In "Young Adult," the new dark comedy by "Juno" director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, Theron plays Mavis, a ghost writer for a series of young-adult books dwindling in popularity. With her personal and professional prospects looking bleak, Mavis heads home to the Minnesota suburb where she was raised to try to reclaim her high-school beau Buddy, played by Patrick Wilson. Unfortunately for her, Buddy is now happily married with a good job and adorable new baby.
Initially pleased to see Mavis, Buddy grows increasingly uncomfortable as Mavis' scheme to win him back becomes more clear. Watching all the awkward action from the sidelines is geeky, goodhearted Matt, played by Patton Oswalt. Although he and Mavis were never friends as kids, Matt, too, is haunted by the past and finds himself connecting with the beautiful, but self-centered and immature, former prom queen, even while warning her that her plans to steal Buddy away from his family will only lead to disaster.
Asked at a New York press conference if she noticed 2011 was peppered with outrageous female characters in films such as "Bridesmaids," "Bad Teacher" and "Horrible Bosses," Theron replied, "It's just real women -- conflicted."
"I think women are almost always more conflicted than men, and I think we come from a society where we're very comfortable with the Madonna-whore complex," the 36-year-old actress explained. "I think it is refreshing to kind of see [women in non-traditional roles.] … I grew up on cinema where guys got to do that. Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro got to play all of those kinds of characters, you know? I saw a little bit of myself in those kinds of struggles and the lurking, darky things."
Theron noted how rare it is to see women in those types of unconventional parts, and when they do play them, they are usually praised for being courageous.
"People go, 'Oh, it's so brave.' It's like, it really isn't. It's just refreshing. And it's so great as an actor to get the opportunity to do something that's incredibly truthful. It's been really, really nice," said the actress, who won an Oscar for playing a serial killer in "Monster."
"I'm certainly not going to call it a step back, because that would be the opposite of what I'm trying to do as a writer, and also as a female," said Cody, who was sitting beside Theron at the "Young Adult" press conference.
"It's funny, when people talk about 'Bridesmaids,' they always talk about, 'Oh, we're seeing raunchy women.' And I say, 'No, you're just seeing women,'" Cody observed. "Like that's what feels fresh about this, is you're actually seeing women in complicated, funny situations where you would normally see male characters. So, I don't really see it as seeing women behaving badly, so much as just seeing more multi-faceted female characters. And I hope there will be more of that, because I'm enjoying it."
"I think it feels like you have finally made progress as a group if you can be depicted as the full spectrum," Oswalt offered. "Usually, any kind of sub-group or smaller group in a movie goes from being made fun of and victimized, and then it swings too hard the other way, where they're like amazing and always positive, which is just as dehumanizing. And then you're finally like, 'Hey, a single individual can be a hero and a villain and funny and an (idiot) -- well, just like we all are every second of the day. So, you know, that's definitely progress, too."
Theron said she tried not to judge Mavis as she worked to bring her to life on-screen.
"I thought the things that she did were pretty despicable; but then again, not like to the point where I was like disgusted by her," the actress admitted. "I never had a hard time not liking her. I would love to go and have a beer with her. I mean, I would never let her hang out with my boyfriend. But I would love to hang out with her. I think she's entertaining about all of her stuff. And you know, people can have all of the things that she has and just be really annoying and suck the air out of a room. And in a way, she does -- but it's a funny way of sucking the air out of the room. And I found her fascinating. ... All I know is that what I liked when I read Diablo's script was the idea of a girl, a woman, who's dealing with very, very common mid- to late- 30s issues that women can really relate to; but because of kind of how she went through life, is dealing with them the way a 16-year-old would deal with them. I thought that was really fascinating. And when she says things like, 'Don't you know love conquers all?' It's like the typical 16-year-old would say that. And here she is, 37, like trying to get her life together. And she just doesn't have the tools to do it."
"Young Adult" is currently playing in U.S. theaters. Theron's performance has earned her Golden Globe and Critics' Choice award nominations.