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Miner Charlize digs for gold; THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW with Charlize Theron.

Byline: ALISON JONES

Last time it was beauty becoming a beast that helped Charlize Theron win an best actress Oscar.

The one-time - and still occasional - model and actress stripped away the layers of her femininity, coarsened her features and let her normally slender figure become lumpen to play serial killer Aileen Wournos.

The transformation was a calling card that here was an actress willing to go that extra mile for her performance.

To do away with the distraction of her looks in order to serve the character.

Her credentials as an artist now established, Charlize finds herself nominated for another of the golden statues.

This time there is no monstrous make up, beyond the soot and grime that comes from working in a mine and an 80s hair-style with a hint of the mullet about it.

But Charlize's latest film, North Country, shows her playing a real woman who - like Aileen in Monster - was pushed beyond the bounds of endurance by the abuses of men.

It is in the solutions they find to end their suffering and punish their abusers that these women part ways.

Aileen Wournos took her revenge by going on a killing spree that resulted in her arrest and eventual execution.

Josey Aimes takes her employers to court in what is to become a landmark sexual harassment case.

"Aileen Wournos was a blowfish," says Charlize. "She was loud and bigger than life with a personality that came across as saying 'don't f*** with me'.

"Josey's character is more of a quiet thunder. She wasn't a Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich who would walk into a room and you would think 'this woman is going to make history.

"She has taken so many knocks in life that she has really just retreated. She blends in so well that nobody notices her - except as the subject of town gossip. It was because of her children that she fought so hard."

The gossip was fuelled by resentment that Josey was daring to rock the boat by protesting at the treatment she and her female co-workers were expected to endure at work.

North Country is the Holly-woodisation of a historic event that took place in the iron mines of North Minnesota.

Lois Jenson filed a suit against Eveleth Taconite Co on behalf of herself and the other female mine workers in 1988.

The first class action law suit for sexual harassment in the United States, it took 14 years before it was settled and the 15 women were awarded a total of $3.5 million.

In the "inspired by a true story" fiction, Josey is a single mother of two escaping an abusive husband.

She takes a job at the mine where her father works because it is the only employer in the area who can pay her enough to support her family and maintain her independence.

However, there is fierce opposition from the male employees who believe a woman's place is anywhere but working alongside them.

They retaliate by smearing excrement and verbal filth on the walls of the women's changing room, hiding dildos in lunch boxes, ejaculating into their lockers and tipping over a portable toilet with one of the women inside, leaving her covered with chemicals and faeces.

It is when Josey, her protests to management having fallen on chauvinistically deaf ears, is physically attacked that she decides to take legal action.

"I was overwhelmed by the fact this case was only settled in 1998. It is such recent history," says Charlize in disbelief.

"It was really shocking to me. I felt very naive. My generation go through life thinking the feminist movement happened in the 60s, they burned some bras and everything is okay but that is not the case."

Nor is this kind of aggressive chauvinism and intolerance limited to blue collar manual jobs that might traditionally have been considered the province of males.

"At the same time this film came out in America there were two class action suits and they both involved big law companies. One had 101 plaintiffs. The stories they were telling. . .and this was happening three months ago.

"Just because we are fortunate that we don't have to deal with it doesn't mean it is not happening. It is not just small communities, it is everywhere."

The fact that the film is made in the region where the harassment took place meant that local residents were forced to confront a piece of their history many would probably choose to forget.

"The women were completely open and honest. They told us things their families didn't even know. The rest of the community was a little scared, which is understandable," reveals Charlize.

"We knew we needed them, not just for their stories and their blessing, we wanted them to be in it as well, as extras.

"Niki Caro (the director who wrote and shot the award winning Whale Rider - New Zealand's most financially successful movie) held a press conference when we got there and told them our agenda and from that moment they were right behind us.

"All the people you see in every frame are either real miners who worked in the mine where this happened or they knew about it."

Ironically, one of the people who was most reluctant to get involved was the one who started it all - Lois Jenson.

"She didn't want to sell the rights to her life story. We understood because it has been 20 years. She still lives in the same place and she has gone through a lot and she really wanted to get over it.

"But then she started coming to the set and became really involved. She said to us the film has given her her dignity back.

She kind of became the film's mascot."

The stories that affected Charlize the most were the ones that involved children suffering as community members were ostracized for speaking out against the harassment.

"One woman's son was an incredibly talented ice hockey player and his place on the team was sabotaged because of it (in the film it is Josey's sports-mad son who find himself literally cold shouldered by the other players).

"What was nice was he acted as Woody Harrelson's stunt skater (who plays Josey's crusading lawyer, a one-time hockey star) and became something of a local hero.

"We couldn't put everything they told us into the film. This stuff was going on for 20 years and it would have started to feel like we were hitting you over the head with it."

Charlize gets angry with people who suggest that the women should have found some other way of fighting back or just quit in disgust.

"Women say to me 'I would have told those guys blah blah blah' and I say 'no you wouldn't because if you did you wouldn't be able to feed your children'. There were no other options, There were no other jobs that would pay enough so single mothers could take care of their children."

The Oscar nomination is, for Charlize, the icing on the cake of appreciation she has felt for making North Country.

She heard about it as she was landing in London for the promotional junket - and to watch Woody who is appearing in the West End.

"We had a little celebration -which I am paying for today. Leeche martinis," she explains, and is greeted by looks of incomprehension. "You know, the fruit." And we nod, realising she means lychee.

"Working on North Country was such an incredible gift and so rewarding. It was really flattering to get this (nomination) on top of that."

With one of the accolades already gathering dust on the shelf, she has nothing to prove in terms of her credibility as an actress.

"I think the most important thing with this kind of stuff is to not take it as anything other than a great honour and to go and have a good time.

"That's how I approach all these award shows. There is usually a bottle of Champagne involved I am surrounded by friends and family. It is a celebration."

However seriously she takes it -or not - in an industry where impressions count it gives her clout in terms of being able to pick and choose her material and to work with directors she admires, something Charlize is determined to exploit to its fullest potential.

"I had a little bit of ADD and I would rather chew my arms off than do something where I am just floating by. That doesn't push me out of my comfort zone" she says determinedly.

Curious then to hear that her next projects include an action role as futuristic assassin in Aeon Flux - based on the MTV animated series (hopefully it will do for Charlize what Alien did for Sigourney Weaver rather than what Cat-woman did for Halle Berry) and The Brazilian Job, a sequel to the remake of The Italian Job.

But she is considering joining her fiance, the Irish actor Stuart Townsend on stage at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin.

"It is definitely something I would love to do, but it is incredibly hard for the two of us to find a time frame where we can go and do it."

She is also keen to get a movie made in her native South Africa that shows it in a positive light.

"I would like to make a film not about the problems but about the people. In countries where there has been a lot of conflict we like to show the negative things.

"There are good people living in South Africa doing a lot of good, but I sometimes feel the political aspect of it is so strong that you forget we are dealing with real, interesting people.

"It is time for us to move, to show what South Africa is today. That would be my dream, to tell that story."

FACT FILE

Charlize was born in Benoni, a little farming community outside Johannesburg, South Africa in August 1975

She trained as ballet dancer but a knee injury halted her career.

She is 5' 9V2 and has been modelling since she was 14

When she was 15, her father Charles attacked her mother Gerda who shot him in self-defence. Her father died but her mother was not charged.

First language is Afrikaans, English is spoken as her second language.

Her manager "discovered her" in a Hollywood bank after he witnessed her yelling at a bank teller for refusing to cash her cheque.

She was the first African to win an Oscar.

CAPTION(S):

Left, Charlize on Oscar-winning form as serial killer Aileen Wournos' ight, at the premiere of North Country in London' Charlize gets her hands dirty playing an abused worker
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 4, 2006
Words:1790
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