Theron was born in Benoni, in the then-Transvaal Province of South Africa, the only child of Gerda Jacoba Aletta (née Maritz) and Charles Jacobus Theron (born 27 November 1947). Second Boer War figure Danie Theron was her great-great-uncle. She is from an Afrikaner family, and her ancestry includes Dutch, as well as French and German; her French forebears were early Huguenot settlers in South Africa. "Theron" is an Occitan surname (originally spelled Théron) pronounced in Afrikaans as [tron].
She grew up on her parents' farm in Benoni, near Johannesburg. On 21 June 1991, Theron's father, an alcoholic, physically attacked her mother and threatened both her and her mother while drunk; Theron's mother then shot and killed him. The shooting was legally adjudged to have been self-defence, and so her mother faced no charges.
Theron attended Putfontein Primary School (Laerskool Putfontein), a period during which she has said she was not "fitting in." At thirteen, Theron was sent to boarding school and began her studies at the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg. Although Theron is fluent in English, her first language is Afrikaans.
Although seeing herself as a dancer, Theron at 16 won a one-year modelling contract at a local competition in Salerno and with her mother moved to Milan, Italy. After Theron spent a year modelling throughout Europe, she and her mother moved to the US, both New York City and Miami. In New York, she attended the Joffrey Ballet School, where she trained as a ballet dancer until a knee injury closed this career path. As Theron recalled in 2008:
"I went to New York for three days to model, and then I spent a winter in New York in a friend's windowless basement apartment. I was broke, I was taking class at the Joffrey Ballet, and my knees gave out. I realized I couldn't dance anymore, and I went into a major depression. My mom came over from South Africa and said, 'Either you figure out what to do next or you come home, because you can sulk in South Africa'."
At 19, Theron flew to Los Angeles, on a one-way ticket her mother bought for her, intending to work in the film industry. During the initial months there, she went to a Hollywood Boulevard bank to cash a cheque her mother had sent to help with the rent. When the teller refused to cash it, Theron engaged in a shouting match with him. Upon seeing this, talent agent John Crosby, waiting behind her, handed her his business card and subsequently introduced her to casting agents and also an acting school. She later fired him as her manager after he kept sending her scripts for films similar to Showgirls and Species. After several months in the city, she made her film debut with a non-speaking role in the horror film Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995). Her first speaking role was a supporting but significant and attention-garnering part as a hitwoman in 2 Days in the Valley (1996). Larger roles in widely released Hollywood films followed, and her career expanded in the late 1990s with box-office successes like The Devil's Advocate (1997), Mighty Joe Young (1998), and The Cider House Rules (1999). She was on the cover of the January 1999 issue of Vanity Fair as the "White Hot Venus". She also appeared on the cover of the May 1999 issue of Playboy magazine, in photos taken several years earlier when she was an unknown model; Theron unsuccessfully sued the magazine for publishing them without her consent.
She starred in five films in 2000: Reindeer Games, The Yards, The Legend of Bagger Vance and Men of Honor, Sweet November and was briefly considered a new "It girl". Theron has said of this period in her career that, "I kept finding myself in a place where directors would back me but studios didn't. [I began] a love affair with directors, the ones I really, truly admired. I found myself making really bad movies, too. Reindeer Games was not a good movie, but I did it because I loved John Frankenheimer."
After appearing in other films, Theron starred as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). Film critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema". For her role, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress at the 76th Academy Awards in February 2004, as well as the Screen Actors Guild Award and the Golden Globe Award. She is the first South African to win an Oscar for Best Actress. The Oscar win pushed her to The Hollywood Reporter's 2006 list of highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, earning US$10 million for both her subsequent films, North Country and Aeon Flux, she ranked seventh, behind Halle Berry, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Renée Zellweger, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. AskMen also named her the number one most desirable woman of 2003.
In 2005, Theron portrayed Rita, Michael Bluth's (Jason Bateman) love interest, on the third season of Fox's critically acclaimed television series Arrested Development. She also received Golden Globe Award and Primetime Emmy Award nominations for her role of Britt Ekland in the 2004 HBO film The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. On 30 September, Theron received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In the same year, she starred in the financially unsuccessful science fiction thriller Aeon Flux. She also received the 2005 Spike Video Game Award for Best Performance by a Human Female for her voiceover work in the Aeon Flux video game. Theron was listed for the role of Susan Storm in the film Fantastic Four (2005).
Theron received Best Actress Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations for her lead performance in the drama North Country. Ms. magazine also honoured her for this performance with a feature article in its Fall 2005 issue. She was supposed to star in the screen adaption of the short story The Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard, and it was to be directed by Kimberly Peirce and produced by Theron's company Denver and Delilah Productions (named after Theron's two dogs). Theron has owned the rights for many years. She was also supposed to star in a movie adaption of the graphic novel Jinx, but neither project has been produced yet.
In 2008, Theron was named the Hasty Pudding Theatricals Woman of the Year. That year she also starred with Will Smith in the superhero film Hancock, and in late 2008 she was asked to be a UN Messenger of Peace by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
On 4 December 2009, Theron co-presented the draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa, accompanied by several other celebrities of South African nationality or ancestry. During rehearsals she drew an Ireland ball instead of France as a joke at the expense of FIFA, referring to Thierry Henry's handball controversy in the play-off match between France and Ireland. The stunt alarmed FIFA enough for it to fear she might do it again in front of a live global audience.
Following a two-year hiatus from the big screen, Theron returned to the spotlight in 2011 with Young Adult. Directed by Jason Reitman, the film earned critical acclaim, especially for Theron's performance. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and several other awards. Theron then played the Evil Queen Ravenna, Snow White's evil stepmother, in the film Snow White and the Huntsman, which began production in 2011 and was released in 2012. In 2011, she described her process for becoming the characters in her film:
When I'm figuring out a character, for me it's easy, since once I say yes to something, I become super-obsessed about it – and I have an obsessive nature in general. How I want to play it starts at that moment. It's a very lonely, internal experience. I think about [the character] all the time – I observe things, I see things and file things [in my head], everything geared to what I'm going to do. I'm obsessed with the human condition. You read the script and become obsessed with [a character's] nature, her habits. When the camera rolls, it's time to do my job, to do the honest truth. You can't do that part of the [character-creation] work when you're [in the middle of] making the film. At least I can't.
In 2012, she starred in Ridley Scott's science fiction film Prometheus. In 2013, Vulture/NYMag named her the 68th Most Valuable Star in Hollywood saying: "We’re just happy that Theron can stay on the list in a year when she didn’t come out with anything … any actress who’s got that kind of skill, beauty, and ferocity ought to have a permanent place in Hollywood."
In 2015, Theron played Libby Day, the lead character in the film adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel Dark Places, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Theron also had a producer credit. The same year, Theron also starred as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), opposite Tom Hardy.
Theron reprised her role as Queen Ravenna in the fantasy epic The Huntsman: Winter's War, a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman. The film was released on 22 April 2016.
She is to appear in an adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City being directed by David Leitch. Production started in November 2015.
The Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP) was created in 2007 by Theron, a UN Messenger of Peace, in an effort to support African youth in the fight against HIV/AIDS. CTAOP's mission is to help keep African youth safe from HIV/AIDS. The project is committed to supporting community-engaged organizations that address the key drivers of the disease. Although the geographic scope of CTAOP is Sub-Saharan Africa, the primary concentration has mostly been Charlize's home country of South Africa. CTAOP's approach is based on the belief that community-based organizations on the ground understand the social and structural relationships of their communities better than anyone. By supporting these organizations through grant giving, networking, and spotlighting their work, CTAOP enables communities to mobilize and empower themselves to prevent HIV.
In 2008, Theron was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace. In his citation, Ban Ki-Moon said of Theron "You have consistently dedicated yourself to improving the lives of women and children in South Africa, and to preventing and stopping violence against women and girls." She recorded a public service announcement in 2014 as part of their Stop Rape Now program.
In December 2009, CTAOP and TOMS Shoes partnered to create a limited edition unisex shoe. The shoe was made from vegan materials and inspired by the African baobab tree, the silhouette of which was embroidered on blue and orange canvas. Ten-thousand pairs were given to destitute children, and a portion of the proceeds went to CTAOP.
Theron is involved in women's rights organizations and has marched in pro-choice rallies. Theron also is a supporter of animal rights and active member of PETA. She appeared in a PETA ad for its anti-fur campaign.
Theron is a supporter of same-sex marriage and attended a march and rally to support that in Fresno, California, on 30 May 2009. She has publicly stated that she refuses to get married until same sex marriage is legal in the United States. Theron commented on the subject matter, saying: "I don't want to get married because right now the institution of marriage feels very one-sided, and I want to live in a country where we all have equal rights. I think it would be exactly the same if we were married, but for me to go through that kind of ceremony, because I have so many friends who are gays and lesbians who would so badly want to get married, that I wouldn't be able to sleep with myself." Theron further elaborated on her stance in a June 2011 interview on Piers Morgan Tonight. She stated: "I do have a problem with the fact that our government hasn't stepped up enough to make this federal, to make [gay marriage] legal. I think everybody has that right."
In March 2014, CTAOP was among the charities that benefited from the annual Fame and Philanthropy fundraising event on the night of the 86th Academy Awards. Theron was an honoured guest along with Halle Berry and keynote speaker James Cameron.
In 2015, Theron signed an open letter which the ONE Campaign had been collecting signatures for; the letter was addressed to Angela Merkel and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, urging them to focus on women as they serve as the head of the G7 in Germany and the AU in South Africa respectively, which will start to set the priorities in development funding before a main UN summit in September 2015 that will establish new development goals for the generation.
Having signed a deal with John Galliano in 2004, Theron replaced Estonian model Tiiu Kuik as the spokeswoman in the "J'Adore" advertisements by Christian Dior. From October 2005 to December 2006, Theron earned US$3 million for the use of her image in a worldwide print media advertising campaign for Raymond Weil watches. In February 2006, she and her loan-out corporation were sued by Weil for breach of contract. The lawsuit was settled on 4 November 2008.
In 2007, Theron became a naturalized citizen of the United States, while retaining her South African citizenship.
Theron has two children, both adopted. In March 2012 she adopted a boy, whom she named Jackson. In July 2015 she adopted a girl, whom she named August. She lives in Los Angeles.
While filming Aeon Flux in Berlin, Germany, Theron suffered a herniated disc in her neck, caused by a fall while filming a series of back handsprings. It required her to wear a neck brace for a month. In July 2009, she was diagnosed with a serious stomach virus, thought to be contracted while overseas. While filming The Road, Theron injured her vocal cords during the labour screaming scenes.