The inhospitable desert landscape of "Mad Max: Fury Road" isn't so different from today's Hollywood: Low on water and overrun by men.

But amid the overflowing testosterone of "Fury Road," George Miller's sequel to his post-apocalyptic franchise, Charlize Theron dramatically stands out. While "Mad Max" may star Tom Hardy as the titular road warrior of "Fury Road," it is effectively Theron's film.

She plays Furiosa, a warrior with a shaved head and prosthetic arm, attempting to rescue a harem of wives held captive by a warlord.

"When people first started talking about this film, this loud whisper went around town that George was looking to create a female character that can stand next to Max and carry the journey with him," Theron said in a recent interview. "For a female actress, that always sounds intriguing. Look, we hear it all the time and very few filmmakers see that through."

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"Fury Road," which was to receive a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday before opening in theaters Friday, is an atypical summer action movie — essentially a two-hour car chase — that's literally and effectively driven by a strong woman.

Lately, a chorus of actresses has spoken out about what they've called inherent sexism in Hollywood and the lack of quality female roles. Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Kristen Stewart and Patricia Arquette have all recently made strong statements about gender inequality in the industry. And on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union asked U.S. state and federal agencies to investigate what it claimed is widespread gender discrimination in Hollywood.

"It's crazy that we live in a world, not just in Hollywood, where women get paid less than men for doing the same job," says Theron. "And also just the representation of women in film, it hasn't been that authentic and true. So when something comes along where women are represented in a truthful manner, all of a sudden, people really respond to it. And it's kind of like, 'You guys, this isn't anything new.'"

Channeling some rage into Furiosa came naturally: "There were emotional things that I could connect to."

Some have even described "Fury Road" as a feminist film. "Vagina Monologues" writer Eve Ensler consulted on the movie, working with the actresses playing the enslaved wives.

"Feminism is such a tricky thing to throw around because I don't think a lot of people know what women mean when they speak in that articulation," says Theron. "Really, what it boils down to is just equal rights."

Theron stuck with "Fury Road" through years of delays as shooting shifted from Miller's native Australia to Namibia. It was a lengthy shoot, followed by extensive reshoots the next year. Theron acknowledges it was a sometimes trying production, but her commitment to the character is clear enough: Theron shaved off her blonde hair for the role.

"It wasn't that we were trying to hide her as a female," says Theron. "She had to almost disappear in this environment and everybody had to get to a place where they almost forgot that she was a woman. And I just didn't know how to do that with a ponytail."

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