Beyond positioning Ms. Theron solidly as a compelling female action hero, “Atomic Blonde” feels like the logical next step for an actress who stunned in 2015 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 antiheroine, or, of course, a serial killer, Ms. 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, Ms. Theron’s “Atomic Blonde” character is unapologetic and cunning, wholly owning her space, rather than merely populating or decorating a world defined by men.
In “Atomic Blonde,” a top MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton (Ms. 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 sendup of the ’80s. The film is luscious and cool, and Ms. Theron’s Lorraine has the looks of Debbie Harry and the toughness of Chrissie Hynde.
She is also a ruthlessly efficient killer, laying waste to 200-pound men, flipping them and hurling them down stairwells and into walls. During production, Ms. Theron bruised her ribs, wrenched her knee and clenched her jaw so tightly that she cracked two teeth. “I was a nervous wreck,” said AJ Dix, a partner at Ms. Theron’s production company, Denver and Delilah, which helped produce the film. “Nothing scares her.”
Ms. Theron 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 victimized.
“I became very aware of women in certain circumstances not being allowed to play by the same rules guys get to play by,” Ms. Theron said. “I was actively looking for a protagonist that could break those rules.”
Lorraine also fits the mold of characters that Ms. Theron tends to embrace, I suggested. “There’s a kind of vengeance thing,” I hedged, “but also something ——”
“Broken?” Ms. 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. Ms. Theron’s brand of humor 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. Ms. Theron replied that she gave the baby nails to play with and once in a while left out a saucer of milk.
“Humor is the only way that I get through most of my days,” Ms. Theron said. “Humor is what gets you through some of the darkest times in your life.”
Speaking of, there’s a big asterisk in her early 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 Ms. Theron’s mother grabbed her own handgun and shot back, killing Ms. Theron’s father and wounding his brother in what officials later determined was self-defense.
As bad as that night was, Ms. Theron said, the agonizing 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.
Ms. 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.”
She continued: “People like Aileen Wuornos that 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.”
Ms. Theron has resisted links between her history and characters like Furiosa (“incredibly broken”) and Ravenna (a “mess,” she said, throwing in an expletive; her language is Dead Sea-level salty). But the turmoil those characters endured, and the strength they acquired as a result of it, is, for Ms. Theron, personal.
“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.”
Ms. Theron paused. Something across the restaurant had caught her eye. “Oh that’s Jason Reitman,” Ms. Theron said. He directed her in “Young Adult” (2011) and their coming “Tully,” scheduled for 2018.
“As I talk about my childhood trauma,” Ms. Theron said, shifting back into wryness, “let me just name-drop.”
Ms. Theron has no trace of an accent, even though English is her second language, after Afrikaans. She left South Africa when she was 16, trained with the Joffrey Ballet School, and took modeling gigs. She began landing Hollywood roles in the mid-90s, helped by her screen-siren looks and raw authenticity on camera.
Her defining role was in Patty Jenkins’s first feature, “Monster” (2003), which narrowly avoided going straight to video. During production, Ms. Theron said, she fielded calls from a financier angry that her character was so unlikable. “They thought they were investing in some Charlize Theron-Christina Ricci lesbian movie,” she said. She said Ms. Jenkins, who went on to direct the blockbuster “Wonder Woman,” told her to stand strong. (They have remained friends, and there is sweet synchronicity in that both have contributed to a mini-trend of women kicking butt this summer.)
“She just said, ‘By the time they pull the plug, we’ll be wrapping this movie,’” said Ms. Theron, who won an Oscar for the performance. “And we just kept going. And they were screaming and hollering and hating every second of it.” (Ms. Theron said the angry caller was Mark Damon. Mr. Damon, however, said that while he was taken aback by the character’s prosthetic teeth and mottled skin, any suggestion that money would be withheld was “nonsense” and that the film was one of the best investments he has made.)
Her life has shifted markedly since then. Along with Jackson, now 5, she adopted August, 2, and raises them with, she said, “a village of women” that includes Gerda, who lives just up the road from her. Denver and Delilah has two shows coming up on Netflix, and Ms. Theron is taking the cancellation of another, “Girlboss,” in stride. “This is life,” she said. “What are you going to do?”
I mention the New York Times article she inspired, about ghosting (the practice of imposing an absolute silent treatment), after her breakup with the actor Sean Penn, though Ms. Theron was not about to go there. “Can we get it in the dictionary, can we get it super-official?” she said. She never used the word ghosting, she said, adding ‘“So I don’t know if I can take ownership.” And that was pretty much that.
As our lunch wrapped up, Mr. Reitman came over to say hi, and sang the praises of Ms. Theron. “She’s legitimately the best,” he said. A few weeks later, reached by phone, he elaborated. “Usually when you encounter someone with that deep well of emotional understanding, they’re usually not a fun, easygoing person,” Mr. Reitman said. “Usually they’re a complicated dark cave that you don’t want to spend a lot of time in. The opposite is true of Charlize.”
At the restaurant, they evidently had not seen each other in a while, because Ms. Theron leapt up and motioned to her body with a hand flourish that said ta-da! “I’m skinny!” she cried. She had gained 35 pounds for “Tully” and has been public about her difficulty losing the weight. Mr. Reitman shook his head. “I was just talking about how cerebral and brilliant you are,” he said. He had been traveling around Europe, he continued, and spotted her ads for the Dior perfume J’adore everywhere.
“All I wanted to do was take every fat photo of you in ‘Tully,’ and just put ‘J’adore,’ ‘J’adore,’ and email them all to you,” he said.
Ms. Theron shot back with a posterior-related curse word, and Mr. Reitman smiled affectionately.
Continue reading the main story