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Charlize Theron Reflects On Growing Up In South Africa During The Apartheid Era


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest, Charlize Theron, stars in the new Netflix movie "The Old Guard," playing an immortal superhero soldier. It premiered last Friday. Charlize Theron has portrayed tough warriors before in such films as "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Aeon Flux," but her resume goes much deeper. In the film "Bombshell," she played one of several women fighting against sexual harassment at Fox news. She both starred in and produced the movie "Monster," playing real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and won a Best Actress Oscar for it.

Charlize Theron grew up on a farm in South Africa during the apartheid era. Less than 10 years after her first on-screen role, she won an Academy Award. Terry Gross spoke with Charlize Theron last year when "Bombshell" was released and asked the actress about her own experiences with sexual harassment in Hollywood.


TERRY GROSS: You've talked about in other interviews how your first audition ended up being with a sexual harasser. It was, like - you were told by, I think, like, a modeling agency who knew that you wanted to act, they suggested you go on this audition. It was a Saturday evening that you were supposed to meet the producer or director...

CHARLIZE THERON: Yeah. Director, yeah.

GROSS: ...At his home. He opened the door, and he was wearing pajamas and had been drinking.


GROSS: So this was before today's level of public awareness. This was before the #MeToo movement. It was before you had any reason to expect that it would be not the harasser who faced consequences, but you if you went public about it.


GROSS: So can you describe what it was like to have to react on the spot when you saw the position he was in - in his pajamas - and then instead of having you, like, read for your audition, he touched your knee? How do you know what to do in that moment?

THERON: You don't. You don't. And I think for people who have not experienced sexual harassment, it's a very difficult thing to wrap their head around. A woman yesterday - we were doing a press junket - and a female journalist said to me, but don't you always have the option of just saying no and leaving the room?

And I think that is a mentality that a lot of people still have about sexual harassment, that somehow when you find yourself in that position, that very unfortunate position, that you are going to do everything right. You're going to say everything right. You're going to be the hero in that scene. And you're going to tell this guy exactly what a creep he is. And you're going to march off into the sunset. And that is just not the truth about a lot of these situations.

And I've personally found myself - this happened in '94 - I personally found myself in a situation where I wasn't even fully convinced that it was sexual harassment. And I don't think I really knew that until way later in my career. But what I did know was that I put a lot of blame on myself in the sense that I was angry with myself that I didn't say all the right things and that I didn't tell him to, you know, take a hike, and that I didn't do all of those things that we so want to believe we'll do in those situations. Instead, I very politely apologized. And then I was in my car driving away. And I just kept hitting the steering wheel.

And I was really emotional about it because I couldn't understand where this behavior came from. I was raised with an incredibly strong mother figure - my mother, who, you know, I grew up watching her work in a business where women weren't allowed to work. She worked in road construction at a time when no women worked in road construction. And my whole life, all I saw was men coming into her office and having meetings with her. And so my impression of the world was that that was just what you did.

And so nothing in my past made me feel like, well, then, of course this is why I would apologize and why I would kind of react in this meek way with this guy and not say anything. I didn't know where that came from. And it took me a really long time to realize that that was a cultural influence, that it wasn't necessarily from how I was raised. But it was almost like instilled in me that that's just kind of what you did. You didn't rock the boat. This was somebody who was going to maybe give you a job.

I was just starting out in the industry. I didn't really know the ins and outs. I literally was telling myself as I was driving there on a Saturday night at 9:00, well, maybe that's how they do it in the movie industry. I don't know. I've never done this.

GROSS: He's a busy man. Maybe his time is - right. That's the only time he has. So when you apologized to him, what did you say? Do you remember?

THERON: I don't even think it was like a specific apology. But I remember saying I'm sorry when I was trying to leave and that I made it - like, the apology about I'm sorry that I have to leave because I was trying to remove myself from the room. And that, in itself, is just so unbelievably F'd (ph) up. I - you know, that is a mentality that we have to really change within our culture, within our girls. And yeah. I mean, I had a very interesting experience with this man eight years later, where he actually offered me a job. And he is a very well-known director.

And eight years later, I was - found myself in a place in my career where I was actually getting offers. And he offered me a job. And I knew I wasn't going to take the job. But I took the meeting because I felt like I finally had my opportunity. I wanted to have that moment that I didn't get to have with him. And his producer was in the meeting as well. And he introduced me to him. And he said, oh, I want you to meet - I said, no, actually, we know each other. He said, oh, I didn't know that. I said, yeah, no, I came to your house about eight years ago. And you wore silk pajamas and offered me a drink and rubbed my knee.

And I could tell that his producer felt incredibly uncomfortable. And he was kind of taken back - taken aback and just said - he kind of like moved on from the conversation like he just didn't want to address it, which to me became very clear in that moment that it wasn't his first time, that he had been doing this. And maybe, you know, I think maybe other women had called him out. And so his way of handling it was to just kind of like talk over it about the project.

And it was unfortunately not the moment that I so wanted. There was absolutely no reward in that moment for me. I've heard this repeatedly in hearing other women's stories. And that is the unfortunate thing about sexual harassment. You never get that moment where you feel like the tables are reversed and now he's finally getting it.

And the closest we've ever gotten to it is seeing people like Roger Ailes or Harvey Weinstein seeing some real consequences. I've never seen that in my entire career. This is really the first moment in my life where I see that maybe there can be real consequences for people with these actions.

GROSS: You are obviously still not divulging the name of the director, which I understand. But tell us, in your words, why you're not disclosing who it was.

THERON: So I actually did disclose his name.

GROSS: Oh. I didn't know that.

THERON: Yeah. You don't know that because every time I disclosed his name, the journalist made the decision to not write his name.


THERON: And it goes to show just how deeply systemic this problem is. I remember the first time somebody asked me about, like, if I ever had a casting couch experience, and I openly shared the experience and named him. And the person decided to not write his name. So the story is out, and when - strangely, when the Harvey Weinstein story broke, I, for the first time ever, Googled this story. And the story came up everywhere. It popped up everywhere, and nowhere could you find this guy's name.

And it was incredibly upsetting to me. And I'm conflicted in the sense that - I know that if I said his name again while I'm promoting this film that it would take over the importance of this story, and that would become the story. And I think there will be a time and a place where I will definitely share this. Again, the way I have always been honest about it - I have - I don't have a desire to protect him, but I also don't want him to overshadow this film right now. And so there will be a right time where I will talk about this again, and I will say his name. Yes.

GROSS: Understood. Was that incident that you mentioned with a director the only time you faced sexual harassment in the movie industry, to the extent that you're comfortable talking about this?

THERON: Yes. I mean, I - what I love about this story of what happened at Fox - and also, I think now that we're hearing so, so many other stories through the Harvey Weinstein of it all - and I think the nuance of sexual harassment in this wide spectrum - that it lives in this gray area, that it's not black and white; it's not always physical assault; it's not always rape - that there's a psychological damage that happens for women in the everyday casualness of language, touch or threat of losing your job. Those things I've definitely encountered, but nothing physical. That first one was physical, but I've never experienced anything like that. But I have definitely found myself in meetings laughing really loud at some guy's joke to make him feel good and maybe having a feeling of, I might actually lose my job if I don't do what is kind of being dictated here.

And it is important for us to, if we're going to rectify this issue - to really understand that we have to look at all of the nuance of it - that sometimes, victims go back to the perpetrator; that there can be an email exchange that is really friendly; that we have to understand why victims behave this way or - because I think the outside opinion is if you do that, then obviously, there is no sexual harassment. And it's in the complications. This is complicated, messy stuff. We have to be able to get into the nuance of it until - if we're really going to get to the crux of the problem.

BIANCULLI: Charlize Theron speaking to Terry Gross last year. At the time, she was starring as Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly in the movie "Bombshell" about sexual harassment at that news network. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2019 interview with Charlize Theron. She stars as an immortal superhero in the new Netflix movie "The Old Guard," which premiered last week.


GROSS: You sound to me like you do not have an accent. You sound like you were born in America. You grew up in South Africa on a farm. Describe the farm for us.

THERON: Well, it's what we call in South Africa a smallholding. And so it was around, I think, 25, 30 acres. My parents bought the land because they had a road construction company, and they needed the land for all the machinery, all the graders and rollers. So we lived off the land, but we - it wasn't an agricultural farm, but we survived off that farm. I mean, I - my mom, once a year, would slaughter a cow, and we would fill four freezers with that meat. And that was what we lived off. And all of our vegetables and fruit came from what we grew on the land. And so I had that kind of earthy experience while my parents ran this business, this road construction business.

GROSS: So you grew up during the apartheid era.


GROSS: Were you exposed to Black people during that era? I mean, it was apartheid. I don't know if you even came in contact with people who weren't white.

THERON: So on our farm, all of the workers, everybody who worked in the company - and it was a pretty substantial company - all lived on the farm. So my whole childhood, I was raised with Xhosas and Zulus and South Sothos and all different cultures. Their children were raised with me on the property, and I considered them my family. I didn't really - you know, there was some isolation in the sense that we weren't really around in a lot of the big cities - that I really understood fully what was going on as a child, as a young child. The information that I really got about what was happening came from my parents. This was conversation that was always kind of whispered around. When you went to the neighbor's house, people were always talking about politics, about elections, about all of these issues. So I had that awareness.

But I, you know, I lived in an environment where that wasn't how my family treated any of those people. I got - you know, I slept with a lot of those families. They babysat for my mom. If they went out somewhere, I would stay with them. And so it was only until I was 12 that I - or 13 that I went to an art school in Johannesburg where I really got to witness firsthand absolutely the atrocities of apartheid.

GROSS: What were you taught about race in school?

THERON: History was leaning very much into our white history. The heroes of our story of our founding fathers were all white. And even though very much - like, I find in our culture, this climate that we're in right now with our polarizing political views in this country, it was very similar in South Africa. I had friends who had family whose father would be for apartheid. And once they found out that, you know, Black people lived on our farm, wouldn't let me come over for a sleepover. And so there was the distinction in that not everybody was living this way, but that it was very much thought of as - people felt very strongly about it. And then other people didn't feel and thought that there was a reason to fight this.

You know, I always wonder what my life would have been like if I grew up in one of those families. If I was just an innocent child who was born into the family - like one of my friends, who believed that apartheid was the right way of life. I was just incredibly blessed that I was raised by, you know, especially my mother, who I was really kind of raised by a single parent. My father wasn't around that much, but by a mother who was just aghast by all of this.

I didn't really, truly understood, I think, what any of this really did to me as a young child until I was in my mid-30s and I went to therapy for the first time because of a relationship that was failing. And what I discovered while in therapy trying to save my relationship was that I had a lot of trauma from being a young child growing up in South Africa during the apartheid era.

GROSS: And can you tell us more about the trauma for you and what you figured out later about how you, as a white person, as an empowered person, were traumatized by apartheid?

THERON: It's a lot to reconcile with when you realize that you benefited under a administration, a nation, a country because you had the right skin color. I benefited. My life was more comfortable because of the suffering of a lot of people who just, by chance, were born in the wrong skin color. And that is a lot - that was a lot for me to carry. It still is. It is - I think it's something that I'll carry for the rest of my life.

GROSS: So this is another South Africa question. During the last years of apartheid, there was a cultural boycott. A lot of performers weren't going there. There were a lot of, like, recordings and books that weren't available, either because of the boycott against apartheid or because the government didn't allow it in - because they were afraid that, as all, you know, authoritarian governments are afraid that it will open people's minds and that will work against the authoritarian government.


GROSS: What were some of the things you did not have access to, either because of the boycott or because of the government?

THERON: I had never seen a live performance. Like, I'd never gone to see a rock concert or a musician play live until I was living in Europe. I was 16 when I went to my first concert. So, yeah, nobody really came to perform in South Africa when I was in my teenage years. I remember vividly a teacher sneaking us in into a room and showing us 20 minutes of Stanley Kubrick's - what's the movie? - "2001." And I remember I was 14 years old. And all of us, our minds were just blown. I mean, we had film, but it definitely - we didn't have access to everything.

And I remember that, for some weird reason, that film was something that everybody was talking about. And I have still, to this day, I don't know how this teacher got access to the 20 minutes that he shared with us. But I just remember in that moment - and then, obviously, later when I left and actually watched the full film - that depriving people from simple things like this - feeling inferior that there's somehow this danger that, you know, a film could, like, make you feel - and, by the way, that it could, yes. I do believe great art can change people. But it was just so - it was so sad.

GROSS: How old were you when you left, and why did you decide to leave then?

THERON: I left three weeks after I turned 16. I was - I won this modeling contest. And one of the prizes was a trip to Italy to - with a modeling contract. And my mom was just incredibly encouraging of me going. She felt like it was a great opportunity for not only, you know, the possibility of, you know, finding maybe something that would interest me or a life abroad or being able to, like, travel, even if it was just - I had never been on a plane. I had never seen anywhere.

We'd never traveled before. We drove, you know, to Durban in our car for six hours every holiday. So I think there was this moment that coincided with the political turmoil at the time. This was in '91. And she said, you should really take this opportunity. And that's why I left. I felt really bad.

My father had passed away just a few weeks earlier. And I didn't want to leave her alone. She was going through a lot. And she really kind of, like, pushed me out of the nest. And she said, you have to take this opportunity. She - it was an incredible selfless moment that she gave me as a mother.

BIANCULLI: Charlize Theron speaking with Terry Gross last year. She stars in the new Netflix movie "The Old Guard," playing the leader of a small band of immortal warriors. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And we'll hear from another formidable movie figure, actor Danny Trejo, the subject of a new documentary called "Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's conversation from last year with actress Charlize Theron. She stars in the new Netflix movie "The Old Guard," playing the leader of a group of immortal soldiers. When they left off, they were talking about Theron leaving South Africa at the age of 16, shortly after her father's death.


GROSS: You mentioned your father passed away. This is a part of the story that I know you don't - I think you might not want to talk about. So I'll just mention what happened and you can tell me if you'd like to talk about it or if you'd prefer not to. Your father came home drunk one night and shot at you and your mother. She got her gun and shot and killed him. And that's how he died. I don't know if you're comfortable talking about that or not.



THERON: No - yeah. Yeah, listen. I am. I think a lot of my - just any reluctancy that anybody has ever heard is just that this is usually the headline that people walk away from. And I think what's frustrating is that the trauma around having an experience like that, of course, is quite surreal. And - but it's more the fact that, you know, my father was a very sick man. My father was an alcoholic all my life. I only knew him one way and that was as an alcoholic. And South Africa at that time was not necessarily a place where there was any - you didn't have access to any kind of support group where you could even acknowledge that this was a problem or go and find help. Our culture at the time was very much thought of like, well, this is what men do. Men drink. And the day-to-day unpredictability of living with an addict is what is, I think, the thing that you sit with and have kind of embedded in your body for the rest of your life more than just this one event of, you know, what happened one night.

My father was so drunk that he shouldn't have been able to walk when he came into the house with a gun. And he shot through - my mom and I were in my bedroom leaning against the door because we thought he was going to try - he was trying to push through the door.

And so both of us were leaning against the door from the inside to have him not be able to push through. And he took a step back and just shot through the door three times. And neither one of those - none of those bullets ever hit us, which is just a miracle. But in self-defense, she ended the threat. And this is a story that I have, you know, shared with a lot of people.

And so I'm not - you know, I'm not ashamed to talk about it because I do think that the more we talk about these things, the more we realize we are not alone in any of it. I think, for me, it's just always been that the story really is about growing up with addicts, like, and what that does to a person.

GROSS: Did you think that you and/or your mother would die?

THERON: That night? Yes. No, I really believed that was it, yes.

GROSS: So what do you do after a shooting like that? Did you call the police?

THERON: I - your body goes into automatic in a strange way. I just remember my mom saying, you have to run to the neighbors. You have to run to the neighbors. And I was in my pajamas. I was barefoot. And I just remember I just ran in complete darkness. And I could hear my breath. I just remember my breath felt so amplified in my ears as my feet were hitting the dirt road as I was trying to get to the neighbor's house. But I think she wanted to get me out of the house. I think she was still - in that moment, she was just - she was doing - she was being a mother. And she was trying to get me out of the house. And, you know, I felt like I left her in the threat, that she was still in danger.

But the neighbors kept me at their house. And our neighbor and his son ran over, and they were with her. And I only came over - she came to get me about an hour later. And up until that point, I didn't know that he was dead. I had no idea that he was dead. And so it wasn't, you know, I think that was - you just kind of like find yourself in this continuous motion of shock.

GROSS: How do you mourn your father when your father tried to kill you and your mother? I mean, what is that mourning process like? Did you feel any grief?

THERON: You know, for me, it was a long one. My mom was incredibly strong because I - that's just kind of the - she just has a quality about her where she is - I feel like she knew that she had to be that for both of us. But she didn't deny me the room to mourn. And I remember one night we were staying with my aunt, and I was in the bath and she was just sitting with me on the side of the bath. And I started getting really emotional, but I didn't want to show her because I didn't want her to feel bad. And I just remember her saying to me, it's OK. It's OK.

And so, you know, I think we did what we had to do, and she allowed me to kind of grieve in a different way than she was grieving. And she - you know, I think for her, she was stuck in the consequences of that night for another three years of her life because there - you know, there was a lot of unfortunate things that happened after that that she was still in the middle of.

GROSS: Legal things or...

THERON: Yeah. Yeah. And...

GROSS: And I should mention, she was acquitted self - on self-defense, so.

THERON: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: I'm thinking about how strong your mother was that she - you know, because you just told her - she encouraged you to leave after you won the modeling competition and to go to Italy and to be abroad and maybe stay abroad. And considering what she was going through after that, that just seems like so strong of her and so protective of you and showing such love for you.

THERON: It's incredible. You know, now that I have my own two daughters and I - just even trying to wrap my head around that idea of what she did, with my own kids, it's tremendous what my mother did and the gift that she gave me. I've said this a million times - I would not be here today if it wasn't for her selfless decision to really push me out of that nest and say, go, you have to take advantage of this.

GROSS: Well, she prevented you from being the daughter of the woman who shot her father.

THERON: Yeah. I mean, she is very much...

GROSS: Because no one would know when you went to Italy. No one needed to know about that.

THERON: Nobody knew. Nobody knew for a really - I mean, nobody knew until somebody found the story. I, for years, just never shared the story with anybody.

GROSS: When did your mother move to the U.S.?

THERON: Well, she would always come and visit. But she's been living here full-time for the last 14 years, 15 years.

GROSS: You're very close now?

THERON: Yeah, physically and emotionally (laughter). Yes, I mean, she lives, like, two minutes away from me. And she co-parents with me. She's a huge part of raising my girls. And, you know, it's - she is just a really cool person. If she wasn't my mother, I would still be this close to her. Like, I just think that she is so - like, she is like no one I have ever met in my entire life. She is a broad - she is a lover of life. She appreciates things on a level that is just so lovely to be around. You know, she wakes up every morning at 5:00 a.m. and she hikes for 3 miles with not only her dogs but my dogs and will send me every morning a photo of the sun coming up.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's so great. Yeah.

THERON: And that really sums up who my mom is.

GROSS: Well, Charlize Theron, I have to say, you have really led an eventful life. What a life.

THERON: I've been very fortunate, very fortunate.

GROSS: I want to thank you for sharing some of your life with us. Thank you so much for coming to our show.

THERON: Thank you so much for having me.

BIANCULLI: Charlize Theron speaking with Terry Gross last year. The actress currently is starring in the new Netflix movie "The Old Guard," playing the leader of a group of immortal soldiers. After a break, actor Danny Trejo, who's the subject of a new documentary about his unusual path from prison to Hollywood. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.