brought it in, what I think is very truthful, and I always said this when I did North Country – a lot of this stuff happens on a very humorous level, which is why it is considered innocent. I think, in a way, it was like a little bit of a layer that this movie needed, and it was a very serious film.
We always treated it like, what I had found in my research to be very true. These incidents are not big, not all of them, and most of them are considered to be a joke. These guys don’t really think they are doing anything terribly wrong. We never wanted to hit that over the head, but I think he cast really great actors and we had a great time playing off of that, never making it too serious. I think Emily knew, and she was smart. She had thick skin, she could deal with it, but it was just exhausting.
EI: The Josh Brolin character, her boss, was the guy that got her the promotion because they had been lovers...
CT: Well, yeah. What I liked about that was that it was something that you could consider so easily in the workforce as being kind of what the guys are thinking it is. That she slept her way on top, and the irony of it is that she actually really fell in love with this guy, and he was married. She had an affair, she got pregnant, and she decided to have a baby. Love that, how not bright, how not accepted, but that is the truth of a lot of people, right there.
I like that she carried her head high and said, “That’s fine. I got myself in this situation.” But, I think she really, truly cared for this guy. She could never have him. I thought that was a really nice little complication for her in the story – that everybody around her just thought that she did it because she was a slut. That was really not who she was.
EI: Emily then gets to show that she is really the best detective in the group.
CT: Well, next to him. That’s what I loved. I said to Paul, “I am starting to feel like those classic ’60s television programs.” Where you are just like… every single time, “Doh!” But I loved that she was very flawed, and she wasn’t the greatest detective, but she really had a heart. She went after it as hard as she possibly could, but she wasn’t necessarily… how boring to play the guy who always gets it right. [Laughs] So this was a nice layer, I thought. And I thought it really helped with the chemistry between me and Tommy [Lee Jones]’s character.
EI: Did you spend time with female detectives?
CT: Yeah, I did in Albuquerque – spent a little time. Really it was just because I was kind of intrigued by interrogation scenes. I wanted to hear what that was really like, and we had a really big one that I thought was important in this film, and I wanted to do it as truthfully as possible. I didn’t really have a lot to pull from. So I wanted to hear, from somebody, what it was really like to interrogate people, and how do you really get information out of people. It turned out to be very boring.
You are not supposed to lose your cool, you are not supposed to be all overly-dramatic, and it’s supposed to be a very normal conversation. A very reasonable conversation, and I think that Paul initially really wrote it that way. That was important for me to know, that we weren’t doing something that wasn’t… I mean, it’s always important for me on all those levels. I don’t want to go and do something that is just showy. It’s interesting for me to go and find the truth.
EI: What was it like working with Tommy Lee Jones?
CT: I loved him. I loved working with him. I think he is incredibly talented. I was very intimidated. I actually owe Francis McDormand a lot, because I had talked to her when I decided to do this. Paul was going to have Tommy do it. I said, “How is it working with him?” and she said, “Just give him a big hug every time you see him. It just drops his guard.” I did – the first time I saw him, I gave him a big hug. From that moment on, he just really kind of took me under his wing and we had a great respect for each other. We worked really hard and well together. Yeah, I had a great time working with him, definitely. It is great to be in a ton of scenes with somebody that really keeps you on your toes, you know?
EI: How was it acting with not only the actors, but the soldiers who were in it, that might watch it, who are still over there fighting in Iraq right now?
CT: It was a combination of a few things. At first, I looked at Paul and I said, “Are you sure about this?” Because we were on a tight schedule with very, very big scenes with these guys, and very important scenes. You just hope... you know, these guys aren’t professional actors. You hope that you are going to make your day. He said, “Trust me.” And I did, and they showed up and I was blown away.
I couldn’t tell the difference between the actors and the real soldiers. I actually became really good friends with one of them. I think, in a way, it was so incredibly helpful to have that around all the time – just to stay on the road of truth. Just on a human level, I was fascinated and intrigued by what they have experienced; where they are and how they felt, and it was great having them around. It really was great and amazing. Amazing actors, really amazing, and I know why. I think that all of this is still so fresh for them. That was really what this work was about – it was just the truth of their lives. I think that really helped.
EI: There are many scenes in this film that are without dialogue, it is the characters’ behavior that speaks volumes. Is that something, as an actor, that you have learned to value more than pages of dialogue?
CT: I’ve always had a great value for it, and I think it’s from being a ballerina for 12 years and never having words. I’m not a fan of words, and directors hate me sometimes! I really have a very clear understanding of how powerful the physical can be. I played a swan, and I never had any feathers or said anything, but I was a swan. So the physical, to me, is incredible.
You can have an entire monologue, and sometimes, as an actor, we get lost in these showy moments of, “Yes, we want that monologue.” I really have no desire for a monologue. When Paul starting writing my part, I was like “Can you cut down on the lines? Please?” It was really intense writing. In a way, that’s why I really liked this character, because I had never done anything really like that. I tend to play the Tommy Lee part in films – the emotionally-driven character, and it was really interesting to be the actor in the scene that wasn’t emotionally-driven. There are levels of it, but nothing close to what Tommy has to go through.
In many ways, I am there to pass along a lot of information. That was a huge challenge for me. It was great... there were a couple of times, little tiny moments, like the day after she finds the young girl in the bathtub. She’s sitting at her desk, Paul had a secretary come over, and she’s giving me the bank statements. He said, “So she’s going to come up and she’s going to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ You say, ‘Don’t worry.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, no. I can’t say anything. I’m guilt-ridden. There is no way I could say, "I can’t look anybody in the eye. I’m f***ed up." That was a great example of just really understanding that there were no words needed there. There was nothing needed there. Those are usually my favorite moments. I always say I’m a really good actor when I’m not speaking and you are shooting me from behind. Always.
EI: Why do you think that directors hate you?
CT: I’m always cutting lines. I will strip it down to the bare bones. The good thing about having a director like Paul is that he covers all bases. Then he does it editorially. I think it’s one of those things that when I am doing it I’m in my head, I go, “This really doesn’t feel right.” But I know that Paul, at the end of the day, can always lose it. If there is a hole in the story, you might need that point. It’s one of those give-and-takes. But I would have loved to have been in silent films... [Laughs]
EI: Can you talk about Hancock, the big budget Will Smith movie you’re doing?
CT: It’s been a great experience. It’s been a really, really, great film to work on. I would make a film about tape recorders if Will Smith was in it. I love working with him, I just think he’s an incredible actor, and I loved the experience of being around him. I love Jason Bateman. I thought it was a really well-written piece,that wasn’t just fluff. There was a real intelligence to it yet it was fun, but it was smart. It was complicated. It had a lot of conflict. I don’t see a lot of that, come 4th of July, and I liked it.
EI: Did you have any reservations about doing another comic book movie?
CT: No, it’s all different. It’s like saying I’m not going to do another genre-based. I don’t believe in that, it’s two completely different stories–it’s completely different.
EI: What do you find more challenging?
CT: They are all different, in different ways, and they are all challenging in different ways. I find Hancock a challenge because it’s not something that I’m familiar with and it’s not a comfort zone for me. You throw me in a drama and I know I can swim. I like the idea of doing this and looking at Will and going, “I don’t know, Men In Black 4? You tell me. I don’t do these!” [Laughs] I like that challenge. What I love about this piece is that it really crosses over so many different genres. It’s really interesting to kind of shoot out of continuity and to figure out where you are hitting what. It’s not just silly comedy. There is a lot of heavy stuff in this–just really, really heavy stuff.
EI: Can you give an update on the Africa Outreach Project, and do you see yourself making a film in South Africa soon?
CT: I think I am the only actor who hasn’t shot a film in South Africa… and I’m a damn South African! It’s just ridiculous, so I would love to shoot something in South Africa. That would just be amazing. I am always struggling to find the time to go home. That would be amazing to do it for a job. Yes, I am going back towards the end of the year. I don’t know exactly what month or when–we are trying to figure out the dates. It will be after Hancock to go and do the Africa Outreach program. We’ve been building the mobile clinics for the last six months and they are almost finished. I am very excited to go and do that.
EI: Will you be traveling around the country?
CT: Yeah, we’ll be traveling in some very rural communities with them, bringing anti-viral drugs to communities, and education. I am very excited about it.
Warner Independent Pictures' 'In The Valley of Elah' is in limited theatrical release now.