For actor Stuart Townsend, attending the Oscars last February was bittersweet: On his arm was his girlfriend Charlize Theron
, the evening's Best Actress winner. But sitting just a few seats away was director Peter Jackson, the man responsible for firing him from The Lord of the Rings
trilogy, in which Townsend had originally been cast as the films' central hero (and future king), Aragorn. "I actually thought [Jackson] might come up and apologize, which would have been very dignified," says Townsend, 31, who Jackson decided was too young for the role just as shooting began in 1999. (Viggo Mortensen, 45, was recast in the part.) "But forgiveness is a big part of my thing. I clapped as hard as anyone else when they won."
Besides, it was only after Townsend lost his kingdom that he found his queen. The Irish actor met the South African-bred Theron, 29, when both were cast in 2002's forgettable thriller Trapped
. After a rehearsal for the film, "I just thought, 'She's really ballsy, she's really funny and really smart,' " recalls Townsend. "At one point I grabbed her cheek because she has such cute cheeks." Now the couple are costarring in Head in the Clouds
, a WWII romance in which they play lovers. "The passionate nature of their relationship is palpable," says Clouds
director John Duigan. "It's very powerful onscreen."
In real life, Townsend is now in London while Theron convalesces in L.A. after injuring her neck doing stunt work on the Berlin set of her upcoming sci-fi flick Aeon Flux
. Despite speculation, the pair are not engaged, though Stuart did give her a ring, which she wears on her left hand. "I found this old Victorian ring with little forget-me-nots," he says. "She's never taken it off."
For Theron, Townsend's "easygoing" nature is especially appealing. "We like simplicity and dirty feet, good food and a good laugh," she says. "That's what I love about him. He doesn't take himself so seriously, and that's hard to find in a man these days."
Growing up in the Dublin suburb of Howth, Townsend learned to roll with the punches-and to throw them. "I was always drinking and getting into trouble," he says. One of three kids born to Peter, a champion golfer, and Lorna, an artist and model, Townsend had a topsy-turvy childhood. "My dad would win a huge tournament and there'd be an Aston Martin outside," he says. "A couple years would be bad, and suddenly it'd be great again."
At 18, Townsend discovered acting, thanks to a drama-student girlfriend. "I became a different person—I wasn't angry," he says. Shortly after he landed his first professional gig in a 1994 play, Townsend's mom died of a brain hemorrhage at 45. "She was 45 going on 25," he recalls. "It was so hard."
After several indie films and a brief romance with actress Parker Posey—"Our chemistry was very fiery," he says—Townsend caught his big break in the '02 vampire film Queen of the Damned
Today he shares a four-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills with Theron. While she usually sleeps in—"her brain doesn't work for two to three hours after she's woken up; it's very cute"—Townsend enjoys meditating outside. "Our garden is huge," he says. "We make kumquat jam. We have a lemon tree we make lemonade and soap from. We're halfway there to being organic farmers." And what about marriage? "There's no rush," says the actor, who is currently shooting the romantic comedy The Best Man
. After all, "I wouldn't swap my life right now for anyone else's," he says—even a certain king's. "If I had done Lord of the Rings
, I might be more successful and far less happy," he notes. "I'll take happiness over success any day."
Michelle Tauber. Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles
- Tom Cunneff.