Michael B. Jordan, Charlize Theron Exchange Secrets on Their Acting Transformations

Charlize Theron and Michael B. Jordan sat down for a chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors. For more, click here. 

Charlize Theron and Michael B. Jordan start talking before the cameras are even rolling. They are exchanging secrets about how they both disappear into character, undergoing dramatic physical — and emotional — transformations. That’s certainly been the case this year with Theron’s “Tully,” where she plays a mother grappling with postpartum depression. And in Marvel box office phenomenon “Black Panther,” Jordan bulks up as Erik Killmonger, an outcast with something to prove. These performances are further reminders that both actors thrive on risk. Over a candid conversation that brought Theron to tears, they spoke about their recent projects and why “Black Panther” deserves a spot at the Oscars.

Michael B. Jordan: What was your prep like on “Tully”?

Charlize Theron: I just ate.

Jordan: You just ate?

Theron: That was pretty much it. It really just came from a mixture of my own journey as a mom. My second child was a newborn when Jason [Reitman] pitched this to me. I also had close girlfriends who had a really hard time with postpartum depression.

Jordan: Isn’t that weird when you get a project that speaks directly to you? It’s like where you’re at, what you’re going through emotionally or mentally. It almost doesn’t seem like work.

Theron: I was just living life. What project was that for you?

Jordan: “Creed” for me. Just wanting to come into my own. At that time, I think I was 26 or 27 and wanted to feel validated as an actor. I wanted to have that self-confidence that I could carry a film. I put everything into that first film, into that character.

Theron: You look more like a boxer than most boxers.

Jordan: Thank you. I’ll take that one. I want to live like a fighter too. That’s why I just hung out with all boxers. I went through their daily routine. I needed to feel the bruises. I wanted the calluses on my hands. So, question: Being from South Africa, how did you feel when you saw “Black Panther”?

Theron: I was born and raised in South Africa during apartheid. I’m a white African who lived and thrived under tremendously dark circumstances. That marks you as a person. Whether that’s your ideology or not, you’re living in it. When you’re young, you don’t know anything different. You know something is wrong, but you don’t necessarily understand the broad strokes of it. I was 15 in ’91 when apartheid was dropped. So I didn’t realize until, I think in my late 20s, 30s, how much anger I had inside me and guilt for just living my life circumstantially in a place that I didn’t necessarily choose. It was the thing that took me toward therapy. So for me to watch “Black Panther” as the person that I am, and I know this sounds crazy to a lot of people, but it was a very emotional thing. I have two young girls — two young, beautiful African-American girls. I said to myself, “I cannot wait for my girls to be big enough to share this with them.” [She starts crying.]

Jordan: I’d never thought about that perspective. That’s very moving.

Theron: Did you know you were working on something special?

Jordan: We had moments on set where we all kind of looked at each other like, “Wow, that was really powerful.” But when you start seeing church groups and community centers and Boys & Girls Clubs, and they’re going to take at-risk youth to go see this film, and you just see the entire community get together and go see this film, it’s awesome. It gave everybody a sense of pride.

Theron: That’s one for the books.

Jordan: When did you start producing?

Theron: I was asked to do “Monster,” with a first-time director, Patty Jenkins. She wanted to make a film that took some really big risks, and ultimately I knew we were going to end up in a situation where we might be asked to not take that much of a risk. And that she might not be able to fight for that. So it came out of that necessity of wanting to protect her and the film.

Jordan: And that’s where your production company Denver and Delilah came from?

Theron: Yeah. When we finished the film and started to find a buyer for it, we couldn’t. Everybody was like, “It’s a great movie, but I don’t want it. I don’t know what to do with this.” And we were, I think, a day away from signing a Blockbuster deal for it to go straight to video. And it just happened that [the distributor Newmarket] showed up. Then I got nominated and won an Academy Award for it. So, miracles happen.

Jordan: Trust your gut.

Theron: We are seeing the payoff for big risks. Like “Black Panther.”

Jordan: Oh, for sure.

Theron: That’s a huge risk. Movies like “Tully” are obviously not as big a financial risk, but they’re still a risk because what they say is “Who wants to go see a movie about postpartum depression?” Well, you know what, 50% of the population out there are women, and I think 40% of them are having kids, so go fuck yourself.

Jordan: I started my own production company last year. I feel like you guys, you fought those hard battles in the beginning that got us to this tipping point. For me, making sure inclusion is implemented on every one of my projects that I’m producing is important. The inclusion rider was the first time I actually saw an official document for it. As a black actor — as a person of color — I wouldn’t have thought about it. It’s second nature. It’s OK, of course I’m hiring strong women. People of color, of course, great. People from different social backgrounds and communities, of course.

Theron: Live by example. Show by example.

Jordan: Exactly. And then hopefully it won’t be as much of a thing. It could be the norm. I think that’s the goal is to make inclusion the norm, so it doesn’t have to be talked about and discussed all the time.

Theron: There’s no excuses for it anymore is what I’m saying. There used to be a lot of excuses for it, and they used to hide behind financial reasons. And now you can actually shut them up with that.

Jordan: We’re also giving representation to the next generation. Now it’s a frenzy. Everybody’s looking for inclusion. Everybody’s looking for that diversity.

Theron: “Black Panther” should definitely be nominated for the Oscars. That is a huge change. Twenty years ago, when you made a big action film, it was like you were selling out.

Jordan: When you hand somebody like Ryan Coogler a project like “Black Panther,” it plays into the Marvel Universe of it all, but it still feels like it’s a project that could have gone to Sundance.

Theron: It’s really nice to not feel that pressure anymore that I definitely felt early in my career. It was a definite feeling of judgment. It was “Oh, I guess you needed the money.” But I feel like the level of storytelling that I did as an actor in “Fury Road” was probably some of the most complex storytelling that I’ve ever done in my career. I like big movies. I love big popcorn movies. People are like, “Why are you in ‘Fast and Furious’?” Why am I in “Fast”? Because I love those movies.

Watch the full conversation below:

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