"I went there for three weeks and lived with the people," says Charlize Theron when I ask her to describe the "regional research" that went into her role as an Iron Range miner who leads a landmark sexual harassment suit in North Country, the fact-based Hollywood drama shot principally in our fair state. "God, we did everything with these women [miners in Eveleth]--we were with them all the time. And with the locals--that's all I did for three weeks. It was helpful to get the accent, to hear how people spoke, to see what they do, to see what they eat, to eat with them, to ask them whatever I wanted, to see some of these women interact with their kids, to ask the kids some questions. That stuff is so important. Because I'm a South African and Niki [Caro, who directed the film] is a New Zealander. So it was important for us to understand this place culturally. In many ways, [northern Minnesota] is very reminiscent of where I grew up in South Africa. I felt right at home."
Granted, a prosecuting attorney would likely solicit more concrete detail from Theron, a clearer sense of what "everything" between Iron Range women and an Academy Award-winning actress really involved. But the token Minnesota reporter on this L.A. studio junket is plenty satisfied with that answer, thanks in no small part to the supporting evidence onscreen. As in Monster, Theron fully inhabits the part of a working-class victim-turned-avenger. This she achieves not only through physical transformation (here, a pair of thick eyeglasses on a face smudged with the residue of taconite, the faint hint of a beer belly stretching her gray coveralls), but the sense she gives that behind the dirty face is a mind working overtime to calculate the moral and psychological cost of breadwinning under terrible duress. Or at least the sense she gives that the actress herself worked overtime to try to conceive of such pressure. In a thoroughly forgivable, even thrilling consequence of a real woman's 20-year ordeal being compressed into a two-hour message movie, Theron's Josey Aimes is repeatedly shown in front of the TV believing Anita Hill. And I, for one, believe Charlize Theron.
"I don't think you sift through anything as an actor," she says, her chosen metaphor suggesting that the materials of this particular job have left a mark. "We spent a lot of time in the mines. My character is the new girl who comes in and is made to do the dirty work--hosing and cleaning and carrying out buckets of gunk. I really wanted to know what it felt like to do that kind of work for 12 hours and then go home and try to raise two kids. That's really hard."
North Country may well be the first Minnesota movie to make extensive use of helicopter shots, taken to provide non-natives with the lay of the land. But in other ways it gets inside the body of work filmed here as earnestly as Theron occupies her character. Minnesota-movie vets, including Chris Mulkey (Patti Rocks) and Frances McDormand (you betcha), were offered supporting roles as part of what could easily be seen as a show of respect for our cinematic tradition. (Boy-from-the-north-country Bob Dylan was tapped to supply a half-dozen vintage tunes.) And, consciously or not, Caro seems to be channeling the independent spirit of Wildrose (1984), John Hanson and Sandra Schulberg's little-seen classic about the struggles of an Eveleth divorcée (Lisa Eichhorn) working among sexist men at the Iron Range's Mesabi Mine. (You can get a used VHS copy on Amazon--and you should.)
Theron says authenticity was important not only for the filmmakers to capture, but for longtime Range residents to feel and express. "We had a lot of locals [as extras]. Even in the union hall [scene, shot documentary-style], we made a point of saying [to them], 'Whatever you guys believe in, that's what you should say [on camera].' And when I went through the [hall], some men were crying. Because they went through that situation: If they stood up for the women, they lost their jobs as well. You know, it's very easy for us to sit here and say, 'Well, if that was me, I would have stood up, I would have said something [about the harassment].' But the circumstances are that you've got kids to feed, and [the bosses] are just waiting for you to say something, because that gives them a reason to fire you.
"We had a two-hour press conference within the first week that we were there, just to be clear about what we were there to do, so that [locals] weren't mystified and worried. We said, 'Hey, you know what? This [sexual harassment] wasn't something that was just happening in Minnesota. So instead of feeling ashamed, you guys should feel really proud, 'cause you were the ones who changed things for the better.' And from that moment on, we were all like pigs in a blanket, havin' a good time. It was really great."
THERON AND CARO will participate in a VIDEO-CONFERENCE Q&A after a 7:00 p.m. SCREENING of NORTH COUNTRY on WEDNESDAY at the REGAL EAGAN. A SCREENING at LAGOON CINEMA on SATURDAY at 1:30 p.m., sponsored by and benefiting Minnesota Women in Film and Television, will be followed by a PANEL DISCUSSION of sexual harassment in the workplace.