Charlize Theron Triumphed Over Trauma

The leading actress describes her childhood differently than others.

Posted Dec 18, 2019

Charlize Theron is in the news again. I suppose she’s never out of the news, being among the highest-paid and most successful actresses—and according to Time, one of the most influential people in the world. Theron is currently starring in the highly touted Bombshell as Megyn Kelly, a victim of sexual harassment at Fox News.

Kathy Hutchins Shutterstock
Source: Kathy Hutchins Shutterstock

At the same time, Theron graphically described on NPR that when she was 15, her alcoholic father, staggeringly drunk, shot through the blockaded bedroom door in her South African farm, somehow missing her mother and her. Her mother got her handgun and shot her father dead in front of her.

It’s hard to calculate the traumas Theron experienced—having an alcoholic father almost being the least bad among them. There’s having a parent shoot at you, watching one parent kill another, having to deal with the legal aftermath, and more. 

One thing that happens to people who undergo such highly publicized incidents is that they are ostracized by other kids when they learn of such a lurid tale about a classmate. But even before then, Theron describes herself as not “fitting in” at school.

She set out to be a model and a dancer as a teenager. She moved to New York while she was still quite young:

"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 classes 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.” 

Apparently, Theron’s mother didn’t recognize—as she would today be encouraged to do—that the depth of Charlize’s trauma made it impossible to overcome her emotional abyss. 

Instead, Theron went to Hollywood to find work. Here’s what happened to her:

"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."

Why would a young immigrant reject offers to star in Hollywood films when she was broke?

"After appearing in one provocative role in which a lingerie-clad Theron was prominently featured on the movie poster, 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.”

“What I look like”—the disability of being beautiful.

And so Theron tracked her own path. She won her Oscar for starring in Monster, playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos, gaining weight and “uglifying” herself to play the role.  

How did a South African teenager overcome a tragedy that destroyed her nuclear family and then combat the long odds against her to become a star? She came from a tiny country and her first language is Afrikaans. Facing her traumas, she didn’t become addicted and she didn't develop a personality disorder, instead, she became among the world's leading actors.

How did she manage this feat? Who knows for sure. But she had purpose and support, as represented by the hard sense and devotion of her mother. And those things go a long way towards triumphing in the wake of trauma.