|Aileen Wuornos aka Charlize Theron
'I thought I was really watching her'
Nick Broomfield spent years with Aileen
Wuornos for his documentary on the serial killer. How would 'Monster' compare
with the woman he knew? (More about
Monster isn't the first film to have been made about Aileen Wuornos. In 1992, Peter Levin made a TV movie called Overkill, starring Jean Smart, which I felt had nothing to do with who Wuornos really was or the complexity of her character. So I initially helped Charlize Theron in her preparation for playing Wuornos in Monster because I thought it was important for the best possible representation of Wuornos to come out. I had met Theron before: she had seen my film The Leader, the Driver and the Driver's Wife, and we had a shared interest in South Africa, where she grew up. When she was offered the role, she called up and asked for any footage I might have. I sent her a copy of The Selling of a Serial Killer, my first film about Wuornos, as well as a rough cut of the later film Life and Death of a Serial Killer. These formed the basis of her performance.
I was reluctant to watch Monster, fearing that Theron's portrayal of Aileen might be a pale imitation of someone I had known for more than 10 years, but in fact she fully understood Wuornos, her mood swings, her facial gestures, the way she talked, moved, her inner emotional complexity. At times I actually thought I was watching Wuornos. So far so good. My disappointment, though, is that there has been so little discussion of Wuornos's life. She was barely mentioned by the media at the time of the Oscars [Theron won best actress], although ironically it was Wuornos's birthday that day - even more remarkably, it was February 29 and this is a leap year. The main media interest centered around the idea of the beautiful Theron transforming herself into the overweight, boozy, psychotic Wuornos.
Monster deals with a fairly short period of Wuornos's life, when she was committing the murders, and was romantically involved with Tyria Moore (who is called Selby in the film). It concentrates very much on her need to be loved and her need for a family, for all those things in life that she didn't have, and I think within that context, Monster does very well.
What the film doesn't do is examine Wuornos's background. It doesn't go into her childhood, or deal with the family she grew up in or the neighbourhood she grew up in. We don't get a clearer understanding of what might have led to her killing seven men. She was badly abused by all the men in her life - there were rumours that her grandfather was actually her father, and that he in turn abused her as a child. Her father was a sex offender who committed suicide in prison when Wuornos was 13 - her parents' marriage had ended when she was in the womb. She had an incestuous relationship with her brother, and was forced to live in the woods like a wild animal from the age of 13, before turning to prostitution. This clearly raises questions about the shortcomings of the social welfare system in and around Troy, where Aileen grew up. How come this was all unreported and no action was ever taken?
Monster doesn't concern itself with Wuornos's death either, or the inappropriateness of her execution. The point of making Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer was to get the debate on the death penalty going. This is particularly relevant in an election year, when you have a president who established a world record execution rate when he was governor of Texas, and when, just a year ago, the president' s own brother, Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, signed the execution papers for this woman.
Wuornos's case is about the rule of law being disregarded, right from her first trial. At the time of her execution, Wuornos was definitely psychotic. She was convinced her mind was controlled by radio waves and believed she was going to be taken off in a space ship to join Jesus Christ. She never showed any remorse; she firmly believed she was ridding the streets of evil men. When a priest came to take her confession just before the execution she sent him packing and knelt down and prayed for her victims, believing they were evil and that God should accept them into heaven.
When Jeb Bush cynically produced three psychiatrists to assess Wuornos's mental state and then pronounced her mentally competent, there was a complete disrespect for what the law really intends, which is that people of unsound mind should not be executed.
That same disregard for the rule of law is evident in the Bush administration. I have travelled widely outside the US in the past 18 months, in Africa, Asia and South America. It doesn't matter where you go, people despise the president. They don't believe in him as a leader, as an honest and fair man who will ever do them right. When you have that disregard, and a breakdown in belief in the justice system, you get anarchy. I think that is the important debate. It's not just Jeb Bush fudging Wuornos's sanity, it's the belief that it's OK to fudge it.
I am talking about these things from the point of view of a documentary film-maker, but I think that is what art is about, too. Art is exciting because of the extent to which it reflects society in a meaningful way and gets a debate going. I hope Monster will raise some of these issues in the consciousness of people who might not have been thinking about them otherwise.
The reason that Charlize Theron's role in Monster is so great is because there was enough of Aileen Wuornos for her to base her performance on. Wuornos was the person who gave her that. And in return, we should talk about Wuornos's life.
Charlize Theron offers a huge performance in an otherwise middling movie, starring in this true-life crime drama about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in 2002 for murdering seven men she picked up as a prostitute. Theron's portrait of Wuornos, beyond the huge physical transformation, is eerie in its exploration of vulnerability and rage. Christina Ricci co-stars as Wuornos's lover, as writer-director Patty Jenkins tries, not entirely successfully, to turn Wuornos's story into another doomed romance.
Become a serial killer – and win an Oscar
She's blonde, skinny and sexy – but actress Charlize Theron has transformed herself for the role of her career. Her performance as murderer Aileen Wuornos has brought her acclaim, a Golden Globe, and a best actress Oscar nomination. She talks to John Hiscock.
When a trailer for Monster was shown for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the audience waited perplexedly for the appearance on screen of its star, Charlize Theron. Only when the trailer was almost over did they realise that the lumbering figure of lesbian-prostitute-serial killer Aileen Wuornos was indeed Theron.
The actress, who had become pigeonholed in roles calling for a sexy blonde, had chopped and darkened her hair, made her blue eyes brown, gained 30lb and learned to speak with an unflattering dental prosthetic-induced overbite.
The amazing transformation has won the South African-born Theron wildly enthusiastic reviews, a Golden Globe, and a nomination for the best actress Oscar, which she is favoured to win. It has also established her as an A-list actress who can now expect to get first look at scripts that in the past had reached her only after being turned down by the likes of Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett.
As I sit opposite her in Los Angeles, it is difficult to grasp that this lithe, leggy, 28-year-old blonde, who was last seen on screen as the ice-cool safecracker in The Italian Job, had managed to become the squat, waddling, homicidal Aileen Wuornos. "It's what I've been dying to do with my career," she says. "The work I've been doing the last couple of years is not really what I wanted. If you're not careful, you get typecast. I was getting stuck. This is by far the most challenging work I have ever done."
She has had plenty of disappointments during her 20-film career and had become used to being passed over for roles because producers thought she was "too pretty". She had secured the part of Roxie Hart in Chicago when Nicholas Hytner was attached to direct, but when he left and Rob Marshall took over, she had to audition again and this time the role went to Renée Zellweger. Theron also had the lead in Sweet Home Alabama but was bumped in favour of Reese Witherspoon, who had proved herself a comedy star with Legally Blonde.
Then when newcomer Patty Jenkins brought Theron a script about Wuornos which she had written and wanted to direct, Theron gambled her future by agreeing to produce and star in it. At first it seemed unprepossessing material, focusing as it did on Wuornos, a homeless prostitute who was abused as a child, murdered seven men and was executed by lethal injection in a Florida prison in 2001. Then there was the fact that although she had had her own production company for four years, Theron had never produced a film from start to finish. But she and Jenkins proved a formidable team. They persuaded a friend of Wuornos, Dawn Watkins, to let them visit her and read letters written to her by Wuornos over a 12-year period.
"I went there naively thinking all the questions about Aileen would be answered, but the opposite happened," recalls Theron. "Reading some of the letters was extremely hard because you never just felt one way about her; she's a conflicted woman and her emotions really came through in all the letters. This woman had an extremely complicated life and Patty and I would drive in our little rental car back to our Best Western Hotel just crying and thinking and talking."
Although some critics think differently, Theron insists that Monster, which opens here in April, does not portray Wuornos in a sympathetic light. It does, however, make the point that if she had not undergone such abuse as a child and been so terribly assaulted by the man who became her first victim, she probably would not have ended up on death row. "She was abused and had this really terrible life so it would have been easy to make an overly sympathetic, sugar-coated story about how she suffered," says Theron. "I believed all those things but I also believe she did some really terrible things in her life, which makes for a great, dramatic story.
Monster, which also stars Christina Ricci as Wuornos's girlfriend, was filmed on Florida locations in 28 days on a shoestring budget. The make-up woman, who had worked on Pirates of the Caribbean, did not charge for her services, and the designer of the false teeth – at £1,500 a set, the most expensive single item in the budget – provided them with a spare set for nothing.
British filmmaker Nick Broomfield had already produced an acclaimed documentary about Wuornos, and Theron used it and other film of the killer to establish her characteristics. For five months she devoted herself to becoming Wuornos,
"From the moment I started gaining weight I lived a very isolated life," she recalls. "My boyfriend [Irish actor Stuart Townsend] was really the only one there watching the whole thing happen. I lived in sweatpants for five months because they were the only things I could fit into. "I was lucky enough to have a lot of footage of Aileen and I just watched it constantly. I watched her behaviour; I would spend a lot of time in front of the mirror, mimicking her, just trying to pick up maybe five things she kept doing constantly and trying to get comfortable with them.
"She was very different from me and once I realised the differences, it was a little bit easier. She was only 5ft 3in and she kind of blew herself up like a blowfish to look bigger. Probably because of being homeless and living on the streets all those years she didn't want to look vulnerable so she was constantly throwing her head back and trying to look bigger. "She had a waddle, so that was kind of easy, and when she got intense her eyes would get really big, just the opposite of some people. And she carried all her tension in her mouth whereas I carry mine in my forehead." Theron pauses and laughs with a self-deprecating shrug. "These are all boring things. Well, they're interesting things when you break them down like that."
Although some of her roles have been forgettable, Charlize Theron is anything but. Her personal history would make a film in itself. She grew up on her family's farm in the rural town of Benoni with 10 dogs and her "best friend", a goat named Bok.
She began studying ballet aged six, danced professionally in Johannesburg, and, when she was 16, won an Italian modelling agency contract. She moved to Milan and spent the next year travelling around Europe before moving to New York where she studied with the Joffrey Ballet until a knee injury ended her dancing career. She moved to Los Angles, worked as a film extra and, in a story to rival Lana Turner's legendary discovery at Schwab's Drugstore, was spotted by talent manger John Crosby as she threw a tantrum at a bank clerk who was refusing to cash her cheque.
In 1996 she made a memorable film debut as a scantily-clad, gun-toting hit-woman in 2 Days in the Valley. Her image was plastered across billboards and she became the instant new "It" girl but refused to cash in on her image. Fighting against stereotyping, she appeared in Tom Hanks's directing debut That Thing You Do! and then impressed critics as Keanu Reeves's tortured wife in The Devil's Advocate. Roles followed quickly in Celebrity, Mighty Joe Young, The Cider House Rules and The Legend of Bagger Vance among others, but fully-fledged stardom has eluded her until now.
Jenkins knew that Theron was right for the Wuornos role after seeing her in The Devil's Advocate one night while she was up late writing the Monster script. "When I sat down with Patty, the first thing out of my mouth was, 'Why me?'" says Theron. "These interesting parts never come my way, especially given the way Aileen Wuornos looked." It was not until after Jenkins approached Theron that she learned that the actress bore the scars of family tragedy. For years Theron had maintained that her father, Charles Theron, who ran his own road construction company, died in a 1991 car accident.
But three years ago the real circumstances of her father's death were reported by several publications, including Time magazine, forcing her to address long-standing rumours. Twelve years ago Charles Theron, an abusive alcoholic, was shot and killed by his wife Gerda Theron after he attacked her in a drunken rage in their farmhouse while the then 15-year-old Charlize watched. Authorities ruled it a justifiable homicide and the case never went to trial. Her mother took over the family business, remarried but separated from her second husband after the death of her stepson Denver in a car accident. "I really feel it's nobody's business," Theron says of her family history. "I don't need to share that information with the world."
She is also reluctant to share details of her private life, although she says when we talk that she has just returned from one of many visits she has made to Dublin with Townsend. "I love Dublin," she says. "I love the pubs. There's one called O'Shea's which is a hardware store and a pub. Nothing like drinking a pint and looking at hammers and shovels." She and Townsend appeared together in 2002's Trapped and have just finished filming the romantic drama Head in the Clouds in Montreal, for which she hurriedly had to lose the weight she had gained for Monster. But no, she says firmly, despite reports in the Irish newspapers, she is not getting married. "I don't know how to stop this rumour," she says, with mild exasperation. "The more I say we are not getting married, the more people say we are, so I feel I am just fuelling the fire. But no, we're very happy and we're not getting married. I'm not opposed to marriage but my life has been the kind of journey in which whatever happens, happens. I realised very early on in my life that you can't plan anything
The ugly chair
Watching Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in writer-director Patty Jenkins's drama, Monster, one finds oneself asking: how the hell did they make such a beautiful young woman so ugly?
One has to remind oneself that the woman before us, with her weatherbeaten face and Skid Row pallor, will next be seen in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers playing a young Britt Ekland. The extinguishing of Theron's beauty to produce a remarkable facsimile of a beaten-down freeway hooker must have kept squadrons of makeup artists busy and required some lengthy sessions in the Ugly Chair. This approach works, though: Theron vanishes before our eyes to become a woman beaten down to nothing by a life of rape, incest, teenage pregnancy and decades of homelessness and prostitution.
For all Monster's flaws, Theron's performance can't be faulted. It is richly detailed and upsetting, and manages to retain the audience's sympathy despite the gruesome killings: Wuornos killed seven men who picked her up along a stretch of Florida's I-95 freeway. Perhaps an extra layer of conviction and horror is added by the knowledge that Theron's mother killed her drunken and abusive father in self-defence when the actress was only 15, a killing for which she was rightly not prosecuted.
Monster covers a relatively short period in Wuornos's life, from the day she meets the young gay woman who would later betray her to the FBI (fictionalised here as "Selby" and played by Christina Ricci) until the day she is sentenced to die by lethal injection. Wuornos was at the time nearing the end of a lifelong downward spiral that dated back to being abandoned by her mother, her father's incarceration for raping a young boy (he later killed himself in prison), her rape by her grandfather and a career in prostitution that started when she was nine and traded blowjobs for cigarettes. In the years since, she had drifted across America, finally settling in south Florida, where she frequented the bleakest waystations of the white southern underclass: freeways, sleazy biker bars, roach motels, jailhouses and the wooded backroads where she serviced - and later murdered - the suburban dads and roving truckers who were her clients.
Much of this background information isn't covered by Monster, which, for purposes of narrative sleekness, confines itself to a few short flashbacks to childhood and rather simplistically presents Wuornos as a cornered beast striking out in wild-eyed yet understandable vengeance at a world - and especially its men - that had long scorned and violated her. I gleaned most of the background from another movie, Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill's second documentary about Wuornos, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, a follow-up to their 1992 expose, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer.
The Selling of a Serial Killer was a remarkable movie in the now-celebrated Broomfield-Churchill style: loosely constructed in narrative terms, but tight in its polemics, featuring the languidly handsome and posh-voiced Broomfield extracting stunning admissions and awkward contradictions from his subjects and bamboozling them with his amiably dazed and boyish manner. The gallery of grotesques was remarkable even for Broomfield and Churchill. It included Wuornos's attorney Steve Glazer, or "Dr Legal", described by Broomfield in the new movie as "an old hippie out of his depth", who seemed more concerned with promoting his own music and securing hefty interview fees than with defending his client (word of advice: if Broomfield gives you money to talk, make sure his camera's off when you greedily count it). Indeed, Glazer counselled Wuornos to plead guilty after Churchill filmed him smoking no fewer than SEVEN joints en route to the sentencing hearing.
Also on show were the crazed, born-again woman who adopted Wuornos then sold her out and various equally weird and marginal figures in Wuornos's already weird and marginal life. The movie concluded with the arrest of several police officers, who had stained their reputations by negotiating with movie companies for the rights to aspects of Wuornos's story. Watching Monster, one wonders if any of those movie companies are still in the picture.
This isn't the first time Broomfield and Churchill have returned to a subject. An extremely powerful and upsetting early film, Juvenile Liaison, which tracked child-services officers and their brutalised young charges in the mid-1970s, was suppressed by the BBC, though parts of it were shown 15 years later when the film-makers followed up what had happened to the kids.
Aileen: Life and Death arose from a more intimate involvement with their subject. Broomfield was called as a witness in Wuornos's final appeal against the death penalty and decided to film the process. During the hearings, all the witnesses - including Dr Legal, who greets Broomfield with a weary yet friendly "fuck you, man" - were housed in the same motel in Ocala, Florida. It is evident that Governor Jeb Bush, then seeking re-election, was eager to see Wuornos despatched into the hereafter with as little fuss and as much publicity as possible. The injection was scheduled for October 2002, just in time for the polls a month later. Wuornos was eager, as she put it, "to die in Christ", and had admitted that she had killed "in cold blood".
She also withdrew a claim that her first victim had beaten and bound her, raped her with a tyre iron and poured alcohol into her wounds and private parts before she shot him dead. Wuornos was enraged and wildly contradictory, so it is hard to tell if her detailed account of this incident, or its withdrawal, are true. However, it is highly disturbing and quite damaging to Monster's legitimacy to see it re-enacted as she originally described it.
In the end, Broomfield and Churchill's search for truth inevitably trumps Jenkins's fictionalisation. Even Theron's remarkable acting - a performance that lacks a frame worthy of holding it - is superseded by Broomfield's interview with Wuornos on the eve of her execution. She had been pronounced sane by psychiatrists who examined her for just 15 minutes. But the woman who appears before Broomfield's camera is deranged, paranoid and possibly schizophrenic, raging at the 10 or more guards around her, at the criminal justice system, at her mother, grandfather, Jeb Bush and, finally, at Broomfield himself.
With her pupils dilated to blackness, and spitting vituperation in all directions, the very last thing she seems is sane. No acting can compete with such reality.