An undercover MI6 agent is sent to Berlin just before the fall of the wall in 1989 to find a mysterious list of double agents. Sounds like yet another James Bond flick, until you see that the action hero in Atomic Blonde is Charlize Theron as the super-skilled, stylish renegade Lorraine Broughton. To be clear, it's not just her gender that makes this different from your typical glossy spy thriller. The fight scenes are way more brutal. Like, watch-through-your-fingers-brutal. We've also never seen a lead quite like Broughton, who doesn't just subtly remind viewers that she is indeed a woman; she revels in it. Exhibit A: Responding to a Russian gangster who calls her a bitch by kicking his ass, then asking if she's his bitch now — all while wearing a sleek trench coat and thigh-high boots straight out of the '80s. James Bond could never.
Theron has called Atomic Blonde, produced by her Denver and Delilah production company, her passion project. So ahead of its release, we chatted about why she can't resist playing rebellious women like Lorraine, plus all of the ways Hollywood needs to step up its game — and what she's doing to lead that charge. By the end of our chat, it's clear where, exactly, Broughton gets her atomic spark.
You're very convincing as an MI6 agent. When was the last time you felt like a top-secret spy in real life?
"I try to do it with my children all the time. Most of the time I fail miserably. But sometimes I do succeed in scaring them, like when I see them do stuff, and I won't mention it until later, and they're like, 'Wait, how did you know I did that?' I'm like, 'Moms know everything!'"
Lorraine is just the latest of many badass female characters you've portrayed. What do you think draws you to this type of role, specifically?
"I guess it's because deep down inside, I actually believe that that's what we are. We are more capable than we are often portrayed in movies to be. And we're not necessarily given the right amount of credit for being that capable. So I try really hard to make my roles reflect women the way I believe we really are."
Do you feel like seeing female action heroes is particularly important right now, considering current events?
"Yes. But not just right now. I think we've been due characters like this for a long, long time. Sometimes when we talk about this stuff, it feels a little prehistoric. I mean, why are we still talking about getting more equality in our entertainment? We should be there already! But we're not. So the conversation continues, and it always should, no matter what's happening in the world."
In this industry, a movie being successful means big box office numbers both domestic and abroad. But I know this film was your personal passion project. So, for you, what will make Atomic Blonde a success?
"Oh my gosh. A lot of things. We worked five or six years on this movie. It being successful would mean that we tapped into something that audiences relate to, and I think that's the greatest thing you can hope for as a producer or an actor, to hear that audiences are interested in whatever your movie is about and then hear that they keep talking about it. And if you do that, you get to do more of it. So I think that would be the thing for me to feel like this was successful, to be able to turn this into a franchise and to explore this world with Lorraine more. That would be really great."
Unfortunately, one of your production company's other recent projects, Girlboss, wasn't as successful. Why do you think the series was canceled after one season?
"I feel like if that show was given a little bit more of a chance, audiences would've tapped more into Sophia [the main character, loosely based on Girlboss founder Sophia Amoruso]. I think there's a misconception that people didn't connect with her because she wasn't very likable and she was a bit abrasive. I don't want that to be the takeaway from the show, because I don't believe that. I think with a second season, that show would've evolved into something that people would've really loved, because her character was still evolving. So it was a little bit of a disappointment, for sure."
You recently told Andy Cohen that you didn't want to make a big deal about Lorraine being bisexual, because that should be something that's normal on screen. What other types of characters do you hope to normalize?
"I think it would be great if we could just have every role be as equal as what men have. It's not just about sexuality or identity or anything like that. I think women, not only in my industry but in the world, just wants to have a space where they can live and breathe by the same set of rules that men do. And I think this idea that the reason why we don't is because we're not as capable as men is one that we need to eliminate. I don't talk about this stuff because I'm here standing on a soapbox, trying to get agendas across. It's because I'm a woman and I work in a field where I'm supposed to showcase women in society. And to not be able to do that has always been problematic. I've always had issues with that."
Who are some other women in Hollywood that you really want to work with?
"There are a ton. I have this real affection for older actresses. I'm friends with Shirley MacLaine, and I always have this fantasy that I'll get to do something with her. I think for a long time, the value of us as actresses was not celebrated after we got to a certain age; it was harder for those women to get non-stereotypical roles. But that's slowly starting to change. Like, when I look at someone like her, I think of what's happened to Jessica Lange, who's one of my favorites, too. Her and Susan Sarandon, they're both taking on some new amazing roles, and I really hope that this is something that becomes a norm. Those are actresses I grew up on; those are the people that inspired me — and not just to be an actress. They showed me what it was to be a woman, in addition to my amazing mother. That shouldn't end just because of a number."
I love that you've been very vocal about the representation of women in Hollywood, and we've made some strides this summer with movies like Wonder Woman, Girls Trip, and now Atomic Blonde. But we also still have a long way to go when it comes to ethnic and racial diversity. What are your thoughts on how your industry can improve there?
"It's something we have taken very seriously for the last 15 years at my production company. We have really fought the fought. We have a film coming out next April that I produced called Gringo, and we put David Oyelowo as the lead action star, and that was something nobody could wrap their heads around. But he's so incredible in the film. It's just something we have to start thinking of, casting any and everyone, and not just this compartmentalized thing. In many ways, what I did in Atomic Blonde was just reminding people that hey, you could gender swap those male spy roles. They don't have to always be men. The same goes with skin color, too. We're going to have to wrap our heads around considering all races and genders for any role, because society is done with how it's been going. We all want to see a real reflection of ourselves."
You have two young children. How are you instilling the same messages you're passionate about at work into their lives?
"I'm going to hopefully live my life in a way where my life will be enough for them to learn by example. I'm also always driving in the car with them and telling them they can be anything. And they're like, 'Yeeees, mom. We get it.' They're smart. They do get it. But I think in the long run, the things that stick with children are how the people around them live. I hope that my children can one day look at my work, my philanthropy, and the things I stood for and realize it wasn't just me in the car telling them that they could be anything and annoying the shit out of them. It was also me actually living my life that way."
You've been in this industry for a long time. What's the one question you wish interviewers would stop asking you?
"I make fun of it and I don't hide behind it, but I wish we didn't always have to mention a woman's age. Every single interview I've ever read of myself always has my age in brackets right next to it. I don't see a lot of guys getting that same treatment. So I wish that we lived in a society where we're not so age obsessed and we could actually just appreciate a person for who they are. And leave it at that."
Atomic Blonde is in theaters Friday, July 28.