Charlize Theron has never shied away from the unexpected as an actress. You just have to watch her transformative performances in Monster and Tully to understand that she’s unlikely to ever be typecast as a traditional blonde bombshell. Even as the face of Dior’s new J’adore Absolu fragrance, the actress uses her platform to advocate for the causes she cares deeply about, turning a discussion about her role in the latest Dior campaign into an extended conversation about diversity and femininity on-screen.
“The climate right now is one where it’s pretty impossible to do anything in the creative world and not acknowledge that diversity is important,” Theron tells Bazaar. “Women from all different cultures, backgrounds and countries are coming together in solidarity to say, ‘we are done’ and are acknowledging that we have to work together to stop this lack of representation. Any time I work with Dior, there is always a conversation happening about diversity and the perception of women and I’m lucky to get to work with a brand that is as interested in those questions as I am.”
So arrives the new Dior J’adore Absolu campaign, where Theron is seen bathing in a pool of gold, reminiscent of the famous 1999 campaign featuring the supermodel Carmen Kass. This time, though, the sensual-yet-powerful character Theron portrays is not alone. She is surrounded by a diverse array of women who also possess an ethereal quality. The scene is inspired by the painting The Turkish Bath by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and both the campaign and artwork balance the eroticism of the naked female form with the image of women feeling relaxed and comfortable in each other’s company.
“I think the diversity in the Dior campaign represents what is real in the world today,” continues Theron. “As I’ve got older I’ve come to understand that beauty is not what I saw when I was 15 years old in adverts. It is not just this one face, this one look, this one skin colour. It’s way more diverse and interesting than that. South Africa, where I was raised, was a cultural melting pot and I can remember walking down the street and being the minority. That gave me an awareness that I’m part of something bigger. I’ve travelled to different places and spent time with people who are different from those I was raised around, too. I think that experience has truly led me to understand that we can’t just be that one picture and we have to be able to find a way to show that life is more than that.”
That’s certainly a complex issue to even start to address in a short fragrance campaign, as Theron acknowledges. But, while the Dior campaign aims to make you re-fall in love with the cult fragrance, with its delicate blend of damask rose, tuberose and jasmine, it’s also hoped that you will see yourself in one of the strong women depicted reclining around the golden bath; whether that’s because of their ethnicity, a visible pregnancy or just how they make you feel.
“I think the Dior J’adore campaigns have always pushed boundaries,” says Theron. “They feel bold and really ask, ‘how can we, in an artistic, beautiful way, show what femininity is all about, what it is to be a woman?’.”
This discussion also involves unpicking the beauty industry’s long-held standard for what is beautiful, especially its often toxic focus on youth and perfection, a topic Theron feels particularly strongly about.
“Society still talks about women as if they wilt like cut flowers after 40”
“I do think age inclusivity has been late coming into the beauty industry, including in campaigns,” she muses. “Society still talks about women as if they wilt like cut flowers after 40 and we are so used to certain words being used that we don’t actually hear the repercussions of them anymore. The way that we have been talking about ageing for years has been perpetuating the thought that ageing is bad and that we must try to avoid it, but I don’t think a lot of women necessarily feel that way.
“We need to stop this constant judgement and replace it with empathy and understanding. We should all get to be the woman we want to be. If we want to cover our faces, we get to cover our faces; if we want to have no movement in our foreheads, we get to do that too. But most of all I want looking like me, whatever my age, to be enough to be beautiful. We need to change the image pervading of women’s beauty in society so that ageing becomes embraced. We should all be given the chance to feel good about ourselves because ultimately that’s what beauty is about.”
“I want looking like me, whatever my age, to be enough to be beautiful”
Theron likes to think that’s she’s triggered these questions on beauty and diversity not only in the most recent video for Dior J’adore but since her first campaign for the brand in 2004. You may even recall the actress’ 2014 appearance, in which she climbs a trail of gold silk while announcing, “[The past] is no place to live and now is the time. The only way out is up and it’s not heaven. It’s a new world.”
Prophetic words indeed if you consider that in the last year alone we have seen the rise of #MeToo and Time’s Up in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
“Since Time’s Up, I’ve been in meetings and on set and there’s not a moment that there isn’t a conversation happening”, says Theron. “We’ve recognised that it’s going to get ugly and now it’s about who has the tenacity to see it through. We’re in pre-production on a film right now and we’ve worked really hard to make everyone very aware that the industry needs to change. We need to start hiring differently and we need to create opportunities for a gender-neutral set.”
Theron is also very open about the struggles actresses can face to this day within the film industry, particularly when it comes to telling women’s stories and portraying strong female roles.
“In the beginning of my career, it was hard to find those less stereotypical parts,” she recalls. “I had to try to find writers and directors who thought the same way as me about the complexities of women.
“I don’t prescribe to the idea that only a woman can tell a woman’s story though. I’ve made two films that I think speak deeply to woman’s issues directed by Jason Reitman and worked with George Miller on Mad Max: Fury Road, which I feel was a feminist journey hidden within a road chase in the desert of a post-apocalyptic world. To me, that film was so feminist and that was with a 70-year-old male director, so I think it is universal. That’s not to take anything away from the conversation that more women need the opportunity to tell stories. But, that doesn’t mean that a man can’t empathise with what a woman goes through and I think we need men on this journey with us right now. The more we bring them in on the conversation, the better it is for us.
“I admit, I got very lucky with the character of Aileen Wuornos, [the prostitute-turned- serial killer convicted of killing six men] in Monster. That role broke the glass ceiling for me. It gave me more freedom creatively to go explore more subtle versions of unconventional women and ultimately that’s the career I’ve always wanted; the chance to engage with that messy, not pretty exploration of what it means to be human.”
“I think we need men with us on this journey right now”
In fact, this messiness is exactly what makes many of Theron’s performances so captivating on screen. She is known for undergoing considerable transformations for parts, from gaining significant amounts of weight to shaving her head.
“I’ve talked to other women who have been brave enough to cut their hair but they’re devastated afterwards. I can understand that. I don’t know if I would have ever done it on my own but that character really came alive when it was decided she was going to look that way. It felt like that was the only way to properly play this character. Ultimately, for me, my hair isn’t that big of a deal. I’m the kind of girl who puts my hair in a ponytail every single day. When I cut my hair off, I was a brand new mum with a baby who was three months old and, for me, to not have to deal with hair, it was unbelievable. I took a shower and would just go. It was incredible.”
As for who inspires her as an actress, there’s a long list. She mentions Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, alongside Meryl Streep and Glenn Close in quick succession.
“I was raised on the work of this incredible group of women and there’s a boldness about how they tackle things that really moves me. Young actresses excite me as well and I feel every time film festivals close there is this new stand-out talent, like Jessie Buckley, the Irish actress who was in Beast.”
Theron, it turns out, is passionate about ensuring everyone, but particularly women, have the chance to succeed, inspired by the love and support she received from her mother over the years.
“I won the lottery with my mother. My mum is a very outspoken, gentle, beautiful creature and she made sure I knew that I was valuable. I was warned that people might say ‘don’t walk into that room’ but she encouraged me to go straight in with the knowledge I could actually bring something to the conversation. I think we need to teach our daughters that they are of great value and it’s ridiculous that as a society we still don’t really know what feminism is. People are so scared to use that word when ultimately what it is about is equal rights.”
“It’s ridiculous that as a society we still don’t really know what feminism is”
Theron, on the other hand, is not afraid to be an “outspoken” feminist or to use her platform to campaign: “I try to be very outspoken when it comes to issues I care about.” With even the most superficial scroll through her social platforms you’ll find messages about gun control in America, support for the Time’s Up movement and a behind-the-scenes look into her activist work.
Whether it’s in her films, outreach works, or beauty campaigns for Dior, we hear you Theron, loud and clear.
This originally article appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.