When Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Monster in 2004, her acceptance speech was boosted by a profession of love for her home country of South Africa, and for her mother, Gerda, who raised her there. In the years since, Theron's South Africa-focused philanthropy has been no secret, and has reinforced her affections, but odds are few know the depths of its roots, or how those roots shaped her future efforts. Last Saturday, while visiting Austria on the weekend of Life Ball (Europe's largest charity event for HIV/AIDS awareness and research), the actress told OUT, “I spent all of my early 20s terrified that I'd die of AIDS, because everyone around me was. My mom used to regularly drive AIDS patients to hospitals, and I'd come with her in the car.”
The statistics concerning HIV/AIDS infection rates in and around South Africa are staggering. According to a recent profile on Theron published in Austria's WienLive magazine, of the 35 million people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS across the globe, 24 million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. It's unsettling facts like this—compounded by her own firsthand experience—that prompted the actress to found the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Program (CTAOP) in 2007. In addition to raising awareness, raising funds, and taking advantage of South Africa's top-notch HIV/AIDS treatment program (the largest in the world, according to the WienLive article), a key objective of CTAOP is shattering stigma.
“In South Africa, it's still considered taboo and improper to talk about sex and condoms, even among adults,” Theron said. “But we need to talk about these things if we're to have any hope in fighting this epidemic.” She continued, “In the United States, there's more transparency and discussion surrounding this issue, particularly in the gay community. But this is not a disease that only affects gay men. And with the right treatment, today, it's also not a death sentence.” (Theron touched upon the fact that, in the aftermath of the millions of deaths in South Africa related to AIDS complications, there are countless households run by orphaned children, many of them born with AIDS themselves.)
Theron chatted with OUT on the terrace of the Salzburg-based summer home of art dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who, in partnership with amfAR and Life Ball founder Gery Keszler, hosted this stopover and luncheon to champion the related causes of all involved. (Though Life Ball's epic festivities take place in Vienna, the Salzburg stop was also incorporated due to its prominence in The Sound of Music, which served as the theme and inspiration for this year's Life Ball, the 25th annual.) Also in attendance was actor Adrien Brody, a supporter of amfAR who rode with its members to the luncheon on motorcycles.
Articulate, concise, and visibly devoted, Theron also said that CTAOP is much higher on her priority list than people may think. For example, she said that in between shooting films like last year's Atomic Blonde and this summer's Tully, she's regularly traveling to South Africa—sometimes for a month or more—to be on the ground for her foundation, or simply devoting her time to its initiatives and its betterment of the conditions of those infected there. (And there are improvements: Thanks to the ace treatment program, 86 percent of people living with HIV in South Africa know their status; whereas, globally, only 60 percent of people living with HIV know their status.) “I've turned down multiple jobs and movies to do this work,” Theron said. “This is more important to me than being an actress.”
It seems the only things even more important to Theron these days are her two adopted children, Jackson and August, who often accompany her on her trips to South Africa for CTAOP, and whose futures she looks to as a blueprint for all the futures that can be made better by more AIDS awareness and treatment efforts. It's a topic that ties in with Theron's faith in young people, who are a key target and driving force of her mission. As Theron told Paper, also present in Salzburg, “The work we do is very much youth-based, and I find that there's real leadership within adolescents. In South Africa, in the United States, and in Europe, I think there are more and more young people who are realizing that they are the ones who are going to get hurt by this. And they're so innovative when it comes talking about [AIDS] or killing misconceptions. To see them be part of this movement is something we at CTAOP really encourage because we believe they are the ones who can change things. Because ultimately, it's their lives, right?”
To learn more about CTAOP, visit charlizeafricaoutreach.org.