As an actress, Natalie Portman’s greatest talent is an ability to escape into the world of a character, a story, a genre. That talent has made her one of the world’s most recognisable women.
Yet if lockdown taught us anything, it’s that retreating back into our own world – rather than someone else’s – can be even more fulfilling. Indeed, the ability to withdraw from the swarm of reality is something that modern society rarely affords us the opportunity to do. We are constricted and imprisoned in a world that locks us into a way of thinking and operating, where our means of escape are unclear. It takes a global pandemic to unlock the door.
Portman recognises this fact. “We have all taken on board a level of progress and resilience,” she begins, “but I genuinely feel the effects on ourselves and on society will still be playing themselves out many years from now. This is not something we will be able to lock away in the past – I think it will always be a part of us now, even for those lucky enough not to have lost friends or loved ones because of the pandemic.
I think this period will forever be remembered as the time when the movie world finally had to confront reality. At the same time, reality morphed into something that very much felt like a disaster movie.”
Natalie Portman’s perspective is perhaps rare, and refreshing, for someone whose life is so entrenched in the glamour of California. She lives with Benjamin Millepied, former director of the ballet department of the Paris Opera. The couple met on the set of Black Swan, and have a nine-year-old son Aleph, plus daughter Amalia, who is four.
The actress shot to fame at the tender age of 12 with a leading role in Luc Besson's Leon/The Professional.
A mature performance thrust her into the big leagues and she grew up in Hollywood starring in blockbusters such as Heat, Mars Attacks, Cold Mountain and Star Wars.
She balanced a Harvard degree in psychology with roles in Closer, V For Vendetta and The Other Boleyn Girl and eventually went on to nab her first Oscar for Black Swan. Fulfilling the role of an accomplished ballerina, Portman trained for around eight hours every day, losing over 20 pounds.
In recent years, the actress’s portrayal of Jane Foster has moved her firmly into the superhero genre, while movies Annihilation and Vox Lux turned heads also.
Portman only turned 40 in June, yet she carries herself with the guile and pedigree of a star two decades older. And while generally perceived as stoic and intellectual, the actress likes to laugh and joke too. It means she's achieved a pleasing balance, making her an always affable interviewee. She’s also able to take criticism and praise in equal measure.
“I think it helps that I’m at the point in my life where personal time more and more takes priority over work.” The American/Israeli notes that her family’s moves to both Paris and Sydney truly began to cement the notion of working to live rather than living to work, though in truth she has always had a healthy disregard for fame’s Hollywood epicentre.
So like the rest of us in 2021 and in the aftermath of a global pandemic, it seems Portman realises now, more than ever, that time is precious.
“Once you’re away from the commotion, you’re away from it,” she says. “It feels good to be in this position - my family and my personal life are really the be all and end all for me.
“I like to travel and our time in Paris was very special. It’s a busy, hectic city, but not in the sense that LA is. In Paris you are largely left to get on with things in the way you want them to be done. That struck a chord and also reminded me of being there as a 12-year-old [at Luc Besson’s studio]. My mum and I would spend our days off taking in the streets of Paris, going to the Pompidou and the d’Orsay. Sometimes it’s memories that remind you of the fact you should be doing those same things with your own children.”
Sure enough, since winning the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Black Swan in 2011, Portman has selected roles with cautious consideration, with her time away from the big screen spent similarly wisely – she has been the face of Miss Dior fragrance for over a decade and is the epitome of the sophisticated yet carefree glamour for which the brand is famous.
More than that, she’s unafraid to take career breaks… to have children, to get married, to sample new chapters in her life.
“I think the fact I got into acting so young means I always had something of an artificial view on the real world, and that was something I desperately wanted to fix. It is the same for anyone who finds themselves in a system where everything is mapped out and there isn’t really any option for straying off the line. You see that a lot in actors, in musicians, in sportspeople – their potential is so conditioned and streamlined that it can alter the development of who they are as people. They just become a commodity instead.”
It is only over time that Portman has been able to realise the parallel lines that box in fantasy and reality.
“I feel more now I can separate one world from the other – I am not a character in a movie, I am myself. What I will say though is it took me a while to get here. The movie industry has a way of making you feel something you’re not; it’s quite disconcerting. It’s really important to be able to sit back and regain a sense of who you are.”
That’s not to say Portman doesn’t still want to be on the carousel. She has, after all, worked impossibly hard to succeed. Ever the student, she admits the lessons learned on both sides of the camera were instrumental in approaching A Tale of Love and Darkness, a film she wrote, directed and starred in. “I knew I wanted to direct one day just as I knew I wanted to be a mother. I took my time learning as much as I could from great directors and have always absorbed the influence of those around me. It’s the way I have accumulated knowledge, but also confidence.”
That was a necessary route for the actress given a largely academic upbringing. Nobody in her family had any connection with the film industry and her interest was more tolerated than encouraged.
“My parents had many long conversations with me before they would allow me to explore working in the industry. They were aware of so many stories about young actors becoming drug addicts, or whose lives fell apart as adults, that they became intensely worried about how my life would be affected by my work.”
As a result, Portman’s mother would travel with her as she undertook acting roles, with her father tied to work commitments in New York. “I have always been fully aware what an incredible gift it was from both of them – the fact they trusted me so much while also supporting me and protecting me. My parents were always very close to me, and their actions gave me the freedom to build my career.”
Portman, who states John Hurt as the most inspirational actor she has worked with – “he helped me a lot… we got to know each other well on V for Vendetta and Jackie and they were truly unforgettable experiences” – is a passionate supporter of female rights. “I think any sort of equality is an important step – it doesn’t just have to be for women, or minorities. We all suffer from underrepresentation at times – that’s just the way of the world; but yes, the more women are represented, whether it's in the movies or in real life, the greater the chances for women everywhere.
“We can also be feminists and still be vulnerable. We're human, but we're also different from men.”
While philanthropic and social projects still rank highly, In the immediate short-term Portman’s focus is on an attention-grabbing return next year in Thor: Love and Thunder. And even after so much enforced downtime – physically and emotionally – she admits it doesn’t take much to sync back into movie mode.
“Performing is something I never thought I would have to miss yet it’s certainly very easy to get out of practice. Thankfully, in the superhero genre, from the first day on set you see how colossal this thing is around you, and can’t help but be inspired to create your very best work.”
Portman also has lead and Executive Producer duties coming up, notably in the Elena Ferrante movie adaptation of The Days of Abandonment. “It is a tremendous novel and a project I have been very excited about. I am at the point now where I really want to involve myself in the very fabric of each movie and this gave me the opportunity.
I think that’s a very natural progression when it comes to acting and maturing as a person and as a creative person, and certainly I have the confidence in myself to do that.”
Portman has also used her time during lockdown to push the merits of Natalie’s Book Club, which has exploded in popularity on Instagram. “It’s been an initiative that was so perfectly suited to lockdown because books are a very personal, intense and private thing; yet once you close the back cover there is a world of experience to share and it’s been a real privilege to connect with people from different backgrounds, in different parts of the world, on this journey of drama and fantasy.”
As for how lockdown has impacted the film industry – and indeed society as a whole – we will discover this moreover the coming months and years. Portman is not alone in emerging from the grey with a new sense of optimism and abandon. She also notes that other industries have come through challenges just as big as this one – take the advent of digital music around the turn of the Millennium, something which altered our understanding and adoption of music forever. “My theory is the movie world is going to undergo the same sort of change; yet where there is fear there’s also opportunity… it’s good to remember that.
“I’ve learned it’s important to take risks and be less fearful of failure. We all have a big chance creatively and it’s not the end of the world if you don’t always succeed in the way you expected to. Just make sure you give yourself credit when and where it is due, and move onto the next challenge. Through this whole experience I’ve made a conscious effort to wrestle back identity; and with that, control… to seize it, but to keep playing with the idea of who I'm supposed to be, to keep surprising people. That seems more important now than ever before.”