Charlize Theron was honored by Hollywood Friday for a "fearless" career in which she tackled themes including sexual harassment long before the #MeToo movement up-ended the industry.
The 44-year-old South African Oscar-winner, who has often played down her flawless looks to win darker, more complex parts, collected the prestigious American Cinematheque Award at a Beverly Hills gala.
"I'm overwhelmed — I need a cocktail!" she told AFP as stars including Kristen Stewart, Seth Rogen, and David Oyelowo gathered to honor her career.
"These people who are here tonight have been with me through a lot of stuff."
Theron won the best actress Academy Award in 2004 with her turn as prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster."
She earned Hollywood's respect with a visceral performance which saw her pack on 30 pounds (14 kg) and render herself unrecognizable with makeup and prosthetics to play the unappealing murderer.
"She is the most fearless actor I've ever worked with, and probably the most fearless human being I've ever met," said Jason Reitman, who directed Theron in "Young Adult" and "Tully."
Next month Theron appears in another transformative role — as former TV anchor Megyn Kelly in "Bombshell," which depicts the downfall of Fox News co- founder Roger Ailes after a sexual harassment scandal.
"When I read (the script) it felt like it was part of a conversation that was happening now. And that to me, felt really important," she said.
In contrast, her 2005 turn as a miner who files the United States' first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in "North Country" came at a time when Hollywood turned a blind eye to such issues.
Back then there was a sense that sexual harassment "was in the past and that it's been dealt with," said Theron. The part earned her a second Oscar nod. A decade later, the #MeToo movement swept through Hollywood. Theron was born in the small South African town of Benoni in 1975. When she was 15, her mother shot and killed her father after he attacked them in a drunken rage. Her mother was never charged.
Theron arrived in Los Angeles as a teenager in the 1990s speaking only broken English — her first language is Afrikaans.
She was discovered by a talent scout in a bank, and broke into Hollywood's elite with "The Devil's Advocate" (1997), alongside Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino.
Theron has since mixed commercial films such as the "Fast and Furious" franchise with tougher, less conventional roles.
The American Cinematheque Award is a "mid-career achievement award," with previous honorees including Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, and Steven Spielberg.