The title of Mad Max: Fury Road refers to Max Rockatansky, first played by Mel Gibson more than 30 years ago in director George Miller's original Mad Max trilogy, and now played by Tom Hardy in Miller's long-anticipated reboot. Max, who is struggling to survive in a lethal, postapocalyptic wasteland ravaged by barbaric warlords, has become something of a cinema icon, and a symbol of a kind of stripped-down, primal masculinity.
Anyone who has paid attention to the movie's posters and trailers, however, understands that another brand-new character in Mad Max: Fury Road is just as vital to the story, and has the possibility to become just as iconic: Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. In many cases, in fact, the Oscar-winning actor's face is more prominent in Fury Road's marketing than Hardy's.
But, as Miller explained to BuzzFeed News in March, he always meant for the two characters to be equals in the film. The story takes off when Furiosa, one of the most trusted lieutenants of the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), betrays him, setting off a chain of events that ultimately brings her to Max, who has been captured by a pack of Joe's War Boys. "She's the one who decides to escape [Joe] as [Max] is reduced to being a wild captive animal,” said Miller. “She initiates the events of the story. He has got this more powerful, immediate, visceral motive. She's basically a female road warrior. He's the one who undergoes most change. … They're pretty equal."
In the film, both Max and Furiosa are people of few words — in part out of necessity, as Miller fashioned the film's relentlessly action-driven plot by first creating a massive trove of meticulous storyboards, and only then crafting a loose script with screenwriters Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris. So for Furiosa, who’s embroiled in the same breakneck vehicular battles and breathlessly gonzo stunts as Max, Miller knew he would need an actor who could handle a role driven almost entirely by physical action.
"Tom was a rugby player, very skilled physically, but Charlize began a career in ballet," he said. "So she's incredibly precise physically. I've worked with dancers on [the animated feature] Happy Feet, so I got to know just how precise they have to be, and how quickly they learn. And she was able to do that."
It's become something of a trope of action cinema that a major character originally written as a man is recast with a female actor instead. But given her motivations for betraying Immortan Joe — without spoiling too much, it has to do with liberating Joe's captive wives — Miller explained that Furiosa was always conceived as a woman. "Her role could not be played by a man," he said. "However, her behavior, because she's an extreme warrior under extreme duress, is what we'd normally think of [as] male behavior. I mean, she has to be tough. Really tough."
So tough, in fact, that Miller said he had been concerned the character might lose the innate femininity he needed Furiosa to have — another reason, he said, for casting Theron. "She's unmistakably a woman," he said. "So she's not afraid to shave her hair. She doesn't have to do anything to soften herself. I found this with great actors, that they don't mind going to the dark side, because somewhere deep inside, they're confident of their humanity."
"And somehow a character’s come out of it that I don't think I've seen before in cinema," Miller continued. "The closest to it would be Ripley in Alien. I can't think of another."
Theron proved to be so commanding a presence in the film that Miller said he was thrown when he saw her for the first time after the film's seven-month shoot in Namibia had wrapped. "It's weird seeing Charlize now with long hair," he said with a chuckle. "I'd been staring at her for so long as this character. … There's something about her, in Charlize, in who she is as a person. You know, she is Furiosa."