Charlize Theron, returning to the screen after a three-year absence in the black comedy Young Adult, really isn't dark and heavy like many of her film characters. The Oscar-winning actress tells John Hiscock that she's at peace with the highs and lows of her life.
It is a subject Charlize Theron has been mulling over for a long time.
"I think happiness is a bit overrated," she says, and talks about her school days, when boys she had a crush on didn't know she existed.
"I played the song Tears on My Pillow over and over," she says, "and I felt like it was the end of the world because I didn't have a boyfriend. It was just so heartbreaking."
The tall, stunningly attractive blonde actress is again without a boyfriend, but this time she is coming to terms with the situation and even enjoying it.
Her 10-year romance with the actor Stuart Townsend recently ended and although she says she fought at first to keep it alive she is now reconciled to her new, unattached life.
"I've been in two serious relationships from the time I was 19 and I'm single for the first time in my life since then," Theron says, "but there's something really powerful in being OK with being alone, especially for women. I'm really at peace with this and feeling good about it."
Reuniting with Townsend is out of the question. "I've never reconnected with an ex and I feel that once I'm done, I'm really done," she says.
However, the dating world of the single woman is a new experience for the 36-year-old Theron, who before meeting Townsend was romantically involved with the musician Stephan Jenkins.
"I don't think I've actually been on a date with somebody I didn't know," she says. "I've been on dates with my boyfriend, of course, but I've never really dated. Is that weird? Did I just say something that makes me sound like a complete freak?" She laughs at the thought.
Then she turns serious when we start discussing happiness.
"I don't know a world where you can be happy all the time and I think that's what makes happiness actually happy," she says. "If you were happy all the time you wouldn't appreciate it. You have to kind of go through the highs and the lows to really appreciate the highs, so I don't really set out to be happy, I set out to be at peace with whatever the moment is I'm in. If it's a low moment, I'm at peace with it and sit in it and it will pass and then a high moment will come along."
Theron is talking in a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on New York's Central Park South. She is wearing a white cardigan over a black top with tight black leather trousers. Refreshingly, she claims not to know the designer but thinks her shoes are by Jimmy Choo, although she's not sure.
She is on a flying visit from London, where she is having fun playing the Evil Queen in Snow White & the Huntsman.
"I love the whole extravaganza of it all," she says. "I have photos on my phone and I'm showing them to my friends saying 'This is my castle', and 'This is my throne'. I'm like a 12-year-old and it's really, really great."
She has a cool confidence that makes it difficult to get close to the real Theron but she has a strong sense of humour that frequently gets the better of the façade and causes her to burst out laughing, and she has no qualms about making fun of herself. That trait comes across in Young Adult, her first film in three years, in which she plays Mavis, a self-absorbed alcoholic writer who returns to her hometown to try to win back her married high school boyfriend. As played by Theron she is an unpleasant but indelible character whose unravelling makes embarrassing and painful viewing.
It is another remarkable transformation for the actress who has a reputation for disappearing into the characters she plays, and now that she has returned to work she has several other projects in the offing. As well as Snow White & the Huntsman she will soon be seen in Prometheus, described as a "prequel" to Alien, and is waiting to begin filming Mad Max 4: Fury Road in Namibia.
Along with Mavis in Young Adult, the characters are all vastly different, bearing no relationship whatsoever to her real self, and that's just the way she likes it.
"I have no desire to see Charlize up there on the screen," she laughs. "When I do, that's the day I quit. I love finding these people who have nothing really to do with me."
Theron has worked hard to get where she is now, and her early career was a series of a few highs and a lot of lows. But since winning the Oscar and the Golden Globe in 2003 for her chilling portrayal of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, she has been on an almost permanent high. She earned another Oscar nomination in 2005 for playing an abused single mother in North Country, and is now firmly on Hollywood's A-list of sought-after actresses.
Although some of her early roles were bland and forgettable, the South African-born Theron is anything but; her history would make a film in itself. She grew up on her family's farm in the rural town of Benoni with 10 dogs and her "best friend", a goat named Bok. For years she maintained that her father, Charles Theron, who ran his own road construction company, died in a 1991 car accident. But after rumours began to surface and gossip spread, she finally revealed that he was an abusive alcoholic who was shot and killed by his wife, Gerda, after he attacked her in a drunken rage in their farmhouse while their then-15-year-old daughter watched. Authorities ruled it a justifiable homicide and the case never went to trial.
Her mother took over the family business, and remarried but separated from her second husband after the death of her stepson Denver in a car accident. Her mother now lives near her in Los Angeles and they speak almost every day.
"I really feel it's nobody's business," Theron says of her tragic family history. "I don't need to share that information with the world."
Theron began studying ballet at the age of 6, danced professionally in Johannesburg, and at 16 won a contract with an Italian modelling agency. She moved to Milan and spent the next year travelling around Europe before moving to New York where she studied with the Joffrey Ballet until a knee injury put an end to her dancing career.
She moved to Los Angeles, worked as a film extra and, in a story to rival Lana Turner's legendary discovery at Schwab's drugstore, was spotted by the talent manager John Crosby as she was throwing a tantrum at a bank clerk who was refusing to cash her cheque.
In a lucky career move, she was pipped to the post by Elizabeth Berkley for the lead in the disastrous Showgirls and then in 1996 made a memorable film debut as a scantily clad, gun-toting hit-woman in 2 Days in the Valley. Her image was plastered across billboards and she became the instant new "It" girl but refused to cash in on her image. Fighting against stereotype, she appeared in Tom Hanks's directing debut, That Thing You Do! and then impressed critics as Keanu Reeves's tortured wife in The Devil's Advocate.
She had plenty of disappointments along the way and had become accustomed to being passed over for roles because producers thought she was "too pretty". She had secured the part of Roxie Hart in Chicago when Nicholas Hytner was attached to direct, but when he left and Rob Marshall took over, she had to audition again and this time the role went to Renee Zellweger. Theron also had the lead in Sweet Home Alabama but was bumped in favour of Reese Witherspoon after Witherspoon proved herself a comedy star with Legally Blonde.
But Monster propelled her into the Hollywood firmament. When a trailer for the film was shown for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival, the audience waited perplexedly for Theron to appear on screen.
It was only when the trailer was almost over that the penny dropped and people realised that the awkward, lumbering figure of the lesbian-prostitute-serial killer Wuornos was indeed the beautiful actress.
"I think a lot of people have an assumption that because my work is sometimes very dark and heavy, that is who I am, but it's so not me," she says. "The first thing directors always tell me is: 'Wow, I had no idea that you were actually not dark and heavy and that you have a sense of humour', which I always find so ironic.
"I think of myself as having a pretty twisted sense of humour and I learnt at a very young age that humour really and truly was the best way to look at the darker, nastier, heavier things in life."
Theron has her own production company, with projects ranging from films to reality TV, and is the spokeswoman for Christian Dior's J'adore. She is a supporter of a number of charitable causes and spends a lot of time on her foundation, Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, which is aimed at reducing HIV/Aids and sexual violence among African youth. She is also involved in women's rights organisations, and has marched in pro-choice and marriage equality rallies.
Unlike some of her contemporaries, she is aware and appreciative of the good fortune that enables her to pick her projects and spend time on things that interest and stimulate her.
"The ultimate luxury in my life is the ability to have a job that isn't work and not to have to work to pay my bills," she says. "I'm incredibly grateful of that and there's not a day goes by that I don't understand how fortunate I am and how many actors are not in that position and have to struggle because it is a means to their survival.
"To be in a position where I can take three years off and not have to do that is such a luxury that I'm incredibly grateful for."
Young Adult is scheduled to open in UAE cinemas on February 23.
Charlize Theron has had a rocky relationship with her native country's former president Nelson Mandela.
The actress cried with joy two weeks after her Monster Oscar win in 2004 when she met Mandela in Johannesburg.
"I love you so much," Theron said when she met him at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in the capital.
Mandela was equally effusive, saying the star "has put South Africa on the map. Even those who were ignorant of South Africa, having seen her, they must know now that there is a country like South Africa".
Five years later, Mandela's foundation rebuked Theron after she auctioned off - without permission - a meeting with him.
At the October 2009 auction in San Francisco, to raise money for the OneXOne children's foundation, Theron's lot included a trip to South Africa for the 2010 Fifa World Cup finals and a meeting with Mandela. When bidding stalled at US$37,000 (Dh136,908), she added a 20-second kiss with her to the mix.
A female fan ultimately paid US$140,000 for the package and received her kiss, but days later the Mandela foundation said Theron had no right to offer an encounter with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
"A very strict process needs to followed to get a meeting with Mandela," the foundation's chief executive, Achmat Dangor, told Beeld, an Afrikaans-language newspaper. "Not even the charity foundations Mandela himself established are allowed to auction off time with him."
In a statement to the Daily Telegraph, a spokeswoman for Theron said: "In an effort to raise money at a charity auction and with the excitement of the night, Charlize Theron added a meeting with Nelson Mandela to a South Africa travel package without checking in advance with the former president's office. Unfortunately, it turns out that a meeting with Mr Mandela is not possible. The very generous donor who successfully bid on the package is aware and everyone is thrilled with the success of the evening."
BORN August 7, 1975, Benoni, South Africa
SCHOOLING Putfontein Primary School; National School for the Arts, Johannesburg
FAMILY Mother, Gerda
FIRST JOB Working on a farm
LAST BOOKS READ Bossypants by Tina Fey, Devil in the White City by Erik Larsson
LISTENING TO "I'm always listening to music. I find myself buying music from bands and artists that I've never heard of and I have mixes on my iPod from artists I don't know."
BIG BREAK Portraying the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster
FIRST CRUSH Johan Botha, high school classmate
COMPANIONS Dogs Blue (a pit bull), Berkeley (a border terrier puppy)
HOBBY Cooking for friends
GUILTY PLEASURE Watching reality TV