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Charlize Theron fights sexual harassment in 'North Country'

Charlize Theron fights sexual harassment in 'North Country'

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HOLLYWOOD - "North Country," opening Oct. 21, stars Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes. The character is a composite of several female miners who were part of a successful class-action sexual-harassment suit filed against Eveleth Mines in northern Minnesota in 1988.

Theron may not seem an obvious choice to play a miner, but the actress defends her blue-collar casting. "I'm physically strong," she says. "I'm not scared of manual labor. I'm a farm girl at heart. I've got broad shoulders. I think I could handle a job like that."

Woody Harrelson, who plays the lawyer who files the suit, says, "When you watch the film you never doubt for a second what Charlize is doing. It's totally legitimate."

Their director, Niki Caro, rolls her eyes when the subject of Theron's beauty comes up. "Charlize and I never discussed it," she says. "We were entirely concerned with the insides of her character. There is a charming myth that every beautiful woman gets out of every small town and goes to Hollywood. That's farcical. Beautiful girls in small towns are the ones that get trapped first. They get married first and have children first.

"Charlize doesn't look unusual in Minnesota. That part of America was settled by unskilled labor from Northern Europe, Italy and Slovenia. You see Charlize types - willowy blonds with beautiful skin."

Disturbing moments occur regularly in "North Country." The most terrifying is set at the top of a gigantic conveyor belt rising 100 feet over the face of the iron-ore mine.

At the encouragement of her male supervisor, Aimes walks up the shutdown belt to get a full view of the mine in action. But when she gets to the top, she discovers the man is right behind her and about to assault her sexually. To frighten her further, he has arranged for the belt to start moving again.

"That happened to me," says Diane Hodge, who worked as a laborer at Eveleth Mines for 25 years and was one of the plaintiffs in the suit. She was a consultant on the movie.

Hodge recalls another incident not shown in the film. "I had fallen asleep in the lunch room on my break," she says, "and that same guy got down on his hands and knees and put his head between my legs, pretending he was performing oral sex. Two other men just sat there and let him do it.

"That was the day I realized I was on my own. When I turned him in, management tried to fire me. They followed me and haunted me. But nothing ever happened to him. He got a retirement party."

Hodge, who plays herself in a key union hall scene, was impressed with Theron's performance. "I think Charlize did us justice," she says. "She was very emotional, and she was right on."

Theron and Caro became acquainted two years ago when they were on the same promotion circuit with Caro's "Whale Rider" and Theron's "Monster." Theron won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Among her fellow nominees was "Whale Rider's" Keisha Castle-Hughes.

"I cast Charlize because of what I saw her do in `Monster,'" Caro says. "I felt the preoccupation with her weight gain and loss was insulting when the work she was doing as an actor was so stunning.

"I'm impressed by Charlize's strength of character, by how real and unaffected she is. She is a genuine star, but she sheds that so effortlessly. She's a great character actor. Her Oscar was very validating, and it validated her for the right role and the right reason."

Theron says she wanted to play Josey "because thanks to women like her, I get to work and live in a very safe environment. I respect women who come from harsher landscapes, where survival is much harder than in cities, because they don't wallow in self-pity. They have to survive, so they get up and move on."

When the film opens, Josey has just separated from her husband and is moving back to her parents' Minnesota home with her two children. Desperate to afford her own place, she signs on at the mine. Most men, including Josey's miner father, disapprove of this. The few women who work there suffer multiple indignities, but are too worried about losing their jobs to complain much. Eventually Josey takes the extra step.

"All Josey wanted in the beginning was a sexual-harassment policy," Hodge says, "but there was no way they'd give it to her. The strangest thing about the whole experience is that we just wanted to be women who could do our jobs. The greatest compliment was to be one of the guys. We were girls at home but boys at work."

"Josey is not the quintessentially strong person like Norma Rae, and she's not Erin Brockovich, who's witty and funny," Theron says. "When Josey goes to the boss, she doesn't have any words at the end. Her strength comes from knowing she has to provide for two kids."

To prepare for the role, Theron went to Minnesota and met Hodge and other female miners. "The thing that killed me was how much these women really loved their jobs and how good they were at them," she says. "It's very empowering to work in this place where they grew up, watching their grandfathers, fathers and brothers go to work and finding they could do it too."

Theron, who grew up in rural Benoni, outside Johannesburg, understands Josey's drive for independence. "I've always felt I could take care of myself," she says. "I remember going to boarding school when I was a teenager and getting into trouble. On Monday morning I'd be in the principal's office. All my friends would have their parents there, saying, My kid didn't do that.' I would wonder,Why can't my mother come and back me up?' But her philosophy was, `You got yourself in trouble. I had nothing to do with it. Now get yourself out of it.'"

In South Africa, Gerda Theron ran a road construction business with her husband, Charles. The family's fortunes changed when, one night in 1991, Gerda shot and killed Charles in self-defense. A year later, Charlize, then 16, won a modeling contest and moved to Italy.

"I lived all over Europe, studying ballet and also modeling," she says. "My mother told me, `I want you to go live a full life and experience all these things, but I'm not going to be supporting you. You're going to have to take care of yourself.' At the time I thought she was a horrible mother. But it was a great gift - the gift of being independent, to be who you are, to think for yourself, to speak for yourself."

Theron has had to deal with sexual harassment herself - the Hollywood "casting couch." "It was my first audition," she says. "I was told to go to a director's house at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, so I went, thinking maybe this is the kind of thing you do. He opened the door wearing pajamas. I walked in, and he offered me a drink. I instantly knew what his intentions were, and it was not an option for me. I feel grateful I have this personality, but a lot of women don't. That's why I can't sit back and say, `Things are great for me, therefore they're great for everybody else.'"

After her debut in "2 Days in the Valley," Theron was hired to play love interests in films like "The Legend of Bagger Vance," "The Devil's Advocate" and "The Astronaut's Wife."

"There's only so much you can do with the material you're given," Theron says. "A lot of films are very male-oriented, but this is a male-dominated industry. Let's not lie. I don't care what character I play as long as it's an honest exploration."

The turning point came in 2003 when director Patty Jenkins cast her in "Monster." "I couldn't change how people thought of me," Theron says. "I had to believe someone would come along and believe in me enough to give me a chance, and that's what happened."

Now, with an Oscar at home and a recent Emmy nod for her work in "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," Theron has moved to the Hollywood A-list. She is reportedly earning $10 million for starring in "Aeon Flux," a sci-fi adventure opening in December.

But she will continue to pick smaller projects that appeal to her. She's currently appearing in a five-episode arc on "Arrested Development." "I don't get to do comedy," she says, "and I love comedy. I think that show is incredibly well written and funny."

Since turning 30 in August, Theron has begun reassessing her life and goals. She lives with Irish actor Stuart Townsend, but insists they have no wedding plans.

"In my 20s I was very defensive and thought I knew everything," she says. "Then I took a hard look at myself and asked, `What are the things I don't like about myself?' Now I'm trying to change my stubbornness.

"I know what I want, and I know what I need. Acting is like therapy. I'm very lucky to go to work and deal with my demons. I think that's why I'm as healthy as I am. There's not a lot of stuff stored up in there that I don't deal with and evaluate very regularly through my work."


(c) 2005, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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