Charlize Theron's Atomic rise

Actress Charlize Theron
Actress Charlize TheronPHOTO: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA

Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron is now known for playing strong women

LOS ANGELES • Charlize Theron is a powerhouse actress who has old Hollywood glamour and a mile- wide range. She has also played a series of lethal ladies so convincingly, it is hard not to conclude a part of her is tapped into a rich vein of redirected rage.

Obviously, being an Oscar winner, she is an ace at her job.

But her slam-dunk portrayals of real and fictitious killers - convicted murderer Aileen Wuornos from 2003's Monster, Imperator Furiosa in 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road, Ravenna from 2012's Snow White And The Huntsman and now a merciless hand-to-hand combatant in the new Atomic Blonde - all suggest a woman who does not easily suffer fools.

"I did two movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme as his stunt double," said David Leitch, a former stunt coordinator and a director of 2014's John Wick, who directed Atomic Blonde. "She's trained as hard as he's ever trained. Not to disparage Jean-Claude, who's great. But she didn't have a martial arts background and went in at ground zero. She had the will to want to be great right off the bat."

Beyond positioning Theron solidly as a compelling female action hero, Atomic Blonde feels like the logical next step for an actress who stunned as the one-armed warrior Furiosa, effectively stealing Mad Max: Fury Road from the film's ostensible star, Tom Hardy.

After shining throughout her chameleon-like career, be it playing the romantic interest, the dramatic lead, the darkly comedic anti- heroine or, of course, a serial killer, Theron is, at 41, deploying a brand of female empowerment and ferocity that audiences crave now more than ever.

Like Furiosa, and also Cipher in the most recent Fast And Furious film this year, Theron's Atomic Blonde character is unapologetic and cunning, wholly owning her space, rather than merely populating or decorating a world defined by men.

I am not fearful of the darkness. If anything, I am intrigued by it because I think it explains human nature and people better.

ACTRESS CHARLIZE THERON

In Atomic Blonde, a top MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton (Theron), buzzsaws her way through an espionage ring in 1989 Berlin as she tries to solve the murder of a fellow spy. This is no teased-hair-and-Day-Glo send-up of the 1980s. The film is luscious and cool, and Theron's Lorraine has the looks of Debbie Harry and the toughness of Chrissie Hynde.

She optioned the story before the graphic novel it was based on, The Coldest City, came out in 2012. She loved that Lorraine was impenitent and fought out of professional duty, rather than to avenge, say, the loss of a husband or child. (There are intimations that she had a personal connection with the dead spy.)

Part of what is so arresting and even transgressive about the film is its forthright depiction of Lorraine's battle wounds. Her face is bruised because she has done her job, not because she has been victimised.

"I became very aware of women in certain circumstances not being allowed to play by the same rules guys get to play by," Theron said. "I was actively looking for a protagonist that could break those rules."

Lorraine also fits the mould of characters that Theron tends to embrace, you suggested. "Broken?" Theron offered, deadpan. "Psychopaths?"

It was hard to tell whether she was being sardonic or serious and, as it turned out, she was being both.

Her brand of humour wavers between sarcastic and bone dry. Five years ago, after she adopted her first child, Jackson, a reporter asked how she was adjusting to motherhood. Theron replied that she gave the baby boy nails to play with and, once in a while, left out a saucer of milk.

"Humour is the only way that I get through most of my days," she said.

"Humour is what gets you through some of the darkest times in your life."

When she was 15 and living in her native South Africa, her father, a frequently absent and verbally abusive alcoholic, arrived home after drinking heavily with his brother and threatened his wife and daughter with a gun. He began shooting and Theron's mother grabbed her own handgun and shot back, killing Theron's father and wounding his brother in what officials later determined was self-defence.

As bad as that night was, Theron said, the agonising years that preceded it were almost worse, with her home life swinging wildly between turbulence and calm.

"That was my entire childhood," she said. "My trauma was all of that."

After the shooting, her mother, Gerda Jacoba Aletta Maritz, told her that this was a moment where they could sink or swim.

Theron's voice caught and her eyes began to well.

"I survived that and I'm proud of that. I've worked hard for that too," she said. "And I am not scared of that. I am not fearful of the darkness. If anything, I am intrigued by it because I think it explains human nature and people better."

"People like Wuornos - people just want to label and, like, shove under a rug. Nobody wants to examine that human. Nobody wants to look at that person and say, 'But why did this happen?' I'm fascinated by the why. Because, in many ways, I am here today because of the why.

"I mean, you'd be an idiot not to put it together that I like women who can struggle and win the struggle, and get out of their situations," she said. "They're not victims, but they're also not superheroes."

NYTIMES

• Atomic Blonde is now showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2017, with the headline 'Charlize Theron's Atomic rise'. Print Edition | Subscribe