Theron wears Dior’s J’adore L’Or essence de parfum and Addict lipstick in Beige Perfection #322

  Theron wears Dior’s J’adore L’Or essence de parfum

Unlike other movie stars who slip out of the spotlight for an extended period, there was no spectacular box-office flop, no public fall from grace, no stint in rehab. The lady in question was simply busy pursuing other kinds of creative endeavors. But—as the résumé of nearly 40 films, a mantel containing a slew of coveted acting trophies, and the stacks of high-glam magazine covers confirm—Charlize Theron remains a movie star, and she is back.

The actress, whose early career received attention more for her uncommon beauty and statuesque screen presence than for her increasingly compelling acting skills, is back on the big screen once again after a lengthy sabbatical. And now, on the brink of the release of Young Adult, her first major starring role since 2008, the actress’s uniquely upbeat-yet-laid-back demeanor suggests she’s glad to be back. “I’ve got to tell you, it’s probably the best experience I’ve ever had on a film,” she says of making Young Adult. “I had an amazing time.”

It was an experience that almost didn’t happen: When director Jason Reitman (reuniting with his Juno collaborator, screenwriter Diablo Cody) first pursued Theron for the lead role of Mavis Gary—a writer of young-adult novels whose arrested-development issues lead her back to her hometown in pursuit of her now-married high school flame (Patrick Wilson)—the actress had prior commitments and wasn’t available. Expecting to spend the better part of a year shooting director George Miller’s Mad Max reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road, in Australia, she couldn’t bring herself to even look at the script. “I said, ‘I don’t want to read anything,’” she says, “‘because I’ll be depressed and want to kill myself because I can’t do it.’” But when Mad Max: Fury Road’s long-gestating production hit a snag, Reitman circled back to find the actress had some time to spare and was therefore more receptive to his pitch.

“Prior to that, I didn’t work for three years,” says Theron. But by “work” she means in front of the camera, since she was in the throes of a different kind of creative endeavor: She launched a television arm of her production company, Denver & Delilah Films, developing a series with David Fincher called Mind Hunter (based on the book by John Douglas) for HBO, among other TV and feature projects currently in the pipeline. “I was really happy with the work we were developing,” she says. “It was a highly creative time in my life.”

She and Reitman huddled to hammer out a shared vision before she formally signed on. “It was definitely not from the first read that I went, ‘This is it!’” she says. “But that’s usually a good sign—I think the good ones in my career have felt that way.” Once director, star, and script were fully in accord, Theron returned to life in front of the camera. “It was nerve-wracking the first couple of weeks, and then we just kind of hit our flow. The whole thing was just a pleasure.”

Theron says Mavis, her character in Young Adult—a 37-year-old woman still clinging to the childish habits of her popular-girl past—“never really grew up. She went through life writing teen novels and never evolved. You can’t expect somebody who has that set of tools to go about life in any way better than the way she does.” But as real, relatable, and eminently flawed as Mavis seems, “I don’t relate to everything,” says Theron. “The way we go about things in our lives is very different. But at the core, I had empathy for how she went about it, which was sometimes brutal. She’s like this horrible car accident you can’t take your eyes off of. But I really loved the fact she’s a girl in her mid-thirties and [am interested in] the way the world looks at a girl that age who’s still single. But her tool set is very different from mine.”

For one thing, Theron never indulged in an arrested adolescence. “I grew up quickly,” she says, recalling leaving her parents’ South African farm to attend the School of Performing Arts in Johannesburg. “It doesn’t matter where you go to school, there’s always the popular girl, but we didn’t really have the prom queen and prom king, and all of that stuff. There were different pressures. I went to a pretty strict art school—it was really conservative. You had to get on your knees so the teachers could make sure your school uniform was below your knees. It was not as relaxed as I think schools are in America. I definitely grew up a lot faster than some of my friends did.”

Like what you're reading? Get it delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up now for our newsletters >>