In the film 'Young Adult,' Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, a teen fiction author who heads back to her hometown to win her high school sweetheart's heart.

In the film ‘Young Adult,’ Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, a teen fiction author who heads back to her hometown to win her high school sweetheart’s heart.

Carlo Allegri/AP

NEW YORK—Charlize Theron won a best actress Academy Award for playing a physically repugnant killer in 2003’s “Monster.” But in the black comedy “Young Adult,” she’s just as terrifying and yet she looks exactly like herself.

Theron’s Mavis Gary is an author of teen fiction and a narcissistic former prom queen with a non-existent moral compass. She returns to her small Minnesota town to win back her high school sweetheart Buddy, who’s now married with a daughter. As Mavis, Theron is a one-woman cyclone of destruction, who spends her days either chasing Buddy or getting drunk with a disabled former classmate (Patton Oswalt.

For Theron, Mavis Gary is a ravishing work of art.

“I’d be blind to not see the potential in the character. These are the kinds of roles women wait for,” says Theron. “Yeah, it scared me. There’s so much about her — when you hold up the mirror, you see almost too much you don’t want to acknowledge.”

The performance has earned Theron, whose career has been more sluggish than spectacular in recent years, first-rate reviews and put her back on Oscar watchlists. Director Jason Reitman says he can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting his unapologetically prickly heroine.

“I just knew how tricky this character would be. In the screenplay, Mavis is nuanced and troubled. All that could have been done away with if the actress decided to portray Mavis as some sort of caricature. Charlize has a way of showing how broken she was,” says Reitman. “She’s fearless in her approach. Most actors would find a way to tell the audience that they’re nothing like the character. It takes (courage) to stare this character this straight down.”

Such is Theron’s clear-eyed commitment to the role that when Mavis utters a three-word line at the end of the film that is so deliciously nasty, you end up applauding her for it. Mavis is thoughtless, selfish and rude. She sleeps around. She ignores her dog, Dolce. And she has a bad habit of tugging out pieces of her hair, once her golden crowning glory in school. But Theron wasn’t deterred by Mavis’ venom.

“I didn’t try to make her a human being. I really believed that she was,” says Theron, 36. “There’s so much about this that’s hard for me to admit, that I’ve done things like this to get through the day. She does things that are really despicable. But overall, the survival techniques — the meanness, the lying about her life being so great — are things we can relate to.”

As are Mavis’ rough mornings. Somehow, the dazzlingly gorgeous Theron — the face of Dior — looks icky and worn out in the film. There she is, waking up bleary and hung over, guzzling Diet Coke while wearing a crusty T-shirt. And that’s her, drunkenly removing her dress, with her cleavage-enhancing chicken cutlets uncomfortably askew, making her breasts look misshapen and her body past its prime.

That was all her idea. “The chicken cutlets came out of a story I’d experienced with a boy. I had to wear those. The girls who don’t have boobs live for those, are you kidding?” says Theron.

For the role, says Reitman, Theron wanted to look as real as she could.

“Charlize was doing her own makeup. She was making her eyes as ugly as possible. She said, ‘We should make my hair look thinner’ and ‘When I get naked, there cannot be one sexy thing about it, it should be awkward and sad,’” he recalls. “Mavis is a person who is very focused on how she presents herself to the world. Charlize was instrumental in creating those looks.”

Indeed, says Oswalt, “Charlize wanted to show what she looked like in the morning, with no makeup, with a bit of a gut. She was so committed. In ‘Monster,’ she gained weight and had prosthetics on. And here, she plays such a horrible person. There was nowhere to hide.”

So convincing is Theron that one has to wonder if she’s somehow playing a younger version of herself.

“No way,” she retorts.

The actress didn’t draw on her own high school experience in South Africa to play Mavis, but could relate to being one of Mavis’ victims. In primary school, Theron was shut out from the ‘in’ crowd, something that still sticks with her.

“Emotionally, it hurt me. But by the time I was in high school, I was so focused on ballet and wasn’t sitting around worrying about that stuff,” she says.

Theron has navigated celebrity admirably, revealing just enough to be interesting without completely selling out her privacy. Previous tabloid buzz of a clandestine relationship with Ryan Reynolds aside, you have little insight into whom she’s dating (after a long relationship with Irish actor Stuart Townsend ended last year).

“I don’t want to talk about it too much because I’m scared things will change,” she says. “I don’t really talk about my personal life and I don’t really talk about my relationships.”

For now, the actress is focused on more practical pursuits. After three years of small roles in small films (among them “The Road and The Burning Plain”), Theron is back. She wrapped Ridley Scott’s alien thriller “Prometheus,” opposite current it-guy Michael Fassbender, and showcases her nefarious side again as Queen Ravenna in “Snow White.” She’s now heading to Australia to shoot “Fury Road,” part of the Mad Max franchise, in the desert.

Should her schedule clear up, Reitman is ready to go a second time. “I can’t wait to work with her again. I’m closer to her than probably any actor I’ve worked with. She has a practical way of viewing the world, and she’s killer in the way she approaches her career and her work.”

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