We’ve watched the Oscar-winner since her initial turn as a precocious teen but have seen little of her off screen. Portman speaks about her latest role, new projects, motherhood and growing up Jewish.
Natalie Portman has trekked from Long Island to Asgard, but the well-travelled actor’s career has taken her to otherworldly realms and dark places before.
She once lived and gave birth in a Walmart, dropped F-bombs gangsta-style in SNL’s “Natalie’s Rap,” carried on an illicit affair with the darkest dude in the Star Wars universe, transformed into a shaved-head Brit freedom fighter and descended into birdbrained madness as a driven ballerina. And we’ve loved watching her do it every step of the way.
Those are just a few of the memorable roles that, according to Forbes magazine, make Oscar-winner Portman the film industry’s most bankable star. And at 32, she’s built a portfolio of roles as diverse as her own personal journey, which includes formative years in Nassau County at The Schechter School of Long Island and Syosset High schools.
Portman’s latest star turn in the film Thor: The Dark World—a November sequel to the 2011 Marvel Studios blockbuster—takes her to the comic book world of Asgard, a universe built on Norse mythology.
As Dr. Jane Foster, Portman plays an astrophysicist and Thor’s lover. Not your typical heroine.
When contributor Elaine Lipworth spoke with the actress, the conversation was decidedly more grounded. Yes, superheroes and Hollywood name-dropping were part of the exchange. So too were motherhood and Portman’s Jewish faith.
“It’s amazing to be exposed to different things and I’m constantly learning from them,” Portman said, attributing her diverse interests to engaged parenting and taking time out from a booming acting career to attend Harvard. “I have a friend who’s a composer, a friend who runs a hedge fund, a friend who’s doing stroke research. What I do—I realize—is a drop in the ocean.”
Petite with large, soulful eyes, Portman is classically beautiful. She wore a sleeveless, midnight-blue Dior dress (she is the face of the brand) when she sat down for tea in Anaheim, CA. What becomes immediately clear is that Portman, thrust into the public eye before she was a teenager, wasn’t your typical starlet.
She was born Natalie Hershlag in 1981 to an Israeli doctor, Avner, and an American mother, Shelley, an artist. Portman has dual Israeli and American citizenship and speaks fluent Hebrew. The young family emigrated from Israel when Natalie was a toddler, eventually settling on Long Island. She was a precocious child.
“I did a lot of science and entered science fairs,” she said. Portman also attended theater camps; at 10 she was discovered by an agent who spotted her potential as a model. A year later French director Luc Besson cast Portman in Léon: The Professional (1994) as a child adopted by a middle-aged hit man (Jean Reno) when her family is killed. It was the performance that kick-started her career. She went on to appear in Heat and earned further stellar reviews for Beautiful Girls.
Then Portman was cast in George Lucas’ much-anticipated Star Wars prequels. As Queen Amidala, she was central in the three mega-hits that raked in more than $1 billion in ticket sales—and immortalized her as an action figure.
Instead of embracing her newly minted fame and clout, Portman did something completely Portman. She dropped out. In 1999, amid the Star Wars hysteria, the actor put her career on hold to study psychology at Harvard.
“My parents were wonderful,” she said. “They were completely present, completely loving, they allowed me to do what I was passionate about and I understand now how much they protected me. I was lucky to act and have a regular household, lifestyle and friends.” They weren’t strict, “but maintained a calm and normal life for me that was far away from movie land.”
Portman is an only child, a fact she said, “definitely allowed me to do movies, because my mom would come with me on the set and my dad would visit on weekends. It would have been much harder if there had been another kid.”
While it’s true the Long Islander was raised solo, she was never alone. Portman has grown before our celluloid eyes. Now she is a mother herself and—fulfilling her lifelong wish—about to direct her first film. A Tale of Love and Darkness is based on the bestselling memoir by the Israeli author Amos Oz.
“It is his coming-of-age story set during the creation of the state of Israel,” said Portman, who lived in Tel Aviv with her family and was doing research and pre-production on the project at the time.
The prospect of moving behind the camera, she said, is “exciting and scary. I think it’s kind of good not to be aware of how ill-equipped you are for the job you have ahead of you,” she laughed, “or else you wouldn’t try anything. You have to be a bit delusional to try anything creative really, to not understand how high the mountain is before you start climbing it.”
The film project has also allowed Portman an opportunity to reconnect with her Jewish roots. “The older I get, the more I realize how different it is to be a Jew in a Jewish place as opposed to a Jew in a non-Jewish place,” she admitted. “It’s definitely a different feeling in terms of how freely you can be yourself and celebrate your culture and religion. It’s very different being in Israel than in cities that don’t have big Jewish populations, where it can sometimes feel dangerous to be Jewish. And you understand why there is a need for a place where you don’t feel that way. I feel it in lots of places. Pretty much everywhere. New York and LA [where she currently lives] are the exceptions. On holidays in New York the city shuts down. My non-Jewish friends know how to wish you shanah tova, ‘happy new year’ in Hebrew. In other places in the world it ranges from people who aren’t familiar with Judaism to people who are hostile towards it.”
While plenty of her classmates still place Portman in Syosset—it is forever 1999 in their hearts and yearbooks—Portman has spent entire blocks of her life filming in LA, the UK and will move to France in 2014 when husband Benjamin Millepied takes over as Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet next fall.
The two met on the set of Black Swan. To portray the troubled ballerina Nina, Portman undertook a year of hard training with Millepied, a dancer and the film’s choreographer. The movie was a hit and produced a lasting imprint on the star. Portman earned the 2011 Academy Award for Best Actress and the couple now has a nearly two-year-old son, Aleph.
Even with an Oscar to her credit and a budding family as a result, Portman is reluctant to call Black Swan her finest work. “It was obviously a huge honor,” she said. “But at the end of the day, how can you say that one piece of art is better than another? It’s not like a race.”
And yet Portman has been feverishly at work, recently on set for director Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (reportedly about the excesses of celebrity) and a Western, Jane Got a Gun.
It’s a balancing act all mothers can empathize with, even if her circumstances are TMZ-worthy. “I love being a mom,” Portman said. “I’m less judgmental than before I had a kid. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that parenting is a totally different experience for every person. Everything is cool, there are no rules—I mean, apart from not hurting your kid. Some people breast-feed until their babies are five and some don’t breast-feed at all. There are no rules about what it means to be a feminist, or a good mother. For some it’s going to be right to go back to work, for others it’s going to be right to stop working completely.”
Portman has always pushed the boundaries. Take her role in Thor. She said the main attraction of the film was the opportunity to play a positive female role model in a big-budget film. “The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho,” she said.
Jane Foster doesn’t throw her weight around in sword fights with the boys. She uses her intellect to help her brawny co-star combat a malevolent race of dark elves. “Unfortunately, there are still not that many girls going into science, engineering and technology,” she said. “Jane’s got a mission. She’s looking for something for herself, gravitational anomalies, scientific exploration.”
For all her experience, sophistication and balletic poise—she sits upright, sculpted arms neatly folded during the interview—there is still something of the ingénue about the actress, who is given to outbursts of sheer enthusiasm.
And why not? She’s a seasoned veteran at a point when most careers are just taking shape. She has a child with a man who dances in her dreams. She’ll be a Parisian attraction in her own right soon enough. Who wouldn’t be thrilled?
“I speak French, not well, but enough to get around and hopefully it will improve while I am there,” Portman said of the move to France in 2014. “I’m really excited. It’s everyone’s dream to get to live in Paris.”
Natalie’s world is expansive. There are pins—waypoints—pushed into an endless map. Lord Vader knows she’s covered a lot of ground already. Paris is simply the next stop.