Theron was born in Benoni, in the then-Transvaal Province (now Gauteng Province) of South Africa, the only child of Gerda (née Maritz) and Charles Theron (27 November 1947 - 21 June 1991). Second Boer War figure Danie Theron was her great-great-uncle. She is from an Afrikaner family, and her ancestry includes Dutch as well as French and German; her French forebears were early Huguenot settlers in South Africa. "Theron" is an Occitan surname (originally spelled Théron) pronounced in Afrikaans as [trɔn].
She grew up on her parents' farm in Benoni, near Johannesburg. On 21 June 1991, Theron's father, an alcoholic, threatened both teenaged Charlize and her mother while drunk, physically attacking her mother and shooting a gun at both of them. Theron's mother retrieved her own handgun, shot back and killed him. The shooting was legally adjudged to have been self-defense, and her mother faced no charges.
Theron attended Putfontein Primary School (Laerskool Putfontein), a period during which she has said she was not "fitting in". At thirteen, Theron was sent to boarding school and began her studies at the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg. Although Theron is fluent in English, her first language is Afrikaans.
Although seeing herself as a dancer, at age 16 Theron won a one-year modelling contract at a local competition in Salerno and moved with her mother to Milan, Italy. After Theron spent a year modelling throughout Europe, she and her mother moved to the US, both New York City and Miami. In New York, she attended the Joffrey Ballet School, where she trained as a ballet dancer until a knee injury closed this career path. As Theron recalled in 2008:
I went to New York for three days to model, and then I spent a winter in New York in a friend's windowless basement apartment. I was broke, I was taking class at the Joffrey Ballet, and my knees gave out. I realized I couldn't dance anymore, and I went into a major depression. My mom came over from South Africa and said, 'Either you figure out what to do next or you come home, because you can sulk in South Africa'.
In 1994, Theron flew to Los Angeles, on a one-way ticket her mother bought for her, intending to work in the film industry. During the initial months there, she went to a Hollywood Boulevard bank to cash a cheque her mother had sent to help with the rent. When the teller refused to cash it, Theron engaged in a shouting match with him. Upon seeing this, talent agent John Crosby, waiting behind her, handed her his business card and subsequently introduced her to casting agents and also an acting school. She later fired him as her manager after he kept sending her scripts for films similar to Showgirls and Species.
After several months in the city, Theron made her film debut with a non-speaking role in the horror film Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995). Her first speaking role was that of a hitwoman in 2 Days in the Valley (1996). Though it was a small role, a lingerie-clad Theron was prominently featured on the movie poster, and film offers for hot-chick parts quickly followed. But Theron turned them down. "A lot of people were saying, 'You should just hit while the iron's hot'", she remarked. "But playing the same part over and over doesn't leave you with any longevity. And I knew it was going to be harder for me, because of what I look like, to branch out to different kinds of roles".
Rise to fame (1997–2002)
Larger roles in widely released Hollywood films followed, and her career expanded by the end of the 1990s. In the horror drama The Devil's Advocate (1997), which is credited to be her break-out film, Theron starred alongside Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino as the haunted wife of an unusually successful lawyer. She subsequently starred in the adventure film Mighty Joe Young (1998) as the friend and protecter of a giant mountain gorilla, and in the drama The Cider House Rules (1999), as a woman who seeks an abortion in World War II-era Maine. While Mighty Joe Young flopped at the box office, The Devil's Advocate and The Cider House Rules were commercially successful. She was on the cover of the January 1999 issue of Vanity Fair as the "White Hot Venus". She also appeared on the cover of the May 1999 issue of Playboy magazine, in photos taken several years earlier when she was an unknown model; Theron unsuccessfully sued the magazine for publishing them without her consent.
By the early 2000s, Theron continued to steadily take on roles in films such as Reindeer Games (2000), The Yards (2000), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Men of Honor (2000), Sweet November (2001), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), and Trapped (2002), all of which, despite achieving only limited commercial success, helped to establish her as an actress; she was briefly considered a new "It girl". On this period in her career, Theron remarked: "I kept finding myself in a place where directors would back me but studios didn't. [I began] a love affair with directors, the ones I really, truly admired. I found myself making really bad movies, too. Reindeer Games was not a good movie, but I did it because I loved [director] John Frankenheimer."
Worldwide recognition (2003–2008)
Theron starred as a safe and vault "technician" in the 2003 heist film The Italian Job, an American remake of the 1969 British film of the same name, directed by F. Gary Gray and opposite Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Seth Green, and Donald Sutherland. The film was a box office success, grossing US$176 million worldwide.
In Monster (2003), Theron portrayed serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a former prostitute who was executed in Florida in 2002 for killing six men (she was not tried for a seventh murder) in the late 1980s and early 1990s; film critic Roger Ebert felt that Theron gave "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema". For her portrayal, she was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress at the 76th Academy Awards in February 2004, as well as the Screen Actors Guild Award and the Golden Globe Award. She is the first South African to win an Oscar for Best Actress. The Oscar win pushed her to The Hollywood Reporter's 2006 list of highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, earning up to US$10 million for a film; she ranked seventh. AskMen also named her the number one most desirable woman of 2003.
For her role of Swedish actress and singer Britt Ekland in the 2004 HBO film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Theron garnered Golden Globe Award and Primetime Emmy Award nominations. In 2005, she portrayed Rita, the mentally challenged love interest of Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), on the third season of Fox's television series Arrested Development, and starred in the financially unsuccessful science fiction thriller Aeon Flux; for her voice-over work in the Aeon Flux video game, she received a Spike Video Game Award for Best Performance by a Human Female.
In the critically acclaimed drama North Country (2005), Theron portrayed a single mother and an iron mine worker experiencing sexual harassment. David Rooney of Variety wrote: "The film represents a confident next step for lead Charlize Theron. Though the challenges of following a career-redefining Oscar role have stymied actresses, Theron segues from Monster to a performance in many ways more accomplished [...] The strength of both the performance and character anchor the film firmly in the tradition of other dramas about working-class women leading the fight over industrial workplace issues, such as Norma Rae or Silkwood." For her performance, she received Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Actress. Ms. magazine also honoured her for this performance with a feature article in its Fall 2005 issue. On 30 September 2005, Theron received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2007, Theron played a police detective in the critically acclaimed crime film In the Valley of Elah, and produced and starred as a reckless, slatternly mother in the little-seen drama film Sleepwalking, alongside Nick Stahl and AnnaSophia Robb. The Christian Science Monitor praised the latter film, commenting that "Despite its deficiencies, and the inadequate screen time allotted to Theron (who's quite good), Sleepwalking has a core of feeling". In 2008, Theron starred as a woman who faced a traumatic childhood in the drama The Burning Plain, directed by Guillermo Arriaga and opposite Jennifer Lawrence and Kim Basinger, and also played the ex-wife of an alcoholic superhero alongside Will Smith in the superhero film Hancock. The Burning Plain found a limited release in theaters, but Hancock made US$624.3 million worldwide. Also in 2008, Theron was named the Hasty Pudding Theatricals Woman of the Year, and was asked to be a UN Messenger of Peace by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Hiatus and return to acting (2009–2011)
Her film releases in 2009 were the post-apocalyptic drama The Road, in which she briefly appeared in flashbacks, and the animated film Astro Boy, providing her voice for a character. On 4 December 2009, Theron co-presented the draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa, accompanied by several other celebrities of South African nationality or ancestry. During rehearsals she drew an Ireland ball instead of France as a joke at the expense of FIFA, referring to Thierry Henry's handball controversy in the play-off match between France and Ireland. The stunt alarmed FIFA enough for it to fear she might do it again in front of a live global audience.
Following a two-year hiatus from the big screen, Theron returned to the spotlight in 2011 with the black comedy Young Adult. Directed by Jason Reitman, the film earned critical acclaim, in particular for her performance as a depressed divorced, alcoholic 37-year-old ghost writer. Richard Roeper awarded the film an A grade, stating "Charlize Theron delivers one of the most impressive performances of the year". She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and several other awards. In 2011, describing her process to portray a character on screen, she said:
When I'm figuring out a character, for me it's easy, since once I say yes to something, I become super-obsessed about it – and I have an obsessive nature in general. How I want to play it starts at that moment. It's a very lonely, internal experience. I think about [the character] all the time – I observe things, I see things and file things [in my head], everything geared to what I'm going to do. I'm obsessed with the human condition. You read the script and become obsessed with [a character's] nature, her habits. When the camera rolls, it's time to do my job, to do the honest truth. You can't do that part of the [character-creation] work when you're [in the middle of] making the film. At least I can't.
Roles in big studio films (2012–present)
In 2012, Theron took on the role of villain in two-big budgeted films. She played Evil Queen Ravenna, Snow White's evil stepmother, in Snow White and the Huntsman, opposite Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth, and appeared as a crew member with a hidden agenda in Ridley Scott's Prometheus. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle found Snow White and the Huntsman to be "[a] slow, boring film that has no charm and is highlighted only by a handful of special effects and Charlize Theron's truly evil queen", while The Hollywood Reporter writer Todd McCarthy, describing her role in Prometheus, asserted: "Theron is in ice goddess mode here, with the emphasis on ice [...] but perfect for the role all the same". Both films were major box office hits, grossing around US$400 million internationally each.
In 2013, Vulture/NYMag named her the 68th Most Valuable Star in Hollywood saying: "We're just happy that Theron can stay on the list in a year when she didn't come out with anything [...] any actress who's got that kind of skill, beauty, and ferocity ought to have a permanent place in Hollywood". In 2014, Theron took on the role of the wife of an infamous sheepherder in the western comedy film A Million Ways to Die in the West, directed by Seth MacFarlane, which was met with mediocre reviews and moderate box office returns. In 2015, Theron played the sole survivor of the massacre of her family in the film adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel Dark Places, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, in which she had a producer credit, and starred as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), opposite Tom Hardy. Mad Max received widespread acclaim, with praise going towards Theron for the dominant nature taken by her character. The film made US$378.4 million worldwide.
Theron reprised her role as Queen Ravenna in the 2016 film The Huntsman: Winter's War, a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, which was a critical and commercial failure. In 2016, Theron also starred as a physician and activist working in West Africa in the little-seen romantic drama The Last Face, with Sean Penn, provided her voice for the 3D stop-motion fantasy film Kubo and the Two Strings, and produced the independent drama Brain on Fire. That year, Time named her in the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world.
In 2017, Theron starred in The Fate of the Furious, as the main antagonist of the entire franchise, and played a spy on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 in Atomic Blonde, an adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City, directed by David Leitch. With a worldwide gross of US$1.2 billion, The Fate of The Furious became Theron's most widely seen film, and Atomic Blonde was described by Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times as "a slick vehicle for the magnetic, badass charms of Charlize Theron, who is now officially an A-list action star on the strength of this film and Mad Max: Fury Road".
In the black comedy Tully (2018), directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, Theron played an overwhelmed mother of three. The film was acclaimed by critics, who concluded it "delves into the modern parenthood experience with an admirably deft blend of humor and raw honesty, brought to life by an outstanding performance by Charlize Theron". She also played the president of a pharmaceutical in the little-seen crime film Gringo and produced the biographical war drama film A Private War, both released in 2018.
In 2019, Theron starred as a U.S. Secretary of State, who reconnects with a journalist she used to babysit, in the romantic comedy film Long Shot. That year, Forbes ranked her as the ninth highest-paid actress in the world, with an annual income of $23 million.