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Charlize Theron talks about role in North Country at Toronto film festival


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TORONTO (CP) - The plight of a sexually harassed female worker at a Minnesota mining company - as depicted in the new film North Country - is a universal problem and not reflective of the people who live and work along the state's famous iron range, the makers of the feature insisted on Monday.

The film by Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and starring Charlize Theron, is "inspired" by real events in the 1980s that led to a landmark American class-action lawsuit and it's having a gala screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this week.

"I love those guys, I got very, very, very fond of them and fond of the area," Caro told Minnesota-based festival reporters. "And I hope they're really proud of the film. And more importantly, I hope they're proud of their women."

In North Country, Theron plays Josey, a single mom who is one of the first women employed in what had always been a male-dominated workplace. She faces a barrage of hostility, from gestures and graffiti to outright assault. In one scene, male co-workers knock over a portable toilet while Josey is inside and she emerges hysterical and covered in feces while they laugh at their prank.

Caro insisted that such behaviour has happened all over the world, but the Minnesota community depicted was one of the first that changed after the unionized women stood up to indifference and outright adversity, not just from management, but from their own union, friends and family members.

"They did feel some trepidation before we arrived," the New Zealand-based filmmaker said about the community where she shot the film. "(But) they were so great."

She conceded a scene in which 300 male workers at a union-hall meeting demonstrate their obscene anger towards Josey was "a little intimidating" since real miners - men who were not unfamiliar with the local history of such sexist behaviour - were used as extras.

Theron said the mood was actually saved by co-star Woody Harrelson who was cheered and admired by the locals.

"They would look at Woody and go 'Yeah, Woody, you're the man! We love you Woody!' And then they'd turn back to me: 'Take your top off!' "

Screenwriter Michael Seitzman said everything depicted in his story happened to someone in real life, but that for dramatic purposes they compressed events into a shorter time frame and with composite characters.

But Caro stressed the universality of the film's events and agreed the message is the right of people anywhere to work with some kind of dignity.

"And it's not a female right, it's a human right and a civil right."

Asked if her beauty was in any way a hindrance in taking on the role of an ordinary small-town blue-collar worker, Theron noted that someone had asked her why, after her Academy Award-winning performance in Monster, she was doing "another ugly movie."

She said that she and the director never discussed Josey's looks but that she thought the character was quite pretty but didn't know it because life had beaten her down so much. The actress said she found it "somewhat outrageous" that so much emphasis was being placed on the physical looks of a character.

She also rebuffed questions about how she works up the emotions required to play such parts.

"It's a little bit like asking a magician 'How did you do the trick?' I don't think actors like talking about that.

"Sometimes it's private, whatever we draw on to get through to the emotion we have to, that's what we do."

As for the fact the film's cast includes three Oscar winning actresses - Theron, Frances McDormand (Fargo) and Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner's Daughter) - director Caro insisted there were no ego problems at all, that in fact it was a great privilege.

"Because, you know, you're watching the very best at work and you know collaborating with them on that performance, it was just a thrill from start to finish."

She said they never gave her a moment's anxiety and were all desperately down-to-earth.

"Not me, I bring my Oscar to work," quipped Theron, with Seitzman agreeing, adding that she would just plunk the statue down on the table and ask "Do you see this buddy?"

© The Canadian Press, 2005

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