An Oscar winner and a teen actress delve into dark places

by Barry Koltnow

The Orange County Register (MCT)

21 March 2008

Charlize Theron, left, who produced and starred in the movie "Sleepwalkers," poses for portrait with co-star AnnaSophia Robb, March 7, 2008, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. (Daniel A. Anderson/Orange County Register/MCT) 

Charlize Theron is the Oscar-winning actress from the shocking serial killer movie “Monster.”

AnnaSophia Robb is the little girl from the sentimental dog movie “Because of Winn-Dixie.”

The actresses, 32 and 14 respectively, have joined forces to play mother and daughter in a dark and disturbing drama called “Sleepwalking.” Theron also produced the film.

Theron plays an irresponsible single mother trying to recapture her youth by abandoning her daughter and leaving her with a family member (Nick Stahl) who is about to lose his job and be evicted from his home. This delightful family dynamic dips to new low when Stahl’s character and the girl visit the family patriarch (Dennis Hopper), who makes the rest of the dysfunctional family look well-adjusted.

In a comfortable Four Seasons hotel suite, Theron is stunning, as always, and Robb is adorable, as always, as they chat about their bleak movie, what they learned from each other and what, in Theron’s case, an Oscar win means in the grand scheme of things.

As soon as the interview ended, the younger actress headed straight for a dessert table, where she loaded up on S’mores. The model-thin Theron kept walking.

I heard the producer on this movie was real mean.

ANNASOPHIA ROBB (giggles): Oh, yeah. She whipped me every day. I’m kidding, of course.

Describe your first meeting.

ANNASOPHIA: Let’s see; Bill (director William Maher) and I were sitting there. Then Charlize came in, and the energy in the room suddenly went “Pow!” Gee, that sounded kind of weird, didn’t it? (both actresses laugh).

What did you talk about?

ANNASOPHIA: We talked about my character. She wanted her to be real. There are kids out there in the world like her and she wanted to show that. I’ve never had a meeting that intense. But it was a fun intense.

Then what happened?

ANNASOPHIA: She told me to come in the next day to run lines with her. She emphasized that it wasn’t an audition and that was such a relief because I hate auditions. They make me so nervous.

Does Charlize’s Oscar precede her into the room? Do you feel its weight?

ANNASOPHIA: I didn’t think about it. But I was excited about meeting her because I respect her so much.

What were your first impressions of her?

ANNASOPHIA: I’ve never felt so much passion from anyone about this business. Normally, people are so jaded.

So, the rumor that you bring your Oscar into meetings with you is not true?

CHARLIZE (laughing):No.

How did you know about AnnaSophia? Was it “Because of Winn-Dixie?”

CHARLIZE: No, it wasn’t. Actually, she was working on a film called “The Reaping” with (director) Stephen Hopkins. I had worked with Stephen on “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” and we became really good friends. He was at my house one weekend and I told him about this project, and how much trouble I was having finding a 12-year-old actress who could carry all this emotional weight. He told me about Anna. He said she was so intense, and that her eyes were unbelievable. She was the only girl we read.

Let’s talk about your character, who makes Britney Spears look like mother of the year (AnnaSophia laughs). Why should the audience care about her?

CHARLIZE: Life isn’t black and white. In our society, it’s very easy to look at someone and judge them, point a finger at them or label them as crazy or a bad mother. It is rare to step back and try to have some empathy for someone, and to try to understand why they behave the way they do. Believe me, people don’t act out for the sake of acting out. There is usually a reason. So, it’s really challenging as an actor to play a character who, in the first 10 minutes of the movie, does something quite horrendous and unforgiving, and still try to make people understand where she’s coming from.

Are we supposed to sympathize with her?

CHARLIZE: I never played her to get sympathy. I just begged for empathy. I hoped that people would walk away with a little more understanding.

What about your character, AnnaSophia (who must deal with feelings of abandonment and abusive family members)?

ANNASOPHIA: She is a child who’s had to deal with all these adult situations. The only adult role model she’s had in her life is her mother, so she’s grown a tough skin because she’s always being let down. Promises are never kept. She has to take control of her life because nobody else is in control. She also finds love in this movie, and she also grows up. It’s really a coming-of-age story.

I know from our last meeting that you have a very nice family back in Colorado, so I was wondering how you get to that dark place in playing this character?

ANNASOPHIA: Talking to Charlize about these people’s emotions helped me get there.

CHARLIZE: I think what people forget is that actors have very vivid imaginations. The idea that actors have to try heroin to know how to play a heroin addict is complete bull. That’s the first thing I said to Anna. We’ve been given a great gift to have some understanding and a willingness to imagine different circumstances. Anna has an incredible family situation, and we needed to strip that away from her, while assuring her that it was only temporary and she had her family as a safety zone. I told her that if she feels safe and protected, she can go and imagine the worst. That’s what actors do. She had to go to some dark and heavy places to understand this character, but she was willing to go there. It wasn’t easy.

When you look at this 14-year-old actor, what are you thinking?

CHARLIZE: I’m thinking there is a reserve pool in there that is quite frightening. She is shockingly talented. I never thought of her as a child actor. But she has a real understanding of what it’s like to be a kid. So many young actors in this town pretend to be kids, but they’ve forgotten what it’s like.

What do you think when you look at Charlize?

ANNASOPHIA: I couldn’t have done this role without her. My family was a little worried about the dark places I was going, but I was fine because Charlize taught me how to get out of those places. She also taught me to work for the right reasons. My passion for the business has grown just by working with her.

Have you enjoyed a lot of her movies?

ANNASOPHIA: Actually, I haven’t seen a lot of her work. My parents won’t let me see them, especially “Monster.”

Speaking of “Monster,” are you happy with the choices you’ve made since you won the Oscar?

CHARLIZE: I’m happy with the choices I’ve made since I got into this business. Every decision I’ve made has been because of the story-telling aspect or a director I wanted to work with, not how much money the movie might make or what it might do for my career or whether I might win an award or even a paycheck.

What does the Oscar mean to you?

CHARLIZE: I see it as a reward for a specific role, not as some kind of validation of my career. But it was great to receive it for a movie that nobody supported.

How tough was it to get made?

CHARLIZE: There wasn’t one person in this industry who wanted that film made. We had our financiers calling us at 3 a.m. and asking us what the hell we were doing.

What were their concerns?

CHARLIZE: They didn’t like the way I looked, and they wondered who would want to see this movie. When we finished, we couldn’t pay a distributor to take it. We were hours away from signing a straight-to-video deal with Blockbuster when we found a distributor. For that reason alone, the Oscar was especially sweet.

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