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Q&A With Charlize Theron

In a wide-ranging interview with WWD, the Oscar-winning actress discusses beauty, motherhood and her new J'Adore campaign.

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PARIS — “It’s the life that you lead. It’s the life that all women lead.”

That’s Charlize Theron’s concept of beauty. Although some might consider it easy for a star like Theron, one of the world’s most-photographed women, to consider beauty as coming more from experiences than appearance, the actress is known for marring her looks for roles by doing everything from gaining weight to shaving her head.

But it’s Theron’s beauty that is the focus in her ongoing ad campaign for Christian Dior Parfums’ J’adore fragrance. In the latest installment, she makes a dramatic return to the Hall of Mirrors in the Chateau de Versailles in a film ad directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. As she strides through the great, gilded room, Theron encounters a mysterious dangling silken scarf. She begins climbing it, tearing off a necklace whose beads crash to the floor. Theron rises through a hole in a dome and once outdoors takes in a futuristic cityscape.

Her voice-over, set to a soundtrack by London Grammar, reinforces the optimistic message, saying: “The past can be beautiful — a memory, a dream — but it’s no place to live. And now it’s the time. The only way out is up. It’s not heaven, it’s a new world. The future is gold. J’adore Dior.”

This third J’adore spot featuring Theron — who has been the fragrance’s face since 2004 — comes in 30- and 45-second iterations. It’s due out Sept. 3. Mondino also shot the new single- and double-page print ads.

The Oscar-winning actress was in Paris last month for the Dior winter couture show and a dinner to celebrate the new J’adore film. The following day she gave a wide-ranging interview, discussing her thoughts on womanhood, her role as a mother and more.

WWD: How do you describe womanhood?

Charlize Theron: I think that women find their strength and power in their sexuality, in their sensuality within, [through] getting older and being secure within that.

It’s ironic that we’ve built the beauty world around 20-year-olds, when they have no f--kin’ concept about wisdom, what life is about, having a few relationships below [their] belt and feeling hardships, to grow into [their] skin and feel confident within [themselves] and to feel the value of who [they] are, not because of a man or because of something like that. And I think that’s such a beautiful thing.

And that’s why I think people say women come into their prime in their 40s. And then for some reason our society just wants to go…it’s like a dead flower. [She pulls a flower from a vase.] It’s like we wilt for some reason. And men are like fine wines — the older they get, the better they get. It’s such a misconception, and it’s such a lost opportunity because that’s when I think women are really in the true moment of their sensuality. I can’t believe I almost killed that flower to make a point.

WWD: What is your relationship to fashion?

C.T.: [Mine] is a really nice closet. But by considered standards of other closets that I have seen, I think [mine is pretty minute]. I have seen images of people’s closets that are like homes, and I literally wonder if you wear every day something different, [whether] you still [would] be able to wear all of that stuff in one lifetime. And that concept bothers me. I’m incredibly lucky, people are very generous and sending me stuff. I never take that for granted, but I’m always very aware that I’m one person and I can’t wear everything. The idea of stuff just hanging in my closet and not being used — there’s a little bit of the African in me that gets bothered by that [somewhat].

My whole concept in life is if you’re not using it, you should give it to somebody else so they can use it. And so my girlfriends are really happy about my theory on that. We have a name for it; we’ve called it “Narnia.” It’s like the closet that just keeps giving. I’m so fortunate to be in that position because my closet is always filling up with these amazing gifts. But at the same time, I know what I’m capable of wearing in one lifetime and what I really need. So my girlfriends have it really good.

WWD: What keeps you current?

C.T.: I really love having an awareness. I don’t want to live in a world with blinders on. I don’t want to live in a world where I just kind of play on my naïveté — well if I don’t know it, then it doesn’t exist. I was raised in a country [South Africa] with a lot of political turmoil. I was part of a culture and a generation that suppressed people and lived under apartheid regimes. I don’t know how you can come out of that and not have an awareness for the world. I think that if my life had turned out any other way and I was working in a bank, I would still feel this way about it, because there’s a connection to humanity that to me is really important.

I just came back from a trip to Central African Republic, literally a week ago, where there was tremendous conflict, people are really suffering, mass murders are happening and nobody’s talking about it on the news.

I know that I’m only as good as I am because of the things that I allow into myself and into my soul, because that’s the stuff that I project back out. So I can’t live in a bubble and expect to come and work with Dior or go work on a movie and not have some kind of an evolution within myself and my own thought process and a passion about things or what’s happening in the world. All of those things are the elements that make you who you are, and those are the things that sincerely come across in a photo or a commercial or in an interview. That’s a constant thing for me. I make a real effort to try and live in the real world and not just the dream world.

WWD: You’ve been known to have to drastically change your physical appearance for films, such as in “Monster.” Is that something you like to do?

C.T.: It depends on what it is. Sometimes it’s time-consuming, you can’t just do it overnight. You can shave your head, but I’ve had to gain a lot of weight for movies, I’ve had to drop weight really fast for movies. I’ve had to learn accents or embody physical behaviors or twitches and things like that. And sometimes you take to some things easily and sometimes [not]. That’s the challenge of the job. That’s why I like my job so much, because at the end of the day they’re fruits of labor that you don’t pick very easily. And I love that. I like hard work. I like putting the effort towards it and then being able to look at it and go, “All right, I did that.”

WWD: What was a particularly hard transformation you had to undergo?

C.T.: Maybe it’s just because it’s the most recent, but I physically had a hard time on “[Mad Max:] Fury Road,” a film that’s coming out next year. The shooting was so long, and the physical demand on my body and what I physically had to look like — I needed to build a lot of upper-body strength — was really hard for me to maintain. I was a new mom; my son was three months old. So you, you know, it’s not always easy. That one was really tough for me, but it makes the job so much more interesting.

WWD: Has the arrival of your son changed your professional life?

C.T.: The time management of it definitely comes into play. I’m very lucky right now that he is at an age where he can travel with me. He’s not in a structured school, but that’s going to change. Eventually, he’s going be in proper school, he’s going need structure and I will have to manage my time better. I look forward to that. I’m excited for that.

As far as creativity, it really didn’t change me other than I want my son, of course you want your son, your children, to be proud of you. There’s definitely an element of that. But I also know that that pride comes from a place of real acknowledgment that somebody’s actually living their life for themselves, and I want to be that example for my son. I want him to grow up with a mom that he could see and look at her life with all the mistakes and with all the failures and all the flaws and say, “My mom lived an authentic life. That was the life she wanted to live.”

That will always come into play for me. So I don’t look at material and go “This is too dark, I have a kid now,” because my interests still are my interests. That doesn’t make me a bad mother. I think that makes me a really good mother, because when I go and creatively satisfy myself and those interests, I come home satisfied. And I can be a really good mother to him because I’m happy.

WWD: How do you view the latest J’adore advertisement?

C.T.: I feel that there was a really nice full-circle moment, with Mr. Mondino stepping in and [looking back] at where we started with the campaign [eight] years ago, of me walking down the hallway and undressing…and then coming to it now and seeing a woman who embraces the gold, embraces the kind of luxury that she was trying to break away from and [realizes] that like [with] everything in life you have to maintain a forward movement. You have to keep evolving.

WWD: How do you describe Dior’s brand of beauty?

C.T.: I can say this now, since I’m almost 40 and I’ve worked with a lot of design houses and a lot of people within that world. There are very, very few brands that will be brave enough to really, completely take a step back and not to try and control what is considered beautiful. I’ve seen it in the 10 years that I’ve worked with Dior [that] there’s never been a moment — I have maybe gained weight or shaved my hair off or done something for a film — [that we couldn’t] integrate [that] into what we were doing here. There’s always been a celebration of what is that moment, whoever I am at that moment in my life. [It] is a very real way of looking at beauty. [If you want to] ask the question what is beautiful? It’s the life that you lead. It’s the life that all women lead.

WWD: Have you long liked fragrance, and what sort of scents do you like to wear?

C.T.: I love fragrance for the pure fact that I think it’s something that women utilize in a way to make themselves feel good, and I think this idea that we do it for men or for other people is such a misconception.…There’s an instant access to luxury that I think women really appreciate. This idea that you just wear it when you’re going out or you’re wearing a gown is such a misconception, too, because I think that luxury is to be used when you are in your jeans and your T-shirt and you want to feel a little extra special, and you want to go and walk into a store and have somebody go, “Wow, what is that?” Maybe that’s the one and only thing you give yourself that day, but I think women like to give that to themselves.

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