Hollywood superstar Natalie Portman talks to us about fame, family and female empowerment
The clock has just passed noon, but Natalie Portman is looking like she’s just swanned in from a chic evening gala. The elegant actress is wearing a loose-fitting black trouser suit. We’re meeting in May, at the world’s most famous film festival, long before the SAG-AFTRA union has called its acting community to strike against the studios. Portman has graced the famous Palais steps before—notably that arresting moment when she stepped out for 2005’s Star Wars movie Revenge of the Sith with her head shaved.
Her brown locks grown back out, today is something special. The Israeli-born American star is here with May December, the new film from the esteemed director Todd Haynes (Carol, Far From Heaven). Not only does she co-star with the luminous Julianne Moore in a complex but compelling yarn about identity, creativity and the vampiric nature of acting, but it also marks the first film she’s produced for her company MountainA, alongside producing partner Sophie Mas. When they found out they were going to play in competition in Cannes, they were jubilant. “We did a big dance” she smiles.
From child actor to superstar
Now 42, it’s easy to forget that the fresh-faced Portman has been in the business for three decades. It was 1994 when she starred as the young protégé of a hired assassin in Léon, opposite Jean Reno. She was 12 at the time, but it was such a knockout performance, everyone wanted a piece of her. Woody Allen cast her in his musical Everyone Says I Love You. Michael Mann turned to her to play the suicidal daughter of Al Pacino’s cop in crime classic Heat. And Tim Burton booked her for his alien comedy Mars Attacks! And then what did she do? Take time out to get a degree in psychology from Harvard.
"Now 42, it’s easy to forget that the fresh-faced Portman has been in the business for three decades"
For years, Portman has resisted going behind the camera to produce, but she felt it was time. “It’s like a whole new world to learn,” she says. “Obviously, having 30 years of [the] work experience I’ve had informs it but you get a whole new appreciation for what goes on, just to push the movie—or series—up the hill.” Fortunately, in the case of May December, it all slotted into place. “Todd [Haynes] is just such a dream. He’s so organised, prepared, such a great leader. It’s one of those projects where everything really flows, which is a joy, because more often, it’s quite quite the contrary.”
In the film, Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, an acclaimed actress who has arrived in Savannah, Georgia to research her latest role. The subject is Moore’s character Gracie, who years earlier became a cause célèbre after she was caught, aged 36, having sex with Joe, a 13-year-old who worked in the same pet store she did. Arrested and convicted, she was sent to jail, where she had Joe’s baby. Yet when she was released, she and Joe (Charles Melton) remained a couple and raised a family, in spite of the scandal.
The film is loosely inspired by the real-life story of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher from Washington State, but Haynes’ film takes it away from tabloid titillation and into a far more interesting realm. There to study her subject and learn about her life, Elizabeth gets dangerously entwined with both Gracie and Joe. A film that plays with mirror images and melodrama, it’s always one step ahead of its audience. “Well, hopefully,” says Portman, “you’re never quite sure who you should trust or who’s the good guy here. Who you’re supposed to feel for.”
Above all, it’s a film about masks—and the way we all perform in front of others, whether we’re paid actors or not. “The thing that’s interesting about Elizabeth…she’s not aware of how much she’s performing all the time. And so that was really interesting for me to explore the kind of different levels of performance she has with everyone. And even with herself.” Would she ever consider letting someone in her life if ever there was to be a movie made about her? She burst out laughing. “Never! Especially after seeing this movie!” And who could play her anyway? “Someone who’s not born yet.”
Whoever would play her, a movie of Portman’s life would be fascinating: a study in naked ambition. Born to Shelley, an American homemaker, and Avner, an Israeli-born gynaecologist, she grew up on America’s East Coast, where she studied ballet and modern dance. By her own admission, she was a serious child, “different from other kids”, aware of exactly what she wanted.
An agent for cosmetics firm Revlon spotted her when she was 10, asking her to become a child model. She turned it down, but was soon auditioning for roles off-Broadway.
"I’m very demanding with myself—I like order and regiment"
It clearly shaped her. Portman may be quietly-spoken, gentle in her demeanour, but behind closed doors, it’s a different story. “I’m very demanding with myself,” she admits. “I like order and regiment. I’m a soldier! I just enjoy the discipline.” This was no more apparent than when she starred in 2010’s Black Swan, a life-changing experience for Portman. Giving a stunning performance in Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller set in the ballet world—another film that deals with duality, sexuality and identity, like May December—it won her an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Parenthood and return to acting
The film also introduced her choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who became her husband in 2012, the year after she gave birth to their son Aleph (named after the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet).“When you have a kid and you’re an actor, you’re forced into a long break. I was showing from day one! There was no way I was able to work when I was pregnant. So you’re basically off for a year, and then I chose more time to be with my family, so it ended up being two years that I didn’t act, but it was obviously a magic time in my life. But it also was good because it gave me a hunger to come back and an excitement and the renewed energy of why I want to make things and how I want to make things.”
When Portman did return, she came roaring back, notably as Jacqueline Kennedy in the 2016 biopic Jackie, another typically fearless and bold performance that gained her a third Oscar nomination (her first was back in 2005 for the movie of Patrick Marber’s play Closer). Shortly afterwards, she and Millepied had their second child, daughter Amalia, now 6. Which makes you wonder how she does it: motherhood, massive movies (think her regal Amidala in Star Wars and astrophysicist Dr Jane Foster in Marvel’s Thor movies ) and now MountainA.
Production company and directing
Since May December, her company has produced the forthcoming Apple TV+ drama Lady in the Lake, an adaptation of Laura Lippmann’s novel about a Baltimore investigative journalist in the 1960s, played by Portman. She’s also behind Angel City, a documentary series about the Los Angeles-based team in the NWSL, the National Women’s Soccer League. Portman is a co-founder and part-owner—and a football aficionado. She even attended the recent World Cup in Australia, later praising the Spanish women’s team for “fighting against harassment, abuse and assault” in the wake of the scandal when Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales caused uproar, kissing player Jenni Hermoso on the lips at the medal ceremony.
"Directing for A Tale of Love and Darkness was incredible and I would love to do it again"
What she hasn’t yet done is follow up her 2015 directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness, her stirring adaptation of Israeli writer Amos Oz’s autobiographical account of his early years. “It was the first time I’d read something and imagined it so vividly,” she says. After Portman realised her dream of directing it, Oz died just three years later. “I was obviously extremely emotional when he passed. He was a great friend and great mind. And it was incredible. I’m so lucky that he trusted me to direct and act in that film. And I would love to do it again.” She offers a coy smile. “But I don’t have something to announce yet.”
France and female empowerment
After living in Paris for a while with her family when Millepied was director of dance with the Paris Opera Ballet, Portman gives off the air of a curious and cultured ex-pat. She’s even dipped her toe in the French film industry, working with Lily-Rose Depp on 2016’s Planetarium. “It’s really interesting in France, when you see the young generation of directors—almost entirely female. I think there are so many factors that go into that. I think that one is, there is a much greater social network in France for women. There is great child care that is free that we do not have in the US, which is a really big issue for women who are mothers.”
A fierce advocate for female empowerment, equality and education, Portman’s move into producing is just way of taking control. For years, she’s backed campaigns through the charity WE, as she quietly looked to give something back. Her inspiration, it emerges, came from one of the greats. “Audrey Hepburn is one of the most inspirational people to me because she left acting to go work with UNICEF. I just saw a compilation of all her visits to Africa, and I was crying. To be able to leave the glamour behind, and all the allure of movies, and be real and help people is an admirable thing to do.“
Releasing to UK Cinemas on November 17 before releasing to Sky Cinema and streaming service NOW on December 8
Banner photo: Rodin Eckenroth / Stringer
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