Charlize Theron: Playing beauty's dark side

(CBS News) Actress Charlize Theron has had a pretty busy start to her summer. She's currently in two movies out in theaters at the same time, and in both she plays rather dark characters. Our own Lee Cowan visited the Oscar-winner a short while ago, and has this Sunday Profile:

A version of this story was originally broadcast December 4, 2011.


Even in a tank top, walking her dogs in the Hollywood Hills, Charlize Theron is radiant - disarmingly so - and so is her sense of humor.

"When people refer to you as a movie star, or a mega star, what do you think about that term?" asked Cowan.

"Well, that's how it should be!" he laughed.

You learn very quickly that, despite her A-list status, Charlize Theron is as grounded as ever.

"The greatest thing that I've learned in my journey in doing this, is that if you come with your own agenda and with your own ego and you try to kind of force something and control something, you can't make a good movie," Theron said.

And her making of GOOD movies lately entails playing a lot of nasty characters.

Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" opened Friday, where Theron plays a corporate suit (in a space suit), and she's as suspicious as they come.

From a sci-fi future to a fantasy past - Theron's other current role is the mean queen in "Snow White & the Hunstman."

It's quite a departure from her last role, which was a queen of a different sort. In "Young Adult," Theron played a former homecoming queen who returns to her hometown to reclaim a high school flame - all with a hint of humor.

And for Theron, THAT was a first.

"There's definitely a moment, especially in my career, I tend to have people in tears or throwing up in bathrooms," she laughed. "So to hear them giggle was definitely, after nearly 20 years of doing this, a new experience for me, yeah! I looked at my producing partner and said, 'They're laughing! They're laughing at me!'"

"Where you surprised?

"Yeah, because you never know what people are going to tap into," Theron said.

The characters audiences have "tapped into" in the past are often anything but glamorous, like her Oscar-nominated portrayal of miner Josey Aimes in "North Country."

"The characters that you portray so often are troubled and challenged," Cowan said.

"I'm very troubled," Theron laughed. "Lee, I'm really troubled. I am!"

"But what is it, though? What is it that draws you to those kinds of characters, at least the ones that tend to be the most memorable?"

"I guess I respond to those characters because when I read them they're familiar to me," she replied. "I know them. They feel human to me. They feel real to me. They don't feel like movie people."

Perhaps that's why her most famous role wasn't fictional at all - portraying real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster."

It was a performance that earned her the Oscar for Best Actress.

But there were plenty of skeptics early on: "Financiers at the time - I will never forget it - called me at 3:00 a.m. in the morning because I was a producer on it and said, 'We just saw the first dailies and we don't understand what you're doing. Why are you not smiling? Why do you look like that?' They didn't understand why I gained weight."

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