Charlize Theron had wanted to work again with screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman since the movie Young Adult, in which Theron got to play a true mess of a character — alcoholic, all-around stunted and viciously hilarious.
So when Cody dreamed up the idea for Tully, a somewhat undefinable look at the harsh, messy and often funny realities of motherhood, Theron didn’t even have to read the script before saying yes to playing the mother of three, who finally decides to let someone into her life to help in the form of a night nanny, Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis.
The two actresses spoke recently to The Associated Press about this unconventional movie (the less you know, the better), why film needs to step it up to compete with what’s on television and the rare joy of finding an actor willing to play a secondary role to a woman.
Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Mackenzie, how did you join this team?
THERON: Well the actress that we wanted wasn’t available, but she was a close friend of my agent...
DAVIS: And so I snuck through the grapevine. No, Jason told me about it. I was a die-hard fan of Young Adult. And the role is so lovely. It’s something I hadn’t played before. I found it really nurturing to be in that role to another woman. That’s so much of how you are with your friends. And it’s such an important part of my life and a nourishing part of my life that it was nice to perform that on film and with Charlize.
I was a little worried she might be a sort of manic pixie dream night nanny at the beginning, but that’s not the case at all.
THERON: You go there because we’ve been fed that for so long, this misconception that women could never be supportive of one another. Like, you would definitely just try to steal my husband from me. And we make fun of that in the movie.
DAVIS: I’ve seen some of that stuff already from the trailer. People being like, “Well of course she (expletives) the husband.” And I’m like well it might be different than what you think.
And the men are almost a side-show here.
THERON: Sometimes you’re super grateful when you get that. A lot of men won’t do that for women. I’m just grateful whenever a man will walk on, and I had this with James McAvoy on Atomic Blonde, when you have a guy who is like, “yeah, I’m here to support you, and I’m OK with that.”
DAVIS: It is so hard to find a good actor who has some career trajectory who is willing to play a secondary part.
THERON: And that’s wrong. Ron (Livingston) showed up every single day so invested in the whole thing. When a man does that it means a lot to me.
DAVIS: It’s putting your money where your mouth is.
Charlize, how did you decide on the physicality of your character?
THERON: I’ve had a lot of very, very close friends of mine go through pregnancies and I’ve had a front seat to it all, and it’s not even that we had a conversation about it, I think it was a no-brainer. It was just impossible for me to even imagine playing a woman who is giving birth to her third child on page 10 and not thinking what the aftermath would be. I wanted to get as close as I possibly could do that. It would be hard for me to be like, “oh, I’ll just pretend.” I’m just not that good. I can’t do it. Not that I’m method, but the physical part, maybe it goes back to being a dancer most of my life. That physical storytelling is almost more important to me than the verbal storytelling.
You’ve been producing now for 15-some years, what do you like about it?
THERON: Initially it started as just trying to protect myself. The first thing I produced was Monster and it really just came out of fear. I was working with a first-time director and up until that point in my career had just been really let down. You put yourself out there and the film ends up being something that was never agreed on. And I had a moment there that was like, ok, if I do this I just want to be able to have that control. And then it changed. Producing became something I liked. I liked the logistics of making a film. I love that we’re in a position where we can make things that might not be able to get made and also, you know, hire people who might not get hired.
This is coming out alongside some pretty big blockbusters and at a time when the movie business is in flux. Are you worried at all about the film industry?
DAVIS: I think part of the reason people stopped going to the movies is it’s (expletive) boring to just watch explosions all the time. You want something else and some reason to have a communal experience.
THERON: I wouldn’t say I’m worried about the film industry, but I think that what’s happening in streaming and on television is something that we in film, well we have to step it up a little bit. There are way more conflicting characters on television and story lines, especially for women, than there is in film.
DAVIS: And playing with form in TV. Like have you watched Atlanta?
THERON: Yeah, it’s amazing.
DAVIS: It’s like jazz. It’s this experimental thing.
THERON: Or The End of the F(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)ing World? The way they go about telling that story, you don’t see that on film anymore — being brave and experimental and going about the best way to tell the story, when I think a lot of the time (in film) we’re putting the cart before the horse like “this audience, this audience.” Television doesn’t’ function like that. It’s just good storytelling. I remember going in and pitching TV shows and having TV execs say, “Can you go further with that” and then finding myself in film pitching something and hearing, “That’s a little too much.” I think we have to step up to the plate because the bar has been set really, really high by a lot of great shows in television.