The actress tells Screen about staying true to the complex, self-absorbed woman at the heart of Young Adult.

“I don’t think I ever thought I could do it,” says Charlize Theron of playing Mavis Gary in Jason Reitman’s dark comedy Young Adult. It is easy to see why: the self-absorbed ghostwriter is a toxic avenger on a mission to reclaim a popular former self, and it is difficult to feel pity as she heads back to her home town plotting to steal her high-school sweetheart. But unappealing as she is, we can’t look away. Mavis is a compelling car wreck of a character, and Theron steers into the crash barriers of her life quite brilliantly.

“I saw great potential but it was tricky material. I saw how this is a character who walks a tightrope so it would be tricky to stay truthful to her core, which is not a very attractive human being,” says Theron, who won the best actress Oscar in 2004 for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

“[Mavis] has the potential to show the human condition — we all have some of her attributes.

“She wasn’t that far-fetched to me,” the actress continues. “I’ve met a lot of women like her with that sense of loneliness and emptiness and how she goes through this world and nobody has emotionally checked in with her. She felt entitled, felt the world owed her. These were interesting human behaviours that you don’t often get to explore.”

‘I knew we had to keep Mavis grounded and not go for the jokes or turn her into a caricature’

Charlize Theron

Just six weeks after director Reitman gave her Diablo Cody’s script in autumn 2010, Theron was in upstate New York shooting the film. The actress says she feels lucky to have worked with Reitman. “I like what he does with actors and, God, he doesn’t disappoint,” she says. “Very few people have this understanding of the human condition — he has it in bucket loads. We work in very similar ways — we don’t like rehearsals and we don’t like a lot of fuss. His instincts were right on. I was impressed to see him so in tune with a character like this. He knew how to make her a person. I’d work with him again in a heartbeat.”

Theron also bonded with Patton Oswalt — who plays Matt Freehauf, a damaged-goods high-school alumnus who soon becomes a drinking buddy — over the first table reading at Reitman’s house. “We had great chemistry,” Theron says. It wasn’t until three weeks into shooting that she finally met Cody, when the screenwriter visited the set during the mother of all meltdown scenes. “That was,” she says slowly, “intimidating.”

Theron was absent from the screen for a couple of years while she sat on the sidelines as George Miller’s latest Mad Max film Mad Max: Fury Road for Warner Bros, to which she was attached to star, was delayed. “Contractually I was on hold,” she says, “and that project kept on getting pushed… I wasn’t really allowed to look at anything else.” Fury Road is set to go next spring and Theron has two 2012 releases in the form of Snow White And The Huntsman and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

Yet Mavis might just be the one that sticks in the mind most clearly, perhaps because she seems so painfully real.

“I knew we had to keep her grounded and not go for the jokes or turn her into a caricature,” says Theron, who has even envisaged a future for the character in which she takes off with Sandra, the live-in sister of her friend Freehauf. “I have jokingly said there would be a tremendous sequel with Sandra and Mavis driving across the Midwest in a fucked-up Mini Cooper.”