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Theron takes on another tough role

Charlize Theron's first major role in three years (yes, since "Hancock," since "The Burning Plain") finds the actress in fine form.

Actually, scratch that. It finds Theron in terrible form. In "Young Adult," an uncomfortable comedy from the "Juno" team of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, Theron is Mavis Gary, a boozing, depressed ghostwriter for a tween girls book series.

Mavis staggers around her Minneapolis high-rise apartment like a zombie in sweats, stuffing her face with junk food, trolling the Internet -- anything to avoid writing. And then she gets an email with an announcement -- her high school beau and his wife have had a baby.

This news sends Mavis into a profound funk -- followed shortly thereafter by a profoundly bad idea. She's going to go back to her little hometown and steal Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) from his new family, destroy his marriage, reclaim what's rightfully hers. She piles into her Mini Cooper, pops in a mix tape and heads for hicksville. All sorts of destructive, obsessive, disastrous behavior follows.

"Mavis really has this incredible loneliness, that's where all of this stems from," says Theron about the messed-up woman she plays in "Young Adult." Theron, winner of the best actress Academy Award for her grueling turn as a serial killer in 2004's "Monster," is generating Oscar buzz again for this latest role.

But back to the loneliness, the emptiness.

"I think that's what people connect with," Theron said recently on the phone from New York. "Because there are things that she does that we might not connect with -- that are, in fact, pretty despicable. She does stuff that is hard to watch. But this foundation of loneliness and this lack of a tool set to deal with these very adult issues. I think that's moving, and relatable, and also very entertaining."

Some of the most moving and entertaining parts of Reitman's film come when Theron's Mavis strikes up a friendship with a townie she meets in a bar -- and who had watched her longingly, and invisibly, back in their old high school days. Comedian Patton Oswalt plays this guy, who comes with his own emotional -- and physical -- handicaps.

"I had never met Patton before," Theron says. "And he's incredible. Funny, perceptive. And his character is kind of ethically there, whereas Mavis has thrown her ethics out the window."

Theron says that she had wanted to work with filmmaker Reitman since she first saw his George Clooney/Vera Farmiga dramedy "Up in the Air" in 2009. The actress ran into Reitman at the 2010 Oscar ceremonies, and "I just did a very embarrassing thing where I had to let him know how much I loved his film," she recalls. "I gushed."

Three months later, Reitman spotted Theron across the tables in a Hollywood restaurant.

"That's when he told me about the script," she says. "And then he sent it to me, and I said yes."

Yes, but with trepidation.

"It scared me -- not in the sense of the subject matter, but more in the sense that I better not [mess] this up." She laughs. "Like, can I actually pull this off?"

But Theron "definitely saw all the potential that this character had. For me, it always takes a little while to figure things out. I had to sit with it a bit, think about it and daydream about it and get scared of it and say, 'No, no, I don't think so,' and then 'Yes, OK!' "

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