On most days, Charlize Theron would sit pretty high on any list of the world's most beautiful movie stars. But when the blond and blue-eyed model-turned-actress stomps through the back door of this central Florida city's seedy biker bar Last Resort, she's utterly unrecognizable.
Theron has been here for the past month playing Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos in a new independent film, "Monster." And she's got the look down cold. The hair, the eyes, the teeth, the big-boned walk, the scowl; in character, Theron doesn't so much smoke a cigarette as assault it, crushing the butt into her mouth so hard that you fear for the filter.
"The look is very important, because what she had on her face was her life, what she's been dealing with all her life," Theron says during a break from shooting. She sounds fatigued and allows a little of her South African accent to slip through. "She was a public figure too. People know what she looked like. I had to look right."
And if the draining long-days, long-nights shoot shows up on screen, well, "that's authentic too. This woman had an incredibly hard life. It made her what she was."
In 1989-90, Wuornos killed as many as seven men who picked her up as she hitchhiked across north and central Florida. She was convicted of six murders (the body of the seventh was never found) and executed in October 2002.
The hard life that the filmmakers want to focus on, the thing that led up to the killing spree, is well-documented. Wuornos was raped at 14, living on the streets by 15, and claimed during her trials that the men she killed raped and beat her. Her first victim had a criminal history of sexual assault.
But prosecutors described her as a "predatory prostitute." And in her last months, she wrote the Orlando Sentinel and said, "I killed in pure hate, robbing along the way."
The art of uglying up
Turning Theron, 28, the star of "Reindeer Games," "The Cider House Rules" and "Mighty Joe Young" into the not-so-pretty Wuornos took special-effects help from the "Planet of the Apes" team.
"Apes" dental effects guy Art Sakamoto made some very convincing bad teeth. And Apes makeup artist Toni G. has been on the set every day and night, uglying Theron up.
"She's got this beautiful face, but she's a very brave woman, because you've got to have the weight in order for the jowls to look right," Toni G. says. Theron put on 20 to 25 pounds, donned dull brown contacts and ratted her hair. "And she let me mutilate her eyebrows, which changes the whole look of her eyes. It's an hourlong process just to get the skin discolorations and all. You could never do something like that with an actress who isn't totally willing to go for it."
Theron says that she's spent her career, up to now, "looking for those scripts with just three big scenes in them. But this movie, every moment is big, wrenching. Things like this never come my way. Never."
It's a violent story that, according to reports from the set, has been told unflinchingly. But if sense memory is any help to performance, Theron has her own trauma to draw on. Her mother shot and killed her father in self-defense in South Africa when she was 15.
There's also career savvy at play here -- the hopes for a Hilary Swank-"Boys Don't Cry" breakthrough performance. "Gorgeous actresses are willing to de-prettify themselves at least once in their careers because it can result in Academy Awards," critic Joe Queenan wrote.
"If she pulls this off, and I think she will, she's set herself up for a very long career in this business," says co-star Bruce Dern. "This is a career-making role."
"Aileen's not gone, she's back," says director Patty Jenkins, echoing Wuornos' threatening last words just before her execution. "She's channeling through Charlize."
Jenkins, 31, a first-time feature director, says she started thinking about making the $10-million movie "when I saw this woman, sobbing in the courtroom as her girlfriend testified against her, I saw someone very different from the way the media portrayed her." Christina Ricci plays a version of Tyria Moore, Wuornos' lover, who knew of the killings and who turned on her in court.
" "She wasn't a serial killer like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer," Jenkins said. "She was a victim, but also someone who did these horrible things. There was a bigger tragic story here that hadn't been told. And a love story."
A killer -- and a victim
There's already been a 1992 TV movie -- "Overkill," starring Jean Smart. There was also an opera based on Wuornos. Jenkins, who corresponded with Wuornos, sought a deeper truth and portrays her as a remorseless killer and a lifelong victim.
"What Patty did, with her research and in corresponding with Aileen, seeing other private letters that have never been made public, was see below the surface," says producer Clark Peterson. "Patty realized that Aileen was not a purely evil person. She had a whole life before she got to the place she did."
The production crew has been traveling light and moving fast on the five-week shoot. They have been through three cinematographers as they dashed from Daytona Beach and Port Orange to Winter Park, Kissimmee and Orlando, in some of the very places that Wuornos hung out.
The filmmakers have tried to keep a low profile because they say they have been worried about backlash from the families of Wuornos' seven victims. Filming concluded last week, but the film, which follows Wuornos into court and beyond, still doesn't have a U.S. distribution deal.
"This did not have to happen," says Dern, who is playing a fictional character, a war-vet biker who befriends Wuornos. "All that had to happen was one person in her life putting an arm around her."
Roger Moore is a staff writer for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune company.