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'Tully,' starring Charlize Theron, offers a clear-eyed look at the realities of motherhood

In Jason Reitman's upcoming film “Tully,” Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a mother of three whose latest bundle of joy feels more like the straw on the camel's back. Already dealing with a precocious daughter and a difficult son with undefined sensory-stimulus issues, Marlo begins holding an internal debate: Should she admit maternal defeat and turn to a night nanny for help with feeding, sleep training, house cleaning and the like?

“You can't outsource your whole life,” she tells her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston). His reply: “Sounds pretty ideal to me.”

The story that follows, in which the older Marlo develops a push-pull bond with her young and enviably energetic nanny, Tully (the rising star Mackenzie Davis), comes from Diablo Cody, which means “Tully” marks the latest from the same writer-director-star team that gave us “Young Adult.” Both films, along with the Cody-Reitman collaboration “Juno," comprise an informal trilogy of narratives about nonconformist women at different stages of life. "Tully," which hits theaters on Friday, May 4, is also a clear-eyed look at the realities of motherhood, which include not just the storied glow of pregnancy but sleep deprivation, swollen legs, breast pumps and fraying nerves.

Reitman, 40, a father of one, says Cody, 39, a mother of three, sends him script ideas every so often, and this one immediately captured his imagination. “I said, 'Yes, please, just write it,” Reitman says in a recent interview. “There's something autobiographical about it that connects to where she is in her life, where I am in my life, where Charlize is in her life. We’re all around the same age, and there's this odd connective tissue between the three of us that Diablo has a unique way of articulating.”

Theron, 42, has two children herself. The story of “Tully,” she says, “felt so familiar to me. When I read this script I was just coming out of my own dark tunnel: My youngest one was just turning 6 months old, and she had just moved out of my bedroom and started sleeping through the night. So all of this was very fresh for me.”

Nevertheless, both star and director did their research into motherhood. Theron says she spoke to friends who had gone through postpartum depression and asked crew members on the film set to share their experiences. Reitman, for his part, sent out a questionnaire to various moms. He got back more, perhaps, than he had bargained for.

“We share almost everything these days, whether it's through social media or you’re texting your friends about what medication you’re taking,” Reitman says. “But when it comes to parenting, we're still very secretive. There's almost this sense of shame, that you may not know exactly what you're doing.” Going through his questionnaires, Reitman says, he found that responses would begin to address issues of motherhood but end discussing marriages, sexuality and feelings of midlife crisis.

“The way they opened up,” says Reitman, “it was a nice reminder that we were making a movie for everyone who was ever alone in the middle of the night and felt like they didn’t know what they were doing.”

Theron plays Marlo as not only mentally drained but physically stretched out of shape. Theron gained roughly 50 pounds with a rigorous diet of milkshakes, hamburgers and midnight snacks, giving her character a set of love handles, plus a pot belly and double chin, that are 100 percent real. A fat suit, she says, wasn't an option.

“I'm not a good enough actress,” she says. “The level of lethargy, the pain and exhaustion, just waking up in the morning and not really feeling like I was me — I don’t know if I would have had that if I had a fat suit on.”

The actress famously gained weight for her Oscar-winning turn as a serial killer in “Monster” (2003) too, but that, she says, was a long time ago.

“The last time I did this I was 27,” Theron says. “I didn't snack for a week and I was back to my normal weight.” This time, she struggled for a year to shed the weight, became seriously depressed for the first time in her life and even herniated a disc in her back. “Oh, to have a 27-year-old metabolism again,” she says.

That yearning for days gone by dovetails with another theme in “Tully” — one's age, and how to act it.

“You do change when you become a parent,” Reitman says. “There's a lot of writing about how wonderful it is, what a blessing it is. But not a lot of writing on how scary it is to go through this transition — how complicated it is to say goodbye to a younger version of yourself.”

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