CHARLIZE THERON STRETCHES HER LITHE, 5'9" frame over her purple couch and smiles as she remembers the first time she rented the movie Splash. "I was in love with Tom Hanks instantly," she says. "I hated Daryl Hannah. I was sitting there saying, 'I could have done that part so much better. That should be me!' "

At the time, Theron was all of 9 years old and watching the film on the living room floor of her parents' farmhouse in the remote South African village of Benoni. But if her dreams were big, she wasn't afraid to pursue them: Twelve years later, the actress, now 21, is appearing with Hanks in his directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, the story of a '60s rock band. Theron plays Tina, the prim, self-absorbed girlfriend of the lead character, played by Tom Everett Scott. Meanwhile she is blowing away critics as the hit woman Helga in the violent 2 Days in the Valley.

"She's this Amazonian beauty," says James Spader, Theron's lover in Valley. "She carries an enormous presence." Director John Herzfeld was equally impressed with Theron's acting debut, particularly in light of her quick recovery after a mishap during a fight scene with co-star Teri Hatcher. "Teri actually hit Charlize with the first punch," he says. "When you see Charlize's head go back, that's real." According to Theron, that was just her first experience with screen combat. "I got smacked in the face, kicked in the ribs and thrown into walls," she says. "But it's fun!"

Theron also enjoyed the collegial atmosphere on the set. Growing up an only child on her family's farm, Theron says, her pet goat Bok "was like my best friend." As an outlet for her boundless energy, she took up ballet at age 6 and soon was dancing professionally in Johannesburg. But at 15, she says, "everything just went wrong." Her father, Charles, died, leaving the family's road-construction business in the hands of her mother, Gerda. Theron had little time to grieve; with the dismantling of apartheid and the creation of new affirmative action laws, she became convinced "there was no future for a white South African." One week after turning 16, she accepted an offer from an Italian model scout, and—with her mother's blessing—headed for Milan. Looking back, she says, "I just ran."

One year later, tired of being seen as "somebody beautiful who should not say a word," she ran again. On the last day of a modeling job in Manhattan, she decided not to return to Italy. (Her application for U.S. citizenship is still pending.) Supporting herself with the occasional modeling job, she focused on her first love—ballet, not goats—and studied at the Joffrey school until a knee injury put an end to her dancing days. Depressed and nearly broke, she bought a one-way ticket to Hollywood.

Poverty, in a way, paid off. In 1994, when an L.A. bank teller refused to cash her check because she had no account, Theron threw "a little tantrum," she says. Talent manager John Crosby (who represents Rene Russo and John Hurt) was in the bank and saw Theron—whom he calls "this vision"—screaming and waving her arms. He walked over and told her, "I don't know what you do, but if you're interested in acting, here's my card."

She definitely was interested, but first had to shed her South African accent—which she did by watching hours of TV and singing along with American songs on the radio. Last year she won her role in Valley and soon found herself auditioning for Hanks. When she finished, says casting director Howard Feuer, "Tom was raving, 'She's got it! That girl is going to be somebody' "

Theron—a self-proclaimed "home girl" who has no boyfriend and shares her spacious two-bedroom home in West Los Angeles with a cat and two cocker spaniels—is delighted by her good fortune. "I'm the luckiest girl in Los Angeles!" she gushes. Consider that she almost beat out Elizabeth Berkley for the lead in the disastrous Showgirls. "It was," says Theron, "like I had some guardian angel." And when she read for That Thing, she confessed her childhood crush to Hanks. "He blushed!" Theron says. "I don't think it gets much better than this."

DAN JEWEL
ELIZABETH LEONARD in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth Leonard.