September 10, 2004 06:00 AM

Right before she was injured Aug. 30 on the set of her upcoming movie Aeon Flux, it seemed the most dangerous stunt Oscar winner Charlize Theron attempted was costarring in a film with her real-life boyfriend, Stuart Townsend. Still, the South African-born actress (who’s on the mend after injuring her neck while performing stunts for Flux) brushed off any fears of Bennifer-style repercussions from playing opposite Townsend in the steamy new World War II romance Head in the Clouds (opening Sept. 17). Then there’s her other Clouds love interest: Theron also shares a bed and locks lips onscreen with Penelope Cruz. Before her accident, Theron, 29, talked about balancing real-life and fictional romance.

How much time did you and Stuart work separately on this film?
Not that much. We kind of dived into that together. Rehearsals, we were always together.

Is it easier to be intimate with someone onscreen if you’re involved in real life?
The reason that I thought Stuart and I could bring something with our relationship to this material was because it’s not just a relationship about love. It’s really about the opposite – the deconstructing. She’s the manipulator in many ways. I found myself having to get him to a place where he was truly affected, to have his heart completely ripped out of his chest. Being his girlfriend, I have that power. I had to kind of abuse it a little bit in this movie.

Why is it often difficult for a film to star real-life couples?
I think it’s sometimes hard for people to get around when they watch a movie and they know that you’re in a relationship. There’s the fear of it becoming the people that you know as celebrities onscreen.

So, are you and Stuart looking to work together again soon?
No. I think that this came very organically. It wasn’t planned. It was something that he was going to do and then there was a shot for me to do it. I love working with him. Putting aside that I’m biased and he’s my boyfriend, I think that he’s a phenomenal actor, and I’m always up for working with great actors.

You both also have a passionate onscreen relationship with Penelope Cruz. How was it working with her?
Amazing. Amazing. If she called me tomorrow, I’d do anything with her. She’s an incredible actor. Most of the time you only have to deal with the fact that there’s one love interest. In this, it was so important for the three of us to have a great chemistry with each other.

"Putting aside that I'm biased and he's my boyfriend, I think that he's a phenomenal actor," Theron says of Stuart Townsend.

After winning your Oscar for Monster this year, have you felt pressured to take the right roles?
A lot of other people seem to be very pressured about it, because the question seems to be coming up quite a bit. But I made this film before any of that stuff happened, and I think whether or not you win awards, at the end of the day you have to realize that you can’t please everyone. Not everyone is going to love this film and not everyone is going to love the other films that I do. So the pressure for me is just to find material that I truly feel as an actor is something that keeps me on my toes and makes me grow as an actor and where I don’t become lazy and just kind of do the easy stuff.

Do you feel under the microscope? What do you make of Halle Berry’s post-Oscar choices?
I want to hear someone tell me what the right choices are. If Catwoman isn’t the right choice or her doing a Bond film, then what is the right choice? The great thing about this job is that it’s a gamble. I don’t think that any actor sets out to go make a crappy movie. You just don’t have power over those things.

Did you get to take any time off after winning your Oscar?
I took some time off right before the Oscars and just kind of disappeared. Then after the Oscars, I took a little more time off. It’s been nice. So I don’t feel like I’m becoming a workhorse or anything like that. It’s important for me to kind of run away and disappear for a certain amount of time.

In a lot of your films you look very different. How important is it to change your looks?
It’s a tool. If I feel that I need to physically go through a transformation to play a character, it’s something that helps me. So why wouldn’t I do it? It’s also a great excuse to cut your hair off and change it, and if it doesn’t look good, you can always say, “Well, it’s for a part.”

Are you and Stuart very politically minded?
We’re very much, yeah. We’re both whatever liberal means anymore today. It’s a very bad word these days. But we’re very good at debating the whole picture, which is nice. It’s great because he’s got a European perspective on it, and I’m not an American, but at the same time, I’ve made America my home and feel very American.

Are you going to become a citizen?
I’m trying to, yeah.

Are you going to be one before the election?
No. (Laughs)

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