Charlize Theron has spent the summer in modified Roman Holiday fashion. Like Audrey Hepburn in the 1953 classic, Theron has been hard at work at the city’s Cinecittà studios, in this case filming the sequel to Netflix’s The Old Guard, a taut action movie about a band of immortal mercenaries. Also like Hepburn, Theron is momentarily a brunette, albeit with a short asymmetrical cut befitting her hardened character, Andy—short for Andromache of Scythia. Fan sites for the comic-book series pinpoint Andy’s origins to the Western Steppe, circa 4,700 BCE, giving her an understandably weary worldview. But Theron (South Africa, 1975) is joyfully embracing her role as a movie star stationed in the Eternal City.
“I’ve never been a person to just sit on my couch and procrastinate, or not take advantage of the access that I have in the outside world—to go and do something that is just really fun or mischievous. Or naughty. Or something that makes you laugh,” Theron says by phone, explaining how she’s soaking up as much Italian life as possible. It’s a late summer morning in Rome. The actor begins by asking, like a concerned citizen, what time it is at the other end of the line. “A cool 4:55 a.m.,” I reply, trying to sound upbeat and breezy, but the effect is more of a syllabic rasp. “Oh my God, girl!” Theron answers. “I apologize. I’m the asshole who made you wake up so early.” She squeezes in three more apologies, as if call times don’t frequently have her in a makeup chair before dawn. This is the Theron I’ve been hoping to reach: preternaturally grounded, tells it like it is, attuned to the world.
Theron is a change artist of a generation. Her live-wire portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in *Monster—*helped along by prosthetic teeth, bleached brows, and an extra 30 pounds on her 5-foot-ten frame—earned her a best actress Oscar in 2004. Later that fall, Theron presented a different kind of blonde (Hollywood waves, sculpted cheekbones) as the new face of Dior’s J’Adore perfume. Over the intervening 18 years, as Theron cycled through disparate roles—corporate minder in the sci-fi horror Prometheus (2012), grease-smeared Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), neon-lit spy in Atomic Blonde (2017), beleaguered mother in Tully (2018)—she has continued to shape-shift in golden-toned J’Adore campaigns, many by music-video director Jean-Baptiste Mondino.
The latest iteration of the fragrance, J’Adore Parfum d’Eau, could be imagined almost like a prequel to the 1999 original. A novel formulation entirely without alcohol, it evokes a primordial mingling of flowers and water—elevated in its composition (there are notes of jasmine sambac, magnolia, and neroli to tease out), but rendered, quite simply, as dew. Somehow the combination of structural refinement and at-ease delivery evokes its front woman, statuesque and straight-talking. In the below conversation, she thoughtfully unspools about hedonistic leanings, scent in storytelling, and an upcoming role, before signing off with a goodwill entreaty: “Go back to bed!”
Vanity Fair: I was re-watching some of the early J’Adore ads, which have you climbing up silk fabric like an aerialist or wading through a bathhouse. What would you say is the imagined backstory for the J’Adore woman? I feel like she has stories to tell.
There was a hope for this to have some longevity in that narrative, so that we could see an evolution. But for me, the most important thing was always to just have an awareness of the world. [Dior is] a luxury brand, so let’s hold a mirror up and see what’s going on in the world.
I feel like there were real moments throughout our 18-year creative relationship where there was a detailed place for that. When we made the campaign with the bathhouse [in 2018], the women’s movement was coming to the forefront. There was this feeling that women were really understanding their power and standing together, so it was impossible to even imagine that campaign just being about me. Having it be so inclusive and diverse was something that I really appreciated and, I think, says a lot about who Dior is.