After a decade’s worth of hard work – from a bit part in “Children of the Corn III” in 1994 to an Academy Award-winning performance in “Monster” in 2003 – Charlize has emerged as one of today’s leading ladies of the silver screen.

She certainly looks the part. Absolutely stunning from head to toe, the statuesque blonde has been blessed with her share of natural beauty. She crossed continents with those long legs of hers, first strutting down the fashion runways of Milan, then dancing with the Joffrey Ballet in New York and, finally, taking the big leap to L.A.

While her appearance has undoubtedly played a supporting role in her acting career (her first feature film, “2 Days in the Valley,” flaunted her sex appeal as a scantily-clad assassin), it took more than good looks to turn the heads of Hollywood heavyweights Tom Hanks, who cast her in his directorial debut, “That Thing You Do,” and Robert Redford, who tapped her talent for “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

Woody Allen was so taken with the rising star, he invited Charlize to spoof her modeling career in “Celebrity” and then called her back for “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.”

“She’s easily stereotyped as the very attractive model/dancer,” Robert Redford told Vogue in an interview during the filming of “Bagger Vance.” “But there was such emotional range in what I saw of her work that I took the bet, and I’m extremely pleased with what she did.

“She has all the elements, I think, of what creates a lasting actress,” he continued. “She’s ambitious, she’s got looks, she’s talented, intelligent, fiercely tough on herself without letting the insecurity dominate. And she has courage; that’s an additional thing.”

Indeed, whether she’s sizzling on screen with Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp, Ben Affleck, Mark Wahlberg or Patrick Swayze (just a few of the Hollywood hotties with whom she’s shared scripts), or nuzzling up to a 15-foot gorilla, Charlize has demonstrated, one movie after the next, that there is substance beneath the surface.

Her acting (and directing) abilities couldn’t be more evident than in the crime drama “Monster,” based on the real-life story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who was convicted of murdering six men in Florida and then executed in 2002. Charlize’s transformation into a serial killer was a far cry from her rosy roles as a girlfriend, wife, supermodel and Southern debutante. It was downright chilling.
With stage make-up – including a latex mask, sprayed-on tattoos and freckles, false teeth, shaved eyebrows and brown contact lenses – she was barely recognizable. Charlize also gained 25 to 30 pounds for the part (surely easier than skimming 14 pounds from her flawless figure for “Sweet November”). She mastered the talk and walk of the character, truly pouring her heart into the portrayal.

Charlize’s performance earned rave reviews and more than a dozen awards, including the Best Actress Oscar at the 76th annual Academy Awards. “I know everybody in New Zealand has been thanked,” she said in her emotional acceptance speech. “So I'm going to thank everybody in South Africa, my home country.”

Born Aug. 7, 1975, in Benoni, South Africa, Charlize never dreamed of being a Hollywood star. She wanted to be a ballerina. Trained in dance since childhood, she came to the Joffrey Ballet in New York in 1991, by way of an impromptu modeling competition in Johannesburg at the age of 16 and a year’s worth of runway work in Milan that was neither rewarding financially nor professionally.

Ironically, it was Charlize’s sleek physique that dashed all hopes of a dance career. She was too tall to pirouette and pas de deux. One day in class, her knee gave out for good. She was devastated.

“I thought it was the end of the world,” she said in an interview with Elle magazine. “Dance had been my passion. I thought I’d go back to South Africa and pack grocery bags for the rest of my life.”

Charlize’s mom, Gerda, thought otherwise. Knowing Charlize had far more opportunities abroad than she ever would back home, she urged her daughter to pursue acting in Los Angeles. Charlize obliged. She checked into a shabby hotel on Fairfax and set up shop.

It was a long and lean struggle before Lady Luck finally smiled upon her in the unlikeliest of places, a bank on Hollywood Boulevard. Out of money and patience, Charlize, then 19, was attempting to get an out-of-state check cashed to no avail. She wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. In fact, she made such a scene, screaming and gesturing, that she caught the eye of talent manager John Crosby, who also discovered Rene Russo (at a Rolling Stones concert). He offered her his business card.

Eight months later – after losing her South African accent (Afrikaans is her first language), as well as countless auditions for TV commercials – Charlize nabbed her first part: a cameo in MGM’s low-budget “2 Days in the Valley.” She steamed up the screen as Helga the hit woman. Acting was apparently in her blood, after all.

She’s been going strong ever since, superceding all of the “pretty girl” typecasting with a rewarding range of roles in movies both good and bad. She played a drummer’s girlfriend in “That Thing You Do!” in 1996 and a waitress in the comedy “Trial and Error” in 1997. That same year, she landed her first lead in the thriller “The Devil’s Advocate.” She lost her sanity as the embattered wife of an attorney – and gained quite a bit of notice in the process.

By 1998, Charlize was well on her way to fame, perfectly cast in Disney’s remake of “Mighty Joe Young” as an orphaned African girl who becomes the lifelong protector of an orphaned gorilla. She also joined the all-star ensemble in “Celebrity,” alongside Kenneth Branagh, Winona Ryder and Leonardo DiCaprio.

She continued to wow critics and fans the following year with passionate portrayals in “The Cider House Rules” and “The Astronaut’s Wife.”

“Charlize consistently complements her beauty with passion, strength and vulnerability,” Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein said of Charlize’s performance in “Cider House.”

By 2000, she’d set Hollywood on fire with a succession of films, including Redford’s “Bagger Vance,” “Men of Honor,” “The Yards” and “Reindeer Games,” the latter of which she endured freezing on-location conditions and tackled some of her own stunt work.

In 2001, Charlize reunited with Keanu Reeves for “Sweet November” and Woody Allen for “Jade Scorpion.” The next year she took on a drama, “Trapped,” and a comedy, “Waking Up in Reno.” She was also cast in the flashy, star-studded 2003 remake of “The Italian Job.”

Though some of her movies haven’t been big hits, Charlize keeps shining bright. Nothing has been able to nudge this actress from her A-list stature.

 “I would be the first to admit that some of the films I’ve done have been rubbish,” she told an interviewer. “A lot of people expect you to disown your movies when they aren’t successful or when the critics don’t like your performance. But it’s okay to admit that sometimes things didn’t work out.” She knows that all too well.

Charlize has had a tough life. That emotional depth she conveys on screen might not be entirely attributable to her acting skills.

Aside from a rather bleak existence in South Africa, where her family farmed and ran a heavy-haulage business, Charlize had to overcome a personal tragedy. Her father, Charles, was shot and killed by her mother when he attacked her in a drunken rage. The act was ruled self-defense and Gerda was not charged with a crime. Charlize was 15.

For years, Charlize told media that her father died in a car accident. She didn’t want any publicity about the family’s private heartbreak. Of course, the truth eventually emerged in the press.

In a televised interview with Diane Sawyer earlier this year, Charlize said, “The terrible thing is that everybody in South Africa has a gun. That’s just the lifestyle there. And when those things are around, [when] people get irrational and emotional and drunk, terrible things can happen.”

She’s a survivor – and all the better for it, said Luis Mandoki, who directed Charlize in “Trapped.” “Because of the way Charlize has dealt with her pain over the years, she’s able to go to physical and emotional distances as an actress that others can’t,” he said in an interview with Elle.

For all of the fame and glory, Charlize has managed to stay pretty grounded, holding fast to her earthy roots as a Boer. (Off camera, she’s known for dressing down in jeans and sneakers). She has a home in Hollywood Hills that she shares with her well-pampered dogs. She cherishes her circle of friends. And her mom lives just down the road.

A self-professed “mama’s girl,” Charlize is intensely close with her mother. “We were friends from away back. We had to be. We were the only ones there for each other. I felt like her protector.”

Romantically linked to actor Craig Bierko and singer Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind, Charlize has a new man in her life. She’s engaged to Irish actor Stuart Townsend, her co-star in the upcoming movie “Head in the Clouds.”  

From the Summer 2004 issue.

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catherine zeta-jones

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angelina jolie

deborah norville

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