Theron's mother Gerda shoots and kills her abusive, alcoholic husband Charles after he comes home drunk and armed with a gun. South African authorities rule the shooting was done in self-defense. "I wish I could change it; I can't," Theron tells Diane Sawyer in 2004. "And I know that if my daughter was in the same situation, I would do the same thing."
After her mother enters her in a modeling contest, Theron receives an offer from an Italian scout and heads to Milan. "I just ran," she tells PEOPLE. One year later, tired of being seen as "somebody beautiful who should not say a word," she moves to Manhattan and enrolls at the Joffrey Ballet School. A knee injury quickly ends her dancing days, so she decides to move to L.A. to pursue acting in 1994.
Theron makes her bold film debut as hit woman Helga Svelgen in the crime drama 2 Days in the Valley. Filming a fight scene with costar Teri Hatcher, Theron accidentally gets hit with a real punch. "I got smacked in the face, kicked in the ribs and thrown into walls," she tells PEOPLE. "But it's fun."
Theron appears in a breakthrough role as Keanu Reeves' wife in The Devil's Advocate. "She was just too good looking for the role," director Taylor Hackford tells EW. "She read and knocked me out but was blonde and tall and sexy, so I wasn't sure she was right." Theron takes up the gauntlet: "When he told me that, I went back in with no makeup and dirty hair; I read for it three times. I f------ won this part fair and square."
On vacation with her family in Hawaii over Christmas, Theron meets Third Eye Blind singer Stephan Jenkins after a show and the two begin dating. "She's very funny," he tells PEOPLE. "And she learned to play the drums faster than anyone I've ever seen." The pair won't play in harmony forever; the relationship comes to an end in 2001 after three years of dating.
Theron costars with Tobey Maguire in the Oscar-nominated film The Cider House Rules; she plays a woman in the 1930s who seeks an illegal abortion. "When you're playing a lobsterman's daughter working on an apple farm, you're not going to wear makeup, and you'll wear the same clothes in virtually every scene, so you'd better have pretty special assets of your own," John Irving, who adapted his novel for the movie, tells PEOPLE. "Charlize glowed."
Filming begins in Canada on the hostage drama Trapped. The film is a commercial disappointment, but it does produce one sizable jackpot: Theron falls in love with costar Stuart Townsend, who plays her onscreen husband. "At one point I grabbed her cheek because she has such cute cheeks," the Irish actor tells PEOPLE of their early rehearsals. What drew Theron to him? "We like simplicity and dirty feet, good food and a good laugh," she tells PEOPLE. "He doesn't take himself so seriously and that's hard to find in a man these days."
Theron gains 30 pounds, plucks out her eyebrows, and dons fake teeth for her role as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. She portrays the prostitute, who gets executed in 2002 for killing at least seven men, so convincingly film critic Roger Ebert calls it "one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema." Theron tells PEOPLE, "Once I tapped into the emotional side of how she led her life, the physical stuff just happened naturally."
Theron wins an Oscar for Best Actress at the 76th Annual Academy Awards for Monster. She dons a beaded Gucci body-hugger by Tom Ford and carries a clutch purse encrusted with 1,500 diamonds. Theron celebrates all night long, entering the Governor's Ball with Oprah Winfrey on her arm. She also attends the Vanity Fair bash at Morton's and an afterparty at agent Rick Yorn's house; the Oscar winner and Townsend depart after wolfing down waffles, bacon and quiche.
While filming the sci-fi thriller Aeon Flux, Theron slips doing back handsprings; she suffers a herniated disc between her sixth and seventh vertebrae, which presses into the fluid sac near her spinal cord. Theron trained in gymnastics for 3½ months for the role. Townsend tells the AP she is fine "but she could've been in a lot of trouble."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Phillip Wong/CAMERA PRESS DIGITAL/RETNA; Everett Collection; Warner Bros./Everett; Peter Kramer/Star Max; INTERCONTINENTALE; Nick Wall/Wireimage; Newmarket Releasing/Everett; Gary Hershorn/Reuters/Landov; Kobal Collection/Wireimage