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Obviously, Charlize Theron the actress needs no introduction. But Charlize Theron the producer — who has, in a brief period of time, helped create some extremely serious-minded low-budget films — feels in many ways like a unique individual, distinct from her more glamorous alter ego. The evidence is on display in Sleepwalking, a stark indie film about a troubled mother (Theron) who abandons her young daughter (AnnaSophia Robb) in the care of her younger brother (Nick Stahl). What’s most amazing about the film is that much of the heavy lifting is done by the young Robb, familiar to audiences from more kid-friendly fare like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We caught up with Theron and Robb, now 14, on a recent visit to New York.
Charlize, is it true that one of the key reasons for your agreeing to produce this film was AnnaSophia’s performance?
Theron: In part. First of all, I had really liked the material, and Nick Stahl had read the script, and he wanted to play the brother. But we all realized that the part of the young daughter was going to be a huge part of this film. And we knew it was going to be very hard to find an actress of that age — this was very adult material, and it carries a lot of emotional weight. I didn’t know if I would be able to see a film like this through to the end if we couldn’t find that person. Then I met with my friend Stephen Hopkins, who had directed me in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. He had just made The Reaping with AnnaSophia and said she was amazing and that I should take a look at her. So I met with her and spent a couple of days playing around with the material. And we wound up not looking at anyone else for the part.
AnnaSophia, how did it feel to basically have to carry a film with such weighty subject matter?
Robb: It was hard, but I’m actually happy that this was my first film with this kind of heavy subject matter. And I appreciated this really safe environment that Charlize had created. Now I feel more comfortable with this sort of thing.
How did you prepare for it?
Robb: After I read the script, I talked a lot with Charlize. We had a lot of conversations over the phone, talking about the characters. And then once you get on set, that’s what the whole world is about: read-throughs, talking about the characters. When you’re on set, it’s important actually to be able to break off from that at the end of the day and leave it behind.
So, is it safe to say that you’re not in the Daniel Day-Lewis mold of living with your character day in and day out?
Robb: Obviously, I respect him a lot as an actor. But I’m not sure that’s the right approach for me. I don’t want to totally become my character, especially at such a young age. Acting is not the only thing. I need to have a life and enjoy it. Also it’s important I think to have the imagination to create this person, and to be able to come back at the end of the day to who I really am.
Charlize, you started off producing with Monster, with which this film shares some similarities. Does being a producer on a film, especially a low-budget one like this, make it harder to also act in it?
Theron: Not really. I don’t think producing makes anything harder. I don’t really compartmentalize. It’s all part of the same thing for me. There’s an incredibly creative element to a producer’s job. There has to be. I couldn’t go up and start working six weeks before production if there wasn’t. It’s a huge amount of work, a huge amount of responsibilities, a huge amount of time you have to invest. But it feels effortless to me — that is to say, it feels like part of the whole creative thread of making the film.
How would you characterize yourself as a producer?
Theron: I don’t know. I dislike hard work, but I feel blessed to be part of something creatively satisfying. I think I was spoiled on Monster, to be honest with you. There were no set rules about what I was supposed to do and not do. In the end, it was all about being truthful to the story, and I had to protect that. And that set the bar for me, in a way. Now I want it to be always that way. Because otherwise it’s too much work. You spend three years of your life waking up at four in the morning.
AnnaSophia, you’ve done a lot of very different movies in such a short time. What’s the best advice someone has given you about showbiz so far?
Theron: It definitely didn’t come from me… [laughs]
Robb: You get different advice for different films. But a certain someone, who may or may not be in this room, did say that in the end it’s all about telling a good story and doing good work that stays with people. It’s just really that simple. —Bilge Ebiri