Don’t get it twisted. She’s not cuddly all of a sudden. But this is one of the few profiles of Charlize Theron that I’ve ever read that shows her at her most vulnerable. And while it doesn’t make me any less terrified of her (when she’s coming down a carpet at you, and she does bitch-face better than most, with the exception of maybe Robin Wright, you feel the cold) it does offer a different perspective of someone who’s been famous for a long time – which doesn’t happen often.
Charlize is promoting The Huntsman: Winter’s War. She, Emily Blunt, and Chris Hemsworth are in Hamburg today to kick off the press tour. Her new interview with the Wall Street Journal Magazine was published today too. You’ve probably seen the headlines around the internet and what she said about her relationship with Sean Penn. She denies having “ghosted” him. Which… I mean what else is she going to say, right? It’s not like she’s going to be like, straight up, I just cut him off. Instead she gave us a thoughtful answer about how having children takes precedent over her love life. It’s more of an explanation than, “I don’t discuss my personal life” but it’s also very, very, very smart:
“When you’re with somebody and it comes to kids, you can’t bullsh-t. And so I was always very honest with Sean that I wanted to have more kids. And he was very supportive. The stories saying that Sean was going to adopt Jackson and all of that were not true. It’s not something that happens in 18 months. You can’t do that to a child. So there was an understanding that I was a single mom with a very young boy who I had to put in a situation where he understood that Mommy dates but that he does not have a father, you know what I mean? You have to be very careful and very honest about that stuff. And Sean was great with all of that.
And in my honesty about wanting to have more kids, there was an understanding that a relationship had to go somewhere before it was going to be—what you hope for, which ultimately did not happen. I couldn’t foresee that, but that stuff takes time, and I think it’s my responsibility as a mother to protect my child from that. And so we had a very clear understanding. He knew that I was thinking about filing for another adoption but that we weren’t filing together.” She laughs. “My publicist’s going to kill me; I’m already saying too much.” She laughs again, and after a moment, another wave of tears arrives.
Theron has never been comfortable seeing her private life made public, and that discomfort has only intensified as she’s read misinformation, like the reports of her abruptly cutting off all contact with Penn, or “ghosting” him, as the social-media sphere called it. “There is this need to sensationalize things,” she says. “When you leave a relationship there has to be some f-cking crazy story or some crazy drama. And the f-cking ghosting thing, like literally I still don’t even know what it is.” She shrugs and shakes her head. “It’s just its own beast. We were in a relationship and then it didn’t work anymore. And we both decided to separate. That’s it.” (Penn declined to comment.)
You know what I like about this response, from the standpoint of strategy? She could have been like, we were in a relationship, didn’t work anymore, we both decided to part. The end. That’s what she says at the end. But before all of that she gives us first the explanation that she always held back from permanency with this man, for the sake of her children. There was always a separation. He was never Jackson’s father. He was never going to be August’s father. From the very beginning she had built an escape hatch into her relationship. So. Yeah. Maybe it didn’t quite meet the exact definition of “ghosting”, but the exit was swift and clean. And who wouldn’t understand?
Note though the part about the tears. This is where we come back to that “softer” side. Because Charlize gets emotional more than once during this interview. What resonated the most with me was not when she talked about her relationship with Sean Penn but when she talked about her relationship to South Africa. She was raised during apartheid. And, to put it bluntly, she’s now mother to two black children:
“I have a lot of things I should probably sort out in therapy about my relationship with my country. Because it’s affected me way more than I’ve ever acknowledged. And it was only when I got older that I started realizing that I had a lot of anger; there was a lot of unresolved stuff—apartheid, health care, AIDS, poverty—that still very much affects me.” Theron pauses. It’s clear that, beyond politics, her pain has personal dimensions. “It makes you realize that the circumstances of your formative years, it leaves a real scar—it marks you. It’s the one thing that gets me really angry, really emotional. It’s a lot of f—ing suffering, and unnecessary suffering. And just people getting the sh-t kicked out of them for a very, very long time,” Theron says, overcome by a rush of tears. She breathes deeply, trying to hold them back. “Yeah. Sorry.”
This is not a white person being all like, yeah, it was a f-cked up time but I was never about that and we have to move on. Rather this is a person who, to me anyway, is quite honest about confronting her privilege, and asking how that privilege may have shaped her, and in that confrontation and in those questions, working her way to a place where she might reconcile her experience with her growing awareness. There is pain in that. Of course there is. There has to be. But how else can you participate in change if you’re not willing to take that on?
Click here for more on Charlize Theron in WSJ. Magazine.