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From Dior to miner's overalls

The glam Charlize Theron takes on the gritty role of a woman of the Iron Range

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

One of Charlize Theron's handlers is placing an urgent food order.

"We need organic fruit," she tells Four Seasons Hotel room service, which is run off its feet these days. "Apples, bananas, berries and some fresh, organic orange juice."

After a day of non-stop interviews to promote her upcoming drama, North Country, it's been made clear that the Academy Award-winning actress is in dire need of some rest and sustenance. Given that, I walk into the hotel room for a chat with the Monster star almost apologetically.

But, as is often the case with these things, it turns out the publicist is more of a diva than the celebrity she represents. Sure, Theron is tired. Her blue eyes are red. She's kicked off her shoes. And her Dior-clad, five-foot-10-inch frame is draped over the sofa (feet up).

But she's still raring to talk about the new Niki Caro film, a tale of human survival set in Minnesota's hard-knocks Iron Range. Theron dons a hard hat and unflattering overalls in an Erin Brockovich/Norma Rae turn -- only this time the female heroine, the fictional Josey Aimes, is fighting sexual harassment in the workplace, a grimy, stench-filled mine dominated by men who are incensed that women are being allowed to work there -- and steal their jobs.

To prepare for the role of Aimes, South African-born Theron, 30, and her cast-mates (fellow Oscar-winners Sissy Spacek and Frances McDormand, along with Woody Harrelson, Richard Jenkins and Sean Bean) travelled to frigid mining towns such as Eveleth, Virginia, Hibbing and Chrisholm. For three weeks, they hung out with the locals, listening to them, drinking in bars with them and learning their stories.

"We were pretty much everywhere, all over town," chuckles Theron. "We did it all. We'd have dinner with them. We'd bowl. We went snowmobiling and ice fishing.

We were lucky enough to be invited to a lot of these women's homes. We got to interact with them and their families. And I think that was the most important thing because we all started bonding very quickly," says Theron, who adds that Spacek learned to make a mean strudel.

"They started trusting us. And we felt the responsibility. We wanted to tell the story right. They really wanted us to tell it right. So it was a great collaborative thing." The movie re-enacts the working conditions for women in the Iron Range that led to the nation's first class-action sexual-harassment lawsuit.

It was an experience, Theron says, she'll never forget. She loved the people, admired their grit. In most of the film, Theron is wheeling around town in a beat-up pickup truck -- a vehicle, she adds, that she has a long history with, having grown up on a farm in Benoni, a community just outside Johannesburg. It was in South Africa that Theron's mother shot her father in self-defence, after he returned drunk and abusive one night, waving a gun and threatening to kill his wife and daughter.

In North Country, Theron is the first to insist that all the men aren't villains. The males in that community, she adds, were threatened by change, and they reacted. "But not all the guys felt this way," Theron says. "Ultimately this is a story about the universal right to work with some kind of dignity."

Theron's Aimes is a single mom of two kids who returns to her hometown after a failed marriage and needs a good job. She decides to work at the iron mines after her old friend Glory (McDormand), one of the few female miners in town, tells her the job is tough but pays well. The more Aimes fights the harassment, the more it escalates. Theron's character finally quits, but then decides to fight back.

Unlike Monster, in which Theron transformed herself into an overweight, extremely unattractive Florida serial killer, in North Country, Caro lets Theron's natural beauty shine through (albeit under major layers of dirt).

"When people heard about North Country," the actress recounts, "they said, 'Oh, you're doing another ugly movie.' " That kind of simplistic interpretation -- where so much emphasis is put on physical attributes rather than the heart of a film -- clearly rankles. Monster's Aileen Wuornos was unattractive, Theron admits, but not without some virtue.

"Aileen took responsibility for her actions. She never tried to blame anyone else for what she had done. She never tried to drag her girlfriend in, who was very much an accomplice," says Theron, who also starred in The Cider House Rules and The Italian Job.

"With people like her, we tend to forget they have dignity as well. And I think she really walked away with some dignity. She sabotaged her appeal because she made the decision that she wanted to die, that she wanted to leave this place that wasn't very nice to her. A lot of people would look at Aileen and just see failure. I don't. I think that there was a very uplifting story there of someone who was incredibly hopeful."

Aimes is a different kettle of fish. "She is somebody who has never been an individual in her entire life. When she was in high school, she was very popular, and then through certain events, it [life] just broke her down one time after another, one bad relationship after another. I think she became this completely introverted person who lost who she was . . . because she had no other means of surviving.

"But she wins in the biggest way," Theron continues, "because she becomes a strong individual, and not because she walked away with a big settlement or anything like that, but because she stood up for what she really, truly believed in."

New Zealand-born Caro (Whale Rider) picked Theron to play Aimes after watching her riveting performance in 2003's Monster. Theron had also recently seen Whale Rider, which Caro wrote as well as directed, based on Maori author Witi Ihimaera's acclaimed novel of the same name. They started a mutual-admiration club. And within five days of having met, they agreed to team up to do this project, inspired by the book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler.

"The great thing about the whole process of this film is that it was very organic, nothing felt manipulated," said Theron. "Niki's just a great communicator. She asked me very early on how I felt I functioned best, which is something that very rarely happens. Usually the director kind of says, this is how we're going to do it," adds Theron, who dates Irish actor Stuart Townsend.

"I told her I really need to talk constantly. That's what I consider rehearsal. I don't really like putting scenes up [full rehearsals]. I don't really like reading them out loud until the day we shoot them because I think it's like milking a cow. It just kind of gets dry after a while."

Having the talent around of McDormand (whose Oscar came from Fargo) and Spacek (whose Oscar was for Coal Miner's Daughter) raised the performance bar, adds Theron.

"It really keeps you on your toes," says the actress with a grin. "It's great to be surrounded by people you feel will push you to a level that you might not be able to go by yourself. It forces you to be really aware of what's happening around you."

The only thing, however, that Theron says she wishes she wasn't so "aware" of on this film was the rancid smell of the water in the mines, which has to be doctored with chemicals to keep down the poisons (and rodents).

"One of the women who lived there saw me struggling with the smell," she says, "and said, 'That's just the smell of money.' From then on, I just tried to focus on that."

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