I'm the Imperator Now: Rise of the Actress-Producer
It’s no secret that roles for women tend to dry up once they hit a certain age, and the reasons for that are pretty clear to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the film industry. Hollywood is largely run by men, especially at the decision making level: studio executives, writers, directors, and producers are predominantly male, creating a disproportionate focus on men’s stories and male characters. To some extent, it’s understandable: it’s much easier to tell stories about what you know and what relates to you, so naturally the subjects of most films will track with the demographics of the people in charge of making them. The problem comes when the pipeline for storytelling is closed off to new perspectives, and unfortunately, the barrier to entry for women in these roles has historically been artificially high.
While some, like Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie, and Elizabeth Banks have turned to directing, in recent years, a number of A-list actresses have leveraged their star power to refashion themselves as producers. By taking advantage of their clout to develop female-driven narratives, they have not only taken charge of their careers, but they’ve also begun reshaping the industry in their own image.
In a way, Charlize Theron is a perfect case study of an actress who radically reshaped her career by stepping behind the camera. In the first eight years or so following her uncredited 1995 debut in Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (a legendary title, a not-so-legendary direct-to-video release), she embarked on a well-worn path familiar to many up-and-coming actresses. Despite her obvious talents and striking looks, she spent the late 90s and early 2000s largely playing thankless love interest roles in movies like That Thing You Do!, Trial and Error, and The Cider House Rules, few of which gave her any opportunity to stretch her acting muscles. She fares slightly better in The Devil’s Advocate, elevating what could be a stock “neglected wife” role by matching the completely bonkers energy of the film and co-star Al Pacino—an early indication of her facility working in a highly stylized milieu. But this early stage of her career could be fairly characterized as a near-decade of steady work in inconsistently received projects. They ranged from a Best Picture nominee (Cider House) to notorious flops (Reindeer Games), but few of them offered more than a glimpse of the tremendous onscreen force she would become.
It wasn’t until her one-two punch of The Italian Job and Monster in 2003 that Charlize Theron firmly entered the A-List. My colleague Zach D’Amico has already covered Theron’s standout work in The Italian Job, and Monster features a transformative performance that won her a well-deserved Oscar on her first nomination. But Monster is also significant for a different reason—it marks the first time that Charlize took on the role of producer.
After getting fed up with the sweetheart love interest parts and salacious Showgirls-esque scripts she was being offered, Theron jumped at the chance to play the complicated, morally-ambiguous role of serial killer Aileen Wournos in Patty Jenkins’s debut feature. As producer, Theron was able to use her star clout to secure financing and distribution for Monster and protect Jenkins from interference. The result wasn’t just an Oscar and a plumb role; her influence helped protect the project’s integrity (Roger Ebert named it his best film of 2003) and sparked Theron’s passion for pursuing stories about complicated, damaged, and unlikeable women in all their messy reality--which would become a throughline in her entire filmography.
Monster should have unlocked a new phase of Theron’s career, opening up a whole new world of possibilities in indie dramas as well as major blockbusters. She was unquestionably a star, and she remained well-respected as an actress, earning a follow-up Oscar nomination for North Country. But throughout the mid to late 2000s, Theron went almost five years without a major hit or critical smash. Things improved in the 2010s--her star power continued to grow, and she had a run of major successes. But even as Theron turned in some of her most acclaimed work, her personal creative impact on many of those films was more muted.
In the last few years, however, Theron has taken greater control of her career, producing every film she’s starred in since 2017 but one, and she’s even branched out to produce projects that she is not an actor in, including David Fincher’s Mindhunter. During that time period, she’s continued to cement her status as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, and her authorial voice has become increasingly apparent in her work. Sure, she’s gotten multiple enviable roles and earned a third Oscar nomination for herself in the process, but in doing so she’s helped to shape complex and engaging characters across a variety of genres and reshaped our idea of what women can be on screen. Freed from the restrictions of Hollywood’s reductive and impossible likability standards for women, she’s able to deepen genres and roles in which women don’t often get enough attention or space to do that—a femme fatale in an action thriller, a “love interest” in a comedy, a postpartum mother, Megyn Kelly—thanks to Theron’s influence, all of them have far greater emotional depths than they typically have on screen.
Of course, Charlize Theron is far from the only A-list actress to have radically refashioned herself as a producer and given her entire career a second wind. Reese Witherspoon, another Oscar-winning actress who found herself in a similar career slump in the late 2000s, took matters into her own hands and began developing her own projects in the mid-2010s. Even after she was passed over for the lead role in Gone Girl, a film she championed and developed from its inception, she soldiered on and continued developing literary adaptations from female authors. The last decade of Witherspoon’s career has been littered with treasures like 2014’s Wild, which earned Witherspoon a long-awaited second Oscar nomination, and HBO’s runaway success Big Little Lies, which provided career-highlight roles not just for Witherspoon, but also for co-stars Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep—a true embarrassment of acting riches. That these projects exist at all and that they present such an abundance of exciting roles for some of our finest actresses are both thanks to Witherspoon’s tenacity as a producer.
The efforts of actress-producers like Charlize Theron and Reese Witherspoon have obviously had an impact on what we’ve seen on screen, but their more lasting influence may be as trailblazers for the next generation of actresses who have asserted themselves as producers. The best example is probably Margot Robbie, who shaped herself a dynamic role in an electric film with I, Tonya, took the reins of her biggest blockbuster success in Birds of Prey, and—like Theron—branched out to produce projects she’s not in, like the upcoming Carey Mulligan-starrer Promising Young Woman.
Regardless of how long it’s taken for actresses to be welcomed alongside their male counterparts among the ranks of producers (answer: too long), it’s heartening to see this shift happening in real time. We’ve watched these women improve some of our favorite films on screen for decades, so why shouldn’t they also get the chance to shape those stories behind the camera as well? The only risk of diversifying the pool of producing talent is ending up with different kinds of stories, and if Theron, Witherspoon, and Robbie’s influence is any indication, that can only be a good thing.