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Black Cloud: It was a succession of beyond-bad-luck stories for the stunning young South African. When Charlize was a 15-year-old farm girl, she watched her mother kill her abusive dad in self-defense. She moved to Manhattan to pursue a career in dance, but her knees blew out, pronto—and with them, her future as a ballerina. At 19, the neophyte actress was living in an L.A. dive, subsisting on stale rolls ripped off from restaurants. Final indignity: after begging mom for cash to stave off starvation, a Hollywood bank refused to cash her way-out-of-town $500 check. “You don’t understand—please,” she unsuccessfully begged the teller. So she freaked—a screaming, flailing temper tantrum in front of the lunchtime crowd. It was her biggest and most rapt audience to date.
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Silver Lining: Little did she know, it was also her first successful audition. Talent manager John Crosby, waiting to use an ATM, was captivated by the gorgeous, if high-strung, young woman. “If you’re interested, I’ll represent you,” he told her. As Theron later explained to Oprah, “If I hadn't been in the bank that day, I honestly don't think I'd be here right now.” A few months of acting classes later, she landed her first screen role. Ok, it was in Children of the Corn III, but still.
Black Cloud: At an age when most lead actors are edging into supporting gigs, the Irish thespian seemed to be pulling off something truly unique in 2009: a late-career transformation into an action star. His down-and-dirty revenge flick Taken shocked pundits by earning a quarter of a billion dollars; Neeson was finally muscling onto the box office A-list. Then, tragedy: his wife Natasha Richardson died of a freak head injury skiing the beginner’s slope at a Canadian resort. Paparazzi photos from the time show the face of a broken man.
Silver Lining: “Her death was never real [to me]. It still kind of isn't," Neeson told 60 Minutes earlier this year. But he survived—and thrived—by throwing his full energies into his career and raising his two young sons. Now Neeson is at the peak of his bankability. “I’m 61 years of age, man,” he says. “Going around fighting all these guys...I feel a bit embarrassed.” Taken 2, Unknown and Non-stop were worldwide hits, earning Neeson a $20 million payday for Taken 3. And many believe the kick-ass authority he brings to roles displays more than just the gifts of a skilled actor—it’s the work of a man who has known devastating sorrow and channeled it into performances of ferocity and passion.