Anthony Breznican
November 11, 2011 AT 05:00 AM EST

When Charlize Theron first watched her new film Young Adult, a dark comedy that reunites Junodirector Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the actress had a visceral reaction, to put it mildly: ”It’s like being punched in the face. Repeatedly. But in a good way.”

Which is what hanging out with Theron feels like too. The 36-year-old actress has a pleasurably prickly personality, warm and endearing one moment, playfully merciless the next. The strange combination is clearly working for her. Though nearly eight years have passed since her Oscar-winning role in Monster, she’s already generating awards buzz for her twisted turn in Young Adult (rated R). Theron stars as Mavis Gary, a despairing teen-lit author who returns with a vengeance to her Minnesota hometown to reclaim her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson, now starring on CBS’ A Gifted Man). Sound crazy, but not quite monstrous? Well, consider that he’s happily married and also a brand-new dad. In addition, Mavis buddies up to — and emotionally tortures — the outcast she shunned in high school (played by a shockingly vulnerable Patton Oswalt). The movie is a cringefest in the best way possible.

”It’s heightened even more just because it’s a female character,” says Theron, curled on a recliner in West Hollywood’s Soho House club just a few feet away from where Reitman first pitched her the movie. (”He said, ‘You’re the only girl I can think of that can do this,’ ” the actress recalls, adding with a laugh: ”Which, by the way, is an insult.”) ”What I love about it is that it’s not nasty-sexy, and by that I mean the sexy drug addict or the sexy alcoholic,” says the actress. ”It’s about mean-spiritedness, the thing that is innately webbed in all of us.”

In previous films such as 2005’s Thank You for Smoking and 2009’s Up in the Air, Reitman explored the sides of ourselves we’d rather pretend don’t exist. The challenge for Theron in Young Adult is to look gorgeous and act ugly, all while showing enough vulnerability to still connect with moviegoers. ”When playing a character every person in the audience has experience with — someone who is beautiful and mean — it’s very hard to get their sympathy. It’s hard to show that your character is, in fact, broken,” says the director. ”But she’s such a strong actress, and she’s willing to go 100 percent into the character and not flinch.”

While the evil that men do thrives in cinematic history (think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood), it’s rare to find the distaff version of those characters — chaotic, self-absorbed, and delusional women who are nonetheless fascinating and maybe even touching. ”I just feel like people take it doubly as hard when you show them a conflicted character and it’s a woman,” says Theron, who played real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. ”I think it’s our society. Men get to behave pretty badly and do quite outrageous things, and we somehow forgive them. We enjoy watching it.” Unlike Wuornos, Young Adult‘s Mavis isn’t out to physically harm anyone. She’s just callous, calculating, and desperate — in many ways, her own worst enemy. Theron hopes her absurd self-destruction is ”a beautiful car wreck to watch.”

But Young Adult almost didn’t happen — at least with Theron. The actress, who hasn’t appeared on screen since 2009’s The Road, was signed to costar in Fury Road, the fourth film in the Mad Max franchise, opposite Tom Hardy in the role originated by Mel Gibson. Then that film pushed back its start date to this coming spring, clearing the way for Theron to shoot not only Young Adult but two big Hollywood projects headed to theaters this summer: She’ll play the Evil Queen opposite Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth in Snow White and the Huntsman(due June 1) and a dangerous corporate apparatchik in Ridley Scott’s Alien-like sci-fi epic Prometheus(June 8).

Theron seems naturally drawn to playing women with ragged edges. ”This is my blue period,” she says, laughing and clasping her hands together under her chin. ”Anyone can just be bitchy. It’s hard to be an interesting bitch.” Lostco-creator Damon Lindelof says he tried to play up Theron’s signature strength in his rewrite of the Prometheus script. ”Clearly this is an incredibly statuesque, beautiful woman, and fiercely intelligent — in real life and the roles she plays,” he says. ”There’s something very threatening about that. But I think threatening is really interesting to watch.”

In person, Theron has no problem giving you endless grief. That’s how she shows she likes you. At the Comic-Con presentation for Snow White last July, she put her Evil Queen attitude on full display by picking a fight with onscreen rival Stewart: ”I’m ready for it, bitch. Let’s go.” Lindelof felt it too when they met for the first time on Prometheus. ”She was warm and lovely and affable and complimentary — sort of all the things you would want her to be. Just supercool,” Lindelof laughs. ”But within a day or so, the ballbusting began. Very quickly, this sort of dynamic formed where I’m the little brother and she’s the superhot older sister who will tolerate me, is amused by me, but we’re in constant conflict with each other.”

The actress wasted no time mixing it up with her Young Adultcostars as well. When she and Oswalt shot their first scene together — an awkward barroom encounter where Mavis doesn’t even remember the hapless guy she scorned in high school — there hadn’t been time for the two stars to hang out and develop the warm fuzzies. ”I didn’t know him that well,” says Theron. ”Later he said, ‘God, I was so nervous, and it was perfect because you were so standoffish.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I was so standoffish because we were shooting and we had an hour and what the f— did you want, an invitation? Did you want some cupcakes? ”Welcome to the set”?’ From that moment on it was like firecrackers,” she laughs. ”We were going to ride the wave together. I like to work with people who have a bit of a thick skin, who can take a joke. I love people who can give it back.”

Just be careful trying to match wits with Theron. Mention that she’s the glamorous face of a perfume — but forget the name — and she purses her lips, shakes her head, and throws her hands up. ”How dare you! It’s J’adore!” she says, feigning outrage. Ask her about her relationship status and she deadpans, ”Are you writing for O?” She pretends to twist the knife for a moment before answering for real. ”I was basically married for almost 10 years and it didn’t work out,” she says, referring to a longtime relationship with Irish actor Stuart Townsend. Now she describes herself as single. ”There’s something healthy about taking a moment and kind of reflecting on that, and that’s what I’m doing.”

It sounds like a mature thing to do. Mavis Gary would never approve.

From the script
INTERIOR — The kitchen of Mavis’ childhood home
Hedda: Have you seen any old friends on this visit?
Mavis: (pointedly) Actually, I’ve seen quite a bit of Buddy.
David: The old beau, eh?
Hedda: I remember you kids were so cute in high school.
Mavis: In a way, I feel like we’ve grown even closer as adults. It’s funny how those initial instincts can often be so right. You can make mistakes along the way, but the world has a way of bringing you back to the person you’re meant to be with. (Back in the real world) I mean, we just click, you know?
Her parents are a little skeptical. Hedda tries to be understanding.
Hedda: It’s good to keep those people in your life. People that really know you best.
Mavis smiles. Thinking her mom understands.
Hedda: (continues) That new baby of his is just darling.
Mavis stops smiling.
Mavis: (sincerely) Have you seen it up close?

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