Charlize Theron has played many formidable roles, including the scheming Queen Ravenna in The Huntsman: Winter's War and Furiosa, the one-armed female vigilante in Mad Max: Fury Road. But Atomic Blonde was the movie which propelled the South African actress to new levels of power.
Theron, 47, shares with RSNG the grueling training regime which got her fit for that role, and lifts the lid on some of the other movie transformations she has been through…
RSNG You’re renowned for your permanently-impressive physical frame, but what’s been the toughest role you’ve had to get into shape for?
CHARLIZE THERON, THE AUSSIE ACTRESS IN AWESOME SHAPE “For Atomic Blonde I trained for six months to get into the best shape of my life. I’ve never been that far down the road and a part of me never wants to go that far again.”
Acting has always been a form of emotional release and escape for me – when you combine that with physical release you have something really quite powerful
RSNG Why do you keep going for these all-action roles?
CHARLIZE THERON “Acting has always been a form of emotional release and escape for me. I've always used my time working on a film as a means of being able to stop focusing on myself and worrying about stupid things. When you combine that with physical release you have something really quite powerful.”
RSNG Do you stick with one trainer?
CHARLIZE THERON “Yes. I have been working with Fedele De Santis for many years now. He will specialize on a brief, in much the same way as would an architect.
“So for me it is often to be strong but graceful, because a lot of the moves I want to pull off are based on flexibility mixed with power. That’s not the easiest thing to pull off but he will always shape me a routine that taps into the requirements of both.”
RSNG Does he work on all your projects?
CHARLIZE THERON “He is the constant in my schedule, though I will work with other specialist trainers depending on the type of movie and location of the shoot, so it’s quite a fluid process.
“For instance, for Atomic I actually had eight trainers checking in with me at various times. They helped me so much because I really had doubts that I'd be able to get to the level I needed to for those fight sequences. Each brought something different to the way I was going about building strength and working martial arts into routines I already had established.
“Sure enough, over the two-and-a-half months spent shooting the film it was pretty amazing when it came to things I never thought I'd be able to do – throwing myself on my back and then throwing these big dudes around.
“I remember one exchange went like, ‘We're gonna pretend that I'm doing that, right?’ And David [Leitch, director] would say, 'No you're gonna actually throw those big dudes’ [laughs].”
RSNG How many training hours were you putting in per day?
CHARLIZE THERON “In Atomic Blonde I did three months of four to five hours a day where I was learning Asian martial arts and training for specific fight sequences and getting the choreography right. Again, David was very detail oriented and he wanted to make sure that we were all prepared for those scenes.
“It's odd in a way but one of the hardest things was learning how to show yourself taking a hit and not look fake when you're doing it. I did get pretty badly banged up in Atomic Blonde [Charlize has had to undergo several dental surgeries as a result of clenching her jaw too tightly during fight scenes], but it’s part of the job.”
RSNG David Leitch directed Keanu Reeves in the first John Wick film. Did you ask Keanu for tips?
CHARLIZE THERON “No, but I was training in the same gym where Keanu was working out for the sequel. We would sometimes spar together and it felt very macho!
“In reality you’re different people in different projects, so whereas you feel you may migrate towards another actor pushing strength, your time is probably better spent chatting to some random guy in the weights room, as that will be just as valuable to you.
“The bigger part in all this is always the choreography of the fight sequences. Combining strength and planned movement is so difficult.”
RSNG Have martial arts provided you with unconscious strength – mental strength you have been able to tap into?
CHARLIZE THERON “Martial arts have definitely opened up pathways to tap into energy and power that I never knew I had – I would say that is true.
“When you use martial arts properly, of course you need a base of strength, though as you say, what you are really doing is unlocking your potential, and setting up the mind so that it can fully activate what the body is capable of.
“The only other thing I can relate that to would be something like Pilates. Pilates had an astounding effect on me from a physical and psychological point of view, and I wouldn’t have been able to do these movies had I not really immersed myself in it and taken out of it what I have.”
RSNG What do you love most about Pilates?
CHARLIZE THERON “For me it’s total immersion in who you are, what you do and body awareness. It relieves tension but builds muscle and strength, and it gave me the platform on which everything else could be built.
“Yoga has been good for me in similar ways – it’s real inner strength.”
RSNG When you’ve put on weight to suit a character, do you find it pretty straightforward to get it off again?
CHARLIZE THERON “It’s definitely becoming more difficult. I had to put on weight for Tully, and expected it to be the same process as when I lost weight after Monster, but it wasn’t. When I did Monster I was in my late twenties and I got rid of the extra pounds relatively quickly. But I discovered that when you're in your early forties, it's a different story.
“At first I couldn't lose any weight at all, and then the process went very, very slowly. The worst part was that all the sugars that I had absorbed into my system with all the donuts and cupcakes I ate to gain the weight, actually plunged me into a full-blown depression. It was brutal!"
RSNG What started you on the extreme-fitness road?
CHARLIZE THERON “For me it was definitely the kick I got from doing Mad Max. I liked the extreme action so much that I loved the idea of doing it again. I think my dancer's background has also been very useful, in telling stories in which the dialogue is less important than the language of the body.
“As a dancer you're always in the habit of wanting to push yourself to the limit in the course of expressing yourself through your body. I was a ballerina for 12 years, so maybe that's why I'm very attracted to physical roles. I enjoy telling a story with my body and not just verbally."
Real strength can only ever come from within – you can never impress that strength on anyone else
RSNG Do you feel you’re a role model for other women wanting to get strong?
CHARLIZE THERON “Real strength can only ever come from within. You can never impress that strength on anyone else. Sure, you can give them the encouragement to be bold and courageous and confident, but it will only ever come from inside yourself.
“My own strength is accumulated by being healthy, being kind to myself and ensuring I look good even when I’m slouching about the house. For me it’s always about investing in myself, mentally and physically, to ensure I am the best version of myself in any situation.”
Follow Charlize Theron’s Typical Weekly Routine For A Fight-Ready Physique
1. Strength Training Five circuits of strength training with no rest between exercises.
Butt Lifts, Sets: 1 to failure
Lay on the floor with your feet flat on the ground and knees bent at 45 degrees. Then slowly tilt your pelvis and lift the butt off the ground before lowering it back down to the starting position.
Bicycle Crunches, Sets: 1 to failure
Lay down on a mat and lift your legs up to a 45-degree angle. Then alternate between bending each knee to get into a cycling motion for 60 seconds.
Side Laterals, Sets: 1 Reps: 25-35
Grab some light dumbbells and hold them in each hand beside your body while standing straight. With completely straight arms, lift the dumbbells up to each side and then return to the start position. Aim for 25 to 35 reps.
Chest Press with 18lb exercise ball, Sets: 1 Reps: 25-35
Lay down on an exercise mat and hold the exercise ball just above your chest. Then slowly push it up and lower it back down again.
Bicep Curls, Sets: 1 Reps: 20+
Use a light weight and go for 20 or more reps to tone arms and gain strength, without creating bulk.
Tricep Extensions, Sets: 1 Reps: 20+
Stand straight and hold a dumbbell above your head with a straight arm. Then slowly bend your elbow to lower the weight down behind your head, then push it back up again.
2. Power Yoga Or Spinning
3. Fight Training Mixed martial arts through to heavy bag work
The Training Schedule
Monday: Strength training and MMA
Tuesday: Power yoga
Wednesday: Strength training and spinning
Thursday: Power yoga
Friday: Strength training
Saturday: Active recovery