Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road is like no action hero you’ve ever seen. From her intimidating outward appearance – shaved head, missing arm – to her palpable, unabating inner rage, it’s her quest for revenge that fuels Fury Road’s narrative engine – and Theron’s powerful screen presence helps make writer-director George Miller’s return trip to dystopia this summer’s must-see movie.
We chatted with the Oscar-winning actress recently about all things Furiosa, from her decision to chop her blond locks for the role to the wild dust-filled ride she and screen partner Tom Hardy undertook together through the African desert. Below are some edited excerpts from that conversation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This movie is a raucous ride. What were your first impressions after seeing it?
CHARLIZE THERON: It was just really intense, and the world was just so big. Even for somebody that was there every single day shooting it, it was still a lot to take, you know? I remember just leaving the theater going, “Whooooa,” feeling like I was hit in the face.
To me, George Miller made a feminist action movie.
I feel like as a girl, you’re just not allowed to say that, because it sounds like he has some other agenda…but yeah. I felt that very strongly when I left the movie. What really rung very loudly in it was the importance that women have in this world of survival. And, so clearly, the younger generation of women were represented in it; my generation was represented; then this older generation of women were represented in it. I was very happy to be a girl with boobies and be a part of that.
Did George lay out for you his intentions initially with this film or did that evolve over time?
I really liked the development process with George and the time that we spent together. It was constantly evolving. He obviously had something very fleshed out, but when I watch the movie now, a lot of it came from all of those moments that I talked to him and we sat down and came up with ideas. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I didn’t think it was going to be with an action movie, that I was going to be able to explore something as raw as a character like Furiosa. She really is who she is without ever over-explaining her. She just is. I loved that we never even mentioned her f—ing arm. How many times do you see a movie where the first shot is, Oh, she’s got an arm missing, let’s explain that? What really explains her is the thing that drives her, which is this overwhelming feeling of wanting to take ownership of her life through all of this stuff like revenge and wanting to go back to a place of safety.
You can tell it’s a movie that took so long to make, all the little details he added to make this world feel whole. What kind of things did you add to personalize Furiosa?
The look of her was a tricky one from the beginning for us—for all of us. … We really had a hard time trying to figure out what she was going to look like and how she was going to embody herself in the film, visually, and what that would say about her as a character. I think the biggest thing that really changed a lot of that for us was when we got ready to go to Namibia. I just had this overwhelming sensation where I just went, “All right: I have to shave my head! I have to shave my head.” So I said, “George, I’ve been walking around for the last three days with this feeling like I need to buzz my head. I need to look like one of those boys. I need to really, really look like one of those boys, because then I understand a woman that’s been in hiding in a world where she’s been discarded…”
This is not in the movie: this is stuff that we talked about, backstory about how she ended up with no arm and that she was discarded. She couldn’t breed, and that was all that she was good for. She was stolen from this place, this green place that she’s trying to go back to. But she was stolen from that place and kind of embedded in this world for one thing, and when she couldn’t deliver on that one thing, she was discarded—and she didn’t die. And instead… she hid out with those war pups in the world of mechanics, and they almost forgot she was a woman because she grew up like them. So there was no threat. It was like, “If you become us, then you’re not a threat.”
Once we had that down, there was a freedom to understand that we didn’t have to verbally explain too much of this, that purely by the way she looked, you would understand that, Okay, if she was a woman in this world, that’s not where she would have automatically ended up, but that’s where she ended up. And then she waited for this perfect moment—or what she thought was her best chance—to f—ing steal one of those trucks, take his wives as a big “f— you” and take them to this place of hope.
She’s so evolved as a character with few words. That must have been a challenge. The scene when you are out in the middle of the desert, filled with despair, and you drop to your knees, was that particularly difficult?
I was really happy for that moment. It wasn’t in the script. It was a quick idea that I had and he liked it, and I trusted him that he would shoot it in a way that didn’t feel overly dramatic. I have moments, because I know how that scene came about, where I have to really breathe when I watch that. … He made it work way more than I think I would have made it work on my own. I’m really happy that that happened.
The whole ethos of the movie seems to be that everything has a consequence.
Yeah. I’ve been in movies where I’ve gotten shot three times and I continue to act, just stumbling through moments. I love that in this high-octane action world, I get stabbed once, and 20 minutes later, I’m almost dying from it, which is real, completely real. I think that there was something about that for George that was very important, and I think for actors, it’s always harder to play the stuff that’s not real, you know? It’s hard expecting you to stumble through all that time with three gunshots in your body. It’s weird. It’s harder to do that than it is when somebody really understands the consequences of violence, that you’re playing a normal human being.
In the film Max and Furiosa are partners. Neither could succeed without the other. Was there ever talk of a love story? It would have ruined the movie.
No, no! I can say honestly we never did that. We never went there. …There was always a very clear understanding that these were two people who got stuck with each other and had to survive, and their survival really depended on each other. That was interesting for us. I think Tom and I are both actors who have probably been in situations where the easy answer is to have them kiss. In this case, it’s more interesting and more real, and I think you feel it so much more when we just look at each other, and there’s this recognition of “Man, I have to respect you in this moment.”
Do you have a favorite scene?
I think the final road war that happens with the pole-catchers. Even when we were shooting that, I was always like, “This is craaazy! Unbelievable!” To me, when we shot that, we shot that all real. That, to me, was always really incredible.
I don’t think there’s another case where someone created a franchise, and 30 years later, he’s back to it, and reimagines it in this way like George Miller has done here. Did he surprise you?
Yeah, he’s quite impressive. I think it really was his passion, and it was very time consuming, to have that passion and to walk around with it for so long. When we do great things, they are usually things that are driven from a base place of extreme fear. I know that for him, that was a huge thing. He set up this franchise that was very successful with an actor who really embedded it and embodied it, and to reimagine it in the way that he did that still stays so true to the world that he created, but is something so new and so imaginative, I think is incredibly brave. I don’t know a lot of directors that would do that; I don’t think they would even attempt to do that.
Did you just sit there and pick his brain?
I picked his brain a lot, and a lot of times I was like, “George! What are we doing?” This is the kind of movie where there’s a lot of stuff going on, and it was a brand new process for all of us. This is not like every other movie I’ve ever made. There was no script; there were these storyboards. There were days where we would show up with no scene numbers—we couldn’t even have a call sheet. There were three units shooting at all times – 130 days into it, and you’re in the middle of the desert, completely isolated, you look around and you go, “Is everybody still here? What the f—‘s going on?” You get anxious and scared, but all of that stuff is just process. Then you have moments where things hit, and you look at this person, whether it’s George or the cast, and you just go, “All right, okay. That was awesome.” We can all sit here and pretend like life just lays itself out in front of us; it’s not. This was a journey. We all went on a real journey, a real, real journey.
George said, “Considering how hard it was to make, it’s better than it deserves to be.”
That’s great. That’s great. I can relate to that.
Your fight scene with Max and Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult – what was that like to shoot?
That was a very intense scene. We worked on it for a really long time, too. It was choreographed and changed and sculpted and really … was constantly evolving. It was, physically, very demanding. We shot it kind of earlier on; I had a rough time with my arm, still trying to get used to that, the lack of the arm. To me, it was good in a sense in that after that, I was very aware what the function of my arm was. Up until that point, there was a lot of—seven out of 20 takes just completely ruined because I’m using an arm that’s not there, stuff like that. We were still kind of new on the environment, and the dust is f—ing crazy, and your eyes are bleeding at the end of the night.
Do you want to continue with the franchise?
We made a very hard movie. We’re about to release it the world, and that’s scary. I’ve got my life and a 3-year-old as well. There’s no part of me that’s like, “No f—ing way will I ever do that.” But there is a very realistic part of me that knows this movie was really made on the basis of all the right reasons why George wanted to make this movie—and Warner Bros. will tell you that. Unless that happens again, I wouldn’t trust the process.
Have you been away from the movie long enough to even consider returning to Namibia?
[Laughs] I’ll tell you this much: That would probably be the hardest part of the decision-making process. It’s different to go to a place and visit it versus spend three months there. It’s really far away, it’s very isolating. That stuff gets harder the older you get, the more you have other things keeping you in place, especially with kids—I’ll just say it. All of that stuff would come into play for me, but I’m not anxious about it. I do feel like the stuff works itself out, and you can’t try and control everything.