IT'S the incredible role which won Charlize Theron an Oscar. The star owes her dramatic transformation from sweet-faced starlet into America's first female serial killer to one woman.

Charlize enlisted the help of Dawn Botkins, the best friend of bisexual prostitute Aileen Wuornos, to prepare for the film Monster, which opened in the UK on Friday. She was so determined to get the character right that she even wore one of the killer's bras to see how much weight she had to gain to play the chunky murderer.

The star swapped her Los Angeles mansion to stay in Dawn's humble two-bedroom home in Michigan to learn all she could about Wuornos, who was executed in 2002 for the murder of seven men.

Charlize, 28, spent three days poring over the thousands of letters which Wuornos and Dawn exchanged during the 10 years the killer spent on Death Row. She also thumbed through the drawings Wuornos created in jail. But most importantly, she sat and listened to Dawn talk of her childhood friend in an attempt to understand what turned an ordinary small-town girl into a notorious killer.

Wuornos killed seven men in Florida between 1989 to 1991 after meeting them while hitch-hiking. The men were shot dead and left by the side of the road, often with their trousers pulled down around their ankles.

Dawn, 48, says: "Charlize cried and cried when I told her about Aileen and everything she went through as a child when her grandmother died and she ended up sleeping rough and selling her body to survive."

She first met Wuornos when they were both 16-year-old schoolgirls growing up in rural Michigan, and was reunited with her after her arrest in 1991. Dawn was with Wuornos the night before she was executed.

Dawn says: "Charlize is very sensitive, with a big heart. She knew that Aileen had done terrible things, but she wanted to understand her as best as she could and was determined to do her justice in the movie.

"And she did - I don't think there is an actress in the world who could have done a better job playing Aileen."

The two women bonded so much that South African-born Charlize later gave Dawn and her husband Dave a Chevy truck as a gift. "She apologised because it wasn't a new truck," says Dawn. "But she said that because it was Sunday all the truck dealers were closed. She'd woken up early, got the paper, gone through it looking for ads and bought it on the spot!"

Charlize and the film's writer-director Patty Jenkins invited Dawn and Dave to the film's Hollywood premiere last November. They flew them first class to LA, put them up in a plush hotel in Hollywood and chauffeured them around in a limo.

Their brief visit to Tinseltown was a far cry from life in Lapeer, Michigan, where Wuornos grew up.

When she was finally arrested in 1991 she claimed she killed the men in self-defence because she feared they were going to hurt her. But she was sentenced to death after her lesbian lover Tyria Moore testified against her at her trial.

On the night before she was executed by lethal injection, Wuornos gave the movie based on her life her blessing and told Dawn to share her letters with Charlize, who won a best actress Oscar for her role. Dawn says she immediately warmed to the actress, who previously starred in the remake of the Italian Job. When she arrived in Michigan Charlize jumped out of her car with gifts for grandmother- of-five Dawn and her family.

"Charlize had flowers, candy bars, bottles of wine, teddy bears for my grandchildren - and hot chicken for lunch," recalls Dawn.

"She wasn't wearing a scrap of makeup but she looked stunningly beautiful in jeans and a striped top."

Dawn had her doubts that Charlize could portray Wuornos - a heavy- set woman with buck teeth, marked skin and straggly blond hair.

There was also a major height difference - Charlize is 5ft 11ins while Wuornos was just 5ft 1ins. "I told her she would have to lose a foot in height if she was going to play Aileen properly," says Dawn, laughing. "They managed to do miracles with the camera because when I saw the film, I didn't even think about the difference in height."

Critics raved about Charlize's portrayal of the killer in the movie, which also stars Christina Ricci as her on-screen lover.

Dawn owns everything Wuornos left behind when she was executed - including thousands of letters the pair exchanged over the decade Wuornos was on Death Row. All are neatly filed by date and written in the killer's neat and feminine hand.

Dawn also has boxes containing Wuornos's court documents from her 1992 trial, the jailhouse flip-flops she wore to her execution and the trainers she was wearing when she was arrested in 1991 - signed by Wuornos. "Charlize wanted to look at everything," says Dawn. "She went through all Aileen's clothes looking at the sizes so she knew just how much weight she needed to put on.

"When she saw her bra - Aileen was a 36C - she laughed. She said she was so flat-chested that it was going to be a problem."

Over cups of coffee, Charlize quizzed her about Wuornos's personality and little quirks to help her bring the killer to life on- screen. "I told her that Aileen was very proud of her blonde hair and loved to flick it. She could be chatty and happy one minute - but she could snap in an instant. Then watch out!"

But it was the letters which most interested the actress. "I watched her reading them," says Dawn. "She cried and cried. I realised that she was letting Aileen into her heart. She said they helped her to understand that - while Aileen did murder those men - she was a human being who had hopes, dreams and desires like anyone else."

In the letters, often containing drawings, cartoons and notes, Wuornos poured out her thoughts on jail, politics, religion and current affairs.

She read every word of the Bible and even wrote it out in letters to her friend.

Dawn still has Wuornos's three copies of the Bible, with her notes and thoughts neatly marked in the margin.

"It's hard for people to understand how someone who believed in God and the Bible could have done what she did. But it was a series of circumstances which made her kill. She felt threatened by these men who picked her up looking for sex. I think the truth is that she never had a chance after her grandmother, who was raising her, died when Aileen was a teenager."

Abandoned by her mother when she was six months old, Wuornos had been raised by her grandparents. She started stealing at nine. When she was 13, she got pregnant, gave birth to a boy and put him up for adoption.

After her grandmother died, she began sleeping rough and selling her body to earn enough to buy food.

In the mid-1970s, when she was 20, Wuornos fled Michigan for Florida. In the late 80s, she met her lover Tyria and her killing spree began. Her middle-aged victims included a TV repairman, a former police officer, a rodeo worker and a part-time missionary.

Police suspected that the men had been cruising roads for sex, after finding empty condom wrappers in their cars.

Dawn says although Tyria testified against Wuornos, the killer still loved her even up to her execution. "She called her 'the love of my life'."

She says Charlize's portrayal of Wuornos is eerily accurate, but she was disappointed on Oscar night when the emotional actress forgot to mention either Wuornos or Dawn in her acceptance speech.

"It was sad because it would have been Aileen's 48th birthday," says Dawn. "I know it was the biggest night of Charlize's life but it would have been nice if she could have paid tribute to the person who made it possible - Aileen.

"But I suppose to the rest of the world Aileen will always be a killer - a monster.

"I just hope that when Charlize looks at her Oscar now, she sometimes thinks about Aileen - and thinks fondly of her."

Shaping up for murder

CHARLIZE ate doughnuts and heavy meals late at night to add an estimated 30lbs to her slender figure.

But it was the work of top make-up artist Toni G which transformed her into the serial killer. The actress spent two hours each morning in the make-up chair as Toni used layers of paints to alter her appearance.

"Our goal was to keep it very clean and natural-looking," says Toni. "But there were a lot of layers there. It became all about taking her beautiful, creamy skin and building textures, adding dimension to it."

Charlize also wore contact lenses and fake buck teeth, which helped to change her speech and complete the Death Row look.

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