From Æon Flux to the recently released Netflix film The Old Guard, Charlize Theron has been portraying action heroes for decades. IGN’s Terri Schwartz sits down for a Comic-Con@Home retrospective Q&A with Theron to discuss the evolution of her roles, the modern female action hero, and what drives her to continually pursue these career choices and push herself.

Theron doesn’t remember a specific moment of waking up and wanting to do action movies. Though she had always wanted to explore them, she felt like she initially didn’t have any opportunities to do so. The first time she remembers having the opportunity to play an action heroine was after she won her Academy Award in 2004 for Monster.

She says, “It was really hard to make Æon Flux… It was a character that I think today would be celebrated cinematically way more than it was in 2004… I remember the film didn’t play as well as everybody thought. There was this moment in my career where I realized very clearly that because that movie didn’t perform that I maybe wasn’t going to be given another opportunity… It was harsh. It wasn’t until Mad Max came my way that that experience and what happened with that film changed my trajectory.”

Theron realized that you have to find the right people willing to take the risks with women in the genre. As a producer, she keeps an eye out for those filmmakers and that kind of material to develop it herself, which has been reflected in her choice of roles over the years. “The good news is we’ve changed the genre for women,” She explains at one point. Audiences have shown their affinity for action movies with women at the core of the story. It’s reinvigorated the stunt world and allowed for fresh takes on women fighting, which excites Theron.

The Italian Job was the film that made Theron realize that there were misconceptions about women in the action genre. She reveals that she was scheduled for six additional weeks of stunt driving training that the male actors on set were not getting, which she found insulting. “But it was also the thing that put a real fire under my ass and I was like, ‘Alright, you guys want to play this game? Let’s go.’ I made it a point to outdrive all of those guys.” Theron reveals, “I vividly remember Mark Wahlberg halfway through one of our training sessions pulling over and throwing up because he was so nauseous from doing 360s.” Being able to do those driving stunts on her own gave Theron immense confidence in herself. “It was a huge moment of feeling like, ‘Yeah we can do all of this stuff, and women are so unfairly thought of or treated when it comes to the genre.”

Schwartz noted the evolution of stunt work from quick cut scenes like The Italian Job to long single-shot takes on newer films like Atomic Blonde and The Old Guard and questioned how those changes affected Theron’s approach to stunt work and action roles.

She explained that, especially for Atomic Blonde, the stunt coordinators really helped to set the tone for the action, and from the onset, they were looking for long action sequences shot for 7 to 10 minutes at a time. Their goal wasn’t to have Lorraine “fight like a man,” but to really utilize the strengths that women have in fighting with their elbows, their heads, and their knees. “When you don’t cheat [the action], people really know it – they can feel it. That authenticity has really been celebrated in the last decade. It’s also made it really hard for crappy action movies to survive because the bar has been set so high.” She says.

In addition to the action of roles, Theron is drawn to characters like Furiosa and Andy because she’s intrigued by “the messiness of being a human, especially a woman.” She felt there was a lack of conflicted women in cinema and a fear of putting women in circumstances where they might not shine. Theron found that cinema often put women into two boxes: really good hookers or really good mothers and nothing in between. “It’s a disservice to women in general. We are more complicated than those two things, and we can be many things, and that our strengths can come from our faults and from our mistakes and from our petty and our vulnerabilities and our madness. Those are the things that make us interesting.”

Digging into her most recent role as Andy in The Old Guard, Schwartz asked about what additional training came from Theron playing a soldier that is (spoiler alert) millennia-old with a breadth of fighting experience. “The first thing that grabbed me was seeing a lot of potential in raising the physical action bar. I felt like this world really lent itself – these characters, the circumstances, and the set pieces – really lent themselves to really challenging action.” But she goes on to explain, “I don’t think that I would ever want to just make a film based on how great I could create action scenes. There was very much an emotional story here that resonated.”

Theron opens up about portraying and creating these characters from a vulnerable place of fear and obsessiveness. “I think that the essence that I put forth, that there might be no fear is completely motivated by fear.” She says, noting that there’s no wrong or right way to get that motivation. “I think that my creativity really thrives around my fear, I think I’m just very good at covering it up and I think there’s a part of how I was raised and made.”

You can watch the entire Comic-Con@Home Charlize Theron conversation on Comic-Con International’s Youtube channel and see Theron in her latest action role, The Old Guard, streaming on Netflix right now!

And if you’re looking for more womxn-focused panels, you can check out our highlights here.

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